By Steve Dennis
Remember the 56, we always say. May they rest in peace. But as another anniversary of the Bradford fire disaster approaches, it seems that allowing the victims to rest in peace is proving more difficult as the years go on.
Not because of anything to do with the vast majority of fans. Or even a small minority. But because of one or two lone voices, amplified by certain media platforms, causing unnecessary noise in pursuit of “justice” … when there’s zero evidence pointing to any injustice, and zero appetite to reopen the investigation.
Not that non-Bradfordians would believe that’s the reality if they listened to 900 Degrees, an eight-part podcast released recently. It regurgitates a conspiracy theory linking former club chairman Stafford Heginbotham to a number of other fires, with insurance pay-outs as the motive. The suggestion — nudge, nudge, wink, wink — is that he may have done the same at Valley Parade.
Host Mobeen Azhar revisits, recycles, and repackages old, wild theories that lead nowhere. In short, he echoes allegations made by survivor Martin Fletcher who published a book in 2015 as part of his one-man campaign for a new public inquiry — a call backed by The Guardian but ultimately rejected by the Home Office. Martin is inevitably interviewed at length for the podcast and his claims pretty much prop up the entire series.
And so here we are again, in 2023 — 38 years after the events of May 11 1985 — going into a time of remembrance and reflection with the distraction of media spotlights trained on supposition and speculation, and treating it all as something substantive.
I loathe to give a non-story further attention, but the resulting headlines and social media chatter merit a response rooted in truth and facts. A media narrative, constructed with movie-plot thinking but devoid of credibility, cannot be allowed to rewrite history. Our club history.
First disclosure: As well as being a lifelong City fan, I was once a North of England reporter for The Daily Mirror (1995-2005).I know a thing or two about what stands up a story … and what doesn’t. Second disclosure: parts of this piece were first included in my Amazon review for Martin’s book — points that remain as valid today as they were eight years ago.
I have enormous compassion for Martin Fletcher. The scale of such loss — his dad John, 34, brother Andrew, 11, uncle Peter, 32, and granddad Eddie, 63, all died in the fire — is unfathomable. My heart went out to him when I read how, as a twelve year old boy, he somehow found a path out of that packed, wooden stand as the fire took hold. I can’t imagine the trauma he’s experienced. But I can’t help but wonder if that trauma has informed his own isolated version of events.
His pain — the “what ifs” and “what more could I have done?” — is the tormented whisper hidden in the subtext of his pages. For me, his memoir represents the what-more-he-can-do. In honour of his family. Within a cathartic need to find reasoning and apportion blame, armed with hindsight, assumptions, and circumstantial evidence that wouldn’t stand up in any legal arena.
That’s his right, of course. His story deserves to be heard. But there are other people to consider, too — the 55 other families, the surviving injured, and a whole community of fans still deeply affected by their own trauma from that day. This can’t all be about one man’s misguided agenda.
It seems everyone but Martin accepted long ago the inquiry’s findings — that the fire was a freak accident, caused by a discarded, lit match or cigarette butt that dropped through a crack in the floorboards and ignited piles of accumulated litter beneath the seats in block G.
But a more criminal story took root in Martin’s mind … planted by his mum’s “intuition”. She had no information, only a hunch. Based on well-known rumours about Mr. Heginbotham and a pattern of fires at firms/buildings he owned. In 1994, with her son then an adult, she told him that the club chairman “saw that kind of thing [arson] as a business solution”.
Martin has been hellbent on proving it ever since. He owed it to his mum, he says. And that’s the first thing to understand here — he’s doing this for Mum. Wanting her intuition to be vindicated. Wanting, perhaps, to make things right. Wanting us to see the shadows that he sees. Which brings us to the podcast by Mobeen Azhar.
For anyone who has sat through the somewhat melodramatic episodes, you’ll know how it quickly induces eye-rolls. He references “claret and gold — the famous colours of Bradford City”. We’re famous claret and amber. “Yellows” in a chant sometimes. But gold?! That’s akin to calling his brother’s side Liverpool “The Scarlets”.
Then comes the moment when he explains how we won the FA Cup in 1911 but “from then on, there’s been a couple of reasons to be cheerful but, mainly, just heartbreak”. A couple of reasons? Well, one reason was the 1984/5 season until that fateful day in May.
Then we won the 1996 Second Division play-off final at Wembley.
Then came promotion to the Premier League in 1998-1999…and what a ride that was.
Then Premier League survival 1999-2000.
Then the unforgettable, giant-killing cup runs of the Parky era.
Then the League Cup final at Wembley in 2013.
Not quite the “mainly just heartbreak” picture painted by Mobeen.
Details and context matter. If he can’t be relied on to do justice to the most basic background facts and context, how can we trust him with the more sensitive claims he goes on to amplify?
The strongest part of the podcast is when he shares the compelling testimony of victims’ relatives, survivors, and eyewitnesses. Had the scope of 900 Degrees been limited to those heart-rending accounts, we might have had a fitting tribute to the people we lost, and the tremendous courage shown by police and fans alike.
But Mobeen and team decided to not only go down a rabbit hole of Martin’s making; they went further, creating a veritable warren of other bizarre theories “involving organized crime, cover ups, and the British government.” It’s as if they needed a new angle, come what may.
In journalism — before online news cultivated a culture of clickbait where anything goes — the standard used to be ‘pursuit it, prove it, publish it’ (or broadcast it). But Mobeen pursues a few lines, proves nothing, and runs with it all anyway. He’s only asking questions, you understand.
He tries to convince us that he “chased every lead to get to the bottom of what really happened”. But the end product feels lazy in its rehashing of old material. He even says he “did not expect talk of a scandal or even a crime” when he began digging around. That’s odd. Martin’s book, clear in its suggestion of criminality, was published in 2015. Is Mobeen seriously saying he didn’t read such a key piece of research material before embarking on this project?
Like much of the podcast, none of it adds up into anything believable. We hear ad nauseam about “a gross miscarriage of justice” and “a whole body of evidence” — the words of Martin. We are even told that “many” people share the same view. That’s right, “many”.
Mobeen asserts that “there are many who don’t see it that way” [that it was an accident]. Never has the word “many” worked so hard without having a number behind it. That’s because it’s a sweeping, misleading generalisation that isn’t qualified. But it sounds persuasive, I suppose.
We hear from a fire consultant, a fire investigator, and two sports journalists. One of the reporters featured is Daniel Taylor who is now at The Athletic but was formerly with The Guardian when it ran excerpts from the book and, therefore, had to sing from the same hymn sheet. Daniel went to the same school as Martin, even sharing a room on a field trip. So it’s a fair question to wonder if Daniel — who is one of the best football writers around — is perhaps too close to this one, supporting his old school mate’s version of events.
So let’s breakdown that version of events and the “body of evidence” Martin likes to cite. He’s chosen to be the chief prosecutor who takes his case to the media, so he should expect a searching examination of his claims — something that’s been lacking in coverage to date.
The book and its headlines claimed that Stafford was linked to “a series of unexplained fires proceeding the Bradford fire.” The original reported number was EIGHT. In the podcast, it’s become FIVE. Maybe that’s because the incidents aren’t as sensational as they sound.
Two of the eight incidents were arson and the culprits caught and jailed. Another blaze was at a company where Stafford had sold his controlling interest five years earlier. Nevertheless, Martin chose, in his book, to point out that his chief suspect was at the scene, amid a crowd of locals, watching firefighters tackle the blaze. He even questions why Stafford was there so quickly, even though the businessman lived a mere two miles away from a firm he once proudly launched. Even when others were there so quickly.
And so we’re ultimately left with maybe five fires in a fourteen year period between 1967-1981 — a time when, as newspapers archives confirm, there were hundreds of mill and factory fires in Yorkshire, because it was a time when fire regulations weren’t as stringent as they are today.
But with a pattern of fires established, the link now has to be made with the stadium fire. It was telling how Martin structured his book, weighting the research in favour of his theory.
Take page 215 when he emphasises a fire chief’s quote about the general trend of Yorkshire’s factory fires, explaining that where suspects could not be prosecuted, cases were logged as “incendiarism by persons unknown” – i.e. arson.
Martin juxtaposes that quote alongside the wording of Justice Popplewell who, in his final report, said: “It is quite impossible to determine who caused the fire to start; indeed it would be grossly unfair to point the finger at any one person.”
The retired High Court judge clearly did not want to single anyone out — they had identified the smokers in rows ‘I’ and ‘J’ in G block — because to do so would have been a burden too great on any one individual. Yet Martin decides to interpret that avoidance of blame. “Incendiarism by unknown persons, in other words,” he wrote. That was a convenient spin on the judge’s words, to the extent that it misrepresented them.
But let’s suppose we don’t buy the notion that a pattern of fires was part of a trend in Yorkshire. If so, only one question remains.“Is it plausible that someone who adored the club would torch the very stand he and relatives were sitting in, alongside thousands of other fans, with 140 police offers present, when TV cameras were recording every moment?”
It requires one irrational leap to go from Stafford being capable of an insurance job at his factories /firms to him being capable of cold-blooded murder by torching the club he saved from extinction. It’s absurd. It’s embarrassing that journalists entertain this nonsense. And it’s an abhorrent accusation to level against a man not here to defend himself.
But it cuts deeper than insulting one man’s memory. These baseless theories risk causing distress to people still affected by the fire. This is not another Hillsborough-style cover up. There is no clamour for further action. In Liverpool, everyone shared a profound sense of injustice. In Bradford, the “injustice” is argued by one man.
The rest of us have long been at a place of acceptance with it all. 900 degrees has served to insult an entire community by perpetuating a preposterous myth that misreads the mood of a city, and misrepresents the truth of events.
Robert Cranmer, an independent mental health specialist who does a lot of work with Bradford City, put it this way: “The podcast shows a disturbing lack of respect for those who perished and those left behind. It supports one man’s conspiracy theory without considering the impact on the mental health of everyone else. It is irresponsible journalism.”
It offers nothing fresh or original in terms of facts either. The world knew about the July 1984 council letter that made clear how a serious fire hazard existed at Valley Parade due to the timber stand and the combustible materials in the voids beneath the seats. “A carelessly discarded cigarette could give rise to a fire risk,” the letter said.
The club was warned about an accident waiting to happen … and that accident happened, with an appalling loss of life. That’s it. That’s what happened. As feared. The threat that was plain to see before the disaster turned into the cause that was plain to see in the aftermath.
Maybe today there would be prosecutions — for negligence, for indifference to the warnings — but we didn’t live in a blame-culture back then, when scapegoats had to be found. There was rightful anger when the missed warnings emerged. But there was also, I think, a common understanding that exceptionally rare dynamics led to the disaster unfolding the way it did — the way a discarded match or cigarette butt had to fall so precisely to drop through a two-inch crack in the floorboards.
Tests carried out on behalf of the inquiry demonstrated that a single match was enough to ignite a large pile of litter 27% of the time (tests involving cigarettes were not carried out). The Independent said that this “slim statistical basis” was inadequate and undermined the findings.
But disasters are not about statistics, and it doesn’t matter that discarded matches or cigarettes hadn’t started a fire in years gone by. When you examine catastrophic events — I covered hearings on the Leeds-Bradford plane crash in Dunkeswick, the Selby train disaster, and Hillsborough — you learn that the dynamics of each disaster are unique, and require only a freak, highly improbable chain of events to happen just the once.
Let’s also remember that the forensic eye of investigators from West Yorkshire Police, West Yorkshire Fire Service, the Forensic Science Lab, and the Fire Research Station unearthed no evidence of an accelerant or arson. I’ll trust that collective expertise over DIY detective work any day of the week.
The podcast does share a claim that local fire officers ran a betting book, taking wagers on whose business would next suffer a fire. Stafford Heginbotham was apparently a short-priced favorite. Of course, no betting book, no attributed quotes, and no details are offered as evidence. It’s yet more hearsay. More 2+2=5. We’re meant to believe that firefighters had all this knowledge but not one of them sounded the klaxon in the wake of the Valley Parade fire. Come on.
What is true is that Stafford ducked and dived the truth when confronted with the warning letters from the council. He denied, he deflected, and he contradicted himself in different interviews, never admitting seeing such a prescient letter.
“What is the logic of all the contradictions and why tell lies?” asks Mobeen with surprising naïveté. It’s fair to assume that lawyers, with civil matters in mind, advised him to admit little. Swerving liability for legal reasons is a world away from carrying out a murderous sabotage.
Arson is an easily-made accusation. But it’s irrational when taken through its next steps. What does Martin Fletcher and his supporting journalists suppose Stafford did? Fire investigators found no evidence of an accelerant. So did he sneak from his seat and creep under the stand with a lighter? Prime a small detonation under block G? Or hire a hitman who arrived on a flying pig? You get the point. It’s all so ridiculous.
Yet Mobeen does in the podcast what Martin did in the book — he laces suspicion throughout, however far-fetched. He pieces together discrepancies, contradictions, and inadequacies, as if it all builds into something damning. When all it does is point to a businessman, at worst, sweating about issues of liability.
Finally, it’s worth highlighting that City fans back then were well aware that the old stand was decrepit and long past its sell-by date. It wasn’t the only ramshackle, wooden stand in the football league either. But we didn’t see the risks of timber structures in the same way we didn’t see the risks of terraces, crowd barriers, and fences until Hillsborough. Football, perhaps complacent about safety in the 1980s, had to learn some cruel lessons that decade.
The Popplewell inquiry was instrumental in making sure the lessons of the Bradford disaster were heeded. But 900 Degrees says the five-day hearing wasn’t rigorous enough and “there are holes in the whole thing”. A rich claim when the podcast’s own narrative has more holes than a cobbled street in Manningham.
One of the truest things one interviewee says is that the people of the city have a good bullshit radar. “You don’t get away with much,” he says. Too right. It explains why the podcast has received such a fierce backlash. Maybe Mobeen now understands the solidarity of Bradford.
Ultimately, history will continue to depend on the findings of the Popplewell inquiry, and treat Martin’s book, and now Mobeen’s podcast, as mere noise; lots of shouting, lots of wild claims, but not much else. There will be no new inquiry. That’s already been decided. And that’s how it should be.
In a little over two weeks, we will again take the time to remember the 56 souls who lost their lives at a football match. We might, just might, be marking the anniversary with another promotion. But however the season ends, the whys, the wherefores, and the muck-raking around May 11 1985 need to be left alone now. It’s done. We’re done. And maybe now, from this year forward, we can agree to allow the victims to truly rest in peace.
For the Bradford City fanbase, that would represent justice.
Steve Dennis is a journalist/writer and lifelong Bradford City fan. He now lives in Los Angeles.
Now this is what I call proper journalism, fantastic article, well done Steve
A retort to Martin Fletcher’s book on the Bradford City fire
Firstly let me say I have the greatest of sympathy for what Martin Fletcher has been through and how the fire has seriously and detrimentally affected his life. His loss is unimaginable and sets the context for his search for answers. However, what he has written on page 214 of this book is deeply offensive to my family and the memory of my father:
‘Then, after all other supporter testimony was heard on the opening day of the inquiry, on its penultimate day a Robert Whetherhill (sic) was called. He’d bought a ticket the week before, and he too arrived late, and was for some reason he was directed by a steward, through a sold-out stand, not to his seat in C Block, but to an empty seat, J141, in the supposedly sold-out G Block. There the fire started beneath him just minutes later. However, nobody has ever asked questions about these unusual circumstances, and it seems to me that this is exactly the kind of issue a full enquiry should have cleared up.’
The Wetherill family are extremely shocked and upset to discover this insinuation in his book and cannot leave this as it stands, being on record for all time unchallenged. As it appears to be fairly central to the suspicions that he is raising against Stafford Heginbotham, I think it is appropriate to provide some background information on my father. He was born in Shipley in 1933 and attended his first City game with his father before the outbreak of the Second World War. After the war, having achieved many sporting colours at Repton, he had a trial with Doncaster Rovers. This was successful, but he did not accept the contract offered to him as he wanted to see how the trial the following day at his beloved Bradford City went. He hoped for a similar offer, but unfortunately this did not work out and the door back to Doncaster was firmly shut. He moved to Sheffield, married, had a family and became a successful businessman. During all this period up to the fire he made regular pilgrimages to Valley Parade. In the early days, before the advent of motorways, the journey would be a monumental effort taking a few hours to get there to watch only moderately entertaining football amongst the few that turned up in those days. Like Martin Fletcher I was indoctrinated into supporting the club and can testify, partly due to the length of the journey, that he would invariably arrive at the ground 5-10 minutes late. This used to infuriate me greatly and to this day I hate arriving at a game late, so I make sure that this rarely happens by setting off with plenty of time to spare. At the time of the fire I was in London arranging for my forthcoming wedding, otherwise I too would have been in the stand with him. I remember frantically trying to call home from phone boxes we passed traversing Central London, as the news on the radio progressively got worse. After about the tenth attempt he answered the phone and I was the first person that he talked to after he had escaped the tragedy. He was incomprehensible and just broke down in tears. This was the first and last time I witnessed this, so it strongly reflects the emotions that he was going through.
By the time of the fire he had probably made his first million, so it is absurd to imply that he might have acted as some agent of Stafford Heginbotham. Similarly, the contention falls down with only a cursory consideration. Having moved seats no one would have known who he was if he had not immediately come forward to provide information to the inquiry, so if he was the agent implied by Fletcher he would have remained anonymous. What would motivate him to do the opposite and come forward? I think it certainly was to provide evidence to the inquiry so they would come to the right conclusions and help prevent daft conspiracy theories that were circulating at the time from taking flight. I would also like to add that he gave up smoking for good, some ten years prior to the fire, so he was not the accidental source of the fire either.
I find it quite amazing that Martin Fletcher claims to have undertaken a massive research project, but appears to have made no attempt to contact this family to verify his insinuation. It does not help in any search that he has spelt my father’s name so terribly incorrectly, but maybe this has not been pursued in earnest as it would rather quickly completely undermine his veiled contention. It would not have been too difficult to track us down as my youngest son and I, despite being based in London and Winchester, have been season ticket holders at City for the last 14 seasons. It is because my son is an ardent supporter that he obtained a copy of this book, otherwise we would remain ignorant of this near slanderous reference to my father. There cannot be many other season ticket holders with our surname.
As a postscript as a family we all enjoyed the joyous day at Wembley in 1996, a few years before he died, and a think he probably found, like many City supporters who survived the fire, a degree of salvation in this, as he could belated celebrate City’s promotion from the 3rd Division after some 11 years.
Thank you so much for sharing this Richard. All please note I accidentally downvoted the comment due to fat thumb. Apologies everyone.
Its incredibly damning of Fletcher’s whole ‘campaign’ that he so lightly makes such a horrendous implication without evidence or reason. I’ve always had great sympathy for him but each time he rakes over the past for his own (or his mums?) unsubstantiated ‘theory’ that sympathy ebbs away sadly.
I’m glad your father got to experience the joy of Wembley 96 Richard.
Firstly the term ‘conspiracy theory’ is often used by people as a weaponised term for things that are “wacky” and outlandish. However the term, should not be weaponised. Look at the old footage of Stafford immediately after the fire, I can see the guilt on his face. Look at the history of his insurance payouts and all his businesses that were set alight. Look at the timing (being the last day of the season), the stadium at the time needing to be modernised, how promotion required better facilities, how rubbish had been under the stand for 70 plus years without incident, how Jack Tordoff even called Stafford “A loveable rogue”, how the two Chairmen at the time even admitted to issues around how the club would be able to pay for the improvements required etc etc. In my opinion Stafford hadn’t intended to kill people, but he mis-judged the severity of the situation badly, resulting in very tragic outcomes. Sometimes the term “conspiracy theorist” is used by people to mask the sometimes very painful reality that exists, because its safer and easier for people not to face up to things. I love Bradford City and I have been a supporter for 40 years. But maybe sometimes the way to truly heal is to find out how and why things happen instead of just brushing them under the carpet because its less painful to do so. RIP the 56.
You again. The lone voice on the forums, the lone voice on twitter and now i expect the lone voice on this comment section. Well you’re persistent if nothing else.
These are my opinions only BTW I am not on Twitter so you must be mistaken. How can I be the lone voice when there is a published book on the subject? Anyway, I am not here for an arguement
Sorry i see absolutely no evidence of “guilt” on his face. Not really sure on what basis you can draw that conclusion. If there is any blame to be attributed it is for omission only. In that respect City were no different in the 1980’s to hundreds of other similar cash strapped sports club. It was a very different world and should not be judged by todays standards.
The more credulous will always see conspiracy where there are none. The podcast is a prime of example of this and offered nothing new of any value. “Ockham’s Razor” comes to mind! We should be genuinely proud of the way we responded to the fire without rancour. Lets keep it that way
“Conspiracy theory” isn’t used to weaponize here; it’s used to reflect the far-fetched nature of a theory that imagines something sinister in the abscence of evidence. We can look at all the things you ask to be looked at but it’s all interpretation or circumstantial. The notion that SH would deliberately start a fire in a wooden stand packed with fans on such a triumphant day is patently ridiculous. It’s the epitome of a conspiracy theory. What’s more, nothing has been brushed under the carpet. Evidence, forensics, expert opinion, and eyewitness testimony was all given in great detail. We already found out the how and why it happened. Same with 9/11. Same with Elvis’s death. But the questions and theories will still come — doesn’t mean we have to entertain them.
‘The notion that SH would deliberately start a fire in a wooden stand packed with fans on such a triumphant day is patently ridiculous.’
Dewhirst pours scorn on the conspiracy theories as well. But let me tell you, the feeling amongst supporters at that time that Stafford was in some way responsible was overwhelming.
It is disturbing that you choose to post this.
To suggest such nonsense is irresponsible, offensive and lacks any of the quiet dignity with which Bradfordians, those connected and those present in whatever capacity – not just victims and fans.
Why ignore the findings of the fire service, the police and all other investigations as to the reasons and responsibility?
Answers to all your contradictions and the actual evidence is in Steve’s excellent narrative. But I will always wonder why anyone, like yourself, would consider it happening on the day points a finger at Hegingbothom? Surely it would have occurred before or after the game or on another day and not with 11,076 in the ground.
What qualifies you to say he looked guilty, to be so disrespectful and frankly offensive?
You should be very very careful posting such as this and consider the impact. You love Bradford City and have been a supporter for 40 years. Act like it. With the ‘dignity and great courage’ relatives in the West Yorkshire city have shown in the years following the tragedy. We do not harbour conspiracy theories. The city did not seek endless further inquiries. This is because we accept it as a terrible event. We know it was a tragic accident waiting to happen. ‘They buried their dead, comforted the bereaved and succoured the injured’ – Popplewell.
This is ridiculous.
If you want to assume Stafford would do such a thing, why in the middle of the biggest match at the club for years, in the middle of the day with thousands in the ground?
If as you suppose Stafford hadn’t intended to kill anyone he would have done it in the middle of the night, as that is when most fire insurance jobs are carried out. If you want to believe the preposterous thread that he was a seasoned arsonist he would have bloody well known when to do it.
Even if Stafford did have a look of guilt on his face after the fire then maybe that guilt was that he didn’t act on the council warning that the rubbish underneath that wooden stand was an accident waiting to happen.
If he was planning on doing an insurance job on the stand I’m pretty sure it would have been done on a night when the ground was empty, not when so many fans including himself and his family were sitting in the stand.
If smouldering cigarettes are dropped on rubbish often enough then eventually your luck will run out, go buy a packet, light one and then wrap it in a newspaper
And see what happens. You’ll quickly say how lucky it was that a fire didn’t haooen sooner in that stand.
R.I.P the 56
“These are my opinions only BTW I am not on Twitter so you must be mistaken”
So you’re denying that you are Twitter user Snort of Derision aka Martin Fletcher?
The term conspiracy theory is used correctly to identify when people look for a conspiracy. A couple of points
1. Attempting to second guess an emotion like guilt on the face of someone in the face of disaster is unwise and un helpful.
2. The article deals with the specific claims you rehash
3. There was an inquiry -far from brushing things under the carpet
I am not Snort of Derision. Guess what…maybe more than 1 person can see it. Its extremely sad and I knew of victims of the fire. I take no pleasure in it whatsoever. Take emotion out of it and see what is in front of you. I acknowledge that the majority can’t/won’t do so for various reasons and that it fine. Veritas Vincit
I’m not sure what you are saying you are “not” in response to, nor what the “snort of derision” is aimed at. I knew (not just knew of) victims directly, one school friend died in the fire I knew people injured. In that respect none of us connected will take emotion out of this or be lectured on doing so. Nor, does our emotion and connection prevent us either from being able to assess the facts and distinguish the genuine concerns and issues raised at the time from conspiracy theory. That there were significant failings in terms of the club responding to the advice/warnings from fire safety is well documented. That’s very different from the claims that this article responds to for which there is no evidence.
I stood in the paddock that day, in front of where the fire started.
I saw the Policemen come to where a small amount of smoke was rising after hearing a commotion.
I saw the Police moving people away.
I helped people over the wall, onto the pitch.
Then I ran for my life.
I know what happened.
I settled my mind on the cause many years ago.
I have never settled the pain or the guilt.
Accuser: ‘She’s a Witch, she’s a Witch’.
Investigator: ”And how do you know she’s a ‘Witch'”?
Accuser’s response: ”Erm….coz she looks like one”.
We live in the age of rampant conspiracy theory. The one concerning the Bradford City Fire was fomented, as I remember, in the Sun newspaper, not long after the tragic event. Sadly, it will resurface from time to time as scurrilous sensation-seekers from successive generations entertain themselves with it. Books are still being written about the Pendle Witches, Jack the Ripper, Kennedy’s assassination. There is something potent and enduring about the catharsis of tragedy that taps so deeply into the human psyche and collective consciousness – so much so that we find it almost impossible to let it go. It’s fortunate that we have Mr Dennis to write so trenchantly and authoritatively on the subject. Sadly no amount of clarity and objectivity is proof against the wilful distortions of those determined to defile the reputation of the club’s former chairman for their own motives. In the absence of actual forensic evidence the only ‘evidence’ that may be imputed against Stafford Heginbotham is that of ‘coincidence of circumstances’, as the legal phrase has it. The fact that any of his businesses suffered fire damage is not material. The Fire was a tragedy on a colossal scale for so many people who lost loved ones, for the football club and the city of Bradford. Like Mr Dennis, I have enormous compassion for Martin Fletcher and entirely exempt him from the accusation of conspiracy theorist. The event we will be remembering puts in perspective the lesser emotions of the moment, fluctuating with every good or bad result in the team’s quest for promotion. Thank you, Mr Dennis, for the compassion, dignity and sanity of what you write.
A brilliant article, Steve – thank you. As you quite rightly say, there are many others of us who lost a family member. As one of those myself, we want to quietly remember our loved ones in a dignified manner.
This is a nice article, but I think misses the point somewhat. The podcast shows that the initial inquiry came to a conclusion (dropped cigarette/lit match) based on no evidence whatsoever. No test or indeed testimony. Nothing. Essentially, Popplewell thought it must have been an accident and therefore the most likely cause was a cigarette. If the same was done in Grenfell, we would be rightly apoplectic. There wasn’t a satisfactory police investigation done into the possibility of arson. The lies in the media from Stafford and the fact he had a history of fires mean there should have been an investigation. In lieu of this, there will always be legitimate questions asked. I do think it could have been an accident, but that is based on nothing more than a gut feeling; I think of a lot of Bantams fans have a gut feeling that is overriding some difficult home truths, unfortunately. Totally respect your view, however, and as I say, nicely written!
I would recommend you read these two articles Terry:
Tests were carried out ( as mentioned in the piece), they identified the smokers in rows I and J, and the inquiry labded on the most probable cause — this is not a criminal proceeding where it has to be proven beyond all doubt. It’s bizarre how the arson theory questions the odds and highly likely prospect of a lit match of cigarette butt igniting piles of litter, but then asks us to entertain the mad odds and implausible scenario of SH torching the stand — without using an accelerant — on such a day, with so many people in the stand. The mind boggles.
Conspiracy theorists often have a poor understanding of risk. They fail to appreciate that even with barriers in place to prevent an event happening, each barrier, each layer will have a hole or holes. In a certain set of circumstances, the holes line up and the threat (risk) gets through.
In high risk industries such as petrochemicals or aviation, this is referred to as the Swiss Cheese Model – each layer is a barrier, but each layer has a hole. Whatever is put in place to mitigate risk, there remains, however small, the potential for an event to happen.
Having spent a good 10 years standing in the Paddock, though thankfully not on the fateful day, it was no surprise to find that a mound of rubbish under that end of the stand finally caught. It was a creaky old thing.
There will have been a million dropped cigarette butts of no consequence, but it needed only one fag butt, one dry piece of litter, the wind blowing from the north etc etc for the fire to take.
Many thanks to Steve for taking the time to write this piece. It is delicately written, balanced, and of perfect tone and prose. Not something many can do on such an emotive subject. So thank you for speaking for so many so decently.
One tries not to react as persons try to drag up settled history. But it’s difficult not to and it’s perhaps for the best that such a skilled journalist has taken the mantle for all of us.
We all recall the words of Justice Popplewell who stated that “The citizens of Bradford behaved with quiet dignity and great courage”. We most certainly did and the vast majority remain of the same mind many years on.
It’s such a shame a very small minority can not resist the temptation to test that dignity and courage.
So true. I was there that day the same as increasingly fewer people.
I now what I saw, heard, smelled and heard. No one need tell me otherwise and the city of Bradford should be proud of how it reacted. That memory will not be ruined by the actions of a few. RIP
Local MP Naz Shah was also interviewed on the podcast and seemed to agree with Mobeen’s conspiracy theories. Surely she should be more bothered about the feelings of her constituents than helping to promote this rubbish.
Naz Shah put a request for a new enquiry on the desk of then Home Secretary Theresa May (weeks before she became PM).
A group of us met her at City Hall one Saturday morning. It became apparent that she had little knowledge of the fire disaster.
She thought she had uncovered a new `Hillsborough`.
Our group included victims relatives.
As one said “For years I have had to live with the grief of losing a dear relative. Now someone is trying to convince me that it could have been murder”
After listening to the emotional discussion Naz Shah actually said “Get me out of this mess. I never realised what had happened”.
I took with me a series of photographs taken on the day which I took and which were used in the enquiry.
I didnt want to get them out in the meeting as it could upset people there but as we left Naz Shah asked if she could see them
I showed them to her and her aides.
I could not believe she had not done any research.
She was reacting to Martin Fletchers words in a Guardian news item written by his mate, and cynically platformed to sell his unwanted book.
She was visibly shocked but more because she realised that her call for the enquiry was ill fated and embarrassing for herself. Maybe she had seen it as career boost.
Fortunately world developments catapulted Theresa May into the PMs job, and the request for an enquiry (which would have been costly, upsetting and achieve nothing) fell off the Home Secretaries desk.
We looked at and published the facts about so called Stafford Heginbotham fires, which highlighted the fact that there have been lots of suspicous mill fires in Bradford since his death.
The whole `conspiracy theory` was discredited then.
Its disappointing to see its ugly head raised again, but the whole thing was put to bed then and hopefully willnot be reinvented again.
The 1980s saw a number of terrible events in and around football stadiums and matches. The Bradford fire was another example of decades of universal decline in facilities and investment. The world and norms have now changed, based on the experience of many tragedies. Changing attitudes, beliefs, laws and investment since have prevented another fire, wall collapse, crush and all of the many things that took place in those times.
This fire was not intentional in any way, never was and never could gave been. It was a reflection of the laxity in safety and governance that was commonplace in the sport and wider society then, and could have happened at any time up to that momen. In reality it was always going to happen somewhere and at sometime, just like Heysel and just like Hillsborough. We have finally learnt to change things, but very sadly not before they all, and many other smaller events in thst era, took place.
The last time this nonsense raised its head, Shah started spouting nonsense, I do believe she was invited to a meeting with a few City fans, who very quickly put her straight about the BS she was coming out with, time for a refresher course I think.
Thank you for the post Steve. It’s coming up to that time of year when City fans, old and new remember and reflect on 1985 in their own way. I went to Valley Parade last week, bought my ST, and then went to the memorial, as I always do, took a moment, said a prayer and had a cry.
Thank you, again.
Steve Dennis has written an important and timely feature for which he should be thanked. Whilst Martin Fletcher and his mother are entitled to the sympathy and support of all City supporters for their personal tragedy it does not extend to giving Martin the monopoly narrative about the disaster, let alone entertaining his wild claims about arson on the part of Stafford Heginbotham.
In fact Stafford Heginbotham had little incentive to torch the stand as the probability or quantum of an insurance payout was unlikely to have provided a funding solution to rebuild the ground. Indeed, if Martin’s claims about Heginbotham’s record of mill fires is to be relied upon, then Heginbotham’s chances of persuading an insurer to pay out would have been slim, Even then it would not have provided an instant solution to prepare the ground for second division football.
If we are going to enter into wild speculation about motives consider that the party with the most to gain from Valley Parade being rendered unusable was Bradford Met Council which had its own agenda to develop Odsal Stadium. Stafford Heginbotham by contrast was a firm traditionalist and an advocate for Valley Parade having previously rejected moves to both Odsal and Park Avenue. Surprisingly this has never been considered by Martin Fletcher or the procession of naive opportunists who have supported his crusade. Given that the Lady Mayor was present at Valley Parade on 11th May, 1985 and was accompanied by civic dignitaries then maybe they should come under scrutiny?
A hard truth is that anyone familiar with the old main stand – ironically constructed as a temporary measure, the story of which is told on my blog, refer link – knew that it was decrepit and not fit for purpose. Occasional sell-out games (aka rare) had highlighted the safety risks. The point however is that those supporters who still persisted in following the club considered the probability of disaster to be low. In fact the same could be said about attitudes to risk in respect of other disasters of that era (ie Kings Cross or the cross-channel ferry) and so we put up with the stand in the belief that the chances of disaster were slim. No doubt the club directors did the same but it is wrong to say that they were oblivious to the need for upgrades.
Another hard truth is that by the turn of 1984 (when it was clear that BCAFC had a realistic chance of escaping the lower divisions for the first time since 1937) supporters were demanding monies to be spent on team strengthening and expenditure on the stand or fixing its roof was considered a lower priority. Hindsight is wonderful but it can also be simplistic, much the same as the conspiracy theory about arson. Context however is everything and rarely in life are things so clean cut as hindsight might suggest.
The sole voice as above is entitled to his opinion and we can guess as to his identity. The important thing however is that the outside world takes note of the response of City supporters to what Steve has written. In fact among the generation of fans familiar with the club in the early 80s you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would give credence to the notion of Stafford Heginbotham being an arsonist. (NB I can think of one person who made such claims at the time but it is difficult to separate his accusations from a pre-existing animosity which undermined his credibility even further.) The fact that so many people familiar with the circumstances in Bradford – including those related to victims as well as those injured in the fire – reject Fletcher’s claims speaks volumes.
It is time to move on and ignore the nonsense. With what Steve Dennis has written there is nothing more to be said. Thanks again for his efforts.
Well said John.
Many thanks John,
I missed the match as the lure of overtime with a young family took precedence. Coming home on the bus from the printing works at Low Moor where I was working, I saw the smoke and crowds waiting to get in the bus. I asked the first person to reach the top deck what had happened. He said there was a fire and he had seen people burning to death.
My next door but one neighbour had been round the previous night as he was so excited to see the bantams promoted.
He never came home (I was his key holder). As soon as I saw John Helm on the TV reporting on the fire, we went to his house, opened up and knew he was not coming home – he and his best mate died in their seats. As my tribute we’ve barely missed a home match since.
To me it’s not a “conspiracy theory” but something we’ve lived with for nearly 38 years.
Brilliant article. Well constructed and well written….. What is it with people who can’t let the past go, especially with such mediocre, non-fact based arguments?. For goodness sakes, and for all the relatives sakes, leave it alone!!
There’s a great book by David Aaronovitch called Voodoo History in which he examines alternative theories to official accounts of significant events.
He points out how when 100 facts about a historical event are scrutinised often one appears unusual or odd. Then that is seized upon and an alternative explanation is dreamt up. The alternative explanation will have 99 odd or illogical assertions but for the conspiracy theorist that trumps the official view and their truth is the correct one.
Suggest the ridiculous podcaster reads Voodoo History and takes a few lessons from Steve Dennis’s about journalism.
And well done to WOAP for exposing the issue.
Thank you for writing the article Steve, & for helping to keep history true.
I was at Valley Parade with my friends that day, & through pure luck or fate, me & my friends made it safely out without harm, unlike so many other poor souls who just couldn’t make it. I’m sure anyone reading this will know exactly what I mean when I say the sorrow left by events that day never leave you.
One of the most remarkable facts I learned from those dreadful events that day, was just how unique & truly remarkable the people of Bradford were (& are). We immediately rallied round & closed ranks, helping those families who had lost. We showed humility, respect & dignity along with a determination to rebuild. Not just the football ground, but people’s broken spirits aswell. The whole city needed rebuilding spiritually back then, but we all pulled together. That was the Bradford way of doing things.
The cause was very quickly established beyond any reasonable doubt, there was never any thought of anything underhand or criminal. It was an accident, a horrible & tragic accedent.
There was nothing to be gained by pretending otherwise, & there still isn’t. It only hurts the families & friends of those we lost.
These are just my thoughts anyway.
In response to Gary as above:
‘” ‘The notion that SH would deliberately start a fire in a wooden stand packed with fans on such a triumphant day is patently ridiculous.’
Dewhirst pours scorn on the conspiracy theories as well. But let me tell you, the feeling amongst supporters at that time that Stafford was in some way responsible was overwhelming.”
There was indeed a particular individual who openly accused Heginbotham of responsibility for the fire in the immediate aftermath. The directors were found guilty of corporate neglect but few people at the time gave credence to the wild claims that the said individual made about Heginbotham starting the fire. To suggest that the vast majority of fans shared his views is complete and utter nonsense.
I think Stafford was perfectly capable of an insurance job, I’ll put it out there now. I know my family used to joke about one of his factories burning down whenever he needed a few bob.
And if the main stand had mysteriously burned down three days after the end of the season due to an unexplained electrical fault, the way the piers in seaside towns so often did, then I’d have been along with the nudge-nudge-wink-wink. After all, the club genuinely couldn’t afford to fix it- the concrete and steel in the car park for a new stand is a complete myth.
But there is no way, no way on earth, that Stafford- or anyone else- would have deliberately started it on a day of celebration when the place was packed and filled with the great and the good of the city. No way.
I have huge sympathy with Martin and I appreciate how hard it must be to think that the deaths really were a tragic, senseless, mistake. But there was no deliberate fire and no cover up.