The disaster saw English teams banned from competing in Europe for five years and after Everton had recently won the 1985 first division title, it could have been so different for the Toffees had 39 fans not lost their lives that fateful May day.
It’s very difficult for an Evertonian to wade into the debate surrounding the Heysel Stadium disaster without sounding bitter. The often touted assertion by blues, that were it not for the European ban which arose after Heysel, Everton would still be a great club can seem a little desperate to some (particularly fans of our esteemed neighbours).
And yet to appreciate the impact Heysel has on the collective Everton psyche, it’s probably necessary to outline just what the club lost during the lifetime of the ban.
There is little doubt that the sides that Howard Kendall put together in the early-to-mid 1980s were the best that Everton have ever produced. The 1985 title-winning side in particular was exemplary, renowned for its flowing movement, speed across the park, creativity and goal scoring. As a result of this and the sides that followed, the mid-1980s became a golden age for Evertonian’s, the kind of era that few clubs ever enjoy and amongst those that do, often only fleetingly.
By the time that British clubs were allowed back into Europe in 1991, Everton’s golden age was gone. The great sides of that era had broken up, the inadequate stewardship of Kendall’s replacement, Colin Harvey, had only yielded mediocrity and the prospect of relegation rather than league success was now more likely for the club.
But was this the fault of the ban? Every football club is constantly at the mercy of any number of variables and to suggest that Everton’s change in fortunes was entirely attributable to Heysel would probably be foolish. As proof, you could point to the amateurishness of the board as a contributory factor, something that has dogged Everton for decades both before and after the ban.
But equally, to deny that the ban had no impact at all would also be wrong. And the reason for this is the effect that European success could have had on the club.
There are two teams in Liverpool, but only one that has a significant international fan base. Everton remain a club rooted in the city, whereas Liverpool have spread their influence around the world like a pandemic (probably the kind that gives you horrible diarrhoea). They’ve been able to do this because of their period of European dominance in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It raised their profile internationally, giving fans of English football around the globe a team to focus on. And despite Liverpool never again reaching those heady heights, the loyalty has persisted, providing the club a vast source of revenue from beyond the confines of the city.
No-one can know whether Everton would have been able to replicate Liverpool’s success. But when you look at the sides marshalled under Kendall and then compare them to the clubs that we would have potentially faced in Europe, then it’s plausible to suggest that Everton would have been in with a fighting chance.
Look at the finalists from that era; Steaua Bucharest, Porto, Benfica, PSV and Bayern Munich. Although all great sides of the day, each one was capable of being beaten by Everton. It’s not like we’d have been up against Guardiola’s Barcelona. What’s more, Villa and Forest managed to win in Europe a few years before, and these were teams whose quality didn’t come close to Everton’s. We’d also proven our ability to compete on the European stage in 1985 through our capture of the Cup Winners Cup at the first attempt. This was not a team that had shown any evidence of suffering from European jitters.
The ban robbed Everton’s greatest side of both the opportunity to enjoy success in Europe and the chance to build ourselves into an international brand to rival our neighbours across the park. But it also did something more.
Think of the football world before the ban, one characterised by poor commercial management, falling attendances and violence on the terraces. Then compare that to the one that began to emerge in the 1990s, when the ban was eventually lifted. This was a football world awash with money from Sky, a world in which the Premier League was beginning to build itself into a global brand with a global reach and one where the most successful clubs had the opportunity to pull away from the herd.
The club who ultimately made the most of the opportunities presented in the 1990s was Manchester United. Although they were always a big club, United had done f**k-all for decades, aside from win the occasional FA Cup. And yet, it was they who were ultimately best positioned to capitalise on the cash bonanza that has arrived with both the Premiership and the Champions League.
Who’s to say that couldn’t have been Everton instead? Had Europe been available to us then we would have retained our manager rather than losing him to the Spanish. A player like Lineker, arguably one of the best forwards in the world at that point, might have stayed at the club rather than buggering off to Barcelona. We would also have been able to attract the best talent available and perhaps built a squad that could have continued the momentum of the mid-eighties.
As with any counter-factual, there is plenty of supposition evident here. After all, it’s just as possible that Everton would have floundered in Europe or the incompetence of the board would have undermined any success we did enjoy. The problem is we’ll never know.
But that what if… continues to torture us. The actions of a few Liverpudlian gobsh**es and the response of both the Tory government and the football authorities robbed us of the chance of ever putting the club’s greatest ever side to the test. It’s arguably one of the saddest things to ever happen to Everton, which is saying something when you consider that this is the club that signed Ibrahima Bakayoko.