In the latest of our look at some of the worst disasters to happen at football matches, MARK GODFREY talks to Mike Harrison – editor of The City Gent fanzine and Bradford City fan – to discuss the tragic events at Valley Parade 30 years ago; May 11th 1985.
What are your memories of the build up to that game with Lincoln City? It was a promotion party, a bumper crowd and no doubt the mood was joyous?
There was an air of anticipation in the air as a crowd of just over 11,000 people gathered to witness Bradford City receive a trophy, the first the club had won since 1929. The game was meaningless, but you wanted to be there to witness a bit of history and celebrate promotion to Division Two as champions.
Where exactly were you inside Valley Parade that day in relation to the stand where the fire occurred?
I was stood on the Midland Road side of the ground in the small standing area opposite the main stand. We were stood in line with the edge of the penalty box at the Bradford end, therefore diagonally opposite where the fire started.
What were the first indications that something was very wrong and that it was something a lot more serious than a minor scuffle spilling out onto the pitch?
I think most people’s initial thoughts were that possibly a fight or scuffle had taken place. Sadly, because of the era of football hooliganism at the time, it was easy to jump to that conclusion, but it soon became apparent that the reason fans had moved was because wisps of smoke could be seen emerging from the stand. I remember going to ask the policeman who was stood by the corner flag near to us what was happening and he said “it was under control”.
How quickly did the fire escalate and what was the response from your fellow spectators in the area where you were and in other parts of the ground?
At first, people didn’t seem to take the ‘small’ fire seriously and most continued to still watch the game as it continued to be played. From my viewpoint it appeared that the policemen close by were ushering people away, perhaps waiting for someone to come along with a fire extinguisher to arrive to put the fire out. But the small fire quickly escalated and large flames could be seen and that is when fans started to take it more seriously and started to evacuate the stand and as many climbed over the wall on to the pitch which caused the game to be stopped. In describing what happened next, it still seems incredible that the fire spread from one end of the stand to the other in just over four minutes. At first, fans seemed to take their time, but very quickly, for many it became a desperate scramble for safety. Aided by a strong breeze which seemed to push the flames and smoke at a rapid rate, the combination of this plus the material the roof was made of, and of course the wooden stand itself, all combined with devastating effect
You must have witnessed some horrific scenes and also some incredible acts of selfless heroism?
I did and one of my regrets is that I didn’t have the presence of mind to climb over the wall and try and help people overcome the final hurdle of the Main Stand wall to get to the safety of the pitch. But the pitch in front of us quickly filled with fans fleeing the flames, and it would have been impossible for me to make my way through. Being very tall, I could see over the thousands of fans and I witnessed many fans who, having climbed over the wall, stayed there and helped others to get over it as well. At this point it is worth pointing out that the Valley Parade pitch had been widened a few years previous and therefore the level of the standing area of the Main Stand (in front of the seated area) was much higher than pitch level. So whilst the wall might have been say four feet high, there was at least a six foot drop on the other side.
But in regard to acts of heroism, many fans and policemen found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and with disregard to their own safety stayed next to that wall helping people escape until the heat became too intense and unbearable. Standing the width of the pitch away, I could feel the heat, so I could only imagine how hot it was on the other side.
And for me as an unwilling witness to the awful events that unfolded before my eyes, there did come a time where I couldn’t bear to watch it anymore and I can still recall turning my back and facing the corrugated wall at the back of the Midland Road stand, desperately hoping that everyone had escaped alive, but suspecting that wasn’t the case.
Can you even begin to explain the immediate aftermath? How you got home, how you felt that evening or in the days and weeks immediately after, how your friends and people in the city were feeling?
I was at the game with my father and grandfather and he tried to leave the ground without us, but retuned telling us that the exits were still locked. I realised afterwards that the last thing the emergency services needed was 11,000 people departing the ground as they made their way to the scene. It must have been somewhere between 4.30pm and 4.45pm when we were all eventually let out, almost an hour after the fire had started. Thousands of people made their way down the steps and on the Midland Road, in silence, a stunned silence. The only noise I recall was from the sirens of the emergency service vehicles. I recall getting to my father’s car and on the short journey to my grandfather’s flat we heard news on the radio that not everyone had got out of the stand alive and my father cried, which was something he was not prone to do.
How long did it take for Bradford to get back to something approaching normality? Do you think it ever has or is the tragedy something that remains visible or tangible in its everyday conscious?
The aftermath of the fire to me was one of concern for the bereaved and injured. Receiving worldwide media attention was a great comfort as hundreds or probably thousands of messages of support from all over the world flooded in. The disaster fund set up to help the injured and bereaved was something positive to focus on, but to me it seemed that a heavy dark cloud hung over the City of Bradford all through the summer of 1985. Nobody really knew how to cope but somehow through the support of each other and knowing the whole world had witnessed the tragic event somehow helped. I did feel a sense of loss when the media moved on and Bradford stopped being the centre of attention and it was at that point I feel that the people of Bradford started to look after themselves, something they have done ever since. Later that summer I was on holiday in the Lake District when news of a fire on board a plane at Manchester Airport came through and the memories of May 11th came flooding back.
The irony is that stand was to be demolished soon after the end of the season – there had been warnings previously about fire hazards presented by the state of the stand and the accumulated rubbish blamed for the fire. Do you think the tragedy was totally avoidable?
There were plans for the roof to be replaced which was due to start the following Monday. I’m not sure if the whole stand was planned for demolition, but I think in renewing the roof, the seating area was due to have been upgraded at the same time. When looking back in hindsight it can appear that lots of tragic events could have been avoided. The general feeling amongst Bradford City fans at the time was that nobody wanted to lay any blame at the feet of the club, even though it was revealed during the enquiry into the fire that the club had ignored warnings about debris under the stand. I remember a lot of the messages of support from other football fans, whose clubs had similar wooden stands that said “there but for the grace of God” as a fire in a wooden stand at any number of grounds could have happened, but it happened to occur at Valley Parade on May 11th 1985. Though we didn’t know it at the time, and perhaps a football fan’s only thought of danger was from hooliganism and not fire. Bradford City were not alone in neglecting their stadium in preference to either spend money on players and indeed, as in City’s case, just keeping the club going. City had almost ceased to exist in 1983 and many other clubs much bigger than Bradford City went into receivership during the 1980s. It is extremely sad that it took a disaster such as the one at Valley Parade to make the whole of football get its act together and move towards making grounds much safer for spectators and thankfully there has been no repeat of what happened at Valley Parade since. Obviously, what happened at Hillsborough four years later also led to immeasurably improved safety aswell.
Did you know anyone personally who sadly lost their life that day or was directly affected and how has Bradford and The City Gent rallied around those families in the intervening 30 years?
I was very fortunate that I didn’t know anyone personally, but as fellow football fans both from Bradford – and not forgetting Lincoln City who were our opponents that day (two Lincoln fans died in the fire) – I do feel that I knew them in spirit at least. The City Gent has always joined with other fans and has helped raise money for the ‘Burns Unit’ which was another positive thing to emerge from the aftermath of the fire. And in the current issue – which is our 200th – we have a collection of thoughts and memories of May 11th 1985 and £1 from the cover price of £2 is going to the PSBRU(Plastic Surgery Burns Research Unit) to give it’s full title these days. CG200 has been so successful already that last week I ordered a reprint to cope with demand and we’re already raised £1,200 which is brilliant.
How was Bradford City as a club affected in the following years and what was supporting the club like the next season?
The remarkable thing that the players said at the time was that when they went to visit the fans that had been badly burnt and recovering in hospital, all they could talk about was not the terrible injuries that they had received or the painful recovery they were enduring, but they wanted to talk about the new season in Division Two. There was already a strong bond between the players and the fans. We’d seen two promotions in four seasons and of course the liquidation of the club in between those events. And because of Valley Parade being unavailable, all of City’s home games were played away. Near neighbours Leeds United and Huddersfield Town allowed City to use their grounds for our home games and later in the 1985/86 season, Bradford’s rugby league ground at Odsal was also used. Despite this handicap, the spirit of the team and the fans and a desire to do well for the fans who were injured or lost their lives ensured the club managed to avoid a quick return to Division Three. I think we all sensed that the country wanted Bradford City to succeed aswell.
Many people outside Bradford believe the tragedy is never publically remembered or commemorated in the same way as the Hillsborough disaster. Is this something people in the city are angry about or has it always been Bradford’s way to deal with the grief in an intimate, reflective way?
Linking the two disasters at Hillsborough and Valley Parade is always difficult because the circumstances are so different. The Liverpool fans right from the day itself have always felt, and rightly so that they suffered an injustice, whereas at Bradford we accepted early on it was a tragic accident. So at Bradford we have always gathered at Centenary Square outside the City Hall on May 11th at 11.00am and as there wasn’t a handbook on how to get over such a tragedy, the City of Bradford has got on with remembering and commemorating in our own way. We tend to receive more media attention if the year ends in a 5 or 0 as it does this year being the 30th. I can understand that some younger fans, not knowing too much about the events of May 11th 1985 and seeing how Hillsborough has never stopped being in the news, have pushed for our ‘forgotten’ tragedy to receive wider notice. But those of us who were there that day prefer the quieter dignified respect that’s shown once a year.
How have the recent newspaper claims of potential wrong doing by the former chairman Stafford Heginbotham by survivor Martin Fletcher been received in Bradford?
Not very well. At The City Gent we were alerted that something was in the pipeline when Martin’s friend, the journalist Daniel Taylor, used his column in The Observer to stir up some feelings regarding how the City commemorated the fire in the early years. Something very easy to say with 30 years of hindsight and as I said previously, there was no guide book on how to do things at the time, we did our best and it was sad to read that Martin Fletcher (via Daniel Taylor) felt it was inadequate.
There was also the inference that the enquiry by Justice Oliver Popplewell was done in haste and all too brief – and that the two men who saved the club from going out of business in 1983 profited from selling the club a few years after the ground had been rebuilt. If that raised some eyebrows, then nothing could prepare Bradford City fans for the revelation of ‘coincidences’ due to Stafford Heginbotham being associated with businesses in Bradford that had 8 or 9 fires from the mid-60s to the mid-70s.
In promoting the book and ably championed by his friend Daniel Taylor at The Guardian, Martin wants the reader to make their own mind up whether these coincidences could lead someone to believe that one (not both?) of the owners of the club at the time would deliberately set fire to a stand packed with fans, which included himself and his family? As a fan of the club and as someone who was there that day, I’d be extremely interested to see any evidence that the fire wasn’t an accident, but that doesn’t seem to be mentioned in Daniel Taylor’s cleverly written articles. It’s all very vague and supposition and conjecture linked to coincidence. The articles – and no doubt there is another one in the offing for Sunday May 10th – are not designed for Bradford City fans with any connection the events of May 11th 1985, they are there to create a fog of doubt and also to help sell Martin Fletcher’s book.
How will you personally commemorate the 30th anniversary of the disaster and what plans are there by the club and the city to pay their respects?
I will be at the commemoration ceremony in Centenary Square at 11.00am on Monday May 11th along with many thousands of others as well as the club and players, both past and present.
I will also watch the excellent “One Day in May” documentary being screened on BT Sport at 9.30pm and free to air for non BT Sport subscribers. I was invited to a private screening of the film earlier this week and the events of the day are told in an extremely moving way. It is not an easy watch by any means, and some Bradford City fans won’t like the fact that some film footage of the fire is used. But it is an historical event and there is no denying that it happened. People with no knowledge of what happened that day will see the film and will learn what it was like to be there, to be an unwitting hero, to survive when others didn’t, to live with regrets and survivors guilt.
Last week I also took part in a recording for BBC 5Live where John Helm, John Hendrie and I talk to Chris Warburton about the events of the day. I’ve been told that this will be played at some stage on Monday May 11th.
The City Gent’s new issue – its 200th – will be dedicated to the memory of those who were lost that day. What can people expect from the new issue? I also believe you are fundraising for the Burns Unit that treated people 30 years ago?
I mention at the start of the articles that look back at the events of May 11th, they’re not intended to be a comprehensive view of the day itself or the aftermath. But I put out an invitation for City Gent readers to share their personal thoughts and recollections 30 years on. I wasn’t sure what content I would receive, but I have to say it was a privilege putting this series of articles together. I have been deeply moved by the quality and content of the contributions.
The feedback that I have received has been exceptional and people have said that I should be proud of the contents of CG200. It was the hardest issue that I’ve put together in my 11 years as editor, but to receive the positive reaction and to have raised so much money for the Burns Unit has made it all worthwhile.
If The City Gent didn’t exist as a printed fanzine, I don’t think what we have put together would exist. And if the articles were used say on a website, how could we raise money for the Burns Unit. It’s not easy keeping a printed fanzine going these days in the era of instant comment using the internet, but every now and then, being a printed fanzine has its advantages.