By Paul Firth
A few weeks ago Sir Oliver Popplewell had a letter published in The Times. Mr Justice Popplewell, as he then was, conducted the 1985 enquiry into the causes of two football disasters. Both occurred on 11th May. Bradford City and Lincoln City fans remember one of those disasters only too well. I’m sure Birmingham City fans remember the other.
Sir Oliver’s letter followed one of the recent news stories about the deaths at Hillsborough in 1989. He made plenty of positive comments about Bradfordians, but his words provoked an immediate and sometimes angry response from those involved in the campaigns to have government and police papers released, in the hope of shedding more light on what happened that April day. The campaigners did not appreciate Sir Oliver’s suggestion that after 23 years the time had come to ‘move on’.
My phone started ringing quite early that morning. Radio and television interviewers wanted my reaction, not least because Sir Oliver had made a comparison with Bradford City fans. I did a number of interviews, live and pre-recorded, in all of which I emphasised the differences between the City fans and the Liverpool fans.
The biggest difference, as I saw it, was that we found out very quickly what had gone wrong. The club admitted not maintaining the stand properly. Apart from one reporter trying to make a name for himself, no one suggested that the fire was anything other than an accident, albeit a preventable accident. There were no suggestions of a cover up by anyone, no claims of drunken or ticketless fans and certainly no headlines from the tabloid press about stealing from or urinating on dying supporters.
There was one other very important difference between the two events. Bradford City were not playing Lincoln City in an F.A. Cup semi-final on national television. We were two ‘little clubs’ in the third division, with just 12,000 people in the ground. We had never been to the final of the European Cup, never won the League Championship, never been household names since 1911.
For the past seventeen years I have lived within a few miles of Anfield. Our local library, although not in Liverpool, is one of a number of buildings with a memorial for those who died in Sheffield. I hear a lot about what happened that day, most of the comment being about the failures of the South Yorkshire police and the attempts to hide those failures. Local newsagents still refuse to stock copies of that tabloid with the most lurid headlines.
Three years ago, on the twentieth anniversary of Hillsborough, Anfield was so full for the memorial service that it was decided to make future services ticket only and to restrict numbers to 10,000. Centenary Square will see only a tiny fraction of that number on Friday morning.
So, does that mean that Bradford’s disaster is forgotten? Well, not for some of us. On Saturday afternoon at three o’clock the lady in the seat in front of me had to ask if was alright. Except for the tears, I was fine – more or less. I will be similarly fine on Friday morning, unless I make yet another futile attempt to sing ‘Abide with me’, in which case I will not get past the first verse.
There are plenty more like me. Some of us remember how lucky we were to get out of that stand. Others remember the family and friends we lost that day. And others remember how some chance event took them somewhere else that day. There will be enough of us on Friday and we will each have our own personal memories.
One of the points I emphasised in those interviews was that ‘moving on’ is not the same as ‘forgetting’. Not by a very great distance. There have been plenty of days in the last 27 years when I have not given a thought to May 11th. Otherwise I might not have coped to the extent I have. But it only needs a smell of bitumen or a fire exit sign in a new building to bring it back.
Others deal with their memories and emotions in their own ways, but I guess what so many of us from that dreadful day have in common is that we are largely private and keep our thoughts to ourselves. Even the lady in front of me could hardly have known exactly why I was crying – but the young man at my side might have guessed.
Most of the time I too prefer to keep my thoughts to myself. Sometimes, as in this very article, I am asked for my thoughts, because I am the man who wrote ‘Four Minutes to Hell’ and I rarely refuse a request, because a request shows people do think about us. Even so, I will be relieved when Friday morning is over, especially if I avoid too many microphones. The events of May 11th and those who suffered are not forgotten. We remember in our own ways, in public when appropriate, in private more often. That is the extent of our ‘moving on’.