By Jason McKeown
I’ve been writing about Bradford City for over 11 years. In that time, I have produced countless articles about players, managers, chairmen, matches, the stadium, finances, football kits, the training ground, and about the general supporting of a football club.
There is one major topic, however, that I could count on one hand the number of times I have written about.
The Valley Parade Fire Disaster of 1985 was before my time. I was only three-years-old when it happened, and I was living in Wales. I have never felt it is my place to comment on such terrible events, even though like most City fans I feel and appreciate the pain and heartache it has left on the Bradford City community that I am a part of.
I have watched TV programmes and read books about the tragedy, and each year I bow my head, alongside thousands of other City supporters, as part of a minute’s silence at the final home game of the season. As editor of a high profile Bradford City website, I’m conscious that Width of a Post has a part to play in making sure these events are never forgotten.
And for the most part, the way in which we supporters remember 11 May 1985 is still very insular. When three years ago I co-wrote a series of articles about spending time with the late Archie Christie, one of a number of criticisms we received was the fact the then-Head of Football Operations had spoken about the Fire Disaster during his interview. The inference was that Archie – very much viewed as an outsider – should not have a view on this subject. It is an understandable viewpoint, because to those who were there that May 1985 day, or who lost someone there that day, or who had their life affected by what happened that day, the rawness of the pain they feel should never be underestimated or forgotten.
Their feelings must always come first.
But yet things are changing, and over the last few years there has been an agenda from many City supporters to be more extroverted in how the Fire is remembered. It began with chants about “the 56” at games, and grew into a giant flag at Wembley stadium for the League Cup Final. And a sense of indignation has been increasingly heard from these people – indignation that the rest of football doesn’t remember Valley Parade like they do the Hillsborough disaster. That they don’t bow their heads alongside us.
The 2014 anniversary coincided with the final day of the Premier League season, and there was outrage from some that a minute’s silence was not held in the top flight stadiums. This is despite the fact other clubs have never have done so before, nor has it ever been asked of them.
Next year – the 30th anniversary of the tragedy – will be different. The FA has already announced that every ground in the country will hold a minute’s silence to mark the terrible events. And in doing so, the conversation will become a national one. There are many people within Bradford who are delighted by this, but others have reservations. Because taking the conversation nationally is to lose control of its direction.
Which brings us onto an article that appeared in the Guardian this weekend, by lead football journalist Daniel Taylor. In what looked set to be a heartfelt piece, Daniel shared the story of his school friend, Martin Fletcher, who was a City fan and present in the Valley Parade main stand on the fateful day.
Martin was dragged out of the stand as the flames spread, but his brother, father, grandfather and uncle were not so lucky. He was traumatised for years after (Daniel wrote: “On a geography field trip six years later we were woken most nights by the screams of his nightmares”). In his Nottingham school Martin was cruelly taunted by classmates over the damage the fire had done to his face. And incredibly, in 1989 he was at Hillsborough to see his adopted team, Nottingham Forest, in their FA Cup semi final with Liverpool; which provided him a close-up view of yet another tragedy.
It is a horrible story to read, but brave of Martin to share it. Unfortunately, other elements of Daniel Taylor’s article have overshadowed the survivor’s tale, as the journalist adopted a critical stance on Bradford City’s then-owners, the way in which the club initially failed to adequately mark the tragedy, and the introverted manner it was remembered by the Bradford City community. Perhaps most damaging of all is an allegation that then-Chairman Stafford Heginbotham, and later Jack Tordoff, made a six-figure profit from the disaster, due to a surplus of public money that they received to rebuild Valley Parade.
Taylor wrote on how the tragedy was remembered, “For a long time Bradford’s way of dealing with it was to clamp their jaw shut and stare ahead. Anniversaries would pass without even a mention in the programme. The team did not wear black armbands. There was no minute’s silence and the memorial outside Valley Parade did not go up until 2001, 16 years after the disaster. The club, for many years, did not even send anyone to the annual memorial service in Bradford’s Centenary Square.”
This article has caused a stir to say the least, with a number of angry City fans claiming there are inaccuracies over how the club remembers the 56 fans who lost their lives. That there has always been a memorial at Valley Parade. That black has always being worn within the kit and that a minute’s silence is held every year. Via Twitter, Daniel Taylor has robustly defended the facts he presented, and Martin himself has left a comment in the Guardian’s reader comment section to state that what his journalist friend has written was entirely true and accurate.
The story has continued on Tuesday with the intervention of a Telegraph & Argus article – very well written by Simon Parker – defending the way the Bradford community reacted to the terrible events. This was followed by a rather public – and very ugly – Twitter spat between the T&A sports editor Blake Richardson and Daniel Taylor.
To be critical of Daniel Taylor, the way he presented a couple of the facts was slightly misleading. He wrote that until 2001 there was no memorial at the ground, when in fact, as Martin stated, there was a memorial at the ground, but it was one that was not paid for by the club. Martin wrote, “The memorial sculpture at the ground was donated by Sylvia Graucob a Jersey based benefactor originally from Yorkshire – The club made no contribution to it at that time despite its £200,000 surplus – Often away fans who bought flowers/wreaths (as was reported at the time & I’ve been told since) would be surprised there was nowhere to put them other than on the Valley Parade pavement.” In 2001, Geoffrey Richmond and the council jointly funded the much-improved memorial that remains outside the Main Stand today.
Taylor also wrote that “The club, for many years, did not even send anyone to the annual memorial service in Bradford’s Centenary Square,” but it was later clarified that it was only up until 1992 that this was the case – which means that for 23 of the 29 annual memorial services which have been held since the disaster, the club has sent official representation. There was, it seems, a reluctance on the club’s behalf to do much in the initial years after the disaster, and this has been more than rectified since.
But the point is still valid. When I first started watching City in the late 1990s, there wasn’t a minute’s silence at final home game of the season – I remember some controversy about it at the time. The first time it occurred, when I was there, was in May 2000 when Liverpool came to town on the day of Premier League survival. Similarly, the original memorial was not one that was immediately obvious as being something to mark the 11 May 1985 – it didn’t, for example, list the names of the 56 supporters who lost their lives.
As for the claim that black has always featured in Bradford City kits in memory of the tragedy, in 2011 Mark Lawn told me this was not the case, saying, “To clarify everything there never was and never has been anything on the football kit for the fire. The fact that there was black on was that there was black on it and it was a fishwife’s tale and blah, blah why we did it…the commemorative ribbon has always been claret, never black.”
The point is that the Bradford City community did not used to recognise the Valley Parade Fire to the level it does now. I don’t personally think it’s entirely fair to look back retrospectively and criticise this, nor is it black and white to question why no one was made accountable for the tragedy. Britain has changed, and culturally things are very different.
If the Fire had taken place in 2014, the recriminations would be greater than they were back then – we live in a society where people are brought to book. Similarly, in this social media-driven world, public outpourings of grief are not only expected but encouraged. Witness the recent coverage of Australian cricketer Philip Hughes.
It is difficult and perhaps unfair to judge the past through the lens of today. To apply standards and decorum of 2014 to 1985. But equally, if we are asking the football world to bow their heads with us on the thirtieth anniversary next May, we want it to be meaningful rather than a tick box exercise.
You want people to know and understand what happened, and to appreciate that safer football stadiums, up and down the country, are the result of lessons learned from such horrific events at Valley Parade and Hillsborough. But doing so opens up the likelihood that people will look at these events and form their own judgements – judgements that may be ignorant, incorrect or misleading (not that Daniel Taylor is guilty of this). Just look at the horrible lies that the families of the Hillsborough victims have fought so hard to undo.
Bradford closed ranks in 1985, and for a long time has kept the way it remembered the Fire a low key, very personal affair. Culturally, this has changed now and there is no doubt that the thirtieth anniversary is going to be a major media affair. (Surely the memorial service will be moved from Centenary Square to Valley Parade, in view of the likely huge turnout?) I don’t know if this is entirely a good thing, but I do know that the priority should remain unchanged to the one in the early years after the Fire: the people of Bradford, and specifically the people who were affected by what happened that day, are the people who matter first and foremost.
That includes Martin. His perspective might be very different to others involved in that tragic day, given he moved away from the area, but he deserves to have his say and he should be welcomed for saying it. It might not be what everyone wants to hear, it might not be a representation of the wider feelings from the survivors, but it is straight for the heart. And as it forms the heart of Daniel’s piece, we should respect that.
Respect that, whilst noting that the upset of others in response highlights that there are a wide range of viewpoints that must equally be respected.
There was an initial perception that Daniel Taylor had produced a lazy article without checking the facts – but his robust defence demonstrates that this is anything but. He has done his homework, and has provided evidence to support his claims. Instead, it comes down to an interpretation of those facts. It is clearly not an interpretation that is to everyone’s taste, and has understandably upset a lot of people.
Ultimately, it is unfortunate that what is so negatively judged is the reaction to 1985 during the immediate years after, when the pain was at its rawest. Perhaps the club were wrong to not hold a minute’s silence for the first few years, and to “clamp the jaw shut” in an attempt to forget it, but none of us who weren’t part of those events can possibly understand just how those who were must have felt in the aftermath of such a dreadful disaster, and we simply don’t know how we ourselves would have reacted. How can we therefore judge their actions?
In 1985, it appears that the focus was about remembering the survivors, and what was best for helping them recover from such a horrific experience. I have heard stories from survivors, and of survivors, and these stories are of people who had nervous breakdowns or who could never work again or who felt guilty that they survived whilst others were less fortunate. I cannot image how much support these people needed (and in some cases even now still need) and I just hope they all got it.
The most important thing is that the Fire – and the 56 people who lost their lives – is now very well remembered, and will certainly never be forgotten. It is a deep part of the fabric of supporting Bradford City, and has left a heavy imprint on the community around it. Perhaps we all now need to take a step back and reflect on this, before something that should bring everybody together threatens to drive us apart.