English Football’s Forgotten Tragedy: The Valley Parade Fire Revisited
When the Bradford City team takes to the pitch on Sunday afternoon for the 2013 League Cup final, there will be many for whom thoughts turn to the horrific events that unfolded on the eleventh of May 1985. Tonight, on the eve of a match that surely no-one could have seen at the start of this season, we take a look back at that day, the events that led up to it and the aftermath of a disaster that claimed fifty-six lives.
Perhaps it was because it was dwarfed by or the Heysel Stadium disaster, which came just two and a half weeks after it, and by Hillsborough, which followed just four years later and began a quest for truth and justice which remains only half. Perhaps it was just because it occurred at a match between two of English football’s less glamorous clubs. Perhaps, just perhaps, it was because there was an implicit understanding amongst many that something like this was bound to happen at one of the decaying, rotten football grounds of England in the fullness of time. Whatever the reasons for it may be, Bradford fire feels like one of British football’s more concealed tragedies. Yet the events of Valley Parade on the eleventh of May 1985 marked the first major loss of life at a football ground in this country in fourteen years (and the first in England in thirty-nine years) and perhaps the beginning of a series of events which culminated in where we find ourselves today in terms of stadium safety and design.
For those amongst us too young to remember that time it may require something of a leap of imagination, but the simple fact of the matter is that few of the homes of English football clubs were anything like what would be described, by modern standards, as “safe” in the early 1980s. You can count on the fingers of both hands the number of new stands that had been built in the decade prior to 1985, and no team had moved into a new stadium in thirty years. The only significant development in crowd control in that thirty year period were the fences that went up around the pitches, which turned them from arenas which people attended as a recreational activity into something more like prisons. Supporters went to matches every Saturday in the belief that “they” (whether it be the authorities, the police, the government or the St Johns Ambulance people) had some sort of plan if everything went wrong. It turned out, however, that they didn’t and perhaps the biggest irony of the Bradford fire was that, at the end of a season that had been pock-marked by some dreadful scenes of hooliganism on what felt at the time like a weekly basis, the first major disaster in English football in almost three decades to claim lives didn’t come about because of the actions of supporters as a collective group but as a result of a state of negligence which was by no means unique to Bradford City and had been allowed to fester by a complicit cabal which included the game’s authorities, local councils and clubs themselves.
On the 11th of May 1985, there was something of a party atmosphere around Valley Parade. Bradford had been crowned the Third Division champions a few days beforehand, and their captain, Peter Jackson, was prevented with the trophy before the kick-off. The crowd of a shade over 11,000 people was their best of the season, and more than double their average for the season. The match itself seemed to be taking second place to the celebrations. Just before half-time, though, Yorkshire Television commentator John Helm spotted smoke coming from one end of the stand. Within minutes, the stand’s bitumen and tar roof had caught fire, and the whole construction had become engulfed in a flash fire. Many of the crowd had already come onto the pitch, several of them on fire. The majority of deaths came at the back of the stand, where fans had rushed for the fire exits, only to find them locked to prevent people without tickets from getting into the ground in the first place. Fifty-six people – fifty-four Bradford City supporters and two Lincoln City supporters – died.
The resultant inquiry determined that the cause of the fire had been a cigarette, discarded into a polystyrene cup, which had fallen between wooden floorboards which had shrunk with age and ignited years of accumulated rubbish below. The area below the stand hadn’t been cleared for years – a peanut packet with a pre-decimal price on it (dating it, by definition, as coming from prior to the start of 1971) and a newspaper from 1968 were found unburnt amongst the ashes afterwards, meaning that the stand had effectively been a massive bonfire waiting for someone to light it for decades. It’s important to iterate at this point that Bradford City were not especially negligent in this respect, by the standards of the time. Clubs, and in particular lower division clubs, simply didn’t have the money or the will to spend money on this sort of thing when every season was a battle simply to keep afloat. One of the saddest ironies of the Bradford fire is that the club already knew that there were issues with the Main Stand’s safety (the accumulation of rubbish was noted by the writer Simon Inglis in his 1983 book, The Football Grounds Of England And Wales), and were set to do something about it. The steel for a new roof was already behind the stand that caught fire on the day, and work was due to commence on it just two days later.
The effect on British football was widespread, even though the media’s attention was diverted by the Heysel disaster a couple of weeks later. Prior to the Bradford disaster, football grounds in Britain had, from a safety perspective, been governed by the Safety of Sports Grounds Act of 1975, which that determined that football grounds would have to be “designated,” meaning that they would be subject to licencing conditions covered by a document called the “Green Code.” The problem with this law was in the holes that were contained within it. When first introduced, it only applied to clubs in the English First Division and the Scottish Premier League with a capacity of over 10,000, and it was extended in 1979 to cover the clubs of the English Second Division. By 1983, fifty clubs in the Football League – the forty-four in the top two divisions and six in the bottom two divisions that had been relegated since the introduction of the act – had safety certificates, but further expansion of this was fiercely resisted by clubs themselves, and by May 1985 the process of expanding the licencing scheme had stalled.
Valley Parade was not licenced by this time. In 1983, chairman Stafford Heginbotham had rescued the club from receivership after it collapsed with debts of £375,000, and there was little spare money to spend on ground improvements. The club had, it later emerged, first been warned about the accumulation of litter under the stand in 1980 after a visit from the Health & Safety Executive of West Yorkshire County Council, when an inspector recommended that the gaps between the seats be blocked off. However, as the club was not in the First or Second Division of the Football League, the club was not legally required to see these changes through and the council had no authority to make them carry them out. A further inspection of the ground carried out in 1984 because the club was looking to make a claim to the Football Foundation for funding for ground improvements repeated the warning, but again the warnings were not followed up. In January 1985 the club received its funding from the Football Foundation and two months later it took delivery of the materials to start work on the Main Stand. Work was due to start on the thirteenth of May 1985. Two days too late, as things turned out.
After the tragedy, of course, the government acted and in August 1985 the provisions of the act were finally extended to the the remainder of the clubs of the Football League with a capacity of over 10,000, with predictable results – by the following year, only Torquay United of the ninety-two clubs of the Football League and a handful of clubs in the lower divisions of the Scottish Football League remained exempt, on account of their size. At a time when crowds were at their lowest in decades, small clubs were faced with the prospect of expensive repairs or closing off stands or terraces which didn’t pass muster. Across the country, clubs found that they failed the test. Two stands at Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Molineux were closed, and this was far from the only club to fall foul of the tighter regulation. By the start of the 1985/86 season, twenty-seven clubs had stands or terraces closed and their capacities reduced. At least fifteen had at least one end or side of their ground completely closed off. Bradford City themselves, meanwhile, played the following season in relative exile, playing at Leeds United’s Elland Road and Huddersfield Town’s Leeds Road before finding lodgings at Odsal Stadium (the home of Bradford RLFC) before returning to a rebuilt Valley Parade in December of 1986.
Whilst it would be Hillsborough that would provide the spur for the big clubs to rebuild, but smaller clubs were forced to drag their facilities some way towards modernity by the fire at Valley Parade. Scunthorpe United left The Old Show Ground for Glanford Park in 1988 and Walsall left Fellows Park for The Bescot Stadium two years later. Astonishingly, these two clubs were the first to build themselves a new home since Southend United moved into Roots Hall thirty-three years earlier. Yet for all this talk of the rules and regulations, of the broad, sweeping statements about the state of the game at the time, the true tragedy of the Bradford fire was a very human one. This was the story of fifty-six people, the youngest of which were just eleven years old and the oldest of which was eighty-six years old, who perished in the simple act of watching a football match. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. It is the story of more than two hundred and fifty people that were injured, and of others there that day, who pulled people to safety, and of many thousands more who were there that day who have lived with what they witnessed. And surely if those that died that day could wish for anything, it would be for their team to do them proud, and for the Bradford City support of 2013 to have a day that they will never forget. They meet once a year at Bradford City hall on the eleventh of May, to mourn and remember those lost that day. This weekend, amid the hyperreal atmosphere of a cup final at Wembley, they should be remembered by all of us.
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