By John Dewhirst
It is now 36 years since the Valley Parade Disaster and inevitably, with each passing year the number of people with first hand recollection of what happened becomes smaller. The majority of current City supporters were not born in 1985 and likewise, the number of those in their teens or adult years in 1985 are now a small proportion of the fanbase.
The talk on social media is of remembering what happened on 11th May 1985 and never forgetting. Yet how do you remember something of which you have no memory? For the families of the bereaved and injured, of those impacted by the trauma of having been in attendance that day, there is little chance of forgetting the events and the aftermath. But what of the younger generations for whom 1985 was a time they know nothing about either because they were not born or simply too young to comprehend?
Every year we mark the Armistice Anniversary and ‘remember’ the fatalities of war. With regards World War One for example there are now no survivors left to tell their story. Instead, we rely upon a collective, inherited memory that has been reinforced by countless stories of what happened and which ensures we cannot forget.
With regards the Bradford Disaster, little is known of it elsewhere in the UK and for that matter I doubt that many of today’s Bradfordians are even aware of it. Nevertheless, the story of what happened is both relevant and inspirational: of how communities in the district were united to overcome; of how individuals were responsible for exceptional acts of bravery; and of how the football club was rebuilt through solidarity among supporters.
Instead, it seems that the story of the disaster has become a focus only on the number of fatalities. Yet whilst important that we remember the number who perished, so too there are other aspects of what happened that deserve to be given recognition. The fixation on that number – 56 – has been a phenomenon of the last 10 years, seemingly a badge of honour for younger fans and quite alien to how the disaster was commemorated in the past.
The irony is that if the focus on a number is the way the disaster is to be remembered in the future, it could be at the cost of overlooking – forgetting perhaps – other equally significant matters, not least the experience of the survivors. To equate the disaster with ‘56’ alone is a gross simplification, an injustice to the narrative of what happened and a distortion of the memory.
The man responsible for ensuring that the story of the disaster was recorded for posterity, Paul Firth passed away only a few weeks ago. We owe him a massive debt for his energy in writing his book ‘Four Minutes to Hell’ in 2005 and for steadfastly refuting many of the myths and unsubstantiated claims that have been spoken about 1985.
Paul’s legacy was to ensure that the story of the disaster was not reinvented by journalists and his book is recommended reading for anyone wanting to understand what actually happened on 11th May, 1985. As we remember the disaster it is Paul Firth that we should thank for his efforts, making sure that we do not forget what happened all those years ago and that the memory is understood.