Lead image credit: The Telegraph and Argus

This article first appeared in issue 207 of the award winning fanzine The City Gent, and is published here with approval of editor Mike Harrison. Visit their website http://thecitygent.co.uk/buynow/index.htm and get a copy.

David Markham was the football reporter on the Telegraph & Argus at the time of the Valley Parade fire in May 1985 as well as when the ground was re-opened 18 months later. Here are his thoughts 30 years on.

Few Bradford City supporters can have experienced such an emotional occasion in football as the re-opening of Valley Parade on Sunday, December 14th 1986.

Tears were shed by many in the 16,000 capacity crowd as we sang the so-called football anthem, Abide with Me, and observed the two minutes silence before City took on Bobby Robson’s England team in a match to mark the re-opening of the re-built ground. The tears flowed first and foremost as we remembered the 56 people, who died in the Valley Parade fire 18 months earlier in one of the worst disasters in the history of British sport.

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Most people knew someone who died in the fire or their families and, all but two of the victims were City supporters who went along to salute the Third Division champions and watched captain Peter Jackson lead his team-mates on a lap of honour before triumph turned to tragedy as a raging fire burned down the old wooden stand leaving heartbreak and devastation in its wake.

So, the 56 fire victims – many of them personal friends – and their families – were uppermost in our minds that winter Sunday afternoon. However, there was also a sense of satisfaction that the club had returned to its traditional home after so much uncertainty about where its future lay.

There was also a sense of relief among supporters that their wanderings were over and there would be no more windswept days and nights at Odsal Stadium, which was disliked intensely by the majority of City fans. Also during the 1985/86 season there had been trips to Leeds and Huddersfield where City also played some of their ‘home’ matches while Valley Parade was out of use.

It wasn’t, of course, inevitable that City would return to Valley Parade. By coincidence, Bradford Council had spent £3million to improve facilities at Odsal so the World Speedway Championships could be held there. The council would have liked City to make their home at Odsal so the city’s two professional teams – Bradford City and Bradford Northern, as they were then – could share the same stadium and they did everything possible to make the ground suitable for League football, including segregation of home and away supporters.

However, City’s hard core of 5,000 regular supporters would have none of it. There was insufficient covered accommodation, the ground was cold, windy and generally inhospitable in winter and the pitch was often criticised by visiting managers – notably Brian Clough when he brought his Nottingham Forest team to play a League Cup game there. Forest won 5-0, but he still complained!

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It just wasn’t home for the City fans as Valley Parade was and always would be and so the club began the task of finding enough money to re-develop the fire-wrecked ground. It proved to be far from easy, but, helped by the intervention of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council, due to be disbanded, contributed £1.5million, Bradford City themselves found £650,000 and the Football Grounds Improvement Trust made up the rest.

So, just over a year after the fire, work started on the £2.6million ground re-development and the six months contract, overseen by director Jack Tordoff, now City’s life president, was completed on time with the contractor working overtime and sometimes through the night to make sure the ground was ready for the big day.

The scene that greeted City supporters that December afternoon was unrecognisable from the old Valley Parade. The club had discussed whether they could have covered the Spion Kop since the 1930s. Now, here at last was a new kop stand accommodating 7,000 – all standing in those days –and a 5,000 capacity main stand. The Bradford End and Midland Road stands remained much the same, but the contractors did considerable work to strengthen the foundations on the Midland Road side of the ground, which had caused so many problems down the years.

Of course, there would be further ground developments at Valley Parade in subsequent years – new stands at the Bradford End in 1991 and on the Midland Road side in 1996 and major expansions in the main stand and kop stand in their second Premier League season 2000/011 to give us the 25,000 all-seater stadium we have today.

However, in December 1986, City supporters were enjoying the best facilities the club had ever had albeit in the wake of dreadful tragedy. And the players who turned out that afternoon produced a genuine match worthy of the occasion.

City had played on Friday night, losing 3-1 in their last match against West Bromwich Albion in front of a crowd of 4,580 on a windy night at Odsal, but most of the England players had been in action the previous afternoon. I particularly remember that goalkeeper Peter Shilton travelled from Southampton where he had played for his club on the Saturday to be at Valley Parade.

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The big surprise was the presence in the England side of Kevin Keegan. Keegan had gone to live in Spain, but City chairman Stafford Heginbotham decided he wanted to surprise everyone with a ‘big name’ player. So, he arranged for Keegan to fly to Manchester and he picked him up and drove him to Valley Parade in time for the 2pm kick off.

And so to the match; Don Goodman gave City the lead and the Bantams created so much pressure that Keegan twice had to kick the ball off the line to prevent them from increasing their lead. Paul Mariner equalised in the 79th minute before Mark Leonard scored the winner with a shot from the edge of the box two minutes from the end.

Some interesting points about the City team: player manager and former England international Trevor Cherry, who had retired through injury, appeared for both teams – he was to lose his job three weeks later – while Peter Jackson and Bobby Campbell, who had been transferred to Newcastle United and Wigan Athletic respectively earlier in the season, both returned to play.

The teams for the memorable re-opening day at Valley Parade were – Bradford City: Peter Litchfield, Dave Evans, Trevor Cherry (Chris Withe 14), Stuart McCall, Peter Jackson (Tony Clegg), Gavin Oliver, John Hendrie, Leigh Palin (Terry Yorath 80), Bobby Campbell (Mark Leonard 45), Don Goodman (Ian Ormondroyd 71), Greg Abbott (Mark Ellis 45).

Bobby Robson’s England team: Peter Shilton, Ian Snodin (Trevor Cherry 80), Steve Hodge, Peter Reid, Derek Mountfield, Alvin Martin (Terry Fenwick 45), Kevin Keegan, Neil Webb, Cyrille Regis (Frank Worthington 73), Tony Cottee (Paul Mariner 55), Franz Carr.

Referee: Neil Midgley (Bolton)