Why flares should have no place amongst the Bradford City supporter community after the tragedy of 11 May 1985

By John Dewhirst

The attendance at Valley Parade on Monday of 22,576 was remarkable and it may come as a surprise to many readers that when City played Lincoln on 11th May, 1985 the attendance was just 11,076. Nonetheless, even that was considered a bumper gate with averages around that time having been less than half of that figure. Football was then unfashionable with a reputation of crowd violence and antiquated stadia.

Valley Parade itself was known for being a slum, lacking any female toilets and with rudimentary facilities for males. The terraces were crumbling and loose concrete was invariably used as ammunition to throw at rival fans. The main stand had a roof that leaked and at best offered an impeded view (described as akin to looking from the cockpit of a Sopwith Camel). A lot of people simply stayed away because Valley Parade was decrepit and considered an unpleasant place to visit. On the other hand, it had its charm and was quaint and homely in its own way.

The subsequent recovery in attendances in the rebuilt stadium was driven by the modernisation of facilities which in turn attracted families. Above all it was a safe place to watch football. A general improvement in stadia across Great Britain helped make football fashionable once more.

Commemoration of the anniversary of the Valley Parade Fire Disaster has latterly been overshadowed by the conspiracy claims of arson that were effectively dismantled in the excellent feature written by Steve Dennis on this site a couple of weeks ago. In the immediate aftermath of the fire there was speculation that it had been caused by a smoke bomb thrown into the stand from the adjacent covered terrace. That allegation was never substantiated but in theory at least it was a plausible explanation for how the fire could have started.

By their nature, smoke bombs and flares burn at extremely high temperatures and the thought of a flare being thrown into a wooden stand with combustible material underneath is terrifying – think of a hand grenade equivalent of Russian phosphorous bombs in Ukraine.

To my knowledge there had never previously been any instances of smoke bombs at Valley Parade (even in the 1980s) and until quite recently they were unheard of. The Fire Disaster gave City supporters in particular an acute awareness of the horror of burns injuries and for that reason there is a genuine shock among older fans that flares are becoming thrown at games seemingly as a matter of routine. Ironically the danger of flares is now all the greater because we have bigger crowds, all-seater accommodation and packed grounds which gives innocent spectators even less chance to dodge them.

Memory of the Fire Disaster has assumed an almost religious dimension with the mystic significance of the number ’56’ yet what has tended to be overlooked is the number of people who suffered burns injuries in the Valley Parade fire, as well as those scarred by mental trauma. There were far more than 56 people impacted by what happened.

Sadly, in March this year we marked the passing of Professor David Sharpe and he was the best qualified of anyone to speak about the tragedy of burns injuries. It was the Bradford University Plastic Surgery & Burns Research Unit that became established as a consequence of the Disaster and which remains a focus of the annual commemoration of 11th May and our fund-raising. If the Disaster has come to stand for anything it has been about advances in the treatment of burns.

In August last year we had the instance of a flare landing close to a five year old girl at Valley Parade after being thrown from the upper tier of the Kop. Statistics for accidents involving fireworks and pyrotechnics are sufficient to highlight the inevitability of a serious event occurring. Whilst flares are unlikely to cause another stadium fire, there remains every chance of personal injury and for that to happen at a Bradford City match is unspeakable. For those of us who have seen for ourselves the horror of burns it is a nightmare prospect. Neither is the danger necessarily confined to a football ground. Take for example the incident last month of a flare being let off pre-match in a Rochdale pub which could potentially have had fatal consequences.

The whole issue with flares feels like going back in time and abandoning the gains of the last thirty-odd years. Arguably it’s not that far removed from effectively sticking two fingers up at the fund-raising efforts in support of the Burns Unit to help people overcome suffering as a consequence of burns. Either way it makes a mockery of ‘remembering the Disaster’ and reflects badly on Bradford City when we expect supporters of other clubs to respect the memory of 11th May, 1985.

From just about every perspective, the phenomenon is bad news. For instance the financial cost for Bradford City as a consequence of flares being thrown and the need for more money to be spent on stewarding and policing. The payment of FA fines is another potential cost, all of which comes at the expense of funds being available for team strengthening. And at Crewe last week the disruption to the game as a result of flares was likely a factor in losing the match. The actions of so few have such major consequences.

Back in 1985 we said that no-one should expect to go to a football match and become entrapped in a disaster. By the same token, in 2023 neither should people be exposed to the possibility – however slim – of suffering burns at a football match or of being exposed to others in their midst being injured as a result of flares being thrown. As we discovered in 1985, sometimes the worst outcome can happen.

The atmosphere at the game with Orient was something special, all the more enjoyable without the spectre of a smoke bomb / flare being thrown – which is exactly how it should be.

Categories: Opinion


20 replies

  1. Well said. There is a worrying rise of “schooligans” in our support who seem intent on bringing back the bad old days in general (see the back of the kop and the young lads who also can’t keep a decent tempo for any song) A romanticised view of football in the 70’s and 80’s that they are far too young to know the realities of. Added to that the desperation to be viewed on social media as a “casual” and get shared by other accounts and look like a European ultra group. It’s important for the rest of the fan base to keep calling them out and reminding them of what is acceptable.

    • Indeed. It’s a tricky one. Sometimes they revel in the anger people feel to them in a Millwall way. I sometimes feel to counter that you need to laugh at them. Ridicule them. All point at the person with the flare and laugh at him.

      • I think it needs a combination of stewards adopting a hard line and the individuals who throw the pyros being banned from attending games. In terms of identifying them at matches – in particular away games – they need to be reported instead of taking a blind eye. On social media, as another person has commented, the message has got to be unambiguous that smoke bombs and flares are completely unacceptable with no exceptions. There have already been instances of apologists on Twitter trying to condone them which is tantamount to encouraging the behaviour.

  2. Great article John and very timely. I totally agree.
    Culprits who are caught and convicted should be sued by City to pay any fines imposed on the Club by the FA.

  3. Flares and fireworks are potentially lethal and have no place at public events. If it’s possible to enforce a ban on alcohol, why cannot these pyrotechnical devices be confiscated before they are brought in? Yes, I appreciate the possible infringement of ordinary people’s civil liberties and the logistical difficulties involved but we live in the age of surveillance where people are fined for minor infringements monitored remotely. It must be possible to track down, fine and ban the mindless idiots who like Neolithic Neanderthals are attracted to the element of fire. Would society tolerate them being chucked around at any other public event – a spot of royalist pageantry in or around Westminster Abbey, for example?

  4. Thank goodness you’ve brought this up. As Mitchell Downie says why can’t these be found and confiscated at the gates. And please tell me the reason behind them. Is it because we’ve just scored and are winning? When I first saw them it was from the away side and I became really anxious. And why can’t those nearby who see who the culprit is, get a photo at least for identification/removal and as said above be sued by the club.

    • Exactly Sandra.

      In an age where everyone is carrying a camera why aren’t these people identified, named and shamed? I can only conclude that they are being shielded by their friends and the wider supporter base at games. Very depressing.

      • I’m guessing that by video/photographing them, you would run the risk of being spotted and the herd of schooligans would turn on you. I therefore presume supporters are too scared to intervene for fear of this. Setting one off in Wetherspoons Rochdale just showed they are brain dead.

      • I was at the game in 1985 because of the occasion I took my kids and their friends to see the last match of the season and the presentation of the division championship and parading of the cup. But it turned from joy and happiness to despair and trauma as trying to keep my group together and thinking about it being televised and what my family and friends were going through
        We will never forget

  5. Well said John, especially at this time of year.

  6. Great article and very timely (and defo huge part to play in our loss at Crewe as it took the sting out of our game (if I remember rightly one of our players picked up the ball and ran back to halfway line in order to restart the game quickly) and gave them chance to regroup – and we all know we don’t do well defending in added time!!!).
    Totally agree with you and all the other comments so far, these items basically do not belong at a football game involving Bradford City (or any event where the general public can not escape from a rogue one!).
    The kids who are throwing them need to be caught and punished publicly (and ordered to pay any costs we entail as a result of their actions!) so others know the consequences of using them, then hopefully they will decline or go follow L**ds or Udders instead!
    I believe it is totally through peer pressure and social media attention that these kids are after. They see other clubs doing it and think it will make them look big and clever infront of their mates.
    Unfortunately these kids usually stick together, so I doubt anyone will be grassing each other up and the fact they all manage to sit (sorry, stand) together at games makes it harder for anyone in the crowd to react or intervene when they are protected and surrounded by their fellow brainless idiots!
    Yes, surely more could be done to prevent these items actually entering the grounds – never seen one but they can’t be that small and not easy to hide if you had to unzip and open your jacket before being admitted.
    Let’s hope common sense prevails and this fashionable (senseless) act peaters out as quickly as it seems to have surfaced!

  7. I’m a first time commenter, but well done for calling this out, John here and Jason last week
    It’s a shame that there are some folk on twitter who’ve been apologists for this behaviour or at least the sort of behaviour that results in this sort of thing being regarded as all right, or just a laugh,youthful high spirits etc.
    Quite apart from our reputation being dragged down ‘everywhere we go’, which iit is, this is being done by fans of our club, of all clubs. The most recent occasions not two weeks prior to our end of season commemoration of the lives of our supporters & Lincoln City supporters lost in a Fire at our ground in1985.
    We’re becoming serial offenders. It’s been happening for months & we’ll be punished. Could mean sections of the ground being shut down,or worse, as I’m unconvinced the club will have been seen to have done enough to put our own house in order.
    Yet I fear the response will be of the ‘everyone hates us and we don’t care’ type, used by some Millwall fans still & some Leeds fans in the 80s & 90s.

  8. Totally agree, smoke bombs or flares whatever you want to call them have no place at Bradford City games home or away. However until the club & away ground stewards take direct action against those setting them off, nothing will change. As I said a few weeks back on a different article, the “fan” who set off a smoke bomb at Northampton was just asked not to do it again by the head of security at NTFC. At Doncaster a fan setting them off at half-time could clearly be identified as his hand was bright orange.. action taken? Nope!

    Tougher action needs to be taken, articles on WOAP & messages from the Supporters Board & Club, in all due respect are not going to deter the “No Pyro, No Party” crowd in their 80’s football casual cosplay outfits.

  9. I was walking along Midland road after a game recently. There was a group of young lads all wearing these brown scarfs, one of the lads was shouting in a policeman’s face I must say the policeman reacted very calmly. Another member of the group took a flag off an opposing supporter and set fire to it. Having been at the City fire I had to exercise self control the anger I felt could not be measured. I had my children/grandchildren with me I’m not sure I would not have been so controlled if I hadn’t..

    • OMG I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d witnessed that. I wasn’t at the match in 1985 but I’ve seen the video, I know personally the young lad who was half crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and was eventually picked up and thrown onto the field and suffered 50%burns and was expected to die. But fortunately in his words David Sharpe saved his life with extensive surgery over weeks, and trying to find different ways of treating the different burns. David Sharpe is/was my son in law and I know how to his dying day he became stressed and anxious at the sight of smoke. The trauma of the victims and their families never left him. These youths need to hear first hand what it feels like to be burnt so badly.

  10. The pre pubescent little tinkers are very common these..not only at city. In off licences managing to get alcohol then hiding it when police get near. Wearing the same stone island clothes with horrendous hair cuts..quite funny in a way but can see what will come next.

  11. Thought provoking article, but why has the football club not been proactive in condemning this act from the pitch (messages are best given face to face)/ Tannoy system or through the media previously ?

  12. This has been going on for a few years now. Plenty of time for all. concerned to have found a way of stopping these morons. We can only hope that finally they will be rooted out and dealt with property. I like the idea of sueing them.
    All of us there on May 11th 1985 saw, felt and heard things that remain with us for the rest of our lives. Nobody needs to see this. Catch them, name them and shame them.

  13. I have witnessed a group pubescent males or ‘Schooligans’ who tend to.congegrate around the visiting coaches on Midland Road after games trying to antagonise visiting fans.
    I saw the same group cause trouble at Hartlepool two seasons ago.
    If I can recognise them them surely those with the correct resources (video cameras etc) can.
    I had a facebook conversation with a ‘pyro’ enthusiast after the Crewe game. I know a 69 year old should not get involved but I was totally annoyed at the recent flare incident. He was so thick it was unbelievable. He could not see that older fans could be affected by the flares because they were present on 11/5/85.
    Or he didn’t care!
    I said that flares should only be used for their correct purpose- for ships in distress etc.
    He said their correct purpose was for throwing at football.games.
    At this point I gave up!
    Unfortunately he was displaying a level of intelligence and respect that has reached a new low in 2023.
    The SB and the ST have a responsibility to represent the majority of well behaved fans in these instances but as usual have decided not to.
    It’s all very sad.

  14. A very timely and well put article John. Thank you for writing it.
    I was at the game at Crewe and to see the flares on the pitch was quite distressing and saddening. One would think that Bradford City is the last football club on earth to have ‘fans’ throwing these kind of devices at a football ground. Like many others, I was at VP on 11th May 1985 and that day is still vivid in my mind. Seeing flares on a football pitch affects me, and others I’m sure, in a way that I find difficult to describe in some ways.
    I am sure more could be done to root out these idiots who use them and they should be banned from attending any Bradford City game for life.

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