Perhaps it’s the extremely close proximity that it had to Heysel. Perhaps it was because it was dwarfed by Hillsborough, just four years later. Perhaps it was just because it occurred at a match between two of English football’s less glamorous, but the Bradford Fire feels like one of British football’s hidden tragedies. Yet the events of Valley Parade on the 11th of May 1985 were, effectively, the beginning of the series of events that culminated in where we are today.
You have to think very hard about it, but the simple fact of the matter is that the majority of English football stadia were unsafe 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 recreational arenas into something more like prisons. We 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 turns out that they didn’t. The irony was that the first major disaster in English football in thirty-odd years to claim lives didn’t come about because of the actions of the crowd, but because of a state of negligence which was by no means unique at Bradford City.
On the 11th of May, 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, a shade over 11,000, 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 TV 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 thing had become engulfed in a flash fire. Many of the crowd had already come onto the pitch, and several of them were 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. Fifty-six people died.
The resultant enquiry determined that the cause of the fire had been a cigarette, discarded into a polystyrene cup, which had fallen between the wooden floorboards and ignited years of accumulated rubbish below. The area below the stand hadn’t been cleared for years – a pre-decimalisation peanut packet and a newspaper from 1968 were found unburnt amongst the ashes afterwards – so the stand had effectively been a massive bonfire waiting for someone to light it for decades. It’s important to reiterate that Bradford City were not especially negligent in this respect. 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 City new that there was a problem (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. Stands across the country were closed for safety reasons (Wolves, for example, ended up with just one stand open at Molineux), and Bradford themselves played the next season at Odsal Stadium (the home of Bradford RFLC) before returning to a rebuilt Valley Parade at the end of 1986. It also seemed to have a profound effect on the visitors that day, Lincoln City. Two of their supporters were killed that day (Lincoln’s Sincil Bank stadium has The Stacey-West Stand named for them), and Lincoln went into a steep decline on the pitch – relegated from the Third Division the following season, they then became the first team to be automatically relegated from the Football League in 1987.
Whilst it would be Hillsborough that would provide the spur for the big clubs to rebuild, but smaller clubs were spurred by the Bradford Fire. Scunthorpe United left The Old Show Ground for Glanford Park, and Walsall left Fellowes Park for The Bescot Stadium. In many ways, the disaster was emblematic of the state of decay that English football was in by 1985. As if to underline the symbolism, a fourteen year-old was killed on the same day when a crumbling wall collapsed at St Andrews during fierce fighting between Birmingham City and Leeds United supporters. These are events that we should perhaps stop and think about when we feel the stab of disappointment that accompanies football’s false tragedies – the likes of losing cup finals and missing out on promotion.