It’s difficult to know where to begin with all of this, of course. At first, the headlines can only make one’s stomach turn. The Valley Parade of May 1985, which claimed the lives of fifty-six football supporters from two football clubs, already occupies a particularly dark place in the history of professional football in England and the mere possibility that it might have been anything whatsoever more than a horrible and tragic accident is enough to make most of us recoil from the horror of it all. But the allegations that have been alluded to over the course of the last twenty-four hours or so are extremely grave, and will surely now be addressed in some official capacity or other.
Much of what has been said over the last few hours or so has been tinged with a sense of disbelief, but it is important to bear in mind that some sort of perspective is retained over the story that has emerged this week. The author of the book and the centre of attention of the whole story, Martin Fletcher, was present that day and, whilst he managed to escape the fire himself, he lost four family members that day. He has long held misgivings over the outcome of the investigation into the tragedy and his forthcoming book may be considered the culmination of those years of doubt and sense of injustice. It would certainly seem to be extremely unfair to criticise Fletcher for releasing the book considering what he has been through, especially if the allegation that he is “profiteering” from it.
This week’s story centres around the club’s chairman at that time, Stafford Heginbotham, and the fact that Heginbotham, who died in 1995, was linked to nine fires at businesses that he owned in the Bradford area over the course of the two decades prior to May 1985. Whilst Fletcher leaves the not inconsiderable matter of the specifics of the Valley Parade fire open ended rather pointing any definite fingers, but it is clear that he believes that the version of the events of the 11th May 1985 that has become common currency over the course of the intervening three decades – that a lit cigarette fell between gaps in wooden floorboards in the main stand and ignited an accumulation of rubbish that had built up over the years prior to the incident – and with the speed with which the subsequent investigation reached its conclusions over what happened that day.
Our reflex reaction may well be to assume that all of this is too much of a coincidence to not have some element of truth behind it, but the fact remains that correlation should not always imply causation, that to allege, whether implicitly or explicitly, that the deaths of fifty-six people might have been financially motivated is an extremely serious allegation to make and that, without considerably weightier evidence to suggest that something improper was behind the deaths of those people, we should not leap to conclusions over events that occurred three decades ago that will be, either one way or the other, extremely difficult to definitively prove.
To say that this story might not necessarily have been a surprise to everybody in the Bradford, however, does not feel wide of the mark. In this interview from 1986, Heginbotham himself gives himself what might be interpreted as an unusual answer to questions concerning, and this film also shows graffiti from the time that also hints at Heginbotham’s culpability over the events surrounding the fire, and it’s clear that he had a less than spotless reputation even at that time. This, however, is not proof of the allegations that have been implied by this week’s revelations of itself. Something more than mere inference will be required if this alternative explanation of what happened that day is to become anything more substantial than a theory.
None of this, however, is to say that the implied allegations made this week shouldn’t deserve further scrutiny, and still less that Heginbotham’s legacy with regard to his tenure as owner of the club shouldn’t also be reconsidered. The original inquiry into the disaster wasn’t without its flaws, and the comments this morning from Oliver Popplewell, who chaired it, that the claims were “nonsense” feel all the more unhelpful for the fact that Popplewell was similarly critical of the families of those who died at Hillsborough in 1989 before the full extent of what happened at that disaster started to become apparent.
Indeed, if anything, Popplewell’s comments – which effectively boil down to a belief that anybody with the temerity to question the establishment’s conclusions over such disasters should shut up and respect their elders – only strengthen the argument that this case does need to be investigated again. The families of those who died at Hillsborough could well have put up and shut up. But they didn’t, and any manner of details about that day that were not public knowledge several years ago certainly are now. The biggest significant difference between the aftermath of the disasters at Valley Parade and Hillsborough was that, in the case of what happened at Valley Parade, those who died weren’t effectively blamed by the media for their fate, but this isn’t a justification in itself for not reopening this case if it is found that more than negligence was to play at Bradford.
The period up to the end of the end of the 1980s might certainly be defined as a culture of negligence in terms of spectator safety at football grounds in Britain, and the original inquiry did apportion blame in the direction of Bradford City and the authorities for not even enforcing the relatively weak guidelines that were in place at the time. Why did a man who had repeatedly been involved in serious fire-related incidents in the past not take more notice of an accumulation of litter at Valley Parade that was easily identifiable as a fire hazard? Why was the original inquiry into the disaster resolved so quickly? Why was Popplewell only “hunting the facts, not deciding who’s to blame?” It is, of course, to be hoped that the suspicions raised this week do not hang too heavily over the the thirtieth anniversary of the tragedy, which takes place in three and a half weeks time, but if questions need to be answered, then they should be answered. Martin Fletcher’s ultimate question – “Could any man really be as unlucky as Heginbotham had been?” – deserves a complete and final answer, for the sake of all of those who died whilst doing nothing more than watching a football match on the eleventh of May 1985.
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