Remembering the Bradford City fire victims

May 11, 1985. I’m seven years old and sprawled on the living room floor of our terraced house in Skipton, North Yorkshire, listening intently to the last day of the football season on the radio, waiting for any score updates on how my beloved Hull City are faring.

Normally me and my dad would have gone to the match, home and away on British Rail, but for whatever reason, probably financial, he’d decided we should swerve the trip to Brentford.

The radio goes live to Bradford City, the club I disliked most at the time as they were the most popular side at my primary school and my best friend Philip’s team. They had already secured promotion before this final game against Lincoln City, but instead of reporting on the match or the celebrations, the commentator is describing a raging inferno in one of the stands and fans streaming onto the pitch.

Confused, I run out to the garden to question my dad about what’s going on. I find him slumped against a spade, listening to the radio himself, totally horrified. I still don’t understand what’s unfolding in that wooden stand at Valley Parade, but I realise this is a serious moment that goes way beyond our silly obsession with football.

As it turned out, both my pal Philip and my headteacher Mr Mitchell had been in the stand that had burnt down so quickly and so violently, but had been among the lucky ones who’d escaped death or injury.

You can only imagine the terrible panic they and other fans endured as they were prevented from leaving by the locked exits. And when they made it safely on to the pitch, watching as the stand and the seats they’d been occupying minutes earlier disappeared in front of their eyes.

i don’t think me and Philip ever talked about it properly, so i don’t know how much he saw; whether he’d witnessed fellow fans burning or choking to death or if his dad had managed to shield him from the unimaginable horror of it.

But I can remember the unspeakably stark news footage showing a man on fire, police officers desperately trying to beat out the flames with the coats; the memorial services; the charity single You’ll Never Walk Alone hitting the top spot in the charts.

If I’d been older, perhaps I’d have picked up the sheer pointlessness of these 56 people dying, in the most painful manner you could possibly imagine, none of whom would have died if the stadium had been better managed. This was not an unfortunate disaster but negligence – the stand was known to be a fire risk and the gates at the back were locked.

I’m reminded of this as the BBC are marking the 25th anniversary of the disaster today in their news bulletins and aired a documentary – thankfully so, as this has been almost a forgotten disaster, certainly compared to Hillsborough a few years later.

Maddeningly, nothing seemed to change at football grounds immediately after Bradford, either. It took the combined gravity of the two disasters in quick succession for the governing bodies to finally act and bring us the well-managed grounds of today, without perimeter fences or decrepit wooden stands.

So I was all set to upload a maudlin blog post about these lives being forgotten. Then I visited the city newspaper Telegraph & Argus’ website, and read about a woman who lost her husband and two sons in the fire who’s run two bursary schemes ever since in their memory to help young people.

A couple of clicks later and I find out the football club adopted the local hospital burns’ unit as their chosen charity at the time and is even now working hard for them, the latest fundraiser being a ‘legends’ game at the weekend.

I can’t say I’m massively taken with Bradford City even now – football tribalism can’t be turned on and off like a tap. But I salute them, and others, who are still working hard to keep the memory of the fire victims alive. RIP to all 56.

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1 Comment »

  1. Adam said

    Excellent blog Paul – simply can’t imagine the horror or fear of that day, or the indescribable pain of the victims’ families. There’s a poignant piece of commentary by John Helm on the ITV footage, as a man is on fire and people are trying desperately to put it out – he simply says “He came to watch the football”.

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