The English Clubs Banned From European Competition After the Heysel Disaster & What Might Have Been

Everton League Division One Champions 1986/87 | Getty Images/Getty Images

English clubs dominated Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In eight seasons from 1976/77 to 1983/84, an English side lifted the European Cup no fewer than seven times as Liverpool (4), Nottingham Forest (2) and Aston Villa conquered the continent.

English teams also lifted the UEFA Cup three times in nine years during a similar period, while Everton won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1985.

Peter Reid celebrates Everton's win in the 1985 European Cup Winners Cup Final.Peter Reid celebrates Everton's win in the 1985 European Cup Winners Cup Final.
Peter Reid celebrates Everton’s win in the 1985 European Cup Winners Cup Final. | Getty Images/Getty Images

That was the same year that Liverpool reached their fifth European Cup final in the space of just nine seasons, only for violence and tragedy to mar the clash against Juventus in Brussels.

Although the exact cause of the Heysel Stadium disaster is still debated, a group of Liverpool fans charged at Juventus fans in an adjacent section of the stand, separated only by a temporary fence and what has been described as a ‘thinly-policed no-man’s land’.

Heysel Stadium was in a state of disrepair at that time, while the perhaps ill-advised ‘neutral section’ resulted in rival sets of supporters during an era of rife hooliganism being too close to each other without sufficient protection or separation.

Juventus fans fled the charge towards a perimeter wall, part of which collapsed. 39 people, most of whom were Italian, were killed and an estimated further 600 injured.

Italian singer Eros Ramazzotti gives anItalian singer Eros Ramazzotti gives an
A memorial remembering the victims of the Heysel disaster. | AFP/Getty Images

14 Liverpool fans were convicted of manslaughter and UEFA threw the book at the club and English football as a whole, banning English clubs from European competition until the suspension was lifted in 1990 – Liverpool were banned for a further year on top until 1991.

There is reason to believe that had unthinkable tragedy not transpired that awful night, English clubs might well have continued to dominate the European Cup as the 1980s progressed, before Arrigo Sacchi’s mighty AC Milan arrived as the new force at the end of the decade.

Charity Shield Gary LinekerCharity Shield Gary Lineker
Gary Lineker of Everton | Getty Images/Getty Images

Everton were crowned English champions in the 1984/85 season and the 1985/86 European Cup that they weren’t allowed to compete in is the one that got away for the Toffees.

Everton were already Cup Winners’ Cup holders and had beaten a very strong Liverpool side to the First Division title. What’s more, they had also strengthened that summer by signing Gary Lineker, who went on to score 38 goals in domestic competitions and finished the 1985/86 season by winning the World Cup Golden Boot and joining Barcelona.

In the end, the 1985/86 European Cup was won by Steaua Bucharest and is not remembered as a particularly vintage season in the history of the competition.

Manchester United were denied entry in the Cup Winners’ Cup, while Liverpool, Tottenham, Southampton and Norwich were barred from the UEFA Cup.

Kenny DalglishKenny Dalglish
Liverpool win the 1986 First Divison Title v Chelsea | Getty Images/Getty Images

Liverpool were the English champions who could not enter the 1986/87 European Cup. Had things turned out differently they might have fancied their chances as a functional Porto side are not considered among the all-time great European champions.

Everton, FA Cup runners-up to Liverpool in 1986, missed out on the Cup Winners’ Cup. West Ham, Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday and Oxford would have been UEFA Cup entrants.

Brian KilclineBrian Kilcline
1987 FA Cup Winners Coventry City | Getty Images/Getty Images

It was another chance lost for Everton in 1987/88, the season that PSV Eindhoven became the third Dutch club to lift the European Cup, led by an emerging coach by the name of Guus Hiddink.

Coventry City were denied a place in the Cup Winners’ Cup, which would have normally been the reward for their famously unexpected Wembley win over Tottenham the previous season.

It was a bitter blow as the Sky Blues’ only other major European adventure in their history came in the 1970/71 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a predecessor to the UEFA Cup, when they were thrashed over two legs by a Bayern Munich side who soon won three back-to-back European Cups.

The 1987/88 UEFA Cup places for English teams would have gone to Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal and Norwich that season.

Lawrie Sanchez, Dave BeasantLawrie Sanchez, Dave Beasant
Wimbledon win the 1988 FA Cup final | David Cannon/Getty Images

Liverpool missed out on the 1988/89 European Cup as reigning English champions.

As with Coventry the year before, perhaps the bigger kick was for Wimbledon, who would have normally received entry into the Cup Winners’ Cup for their heroic FA Cup giant killing of Liverpool in an iconic 1988 final at Wembley.

Wimbledon had been a non-league club barely a decade earlier and ultimately never played in a major European competition before they were dissolved to become MK Dons in 2004.

Manchester United, Nottingham Forest, Everton and Luton were denied UEFA Cup entry.

Steve Bould, Kevin Richardson, Alan Smith, Paul MersonSteve Bould, Kevin Richardson, Alan Smith, Paul Merson
Arsenal First Division Champions 1988/89 | Getty Images/Getty Images

Having snatched the First Division title from Liverpool in truly historic fashion, the UEFA ban on English clubs cost Arsenal what would have been their first entry into the European Cup in nearly 20 years, since the 1971/72 season.

The Gunners actually struggled domestically that season, making it much less of a ‘what if’ question than had been the case for Everton in the very first year of the ban. The 1989/90 season was also when AC Milan were at their best, actually becoming the last club to successfully retain the European Cup until Real Madrid won back-to-back Champions Leagues 27 years later.

Liverpool would have entered the 1989/90 Cup Winners’ Cup in normal circumstances, while Nottingham Forest, Norwich, Derby and Tottenham would have entered the UEFA Cup.

Kenny Dalglish, Ronnie Moran, Roy EvansKenny Dalglish, Ronnie Moran, Roy Evans
Liverpool Player Manager Kenny Dalglish Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans Celebrate 1990 Division One | Getty Images/Getty Images

Liverpool were the only English club barred from European competition in 1990/91. The ban on English sides had been generally lifted in 1990 but was kept in place specifically for Liverpool.

Red Star Belgrade went on to beat Marseille in an infamously stale 1991 European Cup final.

Elsewhere, Manchester United took full advantage of other English clubs being allowed back into European competition and lifted the 1990/91 Cup Winners’ Cup by beating Barcelona in a famous final in Rotterdam. It was only Alex Ferguson’s second trophy since taking charge.

Aston Villa didn’t make quite the same impact in an Italian dominated UEFA Cup. Nottingham Forest would have qualified, but England’s absence from European competition for five years hurt the country’s ranking within UEFA and only one place was available.

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