By Jason McKeown
At 11am this Sunday, a group of people will meet at Centenary Square, Bradford to commemorate the 29th anniversary of the Valley Parade fire disaster. On the 11 May 1985, 54 Bradford City supporters and two Lincoln fans lost their lives, after a fire engulfed the old wooden Main Stand during the first half of a Division Three match between the two clubs. Bradford City had been presented with the League Championship trophy before kick off, but a day of celebration quickly turned into a very dark and very traumatic afternoon. One of unimaginable tragedy.
29 years is a long time, and yet for many people affected by the Fire and/or at the ground that day, the pain remains just as large and significant. You often hear stories of people who have struggled to rebuild their lives after the trauma of what they saw, and too many families needlessly lost a loved one that will always leave a hole in their lives. It is absolutely right, and incredibly important, that Bradford City as a community pauses and reflects on 11 May every year, and the annual ceremony at Centenary Square will no doubt take place forever.
We will never forget.
29 years is a long time, and you only need to glance around Valley Parade on a match day to appreciate that there is now a sizeable generation of supporters who were not even born in 1985, or at least were too young to have any direct memories of the events themselves. I am one of these people. 32-years-old now, I was three when the Valley Parade disaster occurred and living in Wales. My family moved to West Yorkshire six months later.
Growing up (initially I had little interest in football) I was aware that something terrible once took place in a football stadium in Bradford, but even when I discovered this football club and immersed myself in its culture and heritage, back in the 1990s there were surprisingly few sources of reference to what actually took place on 11 May, 1985. Valley Parade itself had only a small memorial, housed above where the club shop is currently located, and it wasn’t particularly obvious what it was for.
That all changed post-millennium. The further rebuilding of the Main Stand saw the introduction of a proper memorial, and in 2004 Paul Firth released the excellent book ‘Four Minutes to Hell’, providing a harrowing account of what happened. A year later, Yorkshire TV produced a moving documentary. There is now a website dedicated to the tragedy, and – if you so wish, and it’s not something I would ever want to view – you can access video footage on Youtube. In 2010 – the 25th anniversary of the Fire – the BBC’s Football Focus dedicated an entire programme to the events. It was impeccably handled and a copy of the programme is still available online – a far better use of Youtube.
For the younger generation of Bradford City supporters (and I’d like to count myself in that group, even if 32 is pushing it to call yourself ‘young’), it can be difficult to quite know how to suitably recognise the terrible events that took place 29 years ago, of which we had no direct involvement. It is ingrained within Bradford City culture, and as such everyone recognises just how important it is to keep its memory alive, remember the 56, and respect the people affected by what happened. The traditional minute’s silence at the final home game of the season is always immaculately observed. And how magnificent a gesture it was, this year, when Crawley captain Josh Simpson laid down a wreath of flowers in memory, in front of the Kop.
Yet since 2010, there has also been a growing sense, from some, that not enough is done to recognise and remember the 56. It particularly manifested itself last season, where the League Cup miracle led to much debate about more public shows of remembrance. The giant flag on the Valley Parade pitch prior to the Crawley game had originally been produced to appear at Wembley for the final against Swansea. Within that game, there was an attempt to applaud throughout the 56th minute that was halted by Matt Duke’s unfortunate sending off. The chant ‘We will always remember the 56’, which was first aired at Crewe in May 2010 – a week after the 25th anniversary was marked at Valley Parade, with the Football Focus cameras and all – has been sung more and more frequently.
Some like all of this, others don’t. And it is a worry that, rather than bringing everyone together on something so incredibly important and emotive, there is in fact a growing divide about the way we remember the tragedy.
If anything it got worse this season, when the FA’s announcement to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster by making every match in England kick off seven minutes late brought an angry reaction from some City supporters. ‘Why is that disaster given more prominence?’ they yelled. I’ve no idea how to compare two utterly horrible events and not sure why they need to be. And for all the positive media coverage Hillsborough receives, there is plenty of negativity that comes with it all too. Frankly, too many people who know nothing directly of what happened at Hillsborough are full of ignorant opinions on what did.
From some, there is now an expectation that the FA must do something similar for next year, the 30th anniversary of the Valley Parade disaster. A petition is circulating, calling for all grounds to hold a minute’s silence in May 2015.
Grief is a very personal thing and it is not for me to dictate to others my own feelings, but I do wonder if it really matters how people who aren’t connected to either club remember something that is so painful to the communities of Bradford and Lincoln? The world of football, you would hope, will always be respectful towards these communities at this time of the year. But beyond that, it should not be our focus to force them into remembering it.
There is no doubt that the 30th anniversary is going to be a poignant occasion that will be deeply emotional for a lot of people, and my own view is to concentrate on what we – as a community – do ourselves to remember it. I have my own thoughts on how we might want to do so, but my personal opinion doesn’t matter in the grander scheme. Sunday – and next May 11 and every May 11 after that – is about the families of those who lost their lives; and about the people that witnessed the shocking events, who have been impacted by what happened in ways that the rest of us cannot even begin to imagine.
The conversation of how we should continue to remember the Valley Parade disaster should be led by these people. It is their wishes that should be acted upon. It is how they feel about the disaster, not others outside of the Bradford and Lincoln communities, that we should be worried about. Grief is not a contest with other football clubs, because frankly the prize is one that no one wants to claim.
When we bow our heads in silence at the final home game of the season and on May 11, we don’t do it to think about the rest of the world watching us, or about our own troubles. We do it to remember the 56 people who lost their lives, and the countless others who are scarred by what happened.
They are all that matter, and that must never change.