Friday 19 January 2018

Ian Rush: Thirty years on and Heysel still haunts me - I will never forget

A plaque remembering the 39 killed at Heysel
A plaque remembering the 39 killed at Heysel

Ian Rush

Heysel. The memory of that night has never left me. It should have been a great night, not a tragic one. More than anything, 39 people who made their way to the stadium to watch a game of football should have been able to return home.

But they didn't. I can only imagine how the families of those victims must feel. Thirty years on without their loved ones, their fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, friends.

I travelled to Turin yesterday to attend an anniversary mass for the victims. I saw those relatives. I observed their pain. And it never goes away.

How can it? How can something as innocent as a football match turn into something so terrible? Even now, as 53-year-old, I can't begin to understand why.

Nor could I then. I was 23, concerned about my career, not about much else. This was my second European Cup final in as many years. I wasn't to know then that it would also be my last.

Nor was I to know how irrelevant that statistic would be. The emptiness I felt walking out into that stadium to play a game is indescribable.

We knew something awful had happened. We just didn't know how awful. We had heard rumours someone had died.


So we waited, inside the Heysel dressing-room, a cramped concrete space which had no air conditioning - just a couple of small windows which we opened to allow some fresh air in.

From outside we could hear sirens. We didn't hear the usual chants. You heard screams, shouts. You sensed something was up. But we were told to stay and wait.

Then, an official came into the dressing-room to say the match was going ahead. Just like that. We were up and out.

When the whistle went, the match was a non-event. We lost. Who cared then and who cares now?

The silence on the team bus back to the hotel is what sticks with me. And it wasn't the silence of a team distraught by defeat. This was an eerie quiet.

Then Joe Fagan, our manager, spoke up. The thing with Joe was that his face always had a smile on it. He was a warm man, a gregarious character who loved life.

More to the point, he knew how sacred life was. Quietly he spoke to us all: "People died in the ground tonight, men. Don't worry about the result. It doesn't matter. A life matters."

He'd retire soon afterwards and in the remaining 16 years of his life, he'd live with the shadow of Heysel hanging over him.

I'm a father now. It is only when you have your own children that you really gain an understanding of the value of a life and the importance of a game of football.

When you think back on your career and reflect on triumphs and defeats, you can't help but wonder how the language used around the game gets exaggerated.

A defeat, I was often told, was 'a disaster'. But it wasn't. I know what a disaster is. I have been present for two of them, Hillsborough and Heysel, and I want to emphasise how this is not about me.


Players were witnesses to those events. We don't merit sympathy. Families do. They have had to live for years without loved ones, innocent people who went to a football game and didn't come home. I still can't get my head around that bit.

Many people forget that an Irishman died that night in Brussels.

Patrick Radcliffe was one of the 39. He was 37. Yesterday his twin brother, George, spoke poignantly about how Patrick was 'his best friend', how he had phoned his home that night, expecting to speak to him, surprised he was at the match, given how he wasn't a huge fan.

As I sat on the plane flying to Turin yesterday, I thought about Patrick and the other victims. He would be 67 now.

Another victim, Andrea Casula, was just 11. He'd be 41 now only for Heysel. He'd be old enough to have his own 11-year-old son.

As a father, not as a former footballer, I attended that mass and felt for the relatives. Heysel is something I can't forget but I can't pretend my pain is comparable to the families. Your heart goes out to them.

And you hope the lessons have been learned. You'd hope this kind of tragedy will never happen again.

You'd hope new generations of football fans and new generations of football administrators would study the past and learn the lessons. You hope a life will never again be lost at a football game.

In Brussels, the King Baudouin Stadium is how Heysel is now known. Outside the ground there is a stone plaque which acts as memorial to the 39 victims. On it, a sign says ' we will never forget'.

I know I won't.

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