On 11th May 1985, Bradford City played Lincoln City in the penultimate game of the Division Three season. It was meant to be a day of celebration, with the Bantams already crowned as league champions, and before the game, they were presented with the trophy.
What followed wasn’t celebration, but scenes of tragedy as a fire engulfed the Main Stand at Valley Parade stadium, resulting in 56 people losing their lives.
This weekend, every football club in the Premier League and Football League will hold a minute’s silence to pay their respects, ahead of the 30th anniversary of the worst fire disaster in English football history.
Anyone who has been to Valley Parade in recent years will know that it is an impressive stadium. Although Bradford now ply their trade in League One, with a capacity of more than 25,000, the stadium is befitting of a club that was in the Premier League as recently as 14 years ago. It was a different tale back in 1985, when Valley Parade was noted for its old-fashioned design. There had been warnings about a large build-up of litter underneath the seats in the Main Stand, which had a wooden roof, and the stand had already been chalked-in for demolition and rebuilding. One letter had stated that “a carelessly discarded cigarette could give to a fire risk.”
The match started off with the kind of party atmosphere that would be expected of the league champions celebrating their success in front of their home supporters. However, the alarm was raised at 3.40pm, with the match still at 0-0. A small fire had been noticed amongst the debris below the floorboards of the seats, which was probably caused by a dropped cigarette. Supporters first raised concerns when they felt the heat beneath their feet, and attempts to find a fire extinguisher were in vain. The fire brigade were called by the police at 3.43pm.
Harrowing video footage still exists on YouTube of the disaster unfolding; it certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted, and not something that I would recommend watching. The realisation of the unfolding horror leaves an indescribable, empty feeling in the stomach of anyone who watches it.
The fire was noted by commentator, John Helm as it first began to take hold in the stand. It quickly began to escalate, and the police began to evacuate the stand with supports pouring onto the pitch.
At first, it’s clear that the full seriousness of the situation wasn’t realised, and there are still audible chants of “We love you City, we do” in fitting with the celebratory atmosphere of the day. However, within a matter of less than four minutes, the fire had completely engulfed the whole stand. The wooden roof was covered in tarpaulin and held together with bitumen and asphalt. This highly-flammable combination proved to be deadly, as what started as a small fire rapidly became a fatal blaze.
Naturally, panic began to spread amongst supporters as they tried to escape the stand. Fortunately, there was no netting at the front of the stand to prevent spectators from spilling onto the pitch – if there had have been, as there was at Hillsborough in the disaster that claimed 96 lives four years later, the death toll may have been much higher. However, the exit gates at the back of the stand were closed, and some were forced open by supporters to escape the stand.
Police officers and supporters alike helped in the rescue operation, and the fire brigade arrived four minutes after being called, but it was too late for 56 supporters who couldn’t escape in time; some were found still sat upright in their seats, some were crushed trying to escape, and one man escaped the stand onto the pitch, but was engulfed in fire and died later in hospital. 54 of the victims were Bradford City supporters, and 2 were from Lincoln City. Half of them were under 20 or over 70; the oldest was 86 year-old Sam Firth. At least 265 others were injured, but ultimately survived. Much of the disaster was broadcast live on ITV and BBC Grandstand, and the horror of the disaster received worldwide attention.
A commemoration service was held at Valley Parade in July 1985, which had been immediately closed after the disaster. Many police officers and spectators were commended for bravery in their rescue efforts.
The horror of the disaster led to changes in the construction of British football stadiums, which made them safer – although ultimately, too few lessons about supporter safety were learned to prevent the Hillsborough Disaster. The Popplewell Inquiry which followed the Bradford Fire Disaster led to new legislation which banned wooden grandstands with immediate effect, and smoking within them. Nowadays, all-seater stadiums in this country must be non-smoking venues by law.
Valley Parade was closed, rebuilt and re-opened in 1986; further reconstruction throughout the 1990s meant that the stadium is now almost unrecognisable from 1985. Lincoln City immediately closed all wooden sections of their Sincil Bank home, and rebuilt them in due course, and the same pattern was replicated across the country. It is chilling that it took such a tragedy to initiate such changes.
To this day, Bradford City supports the Bradford Royal Infirmary Burns Unit as their official charity partner. Each year, there is a memorial service in Bradford, to which Lincoln City send a representative. Bradford City’s captain that day, Peter Jackson, was Lincoln manager between 2007 and 2009, and fulfilled this role during that period.
The 1980s were undoubtedly the darkest period in English football history, with international hooliganism, the Bradford Fire, the Heysel Disaster in Belgium during the same year, and the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster.
Thankfully, football is now a much safer environment for supporters across the country – but in the wake of the 30th anniversary of that horrific day, it is worth sparing a thought for those who lost their lives in the Valley Parade fire tragedy. It is a sobering reminder that some things really are more important that football.