By Jason McKeown
The scars of Saturday 11 May 1985 will forever run deep at Bradford City.
11,076 people went to watch a football match at Valley Parade. 56 people never returned. Over 250 were injured. It was an afternoon of huge sorrow, as the triumph of celebrating the third division championship turned to unimaginable tragedy.
The harrowing impact of the fire disaster was felt by so many. Friends and families lost loved ones. Many of the injured spent weeks recovering in hospital. Survivors have had to find a way to live with the mental pain and anguish of the traumatic scenes they were a part of. Sights, sounds and smells that no one should ever see.
Paul Firth was one of the supporters at Valley Parade that fateful day. He was in the main stand that caught fire, sat with his close friend Robert, and his father-in-law Arnold – who was celebrating his 65th birthday. When the fire broke out, Paul was separated from Arnold, who was ultimately rescued by City striker John Hawley lifting him over a wall.
So distressing were the events that Paul couldn’t even remember some of them. “It’s called Fugue Syndrome, and it’s where your head doesn’t want you to remember, so it stops you remembering,” Paul explained to me in 2018.
Last week – almost 36 years on from the fire disaster – Paul Firth sadly passed away with a brain tumour. It is news that was greeted with shock and deep sadness amongst the Bradford City community.
For many years, Paul has become an authoritative voice on the Valley Parade fire. In 2005 he wrote the powerful book ‘Four Minutes To Hell’, which told the harrowing details of that fateful afternoon, from Paul’s eye-witness perspective. The retired judge has subsequently written several articles about the fire, appeared in many documentaries, including the critically acclaimed BT Sport film ‘One day in May’.
But it is Four Minutes To Hell that had the biggest impact on the telling of the true story of what happened on 11 May 1985. Until Paul’s book was released – which helped to raise thousands of pounds for the Burns Unit – public information about what happened was thin on the ground. Bradfordian stoicism had meant that, for many years, the pain of the fire was shared quietly and rarely talked about in a public way.
As new generations of Bradford City supporters have come on board, in some ways the events of 11 May 1985 were one of mystery. At each 11 May anniversary we would bow our heads and remember, but those of us who weren’t there that day couldn’t begin to understand or comprehend the details of what actually happened. At least not until after reading Paul’s outstanding book.
“Paul’s greatest legacy is his account of the Valley Parade Disaster and his support to the survivors of the fire,” explains John Dewhirst, another survivor who has written about the events of the day. “His professional background as a judge made him perfectly qualified to comment on the nuances of the disaster, to concentrate on issues of substance as opposed to conjecture.
“For survivors of the fire, Paul’s book was very much part of the healing process by providing a sense of perspective. Equally, he was anxious to explain to younger generations of how the disaster had originally been remembered. Of how it was also about the survivors and not just the 56.”
This latter point has become especially pertinent over the past decade. Where the grief and sadness in remembering the awful events has moved from a low-key, almost private Bradfordian remembrance to something more extroverted and public. Worn, by some fans, seemingly as a badge of honour. ‘The 56’ has almost become a brand, with all manner of garments created and sold in high numbers.
Whilst the intention is well-meaning, to older fans – the people who were in the ground that fateful day – there is an uncomfortable feeling about the way this grief has been paraded by others. It was something Paul felt too, telling me in 2018, “We didn’t need publicity, and I don’t think we feel 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 view that many other fire disaster survivors – and families of those who lost their lives – share. And it is typical of the way Paul so consistently provided a clear, articulate voice that represented the feelings of others. When I met Paul, he was at pains to stress to me that he has no ownership of the emotions that so many people harbour, and that everyone with a direct connection to the day has their own personal views and feelings.
Paul also played an instrumental role when media interest in the disaster tried to take a tone of controversy. Such as when a public inquiry was called for in 2015, following the publication of a book by Martin Fletcher – another Valley Parade fire survivor – alleging the former City chairman Stafford Heginbotham was culpable for the fire.
Another well-known City fan, Mark Neale, takes up the story, “After he wrote the book on the fire, Paul became the go-to person for media contact, something he did not always welcome. But he became a consultant for a TV documentary about the fire on the 30th anniversary. He did so with some reluctance but felt it was important that the facts were correct.
“Shortly after that there was the unnecessary involvement by a local MP, combined with equally distracting and without fact coverage by the Guardian newspaper.
“At the time Paul was unable to become involved in an attempt by a group of fans and victims’ families to prevent a second inquiry into the fire disaster. But he did the next best thing with his wife, Ann, playing her part and the group successfully managed to persuade the MP that a further inquiry was not wanted nor would serve any useful purpose.
“Paul was in the background orchestrating the group, using not only his legal experience but his life experience and guile.”
“Paul reminded those journalists desperately seeking to rewrite the story of the disaster about what actually happened,” adds John. “His authority on the subject prevented new myths gaining credibility, for which we should be grateful.”
As well as providing such an instrumental role in writing the story of the disaster, Paul was a well-known City supporter for other reasons. In 2012 he worked with Bobby Campbell to write the book about the Bradford City legend’s colourful career, ‘They Don’t Make Them Like Him Anymore’. Paul also wrote several articles for The City Gent, Boyfrombrazil.co.uk and this site.
John summarises, “It seems unfair to comment only about Paul’s support for Bradford City, notwithstanding that it probably shaped his humour and his character. To define him by his football love is unfair because there was far more to Paul than just Bradford City. His enthusiasm for interests such as cricket and Rugby League and reading books – particularly the words of Graham Greene – was equally a big part of his life. All told, those interests probably helped Paul retain his sanity and better cope with his commitment to the claret and amber cause.
“Those of us in the Midland Road stand could always rely upon Paul’s smiling face even in the midst of impending defeat. I guess I remember him for his smile and sardonic humour. His loyalty to Bradford City spoke for itself, and was unwavering. In particular during those many occasions when it has been challenging to keep the faith.
“Above all else, Paul could be relied on to provide an intelligent and articulate perspective to affairs at Valley Parade. He offered insightful, constructive observations. Bumping into him at Valley Parade, you were guaranteed sensible comments about a game.”
Mark fully agrees, adding, “I first met Paul through Robert and Sue Hamilton who were mutual friends. I got to know Paul, his wife Ann, and son David well and often chatted to them before and after games at Valley Parade. It’s true to say that Paul’s logical and analytical mind became a good sounding board whenever a different viewpoint was needed on any Bradford City topic.
“I will miss seeing Paul at games, miss our telephone chats, and miss our habitual get together in a Bradford coffee house after each year’s fire memorial service.
“To quote the title of his Bobby Campbell book `They don’t make them like him anymore`.”
The final sentiment belongs to Paul, who when I met him in 2018 talked about remembering his father-in-law, Arnold, who had sadly passed away three years earlier, and how John Hawley had saved his life on 11 May 1985. Paul’s perspective on Ann’s father said much about the gift of life.
“Thanks John, because he gave us 28, 29 years of Ann’s dad that we otherwise wouldn’t have had.”
Like so many others, Paul nearly lost his life on that horrific afternoon. But instead he was able to live and enjoy life for more than three decades, being a loving husband, kind father, doting grandfather and valued friend to many. Enjoying the ups and downs of Bradford City, but with a different perspective. He was really looking forward to the day he could take his granddaughter, Ellie, to Valley Parade.
Paul gave a voice to thousands with his account of the tragic events, but never tried to own the feelings of those who mourn each year alongside him. He made an immeasurable impact on Bradford City Football Club in helping us to understand its darkest hour, and that legacy will endure for decades to come.
Paul’s family has set up a JustGiving page to raise funds for research into brain tumours. You can make a donation by clicking here.