Always remember – part two

Continuing from part one yesterday, an extract from Who We Are: Exploring the DNA of Bradford City about the Valley Parade fire disaster – and the way it ultimately brought a community together.

By Jason McKeown

Within a matter of days after the fire, prime minister Margaret Thatcher had visited Valley Parade. It was announced there would be a public enquiry into the events, and that money would be made available to assist with the rebuilding of the ground.

The funding was welcome news to chairman Stafford Heginbotham, who told Yorkshire TV: “We have one hell of a problem in Bradford to solve.” As a community, Bradford focused on supporting the families of those who lost their lives, the injured and the traumatised. Heginbotham, club officials and the players attended all of the funerals.

The chairman also made a public apology for what had taken place. In total, some £4 million was raised nationally for a disaster fund, with football fans and clubs up and down the country taking part in charitable activities to raise money.

Paul Firth argues that the trauma and emotion of what took place brought the club closer together. In particular, the bond between the players and supporters was stronger than anything seen before or since. “Bradford was never as unified as it was straight after the fire.

“The things that people did, they joined in with. And that afternoon and early evening, the local residents around Valley Parade, who in the most were not made as welcome as they might have been, they were there and welcomed other people. Cups of tea, even items of clothing for people who had lost their clothes. And of course, all the fundraising that went on afterwards. You obviously didn’t want the disaster to happen, but it did have that unifying effect.

“We had to get on with it. We had to get on with life. If you think of Peter Jackson for example, he was our captain, but Peter was only 23 I think. Stuart McCall would be about 21 – these lads were going to funerals. These lads were going to hospitals, where there were people horribly injured. But they kept on doing it.

“And I have a feeling, which might just be romanticism or sentimentality, that those players from 84/85 have a greater bond with each other than any other group of players has ever had, or ever will have. For all the wrong reasons, but it’s there.

“That’s why you see people like Stuart McCall and John Hendrie here at the service today. When it came to Bobby Campbell’s funeral in 2016 – and there’s another face that I can’t help but smile at – they all turned up from far and wide. And I think that’s just different. They’re no longer just the squad of 84/85, they’re more than that. And I think they always will be.”

The heroics of that group of players went beyond just winning the Division Three championship. They saved lives. Paul continues: “Some of them struggle with it. John Hawley for example says ‘I didn’t do anything’. And when you push him he admits ‘Oh okay then yeah, I pulled a couple of people out’. But then you find out a bit more, which was his son, who was seven at the time, was sitting in the stand, and John didn’t know where he was, and yet he was still pulling people over the wall.

Dave Hustler was the same. He’ll tell you he didn’t do anything – so why did you get this letter from the chief constable, with the police commendation? ‘Well, okay I pulled a couple of people out’. And then you think back to the day. I remember how hot it was, and the pitch was scarred by the fire, even though the flames was going the other way, being blown into the stand – the sheer heat burned the pitch. And you have players on the edge of the pitch, on the running track, pulling people over the wall, whilst in their football gear, which is thin nylon shirts. In that intense heat, they’re still pulling people out.”

The unity would be needed over the months ahead. Life, of course, goes on, and that includes football. As Valley Parade was rebuilt, City had to find a temporary home. Initially that included playing ‘home’ games at Leeds United’s Elland Road and Huddersfield Town’s Leeds Road, but the desire of the council for City to continue playing within Bradford caused them to take up residence at Odsal, the home of Bradford Northern.

John Owen recalls it was a difficult experience: “It was weird. I went to some of the games at Leeds Road, and a few at Odsal. And I just remember it feeling so detached, especially at Odsal with the speedway track between the stand and the pitch. It just didn’t feel like home at all. I remember one game against Wimbledon, and it got called off because of rain after about twenty minutes.”

With the added challenge of playing at the higher level of Division Two, City hung in there and consolidated during their Odsal venture. They initially struggled on their return to Valley Parade, leading to Trevor Cherry getting the sack, but under his replacement, Terry Dolan, the team was galvanised.

Eighteen months after returning to Valley Parade, this City side went agonisingly close to promotion to the top flight, before being broken up when they lost to Middlesbrough in the play offs. “I remember feeling sad when Trevor Cherry was sacked,” John Owen adds. “But it did feel like upward momentum. Even though it was at Odsal, you were in a higher division. Things went down a bit under Cherry during that second season in Division Two, and then Dolan came in and we had a very strong end to the season.”


The inquiry into the Valley Parade, led by Mr Justice Oliver Popplewell, made uncomfortable reading for Bradford City. The club’s status in the bottom two divisions meant it was not required to meet the Green Code – a set of safety standards Division One and Two clubs has to adhere to – nor did Valley Parade need a safety certificate.

However, Popplewell argued that the club should still have followed the Green Code, which even included specific mention to the fire risk posed by a void in a stand’s wooden floorboard. The guide also stated that every stand should have enough exits for a full evacuation to take only 2.5 minutes. The council had also written to the club on two occasions, highlighting these two breaches in the safety guide, and asking them to rectify it, but the club didn’t reply to either, perhaps because the directors worked part time and there were few members of staff.

Heginbotham would later claim that neither he nor his board received the letters. The fact City had proactively organised a meeting with the council for the following Wednesday after the Lincoln game, to discuss safety improvements for life in Division Two, sadly proved too late.

In his report, completed in June 1985, Popplewell stated of lower league clubs in general: “The gates of these clubs are insufficient generally to provide adequate financial stability. Thus, directors and chairmen, often local businessman themselves, devote a substantial amount of their own money in order to keep their football clubs afloat.

Football at this level is run on a shoestring.” And in Bradford City’s case: “A very low priority was given to additional expenditure.” In the superb 2004 book The Beautiful Game? journalist David Conn concludes: “Popplewell was gentler on the club that he might have been, saying it was not his aim to apportion blame for the disaster, although he did say that financial difficulties were no excuse for the disaster, because the public are entitled to expect that sports grounds will be reasonably safe.”

There was certainly little blame afforded to Heginbotham and the board by supporters. As John Owen recalls: “I think the simplest way to explain is that it was just a different time. It wasn’t a ‘Where there’s blame there’s a claim’ culture. It was just – this has happened, it’s terrible. I think Heginbotham very quickly came out and apologised. Maybe the people of Bradford didn’t want to look for scapegoat.

“My sister was at the fire, in the block near the Kop. She got out quickly. She was fine. And that was it. I never thought about blame.” John Helm agrees with the sentiment: “To be fair to Stafford, and whether you like him or not, he fronted up and he went to every single funeral. I hate it when people start apportioning blame. The people of Bradford deserve enormous credit for the way they responded. There was no blame.”

There was a possibility that this would change in recent years. One of the supporters affected more deeply than others was Martin Fletcher. Martin was dragged out of the stand as the flames spread, but his brother, father, grandfather and uncle were not so lucky, and lost their lives. He was traumatised for years after.

After moving to Nottingham, at 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.

In 2015, Martin published a book titled Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire in which he shared his personal findings of a 15-year investigation into the fire. He accused Heginbotham of having a history of suspicious fires, suggesting the chairman deliberately caused the Valley Parade fire due to business problems. “I never believed it was an accident and I never will. I don’t think Stafford intended for people to die. But people did. All because he went back to the one thing he knew best that would get him out of trouble,” Fletcher told The Guardian in 2015.

The book caused upset and outrage back in Bradford, and many of the facts Fletcher put forward were disputed. Heginbotham, who died in 1995, was not around to defend the claims. Popplewell, now Knighted, hit back at the insinuations: “I’m sorry to spoil what is obviously a very good story, I’m afraid is nonsense for many reasons.” In the latter half of the twentieth century, and in a city that contained scores of warehouses built in Victorian times containing highly inflammable textiles, fires sadly became a regular occurrence, with hardly a year going by without an incident of note.

In 1979, for example, the fashionable Busbys department store, located on Manningham Lane, close to Valley Parade, was totally destroyed by a spectacular blaze. Fletcher also blamed police failures for the level of lives lost. Calls for another public enquiry into the fire were issued. But after a detailed assessment of a voluntary referral by West Yorkshire Police, in light of Fletcher’s allegations, in January 2017 the Independent Police Complaints Commission announced it would not be holding a new investigation.

There is no doubt that Fletcher’s book hurt many of the other survivors of the fire, and went against the mood in Bradford of closed ranks and in forgiving the club for its failings. John Dewhirst states: “After the disaster it was the fate of the Fletcher family that captured media attention. Not surprisingly, the death of four members of the family from three generations was newsworthy in itself. Martin Fletcher and his mother, Susan, in many ways came to personify the tragedy and indeed the narrative of the disaster was almost defined by the Fletcher family experience in its telling.

“Among City supporters there has always been universal sympathy for Martin, notwithstanding the efforts of his mother to instigate legal action against the club that could have threatened its existence, and despite the Fletchers’ criticism of City fans that they were blind to the culpability of Stafford Heginbotham.

“The 25th anniversary of the disaster in 2010 was something of a landmark occasion and the beginnings of the focus on the 56 victims of the fire. Many of my generation were reluctant to criticise Martin out of sympathy; but nonetheless, there was irritation that to all intents it seemed that he had assumed ownership for the remembrance of the disaster.

“It was the publication of his book, in 2015, to coincide with the Hillsborough Disaster enquiry that brought open criticism of his agenda, and the belief that it was driven by a family vendetta. In private, the families of other victims, as well as the survivors of the disaster, were angry about his behaviour which was considered to be selfish; without regard to the feelings of others who had been impacted.

“Martin’s claims have little credibility within Bradford, but outside the district – thanks to the benefit of clever public relations and friendly press coverage – he is considered the authority of what happened in 1985 and his version of events is regarded as definitive. It is a remarkable case of two distinct narratives which tends to confuse supporters from other clubs, who assume that the Valley Parade fire was no different to the Hillsborough disaster and deserving of a fresh inquiry.”


The legacy of the Valley Parade fire continues to this day. Footage of the fire is used to help train firemen, and football grounds are a lot safer as a result of Popplewell’s findings, alongside those from the Taylor report into Hillsborough disaster, which occurred four years later.

John Helm argues: “Thankfully a lot of good has come out of the Bradford fire. Stadiums have been improved around the world, not just this country. And if you could take one small debt of gratitude for that day, it is that it led to the realisation that grounds had to be upgraded. And by and large they have been. You can safely go to any ground in the country and be assured you’re going to be okay.”

In Bradford, there is huge pride in the work of the Plastic Surgery and Burns Unit, with annual collections at the final home game of the season, and countless other charity drives, to raise money to support it. Over the years, City supporters have raised tens of thousands of pounds to support this worthy cause. The final home game of the season also now involves a minute’s silence, where we all pause to remember.

The fundraising for the Burns Unit echoes a much earlier link between sport and charity fundraising in Bradford. Local clubs were active in raising monies for the local infirmary through gate proceeds, a tradition that continued until the birth of the NHS in 1947.

Yet the low-key, in-house way that Bradford City supporters remember the fire disaster has begun to change over the last few years. As new generations come along, the way in which grief is expressed has altered into something more extroverted and public. And it has begun to reshape the way the disaster is marked.

In 2013, when Bradford City reached the League Cup Final, a group of supporters raised money to produce a giant flag in tribute to ‘the 56’, that was passed around by fans inside Wembley, just before kick off. The 56th minute of the game was also marked by a minute’s applause. Garments have been created and sold in high numbers, sporting ‘56’ on the back. A chant of ‘We’ll always remember the 56’ has been aired during recent seasons.

It’s all well-intentioned, of course. But to older fans – the people who were in the ground on that fateful day – there is an uncomfortable feeling that others are almost wearing the tragedy as a badge of honour. On the day before th3 2018 memorial service, John Dewhirst wrote an article for Width of a Post, criticising this movement.

“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 the old stadium was. 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.

“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.”

At the memorial service, Paul nods his approval about what John wrote. “It’s very different to Hillsborough, for all sorts of reasons. And I hope that the younger generations understand why it’s different. The families from Hillsborough felt they needed the publicity to get the inquest into what really happened, because of the cover-up. We didn’t need publicity, and I don’t think we feel we need it now. If the rest of the world doesn’t care, well we do – and that’s what’s important.

“We recognise that a different generation has to see things differently, because they weren’t there. My only hope is that a different generation would respect the way we see things.”

It is a sentiment that John Owen fully agrees with. He might not have been there that day, but the personal emotions he experienced, fearing for his sister’s life, give him a deep understanding of what everyone directly connected with the events is going through. “I think the way it is remembered has got a bit lost by younger generations. I think it’s a very personal thing. I felt very uncomfortable, almost feeling press-ganged, into the minute’s applause, standing up for the 56, against Walsall [during the final home game of the 2017/18 season]. I did not like that at all.

“I find it an accumulation of a lot of things culturally. It seems to be a badge of honour where people nowadays almost want to be the most pious in remembering the 56 and that, if you don’t agree, you’re a lesser fan. It’s a new generation which I don’t profess to understand. I quite liked the quiet dignity of it before.”

John Owen is also testament to another, more positive element that came out of the fire – the greater affection and dedication that Bradfordians feel towards their last remaining professional football club. “I was ten at the time and, like a lot of kids, was drawn to First Division clubs. So at the time, I supported Liverpool and Bradford City, assuming there would never be a conflict. But the fire was the moment I cut ties with Liverpool emotionally. It was just City after that.

“I think a lot of people of my generation, the fire galvanised you. If you were a floating City fan before, it made you a definitive City fan. Because you would suffer jibes about the fire. Kids being kids, you’d get tasteless jokes at school about the fire. I remember reacting badly to those, because of my sister. And it made me even more of a City fan.” His sister Caroline also remains an avid Bradford City supporter, despite her job preventing her from attending too often. “Nothing will ever stop me being a City fan,” she states.


More than three decades on from the fire, the sense of raw emotion runs deep within Bradford. Thousands of fans had turned up for a game of football on that May afternoon. 56 never came home again. Hundreds of others carry the scars – either through physical burns or psychologically. Some people say they think about it every day. Others have been able to push it to the back of the mind, but when they are reminded the pain is still raw. No one will ever forget what happened.

“It did affect me badly for six months,” John Helm admits. “The day after the fire I had to front a speedway show at Bradford – the world pairs championship at Odsal. On the Saturday night I said ‘There’s no way I can do that tomorrow’. But they said ‘You’re our only sports presenter, the show goes on’.

“I said the only way I could do it was to start with a black screen, and I’ve got to stand to a camera, all serious, and say what happened yesterday in the city, but as you know life goes on. I went on Calendar on the Monday to talk about it. Then I went straight away on holiday on the Tuesday with my wife.

“It took me six months at least to smile again. I think it’s just a natural reaction. It was bound to affect anyone’s lives, and it still does. 33 years on, it’s still in there. Every time I go back to Valley Parade, I always look down to the area where the fire started.”

Caroline reflects: “I have strong emotions about things like the Grenfell Tower [the 2017 fire in a 24-storey tower block, which caused 72 deaths]. I got really upset about it and found it difficult to deal with. I get really irritated with people at work when there’s a fire alarm and they don’t leave the building. Wherever I go I still look for fire exits. I’m always more aware of that sort of thing. I will never say ‘It’s not going to happen to me’. I not going to live my life like every day’s my last, but I don’t just assume it won’t happen.”

In the book Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby describes his vivid memories of stumbling across someone dying from a heart attack right in front of them, on the way to the match. It sticks in his mind for football reasons.

The fact the deceased – a Crystal Palace fan – has passed away mid-season, and wouldn’t get to discover if Palace managed to avoid relegation, troubled him. What if Hornby himself died midway through a football season, with all those loose ends? Probability wise, most of us are going to die mid-season too, with the narrative of City’s campaign yet to be determined; never mind the ups and downs of the years that follow.

If there is a small crumb of comfort to the 54 Bradford City fans who lost their lives on 11 May, 1985, it is that at least they had just seen their club become league champions, and that they had observed the players lifting the trophy and embarking on a lap of honour.

It was a proud day – one that many long-time fans in particular must have feared they would never see. On Yorkshire TV the day after the tragedy, the family of 86-year-old Samuel Firth, founder and former chair of the supporters club, who was the first of the 56 victims to be publicly named, reflected on the life-long City fan’s sad ending.

Son-in-law Trevor Hodgson said: “He was with me on the Friday night, up to midnight, and it was all he could talk about ‘We’re gonna to get the cup tomorrow, in the last match, and we’ve won the league’. He wanted to see them get the cup, which at least he did do.”

At Bradford City, the significance and emotion of the fire disaster lives through all of us. I was only three-years-old that day, living in North Wales, and so was a long away from experiencing the events. But I and others who weren’t there recognise and appreciate this huge element of the club’s heritage.

We join those who experienced it first-hand in bowing our heads at the minute’s silence at the final home game, we read books and newspaper articles about what happened, we watch TV documentaries, with the harrowing accounts of those who witnessed the dreadful events. We throw our loose change into collection buckets for the Burns Unit.

We cannot ever really understand, and nor should we ever believe that we could, just how traumatic and awful it must have been. But we stand with them in remembrance. And even the modern, extroverted attempts to remember “the 56” – whilst largely misguided and insensitive – are at its heart well-intentioned.

It remains vital that the disaster is not solely remembered as the moment 56 people lost their lives, but that the events and story of the day are equally never forgotten. Hundreds were injured. Thousands saw sights they should never have been expected to see. Yet there was the unity, too, which emerged following the fire. Where the people of Bradford – and, indeed the country – helped the bereaved, the injured and the traumatised.

The communal way that everyone associated with the club came together, using the tragedy as a positive force to move forwards, remains an inspirational lesson. Good things can come out of darkness. The fire has helped to shape the modern era of Bradford City – the dedication and closeness of supporters, but also the sense of perspective too. No Bradford City defeat can ever be referred to as a disaster, and rightly so.

Time will pass, and over the next few decades more of those who were at Valley Parade that fateful day will themselves leave us behind. But each and every one of us has a duty to ensure that what happened on 11 May is never forgotten. And that the memory of everyone affected by the darkest day in the club’s history continues to be recognised in the right way.

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