27 years on from the fire that claimed 56 lives at Bradford City's Valley Parade. Is it really the forgotten tragedy?
I write this the day after the 25th Anniversary of the Bradford City fire disaster that claimed the lives of 56 football supporters. 56 husbands, wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. The youngest 11, the oldest 84. A disaster in the truest sense of the word. A day that – to roll out the cliche that’s been used all week but still holds true – puts football into perspective. As one sports journalist at the ceremony, more used to commentating on the game itself, admitted to me somberly, “To me a disaster is a conceding 89th minute goal.”
Bradford City fans may have a better perspective than most that Shankly’s famous “Football’s not a matter of life and death … it’s more important than that” quote doesn’t ring true, but on a matchday at Valley Parade, especially during our 10 year slide down the table from the Premier League, the fans seem pretty much in agreement with him. We are after all fans like anyone else and although there’s a memorial and a sculpture on the side of the ground, and one in the city centre, the fire is a matter of private grief for most. It goes unspoken. Maybe it’s a Yorkshire trait, not wanting to make a fuss, what’s done is done, we can’t change it, lets move on. But its muted nature has led it to be labelled football’s ‘forgotten tragedy’ spoken about only once a year by a group of ex-players, supporters and dignitaries, huddled around a memorial in the middle of Bradford.
Bradford City fans may have a better perspective than most that Shankly’s famous “Football’s not a matter of life and death … it’s more important than that” quote doesn’t ring true
I wasn’t there that day. I was nine. So if it’s a first hand account you’re after then I’d direct you to Four Minutes to Hell by Paul Firth and this article by David Pendleton. I did have friends there, and remember the nightmares they had after, but I was left at home, with my mum watching it unfold live on YTV. As a nine year old, and not quite understanding just how bad it was going to get, my first thought was that I hoped the fire wouldn’t spread to my dad’s work over the road. With hindsight this might seem somewhat callous, but at the time, even those in the ground had no idea how serious the situation was. It was just the type of thing that used to happen in football grounds back then, pre health and safety aware Britain. As I wasn’t there, I can never give an account of scrambling over a wall, the heat at my back, that I sense fans of other clubs are after when they sometimes come out with “Oh, Bradford City, were you there at the fire?” Natural to ask I suppose, we are after all a curious species who slow down to rubberneck at a car crash. But these are still people that remember.
Perhaps the reason the tragedy hasn’t had a higher profile is that there’s no battle to fight. There’s no recriminations. The fallout from Heysel, unbelievably just eighteen days later, was a five-year ban on English clubs in Europe and Liverpool fans becoming the pariahs of the press – something even more evident after the Hillsborogh tragedy in 1989. After Hillsbourough Liverpool fans had a double fight on their hands, still ongoing, against the South Yorkshire police for their alleged mishandling of the situation and against the press, and in particular The Sun, for its despicable lies. Not to mention the body count was higher, and sick as it seems, body counts sell, be it series killers, action films or deaths at a football match.
Let’s not forget there have been other overlooked tragedies at football grounds. How many people now, or even in 1985 would be able to tell you about Burnden Park in 1946, when in a warning it took the authorities 43 years to heed, 33 people were crushed to death, or Ibrox in 1971 when 66 fans were again, crushed, and yet another identical incident in Moscow in 1982 during a FC Spartak Moscow UEFA cup match, killing unconfirmed numbers. These were three warnings before Hillsborough and the Taylor Report which lead to the grounds we know today. But with Valley Parade it seemed different. Unbelievable in fact.
The stand which had stood unwavering since City won the FA Cup in 1911, only had the 90 minutes to last before work was due to upgrade it. The steel was even stacked up in the car park waiting to be erected in its place. The 11,076 crowd was double that of the average attendance over the season, made up with families brought along to celebrate the promotion. Crucially, and most cruelly, the wind, normally blowing towards the Kop, was blowing the other way. It helped spread the fire faster than anyone could run. It was as much these factors as the build up of rubbish under the wooden stand, and locked gates that caused the scale of the disaster. Who knows what would have happened had that match or cigarette been dropped on any other day in the previous 30 years. It’s hard to rage at circumstance.
Lets not forget there have been other overlooked tragedies at football grounds
Not that the last 25 years have been without their battles. From the alleged ‘joke’ told by Chubby Brown in Bradford shortly after that had him chased out of town (that he supposedly denies saying and I’m still not sure if it’s an urban legend but mud sticks and he has an uncomfortable reputation to this day in the city) to footage of the fire (banned by YTV for broadcast with the exception of fire safety training) appearing in the US TV show ‘When Good Times Go Bad’ even more shamefully narrated as a result of hooliganism. Fans in recent years have also battled to have the footage removed from YouTube, and a reference in an American research paper which sites a petrol bomb as the trigger, to be withdrawn and an apology offered.
The fire is remembered just once a year, in Bradford, on May 11th. With representatives from Lincoln, the team Bradford were playing that day, who also lost two of their supporters. With quiet dignity. No fuss. I found myself stood at the back of the huge crowd that had gathered in Centenary Square this year for the 25th Anniversary, when next to me appeared one of the players from that game. A true Bradford City legend. Yet here he was, preferring to stay anonymous. His grief private. A site almost as moving as the service itself.
Twenty five years on and the football world keeps turning as before, largely unaware of the role those 56 had in developing the match day we have now. The safety of a shiny modern stadium and the comfort of a seat. The Bradford City fire may be a forgotten tragedy. But it’s not forgotten where it matters. And never will be.
ACKROYD, John Douglas 32 Baildon
ANDERTON, Edmund 68 Bingley
BAINES, Alexander Shaw 70 Bradford
BAMFORD, Herbert 72 Bradford
BULMER, Christopher James 11 Burley-in-Wharfedale
COXON, Jack Leo 76 Bradford
COXON, Leo Anthony 44 Halifax
CRABTREE, David James 30 Bradford
CRABTREE, Harry 76 Bradford
DEMPSEY, Derek 46 Morley
FIRTH, Muriel 56 Baildon
FIRTH, Samuel 86 Bradford
FLETCHER, Andrew 11 East Bridgford, Nottinghamshire
FLETCHER, Edmond 63 Pudsey
FLETCHER, John 34 East Bridgford, Nottingham
FLETCHER, Peter 32 Gildersome
FORSTER, Nellie 64 Bradford
GREENWOOD, Felix Winspear 13 Denholme
GREENWOOD, Peter 46 Denholme
GREENWOOD, Rupert Benedict 11 Denholme
HALL, Norman 71 Bradford
HALLIDAY, Peter Anthony 34 Bradford
HARTLEY, Arthur 79 Bradford
HINDLE, Edith 79 Bradford
HINDLE, Frederick 76 Bradford
HODGSON, Moira Helen 15 Oakenshaw
HUDSON, Eric 72 Bingley
HUGHES, John 64 Bradford
HUTTON, John 74 Bradford
KERR, Walter 76 Bradford
LOVELL, Peter Charles 43 Bradford
LUDLAM, Jack 55 Bradford
McPHERSON, Gordon Stuart 39 Bradford
McPHERSON, Irene 28 Bradford
MASON, Roy 74 Silsden
MIDDLETON, Frederick Norman 84 Bradford
MITCHELL, Harold 79 Bradford
MUHL, Elizabeth 21 Leeds
NORMINGTON, Ernest 74 Shipley
ORMONDROYD, Gerald Priestley 40 Bingley
ORMONDROYD, Richard John 12 Bingley
ORMONDROYD, Robert Ian 12 Bingley
POLLARD, Sylvia Lund 69 Bradford
PRICE, Herbert 78 Shipley
ROBERTS, Amanda Jayne 20 Bradford
SAMPSON, Jane 18 Leeds
STACEY, William 72 Sleaford, Lincolnshire
STOCKMAN, Craig Albert 14 Bradford
STOCKMAN, Jane Ashley 16 Bradford
STOCKMAN, Trevor John 38 Brighouse
TURNER, Howard Malcolm 41 Bingley
TURNER, Sarah Elizabeth 16 Bingley
WARD, Simon Neil 18 Shipley
WEDGEWORTH, Robert 72 Guiseley
WEST, William James 78 North Hykeham, Lincoln
WRIGHT, Adrian Mark 11 Bradford
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