By James Pieslak
Thirty years represents the vast majority of my life, yet somehow May 11 1985 still feels like yesterday. Pick any other date from that year and nothing of note springs to mind. There are moments I can pick out, but they are only fleeting. I can’t remember sequences of events, not even from my birthday or Christmas.
That’s normal I guess. All sorts of moments in life fly by and the details scurry away. Riding a bike for the first time, my first scout camp, graduating from university, becoming an uncle, proposing to my wife, holding my sons for the first time? The details are a blur. You don’t stop to think about them do you? Caught in the moment. Well, the same should apply to that day thirty years ago. I certainly didn’t stop to capture the details, yet somehow they stuck.
A chilly day and a packed crowd. A souvenir programme tucked into my cagoule pocket. Scenes of celebration. A boring game. A funny smell. Unrest turning to unease. Smoke. Being on the pitch. Fire. Fleeing. Fear. Terror. My little ray of light.
I’m terribly lucky. The memories don’t pop into my head every day like they do for some. At this time of year they announce themselves on a regular basis, but I’ve learned to live with them. I withdraw into myself a little. I am a little quieter than usual. I’m also prouder. So much was destroyed on May 11 1985, but amongst that destruction something small and personal was built. My own little ray of light amongst the horror. That ray of light means a lot to me.
Compared to so many, my experiences of what happened are uneventful. Anyone who has read Paul Firth’s book, ‘Four Minutes to Hell’, will know about many of the tragic, heart-breaking and heroic events that took place at Valley Parade on that day and beyond. Martin Fletcher’s book, although controversial, tells a shattering story that is well beyond my comprehension.
My experiences are nothing like those. They are simply those of a fleeing onlooker. For a few hours I presumed my experiences were the same as everyone else there that day, until I overheard a news report that mentioned fatalities. People had died and I could not comprehend it, I’m still not sure that I can.
Saturday May 11, 1985
It was my fifth or sixth Bradford City game. The fact I went to Valley Parade and not to Leeds United was down to the success that City had enjoyed that title-winning season. In his youth my Dad had been a big Leeds fan, but having children meant that his attention gradually turned away from Elland Road to other things in life. He never went back there other than as a fan of Bradford City.
He took me to Valley Parade in 1985 because as he puts it: “You were showing an interest in football, City were doing well, and it seemed a good family club compared to Leeds who had a hooligan problem at the time.”
Events at Odsal against Leeds, just one season after the fire, brought that to life when hooligans in the Leeds end decided to riot and set fire to a chip van. After that day at Odsal, I’d had enough. Fire petrified me. I thought it was coming for me. At Odsal I remember thinking we were doomed and I said to my Dad “I don’t want to watch football anymore”. Thankfully he talked me out of it but he said it broke his heart to hear. Any remaining soft spot for his boyhood team was wiped out there and then for life.
Back to May 11, and Dad wanted to take us into the main stand as a treat, because City were celebrating winning the league and were due to receive the Championship trophy before they played Lincoln City.
Until that game we had always stood in the open-terraced kop, a totally different animal to the towering structure you see today. It would probably be closed to the public if it existed today. The main stand certainly would.
Football stadia were very different in the 80’s. Back then the kop was simply crumbling terracing, with a floodlight rising out of the floor. We’d navigate that floodlight to our regular spot near the front, in the corner next to the main stand. From there we could watch John Hendrie whipping crosses and corners in. I’d taken to Hendrie and Stuart McCall, and they were my very first boyhood idols. Bradford City was seeping its way into the blood slowly but surely.
We arrived at the ground late, with every intention of going into the main stand. Whether we were simply running late or the traffic was bad we cannot remember. But with only a few minutes until kick off my Dad tells me the queues for the main stand were huge and so we took a simple decision. Who knew that five simple words, ‘let’s go in the kop’ could be so significant? I still don’t like to sit anywhere else in the ground to this day.
From then on until just before half time my memories are of the team coming out and holding up signs saying ‘Thank You Fans’, the dancing majorettes, and an awareness that the game was boring. At about 15:39pm it was typical end of season stuff with a party to follow. I was probably pestering Dad to go get some crisps. Then everything changed forever.
I smelt it before most people around me. I’ll always remember, as clear as day, looking up and saying, “Dad, I can smell burning.” His reply is vivid, “It’s probably a tyre factory that has caught fire or something.” A couple of blokes nearby looked amused by my imagination. I felt a bit daft.
No doubt bored by the game and curious about the smell, I cast my eyes to where it seemed to be coming from – the main stand. Things weren’t right. People were moving about hurriedly within the gloom of the old structure. A flat surface in between the terracing of the kop and the main stand, possibly the roof of a tea bar which was normally empty, was occupied by people. I remember chants referring to fire and burning coming from that direction. Nobody knew what was coming.
At around this point I saw it. Not from a tyre factory but curling out of the side of the stand no more than about 20 yards away from us. Smoke.
Dad had obviously seen it too because suddenly I was being yanked to the front of the kop, and hauled onto the wall separating the kop from the pitch. From there a police officer plucked me down. “Are they going to be OK?” I asked him, looking up at what was developing in that stand. “They’ll be fine young’un,” was his well-intentioned lie.
Here my memory really lets me down. It captured everything that I wish it hadn’t. A feeling of amazement that I was on the pitch, where only footballers tread. A malevolent glowing flicker. People running. Dad frogmarching me towards the Midland Road. “Don’t look back.” I did look back. Silly boy. I’ll leave what I saw to me and my memory.
Dad says all he wanted was get us out of there. Him and another man kicked down a red door at the back of the Midland Road so that we could escape. The relief that we weren’t in the ground where the fire could come and get us was huge. I saw enough that day, but thanks to Dad I was spared the real horrors. I’ve never really said it properly but I think I owe Dad the most heartfelt thanks for that.
In the car, I remember smoke billowing from the direction of the ground. Thick dark plumes of the stuff stretching high into the sky. It felt like a thick pall of malice looming over the ground and the city, looking for its next target. It was absolutely terrifying and I started to get upset thinking the fire was still coming after us.
For years afterwards fire maintained that effect on me. I feared it wanted to get me personally. I felt it wanted to leap around corners, jump over obstacles, spread impossibly – like through football stands for crying out loud – just to get me.
At home Dad told my Mum and Sister what had happened, and then went off to the shop – for some space I imagine. My Grandma, Dad’s Mum, called when he was at the shop, in a panic, knowing we were at the game, “He’s out…” said Mum. A shriek came down the line, until Mum quickly jumped in and told them where he was… He’s gone to the shop. They’re home. They’re safe. They’re fine.
Completely different conversations were playing out that night. Conversations that I cannot begin to understand or grasp. Despair like I cannot begin to imagine. We were just there to celebrate…
Out of darkness
I was oblivious to much of the grieving and media reporting, sheltered from it by my family, but a personal little ray of light was quick to come out of what happened. The personal connection that I had formed with Bradford City became something so much stronger.
I had fallen into something that I knew was for life. It’s beyond football. It’s a proud sense of duty almost, and the tragedy definitely plays a part in it. Through supporting the club, I can keep that little light on and pay my own little tribute in my own little way. It’s very important to me.
I hope that similar little lights gradually switched on amongst the despair and grief. My Dad’s certainly did. Our dedication was total after that day. The scarf was out of our car window wherever we went. That connection hasn’t waned. It never will. As I sat with tears in my eyes when the third and fourth goals went in against Chelsea, it felt as perfect as it ever has supporting City and my little ray of light almost exploded with pride and joy. It was beautiful.
During such moments of elation a little bit of me always goes back to me and my Dad back in 1985. It goes back to everyone affected by what happened. I silently imagine that they’re all watching on, proud at the club we’ve become, and delighted at the moments that keep being served up.
There was fault that day and people were to blame. As I have tried to point out to certain parties, that doesn’t necessarily have to result in finger-wagging and new inquiries. The evidence in Lord Justice Popplewell’s report is there for all to see, and based on the evidence presented so far, a crusade to open up old wounds seems ill-timed, wrong, and self-serving.
Some of the reporting feels unbalanced and biased. One report headlined ‘New evidence casts more doubt on verdict Bradford fire was accident’ is actually evidence from 30 years ago and does little in the way of casting doubt about it being an ‘accident’ at all. Fault was accepted, steps were taken, and we have tried to move on.
As such, a lot has changed at the club since 1985. The stadium is unrecognisable as is the immediate area outside it. New legislation came in on the back of both the tragedy and Hillsborough a few years later, which effectively revolutionised the way we watch football at Valley Parade, and up and down the country. It’s safer, although some might call it overly sanitised.
On the pitch, we’ve hit the highest heights and seen the lowest of lows. Heroes and villains have come and gone. We’ve been in all four football leagues. Three Wembley trips. Much is the same at the club too. The fans, the humour, the expectations, the dashed expectations, the moaning, the elation, the remembrance.
Thirty years on, we are all preparing to remember in our usual dignified way, just like we do every year. I’ll be at the memorial with my family. My wife and two boys are coming for the first time. I’ll probably clutch them a little closer than usual. Dad and I will reminisce like we do from time to time. We still tell it to each other like we cannot believe it happened.
Then, like we always do, we’ll move onto talk of the things we’ve seen in life and at Bradford City since then. We will talk about my boys, work, family, life, health, holidays, City. Promotion, relegation, joy, heartache, despair, Premier league football, administration, a League Cup Final, and to add to the vault this year, a memorable cup run including that 4-2 victory.
You see, that is the best way that I like to remember and respect. By continuing to follow Bradford City and keeping this extremely special club close to my heart through all the changes, moves, ups and downs.
In doing so I’m paying my own little tribute, every single day, whilst being on this greatest of journeys with this unique club. All I’m doing is keeping my little ray of light shining bright. Somewhere, there are 56 other lights still shining bright too.