“Soccer attracts more hackneyed hyperbole than most sports. We talk about “tragedy” when we mean “disappointment” and “disaster” when we mean “defeat”. When real tragedy and disaster occur, we tend to be stuck for the rights words.” Those words, written by David Lacey of the Guardian a quarter of a century ago, ring as true today as they did when they were written in the aftermath of the Bradford fire of 1985. That the loudest criticism this week of the relatives of those that were killed just over four years after the Bradford fire at Hillsborough should come from Sir Oliver Popplewell, the former judge that led the inquiry into it, is a grim irony for the relatives of those that were killed on the death-trap terraces in 1989 that he should have been their most vociferous critic this week.
Popplewell’s open letter to The Times will only have reinforced the belief of the survivors and the relatives of the victims of those that died that day that the establishment is incapable of understanding their pain. “The citizens of Bradford behaved with quiet dignity and great courage.”, he wrote. “They did not harbour conspiracy theories. They did not seek endless further inquiries. They buried their dead, comforted the bereaved and succoured the injured. They organised a sensible compensation scheme and moved on. Is there, perhaps, a lesson there for the Hillsborough campaigners?” Quite aside from the small matter of the implication that the people of Liverpool may not have “comforted the bereaved” or “succoured the injured”, Mr Popplewell may wish consider the question of why the relatives and survivors of that day have been unable to find the closure that they seek, but his letter seemed to indicate that he hadn’t put a great deal of thought into that at all.
Popplewell’s inquiry into the Bradford fire was a most curious work, the product of a different age – one in which containment rather than comfort was the aim of those hosting football matches. It concluded that the fire, which killed fifty-six people, was started by a discarded cigarette or lighted match falling through gaps in timber floorboards (which were likely caused by the shrinkage of old timber) and igniting years worth of litter which had accumulated under the seating area. It took just five minutes from the first sign of fire for the stand to become completely conflagrated, and its speed was determined by the it spreading along the roof, which was wooden, covered in tarpaulin and sealed with bitumen and asphalt. Fire extinguishers were not present because they were considered at risk from vandalism and exit through the back of the stand was impossible because six exits at the back of the stand were boarded up and the turnstiles had been closed and locked. Of those that died, fifty-one of the bodies found in the stand were too badly charred to be identifiable without forensic evidence.
Those responsible for Valley Parade that day, however, were never found culpable by his report. It took private action by the relatives of the victims of the fire to bring those responsible to some sort of justice and Bradford City and the local council were both found guilty of negligence, in having allowed a build-up of litter below the stand and not cleared it, in spite of having repeated explicit written warnings that this was a fire hazard. Indeed, Popplewell concluded that his task was “not to allocate blame” and stated that the fire was not started “by malicious means”. Even allowing for the fact that it was not literally within his remit at the time, though, to not allocate blame feels like a serious oversight. Ultimately, the Main Stand at Valley Parade that day failed the Green Code as defined by The (at the time current) Safety of Sports Grounds Act 1975. This made provision for fines of up to £2,000 or imprisonment for those found responsible for breaching it. Aston Villa, for example, were fined £500 for leaving an exit door locked, as was the case at Valley Parade on the eleventh of May 1985. The Green Code required that stands made of potentially combustible materials must be able to be fully evacuated in two and a half minutes. This, as was established to a disastrous and and tragic extent that day, was not possible.
Popplewell’s letter also claimed that there was a “sensible compensation scheme” for the families of those that were killed or injured in the file, but his memory is playing tricks on him over this. A charity appeal organised after the fire raised £4m (£15m by today’s standards), but there was no official compensation scheme for the victims. The people of Bradford showed admirable stoicism in dealing with their tragedy, but the cause of the fire at Valley Parade was immediately obvious, whereas the events of the fifteenth of April 1989 have been shrouded in innuendo and thinly-veiled accusations that those that were killed were somehow responsible for their own deaths. People grieve in different ways, and there is no “right” or “wrong” in terms of how they deal with their losses. To compare the two is an act of disingenuity on Popplewell’s part, and that someone so close to the heart of the establishment – and someone that led an enquiry into safety at sports grounds – should see fit, not only to hold the opinions that he does but also to choose to make them public through a national newspaper, can only fuel what he himself dismissively describes as “conspiracy theories”, but which other amongst us might choose describe as the basic right to the truth and closure over the loss of loved ones.
Mr Justice Popplewell’s final report into the Bradford fire was published on the sixteenth of January 1986. Hansard reports that its publication was covered in parliament by the then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd. This parliamentary debate is very much a product of its time, and some of the comments made by members of parliament beggar belief. Consider, for example, the question asked by Nicolas Soames MP, then the member for Crawley: “Does my right honorable Friend agree that the conduct of the players in this case is regularly far from exemplary? They jump all over each other, they hug and kiss each other, and they fight each other. It is not conducive to good conduct on the terraces.” If this debate was the best that parliament could muster on the subject of safety and crowd control at football matches, it is perhaps unsurprising that, less than four years after fifty-six people were killed at Valley Parade, ninety-six people were killed at Hillsborough.
That these were tragedies borne of a culture of neglect and an attitude towards safety which seemed to treat the well-being of football supporters as being close to a secondary matter is one of the most depressing aspects of looking back at football during the 1980s. Indeed, reviewing these documents, what stands out more than anything else is how the little the question of why the families of over one hundred and fifty people should have to go through the ordeal of identifying the corpses of loved ones who paid for going to watch a sporting event with their lives. These are the matters that the Bradford fire and Hillsborough have in common – not perceived rights or wrongs of how to cope with grief or how to get closure over the most traumatising life event that it is possible to experience. Interviewed by the Guardian this week, one of the survivors of the Bradford fire, Mike Fletcher, commented that, “Rather than lecture the Hillsborough families not to ask questions, the judge should ask himself why, after a disaster caused by a negligent approach to safety at football, despite his report, standards in football were allowed to remain so lamentably poor that another disaster happened at Hillsborough just four years later”, and that is the true tragedy of both Valley Parade and Hillsborough.
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