By Colin Moneypenny and Dave Houlgate
From Issue 51, Spring 2001
“If it was supposed to be funny then a lot of Italians here didn’t see the joke”. So said an Italian journalist after George Sephton had blasted out “Arriverderci Roma” at the end of the Anfield clash with Roma. “In Italy it will be seen as an insult”. Well I certainly hope it was and a big huge insult in bright red capital letters at that. In terms of sheer blind hypocrisy such comments were Champions League winning class.
Maybe the person who said it should get a job with UEFA who themselves returned to the legendary incompetence of old by fining Liverpool for failing to control their fans in the 1st leg of the Uefa Cup tie in Rome. Lets recap – Liverpool play twice at the Olympic Stadium against Roma in 1984 and 2001 and their supporters face countless stabbings and assaults, mainly in the immediate vicinity of the Stadium, a number of which can’t be construed as anything other than attempted murder. Not a single arrest is ever attempted let alone achieved and those lucky enough not to be knifed or beaten are treated with outright contempt and in some cases sheer brutality by the Italian Riot Police.
In 1984 the Police stand aside while Liverpool fans are attacked en masse with horrific results as they attempt to get back to their coaches outside. In 2001 an improved security operation is put in place outside but dozens of bottles and missiles are thrown over at the Liverpool fans inside the Stadium while the police stand completely inactive yards away from the easily identifiable culprits. A few bottles inevitably get thrown back and the Police on the Liverpool side of the fence immediately steam in causing absolutely unnecessary panic and injury amongst, hold on now, the people who are the victims and not the instigators of the violence.
The end result of all this bloodshed and mayhem is not a ban on Roma or an investigation into their fans rioting in the San Siro weeks earlier together with how they have been re-enacting the Crusades seemingly against all foreign supporters since Dundee United visited many moons ago. Instead Liverpool are found more or less equally culpable for events on the night, presumably for not advising their fans to wear that Centurion body armour which an earlier generation of Romans must have developed to go to the match in.
Meanwhile a week later the visiting Roma fans are given a genuinely warm and civilised reception in Liverpool even to the extent of generous words of welcome from some of our “stabees”. Yet the Italian press, with a good sense of what’s important, want an apology for the hurt caused by a very old Vic Damone song – which ironically in 1977 had been adapted by Liverpool fans to celebrate a happier visit to the Eternal City – and the playing of which was actually intended by George as an act of friendship.
Everything about the Roma clash to me suggested some very big wheels of injustice turning full circle. The Arriverderci rumpus mirrored the “Santa Lucia” song sung by the Kop against Inter Milan in 1965 while the even louder screams of foul play about the Babbel “penalty” took the older patrons back to that same fixture. It was the tie when a Spanish referee who I’ve always understood later admitted to being bribed, prevented Liverpool from quite possibly becoming the first British European Cup winners, by ensuring the Italians won the second leg in Milan. A trivial matter of course in Italian eyes compared to a later Spanish referee (eventually) not giving a penalty which wasn’t a penalty. But it was a pay-back of sorts to me and many other Reds for whom the sixties swung a lot less after that infamous and corrupt welcome to European football.
Had Liverpool gone on to glory in 1965, the fact I missed out on Rome 1977 for what seemed like good reasons at the time, may have been easier to take. As it was I lived to regret missing that historic night and consequently nearly didn’t live to regret trying to make up for it in 1984. UEFA had uniquely decided that the idea of a Final being played at a neutral venue didn’t matter this time. Presumably the other several dozen possibilities throughout the Continent were all being used that night or maybe it was Lazio’s week for the Stadium so of course that meant Roma gained no home advantage. Then again maybe UEFA are just a gang of useless bungling bureaucrats who give a notional glance at spectator safety before asking the serious questions about Champagne Dinners and VIP perks. In my view incompetence and/or corruption are the ONLY explanations for the venue choices of 1984 and 1985.
As it was, our City Council sent out a party on freebies before the game to spread the message of peace and goodwill with the Romans. Maybe it would have worked out that way, but Liverpool winning the game itself was unfortunately not part of the package. With the game over and with the European Cup, in Roman eyes, looted from its intended home, Liverpool fans marched out to be met with what appeared to be co-ordinated ambushes from left, right and centre. It was impressively put together – perhaps they’d set up working parties in the weeks before the game to plan how to do it or maybe the ultras or whatever they call themselves had already honed the stabbing skills they now seem to have passed down to their sons.
The majority of Reds were only trying to get back to their coaches parked by the statues outside the stadium – the equivalent journey of Anfield Road to Arkles Lane – but my memory is of the police presence, significant in the Stadium, melting away to nothing outside. Unfortunately the calls of Liverpool fans to “stick together” didn’t materialise either when the attacks started, certainly in my neck of the statues.
I had the “Condor” moment of my life after going to help a lad of our coach, when I suddenly realised that far from being at the head of a sizeable rescue party there was actually no one behind me as the rest had made the probably sensible decision to head directly for the coaches without passing “go”. Serves me right for believing all that old bollocks about all for one and one for all.
Perhaps I should have been cool, stuck on my shades and asked them to discuss the game over a cappuccino. Instead it was the briefest thoughts of “Oh shit” as John Wayne metamorphosed in an instant into Wayne Sleep and my knees started to wobble in an instant reprise of Bruce Grobbelaar. This time it wasn’t going to distract the Italians though and as the stiletto made its mark, my life flashed before me in all its football obsessed tedium.
For a moment staying in the ground to watch the team run round with the Cup rather than take up the offer at the final whistle of safe passage from the Milan and Juventus fans who’d watched the match with us, seemed the worst decision made by a Scouser since Tommy Moore left the Beatles to work in Garston Bottle Works. Mind you, having a big red and white Liverpool scarf on didn’t help too much. Soaked in blood, which on my last recollection had turned it all red, I swapped it for a Roma scarf in the hospital and have never worn any form of “colours” to this day. The whole replica shirt thing completely passed me by and to be honest I’d find it safer at away grounds wearing a more inconspicuous sandwich board saying “Please stab me”.
Of course the lad from Birkenhead I’d gone to help got away – someone else who hadn’t read the Three Musketeers – and I got the hiding and stabbing that had been coming his way. In the end I was lucky to escape at all, sacrificing my coat, money and belongings to pull myself off the ground and away. A traffic cop by the river, the only representative of law and order I saw after leaving the Stadium, flagged down a very nice local couple who sped me to the San Giacomo hospital. They were probably pleased to get rid of me as my thousand “grazies” turned ever more manic as I came to terms with being soaked in my own blood. If the Police and the Authorities couldn’t figure out what would happen in the event of Roma losing, the paparazzi certainly could and did, as the entrance was full of photographers who clearly knew where the action was likely to be.
Fortunately for me my injuries turned out to be fairly superficial. On the surgical table next to me, George Sharp, the father of a couple of lads I played football with, nearly wasn’t so lucky. His life was saved even though he remained out in Italy for some time afterward. There were other victims of course and not all were treated at the San Giacomo, but it was a grim night in there particularly as the British Embassy refused point blank to come out and help anyone.
The media coverage of the trouble was a five minute wonder and I was to waste a lot of postage stamps in the following months trying to get anyone from the Italian Government to Ugo Vetere, the then Mayor of Rome, to admit some liability and attempt to put right some of the very obvious organisational faults. Not surprisingly nothing was acknowledged, nothing was changed and with the exception of the late Eric Heffer, no-one in any position of Authority was remotely interested in what had happened.
Cue Heysel one year later, and even worse organisational failings which meant a hooligan episode, which was nasty and unforgivable – but in terms of intent to kill, actually somewhat less nasty and unforgivable than its Roman predecessor – results in awful mass death. Secondary result – righteous fury and international political indignation about the English animals from the very same people who hadn’t given a monkeys about mass attempted murder 12 months earlier. Am I alone in believing it is better to try to solve a very obvious problem before anyone gets killed rather than sit on your corporate arse sipping your G&T and wait for some innocents to pay the ultimate price for your ineptitude before you realise you have to act?
Just as Hillsborough 1988 (not to mention 81 and 87) were pretty clear harbingers of Hillsborough 1989, Rome in 1984 gave out pretty big signposts to what would go wrong in 1985 in Brussels. They were events that were not only predictable but which to an extent were actually predicted and not just with hindsight. Six or seven hours before the Heysel Disaster, I sat in a bar in the centre of Brussels and listened to a couple of lads from Fords, who’d visited the Stadium that morning more or less spell out the chaos that would ensue from playing international football’s most prestigious fixture in a crumbling shit-hole. They didn’t quite say a wall would collapse and 39 people would die but if they could highlight the massive deficiencies inherent at Heysel before it happened, how did those responsible for safety miss them?
After 1984, I never again saw supporting Liverpool in those bright red shades of youth. Since then the crap off the field has usually deflected me from the pure enjoyment of the poetry (erm maybe crap again) on the pitch. Going back to Rome, seeing Liverpool win, having a laugh and not getting stabbed, have all in some ways exorcised ghosts from the past for me even though the trip itself was typically badly organised and even worse, despite having to put up with hearing “Liverpool supporters” in an Irish bar singing “No Surrender to the IRA”. (If you’re brave enough to sing it in a pub boys, try to get it going in the Kop.)
However beyond that the lesson is that not much has changed and it was certainly no great shock to hear about the attacks prior to the match in Rome. Indeed only the sensible decision to keep us in afterwards and bring all the coaches into a secure area prevented much worse violence afterwards. Maybe a few lessons have been taken on board but nonetheless the overwhelming legacy of Heysel on the Continent is that it remains acceptable to treat English fans in general, and Liverpool fans in particular, as criminals. Meanwhile sometimes home fans seem almost literally to get away with murder. Why do we continue to accept this?
One of the few crumbs of comfort is that at least there are now the odd few journalists who have lifted their eyes and seen what is happening. Des Kelly’s piece in the “Mirror” asked the fairly obvious open question about what the reaction would have been if 14 Italians had been stabbed in Liverpool? Slightly different perhaps? James Lawton made some decent comments as he mostly does, though more about the cock ups in Cardiff. But final word goes to the excellent Chris Bascombe. “As those who’ve travelled to Europe know already, the organisation and treatment of visiting fans abroad remains as shambolic as it was in 1985. The recipe for disaster is still there and the Pontius Pilate crew in UEFA continue to absolve themselves from all responsibility”. Well said that man, and there was I thinking that Marcus Babbel and George Sephton should “shoulder” all the responsibility for the latest setback to any hopes of re-establishing the Anglo-Italian Cup.
My sojourns to foreign fields have been few and far between. The European Cup final in 1985 and Genoa in 1992. You may spot the link – Italian opposition. Oh, and defeat. Every year we qualify for Europe, I await the draw and selfishly hope we’re drawn against someone we’ve never heard of. Mypa 67. Vladikavkaz. Everton. The thought of drawing a big Italian team or one of the big (I mean BIG!) European clubs and then not being able to go for some obscene reason (work, cash, wife) is too awful to contemplate. I missed Celtic ’97 because of work.
So it’s the day of the fourth round UEFA Cup draw. Nantes, Vallecano – come on down. Or come out of the hat, rather. We draw Roma instead. Sorry, but that is just irresistible. The bank balance is checked, the wife is placated and the leave is booked. One problem – my terrible fear of flying. I’m 33 and I’ve never flown. The thought terrifies me. A bit like Dennis Bergkamp, only I’m a better player. Previous trips were via ferry, but I’d gone off Ferri’s after a game at Stamford Bridge two years ago. Besides, the lads – Birty, the Corporal and the Iceman – all insisted on flying. It’s December, and February seems a long way off. It doesn’t seem such an ordeal now so I say yes to the aeroplane.
As the day of the flight approaches I start to withdraw into myself, palms involuntarily start to sweat, butterflies start to flutter and I endure many a sleepless night tossing and turning (but that’s another story). The situation isn’t helped by my eldest daughter’s conviction that the plane’s gonna crash! That really puts me at my ease, and the wife’s not too chuffed because I will be in Rome on Valentine’s Day. I promise to bring her something back and convince her that she’ll probably have a more slushy evening with me away. I even offered to pay for the batteries.
And now my friends are taking the piss. I actually followed through with a fart, but this turned out to be a turning point (actually, a turning and rushing upstairs point) as by now I’ve concluded that as long as they’re taking the piss things must be okay. The time to start worrying will be when they shut their gobs and go pale. Birty has been given the job of booking the trip and in so doing he’s got us four flights in total: Manchester-Gatwick, Gatwick-Rome and two return flights. Four fucking flights! I immediately cross him off my Christmas card list – that’s if I ever see another one.
We arrive at Manchester with plenty of time to spare. I just want to get on a plane and get it over with, but oh no. It’s been delayed. When we finally board my legs have turned to jelly. Bravado takes over, and it’s a little disconcerting seeing a clown in charge of the flight! Anyway, I decide “in for a penny, in for a pound” – and get a window seat over the left wing engine. On the opposite wing is Andrei Kanchelskis. I kid you not. He cuts a forlorn figure. Surrounded by Liverpool fans, the magnitude of his past crimes playing for United and the slime weigh heavily upon him. I sit there thinking “there but for the grace of Fowler” and this cheers me up no end.
I relax for the first time in ages. This is helped by the entertainment provided by the cabin crew. Being new to flying, I learn that in the case of an emergency landing we are all expected to do one of those dance routines like teenypop no-marks Steps. Then it’s up, up and away. Fantastic! Unfortunately, the flight is spoilt when the cabin crew start distributing vomit to everybody. I suppose that this is because no-one has provided any vomit of their own. We are joined at Gatwick by many other Reds, including Johnny Mac from RAOTL, who very kindly lends me a pen to jot down some notes. I check them later, only to find the words “heeeelp!” “get me outta here!” and “Momeeee!”.
In actual fact, the flight to Rome is uneventful, the Alps look great, there is more vomit and I get a taste for Gin. Two hours later, we land. That’s it? I’m tempted to do a Pope but we don’t actually get on the tarmac!
Rome. Aaaah, the Eternal City, scene of Liverpool’s two greatest triumphs. Trevor Fountain, Colin Seam, Sissy Chapel – they were all there. This is the place to be, this is where the Reds Renaissance will gather pace. I’ve already decided to make the most of my two and a bit days here and see as many of the sights as possible. I like a pint and intend to drink my share (maybe I’ll get Johnny Mac to drink my share for me!) but anyone spending the entire time on the razz will be missing a great opportunity.
It takes us ages to find the hotel, though I’m not certain it’s lost. It’s five minutes from the Trevi fountain, so having booked in and exchanged pleasantries with the (over) confident Roma fan on reception, we pay it a visit. Lit up at night it’s very impressive and completely different to what I’d expected. We each throw in a coin to ensure we return to Rome in the future, then it’s time to eat and drink.
Match day. Loads to do before the game. First, the Pantheon – THE glory of Rome, which dates back to classical times (a couple of millennia, not 1977). I once more bump into Johnny Mac, who tells me to watch where I’m going. I’m blameless, the place is awesome, especially the interior. Outside’s not bad, either. On the cornice of the portico is the inscription M Agrippa L F Cos Tertium fecit. It looks Greek to me, but it’s probably Latin. Either way, the ‘L’ ‘F’ and ‘C’ stand out like a beacon.
Next stop – the Vatican, St Peters and the Sistine Chapel. PJP isn’t in, but we admire his patio and crazy paving. It must have taken him ages. If a job’s worth doing inside St Peters is pretty amazing too. A Swiss guard refuses to let us have a photo taken with him – perhaps it’s someone bunking off work, on his way to a fancy dress party and frightened where the photo will end up. I’m hoping to get one of those “Man U? My arse!” t-shirts with the Pope on it, none of the street traders have any. I half expect the great man to turn up himself, take us to one side and say “look, who the fuck are Man United?”. A day in the Sistine chapel wouldn’t be enough, so a couple of hours certainly won’t be. Let’s just hope some future Pontiff doesn’t have a fixation with woodchip and Artex.
Time for something to eat. While masticating, we all notice something about the Corporal. Either he is telling the waiter that his backside is turning green, or he’s thanking him in Spanish! A quiet word puts him straight, then it’s back to the hotel to freshen up before the match. A call in at the Roma club shop, only a stone’s throw away from the hotel (!) to get some mementoes – a flag, a scarf and some Roma lunch-boxes for the Advocadettes.
We are due to rendezvous with some coaches to take us to the stadium at a park in the city. It doesn’t seem so far (only an inch on the map) but it takes us ages to get there. It’s getting dark now. It’s noisy and some Reds fans are performing for the TV cameras. Here’s a word of advice: never go to a piss-up in an Italian brewery. This is a shambles. We’ve been charged £22 by LFC for the ticket into the ground and the coach to and from the stadium. The actual ground ticket is £17, and we each have a separate coach ticket with a coach number. Good idea in principle if the coaches arrive in numerical order at the same place and don’t leave half empty. We eventually board our coach and set off, but after five minutes we stop and are left sitting there without any explanation for over an hour. The perfect way to frustrate and annoy football supporters.
We remain surprisingly patient and good humoured. At last the stadium, the usual lack of turnstiles and we’re in. The facilities may be basic, but the huge bowl of a ground is impressive. Despite that, it’s still not as intimidating as Genoa in ’92, and the fans certainly aren’t as colourful. Never mind, we have two hours to teach them a lesson in getting behind their team. The ground has changed considerably since 1984; a roof, an extra tier and now all-seater, though the ‘seats’ are very basic with no backs. Not surprisingly, everyone finds a spec and then stands. The travelling Kop is back. There is a video scoreboard at each end of the stadium (do bowls have ‘ends’?) and whenever the scores are shown they appear to be superimposed on a large pair of tits. Gets my vote! Either this, or I am having some sort of Valentines Day hallucination and need help. Alongside the running track, on the side where the players come out, there are a number of cultivated privets. A peculiar feature of any football ground, but that too gets my vote. There’s nothing I like better than a neatly trimmed bush..yes, I definitely need help!
The scene is set, enter the modern gladiators. The Reds begin well but Ziege is lucky to escape a booking for a dreadful tackle on Cafu. If nothing else, our Christian has a point to prove against the Romans and he goes on to have his best game for the Reds. I’m not lion (you’re fucking fired – ed). It appears that the referee is giving them almost everything and his refusal to let Macca return to the pitch after treatment for an injury is an absolute joke. He’s
kept off the pitch for ages, but the Reds are defending well and we are giving them constant vocal support. A couple of half chances for Robbie and Ziege, then Delvecchio misses a great opportunity. Half time, and we’ve been very solid (the 3 H’s are all superb) and we’ve restricted them to one chance.
By this time, the Roma fans have finally noticed that we’re all standing (that much easier to hit?) and kindly offer us their seats. These are followed by bottles of ‘water’. Of course, this is very dangerous and someone could get seriously hurt. The Italian police are not prepared to stand by whilst this is going on and wade into the Liverpool supporters nearest to them. Not surprisingly, a few bottles are hurled back from whence they came, sparking the weirdest water fight I’ve ever witnessed.
The second half begins, and after forty seconds Owen scores. Bedlam! We can’t believe it. Neither can Roma. Sander makes a save, Batistuta’s brought on, so Owen decides to score again. Pandemonium! Batistuta shoots wide. The clock has stopped. I’m more nervous now than I was on the plane. We look solid, we look comfortable. Roma are ragged and Barmby misses a chance to make it three. The referee blows his whistle – we’ve won. Fan-fucking-tastic! The players come down to our end as YNWA booms out. We all sit down. It’s going to be a long wait in the stadium (over 2 hours) and they put the Old Trafford win on the video screens to try and placate us and while away the hours. Super Dan does it again. We win 1-0!
Then we are let out to find the coaches. Without clues. It’s more disorganised than before. No-one knows where they are going. The Iceman wins a game of chicken with a coach. We jump on another, which drops us at the park. It’s dark and we’ve won. My heart says beer, my head says hotel. Hotel it is. My voice has gone, so it can’t argue.
Morning, and that feeling of total satisfaction. I feel a little hoarse, which is illegal in England of course. The Italians don’t make a big deal out of it, though. The little hoarse trots off with a big smile on its face and it’s time to bolt for the breakfast bar. The pre-match chirpiness of the hotel receptionist has disappeared. He either expects us to take the piss or he is genuinely bitter at defeat. Either way, it’s a shame. We still have the morning to ourselves before the return flight, so it’s off to the Coliseum. Wow! It’ll be even better when it’s finished. The playing surface has deteriorated badly, presumably because the Italian rugby team played their games there last Millennium. Time’s up, we’ve a plane to catch, and in the words of the great Peter Johnson “TAXI!”.
This is far more frightening than the plane trip. The Grim Reaper is so short of money that he now works part-time as an Italian cabbie. He is a (shall we say) ‘disappointed’ Roma fan. 160 KPH in a crate, no seat belts – and he keeps on turning round and punctuating whatever he’s saying with the words “Batistuta” and “Totti”. Now my ears prick up when he mentions the latter, but he’s rabbiting on about the player. The Corporal is making things worse by listing the Liverpool players that weren’t playing either. Discretion overcoming valour completely, I’m nodding in agreement with everything The Reaper is saying, whatever he’s saying. Deep down I’m thinking “I saw Liverpool win in Rome, he can say and think what the hell he likes”. We somehow avoid a van we had no right to avoid, and I run onto the plane and safety. Seven words I never thought I’d ever say!
We’re on our way home. A fantastic three days. Addictive. Roll on next Thursday.
Oh, and I did take something back for the wife. The penicillin still hasn’t shifted it.