By John Dewhirst
The anniversary of the Valley Parade disaster of 11 May, 1985 has come to be defined by the number of fatalities, 56. There is no shortage of ‘commemorative’ items bearing the figure and for younger generations the disaster is all about the 54 supporters of Bradford City and the two from Lincoln who perished on that day. The t-shirts, sweatshirts, badges and computer images are all about the 56.
Yet the victims of the disaster were far in excess of 56 because the survivors from that day also suffered in different ways. There were those who incurred injuries from burns and those who had the trauma of having witnessed the events unfolding. Similarly, there was the guilt of many of those who otherwise escaped unscathed. So too the families of those caught up in the disaster were impacted.
The commemoration of the anniversary has been embraced by younger fans almost as a badge of honour for the club on a par with equivalent disasters in Munich or at Hillsborough. However, to overlook the experience of the survivors is to discourage a broader understanding of the Bradford disaster, its aftermath and how it helped shape the future of the club and the foundations of its modern revival in the past thirty years.
Immediately after the fire the priority was to look after the survivors and to achieve a return to normalcy. The summer of 1985 was about the victims who had survived, not the dead for whom nothing could be done aside from burying them.
The efforts of supporters, players and the people of Bradford – as well as those from across the UK – focused upon hospital visits and fund-raising for the survivors. A new supporters club was formed to help rebuild the club and The City Gent played its part in encouraging constructive support for the club. Surprisingly perhaps it was a time of positivity and energy, of determination to overcome and recover.
The bond that existed between players and supporters was quite unique and memorable for the shared conviction and common cause. The players for example made endless hospital visits in the aftermath as well as attending various funerals. So too the goodwill of other supporters from other clubs shall never be forgotten.
We all remember 11 May, 1985 in our own ways and it is impossible to convey to those were not there just what the experience was like. It is almost impossible to describe the heat of the fire and younger fans struggle to comprehend exactly how decrepit was the old stadium. My own thoughts revolve around the good fortune of not having been injured. The disaster was my earliest realisation that mortality can come unexpectedly and much sooner than you might think.
Of course we need to remember the fact that there were 56 needless and premature deaths. However, to overlook that there were survivors from that day is mistaken and it prevents an appreciation of how light emerged from the darkness of despair. In my opinion the memory of 11 May, 1985 is equally a celebration of the recovery of the football club as a local institution and of the social cohesion as people came together. It is not just about the mourning of the 56.
Maybe it is a generational issue, but I would feel far more comfortable if the disaster was remembered for more than just the 56 fatalities and I know that I am not alone to question the appropriateness of the various items sold that refer to the number. The commemoration of the disaster was always a dignified affair and it is notable that until around ten years ago there was no such thing as garments adorned with ‘56’ – something which has become for many a de facto club totem.
The shifting emphasis just doesn’t feel right even though it has to be a big part of the disaster narrative. Ultimately it is the younger generation who will inherit and determine the form of future commemorations and I would hope that it remains dignified and respectful of earlier practice. In that regard I am afraid that I find the clapping on the 56th minute inappropriate and the seeming obligation to have to partake.
Thirty years ago the general consensus was that the memory of the dead was best preserved through the rebuilding of Valley Parade and for Bradford City AFC to sustain itself at a higher level. Support for the Burns Unit became another cause. All of which was equally what the survivors wanted and it is that unity of spirit which also deserves to be recognised.
The memory of how the disaster brought people together in common purpose is one that has relevance in today’s world and is something of which City supporters should be proud and not overlooked.
Thank you John. Beautifully put.
I completely agree with Leon. I think that sums it all up for me.
An emotional piece of writing. Thank you for sharing it John.
The tragic events that occurred on 11 May 1985 took place three years before I first watched Bradford City play at Valley Parade so I can’t appreciate the full effects like those supporters who were in attendance on that fateful day.
However, I do my bit and I’ve helped the Bradford City Supporters’ Trust with their bucket collection at the last scheduled home game for numerous seasons now. These have raised monies for the Plastic Surgery and Burns Research Unit (PSBRU).
I think that the main point is that we as supporters of Bradford City continue to remember those 56 supporters who lost their lives along with the other people who suffered physically and/or mentally. We must never forget.
How we remember them is a personal choice, whether it’s by applauding in the 56th minute of a game, raising money for PSBRU or having a quiet moment to reflect at the memorial service.
Had time to think of a longer comment.
This articulates exactly how I feel about the more recent ways to commemorate the Valley Parade fire. I find the whole ‘56’ branding completely inappropriate and distasteful. When I go to the memorial service on 11th May or stand for a minutes silence at the last home game, I remember the 56 people who died so horribly, but I also remember the actual experience on the day, seeing something go from mild distraction to terror in a few minutes, seeing the fire race along the roof of the stand, people trying to climb out. I remember climbing the 8 foot fence in the Bradford End to get in the pitch, moving with thousands of others to get out of the ground, being pressed against the wall on the stairs by my dad as injured people were being carried out as he said “don’t look”. I remember the brave people who stayed and helped others, my uncle who helped break down gates to let people out of the Bradford End who couldn’t climb the fence, people going back to the stand to drag people over the wall despite the unbearable heat. The guys who broke down gates at the back of the stand from the outside so people could escape. I remember the police, and firemen, doctors and nurses who tried to save or did save people. What they must have seen. I remember how lucky I was to not be one of the many 11 year olds who died. I remember 11 year old me feeling guilty but not understanding why. I think of the families of those killed, the cities of Lincoln and Bradford, as I lived in Lincoln at the time. I think of going back the next day to leave flowers with my City wristband round them, the other one still in my sock drawer. It’s about ‘the 56’ but it’s about so much more as well.
Thought provoking article John of which I wholeheartedly agree. I was there that fateful day, yards from the seat of the fire.For years I would wake up in a cold sweat from nightmares of that day.
Due to personal circumstances I cannot make the remembrance every year but have always taken the time to find somewhere quiet where I say a few silent prayers for both those who lost their lives but also in thanks that it wasn’t my time that day and I have lived to see my children /grandchildren grow up.
I have always been proud of the quiet dignity in which we the people of Bradford remembered our loss that fateful day and look with mild horror at the way we now seem to have progressed to a more in your face way being pushed more & more by our younger fans and it seems to be the way of youngsters today with their endless social media / selfies etc. It took me 18 years before I could explain about that day to my daughters and I hope to be around to tell my grandkids when I feel they will be old enough to understand it all.
Couldn’t agree more
Great article and wholeheartedly agree. Cannot say anymore than that. I was there with my father and the events of that day will stay with me forever. That day shaped my life and future career.
Everyone deals with disaster and grief differently. There is no right or wrong.
Those that attended that day and witnessed the horrific events unfold will never forget.
I recall as a 21 year old returning home, crying as I recalled the horrifying scenario.
When the club hold a minute’s silence at every final home game I close my eyes. I remember. I can now hold back my tears.
But I’ll never forget.
Thank you for a beautifully written piece.
I was not there, but my late father was.
He didn’t talk about it much, but sometimes
would recount an event or a memory of
that day with great emotion.
I agree that we should always offer support
for those who were there and who suffered.
I agonised over whether it was appropriate to write the above article, principally out of concern that by expressing my opinions about the focus on the 56 it would create unnecessary division between supporters. However judging from the feedback it seems that my views are shared by many others.
Three years ago, at the time of the 30th anniversary and the opportunist timing of the publication of ‘that book’ about the disaster, I found myself seriously questioning whether my memory was defective. Having been heavily involved with The City Gent at the time of the fire and during the aftermath I was sufficiently familiar with what had happened and the state of affairs at Valley Parade in 1985. Yet such was the contrary account narrated in that book, I was forced to ask myself whether my grasp of past events was accurate. It was genuinely a time of self-doubt.
Needless to say there were plenty of discussions in Bradford among people who had attended the game that day – ie typically those now aged 45 and upwards. The consensus was that our collective memory of events was generally consistent and that that book was wide of the mark. Needless to say it provided reassurance for myself that I had not lost my marbles. All told, it seems to me a prime illustration of how history can come to be rewritten and redefined to the extent that it becomes foreign even to those who lived through the same events.
People relate to past events in the way that suits them from an emotional, personal or ideological perspective. Everyone has their own interest. Inevitably younger generations will look upon the past differently and I have little doubt that twenty years hence the disaster will be commemorated in new ways, just as Armistice Day has assumed new meanings. This might not be to everyone’s taste but we have to accept that.
Although the anniversary will continue to be remembered there is a danger that the actual events will be forgotten. Hence whilst I accept that it is extremely painful for many of us oldies to share the memories, I do believe that it is important to do so in order to encourage a better understanding of the disaster by younger generations. Essentially that is what encouraged me to write the article in the first place, simply to put things on record. I genuinely believe that what emerged out of the disaster deserves to be remembered as an example of good in this world. And we cannot allow that to be forgotten.
Hard to disagree with anything you say, John. Like others, as a 13 year old who was in G block I know what I went through (in far too vivid detail still all these years later) and also remember the strong sense of a community coming together to deal with things as positively as possible in the aftermath. I’m personally fine if people want to focus on “the 56” as a way of remembering the terrible events; I don’t think it necessarily means there isn’t an appreciation of the wider suffering but it’s an important point to raise and reflect on.
An excellent and superbly written article John and one which I agree with wholeheartedly. I was there that day and was able to go home to my family uninjured physically but with lasting horrible memories. The thought I might not have returned to my wife and two young children (at the time one aged 2 and the other 2 months) still haunts me and even after all these years I find it very difficult to talk about – or indeed write this reply – without getting emotional.
As has been said elsewhere the ‘56’ branding, applause etc is inappropriate and distasteful.
Glad I’m not the only one who finds all the “56” momentos slightly distasteful.
What an excellent article, thank you John.
“The 56” has almost become a trade mark. I find this distasteful and am very uncomfortable with the concept, this is epitomised by the clapping in the 56th minute and being made to feel guilty if one doesn’t join in.
The Club and supporters have always been very dignified in their remembrance, I’m not too sure how dignified a sweatshirt or t-shirt with “The 56” emblazoned across it is.
Captures many a fans feeling on the issue.
Very good article.
I think the 56 term started to appear in the run up to the cup final. Shows no sign of abating for a while yet, which I find a shame.
So many different people involved including my own parents who did their bit to help survivors. My mum was a district nurse who spent many weeks changing dressings on the injured and my dad was a policeman assisting in the identification and investigation side of things.
Again, a very good article.
John i fully agree with your sentiment and feel uncomfortable with the “56” branding.As an aside praise also for your part in the “re-birth” of the club post fire with your admirable work on CG. The irony is that those of us who were there have such fond memories of the few years after the fire and the unity of purpose it engendered which despite subsequent successes will never be eclipsed. Night games at “Home” with the real hardcore at Town and Elland Road live long in the memory. Commemoration then was dignified stoical and understated in true Yorkshire style.
I was moved 2 years ago when my son took part in the memorial football tournament for 11 & 13 year olds that has happened every year since, curiously funded and set up by the Prison Officers Association & Bradford Council’s Leisure Dept. Every year, local clubs are joined by kids from both Bradford City & Lincoln City’s Youth Academies.
It seems to me this is part of the lasting and positive legacy you talk about, John, emerging from a terrible day.