Some reflections on the Bradford City Fire and Hillsborough from False Nine editor Hugo Greenhalgh
David Conn: “If at Hillsborough, police mismanagement exposed Sheffield Wednesday’s and the game’s ramshackle approach to the safety of supporters, the Bradford fire can be said to have highlighted football’s dysfunctional priorities even more starkly”.
The past week has seen the front and back pages strewn with the shocking revelations about the Hillsborough Disaster that took place 23 years ago. What happened that day was a tragedy, but it becomes all the more devastating when we discover the cover-up that followed and the extent of the institutionalized corruption at levels of society we should be able to trust the most.
For the editors of this blog, it has been a humbling time. Reading about Hillsborough, listening to interviews and watching television footage of that fateful day is certainly enough to reduce one to tears. The simple fact that fans woke up on the morning of April 15th 1989, went off to a football match and never returned is a heart-breaking thought. However, as part of a generation of football supporters living in the legacy of the Taylor Report we will surely never be able to fathom the full extent of Hillsborough. For this reason, we felt it would be inappropriate for us to write on the topic when so many journalists who lived through the Disaster have already done that so poignantly.
Yet four years earlier, a disaster no less tragic and no less avoidable took place that is hardly spoken about these days. The Bradford City fire took the lives of 56 people and injured hundreds more on May 11th 1985, as Bradford played Lincoln City on the last day of the Division Three season. It was a terrible incident that also unfolded on television, with both the BBC and ITV broadcasting coverage of the fire. The horror was there for the whole nation to see but the negligence and disregard for football fans was disgraceful.
I had been aware of the fire previously, but it took a couple of moments this past summer to make me fully comprehend the scale of it. Firstly, I read David Conn’s excellent book The Beautiful Game? – Searching for the Soul of Football. His account of the dramatic influx of money into football over recent years is fascinating, while chapters on Bradford and Hillsborough were particularly insightful. In fact, it partially prepared me for what came out last week; that South Yorkshire Police and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club were culpable for what happened. However, reading about Bradford was equally shocking because it was so unfamiliar to me.
The other moment of realisation came when I visited the ground itself. Andrew and I had made the trip to Bradford from Leeds to catch a pre-season friendly between Bradford Park Avenue and Doncaster Rovers. Keen to make a day of it, we went over to Valley Parade. Doing the customary walk around it, we eventually came to the memorial to the fire. As with the Hillsborough equivalent at Anfield, the names of the victims are listed alongside their ages; the majority were over 70 or under 20.
But also like Hillsborough, the tragedy lies in the fact that it so easily could have been avoided. The fire is said to have started when a cigarette was dropped on the wooden main stand at Valley Parade, setting it alight. Underneath the stand was a large pile of litter, a tinderbox just waiting to be ignited. Valley Parade was severely breaching the government’s Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds – colloquially known as ‘the Green Guide’. The Guide specifically outlines the risk of having a void underneath the stand – for the simple reason that a lit cigarette could cause a fire very easily if rubbish was allowed to build up there.
And litter had indeed built up under that main stand. Conn notes how policemen examining the debris came across a copy of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus dated Monday 4 November 1968, as well as a bag of peanuts costing six old pennies (decimalisation had been introduced in 1971). The issue was, the Green Guide was not adhered to because Bradford was not a senior ground required by law to have a safety certificate. In his report into the fire, Mr Justice Oliver Popplewell condemns this lax attitude: “Had the Green Guide been complied with, this tragedy would not have occurred”.
Yet for a club in Bradford’s position, human safety was frequently compromised in order to cut expenditure. For example, St John Ambulance sent written evidence to the inquiry complaining of a lack of financial support for first aid equipment – a donation that should have been offered by the club.
Furthermore, the danger of the wooden stand was brought to Bradford’s attention on more than one occasion. Letters were written by the Health and Safety Executive stating, “the timber construction is a fire hazard and in particular there is a build-up of combustible materials in the voids beneath the seats. A carelessly discarded cigarette could give rise to a fire risk”. While efforts were made to keep the stand itself tidy, nothing was done about that fateful void beneath it. It is highly likely that the club did not want to spend money restructuring the stand, or simply miscalculated the risk.
The Bradford City fire should have been a wakeup call for clubs across the country. It should have been a reminder that cutting costs could cost lives. It should also have been a lesson for the FA, who as the overseer of England’s football grounds could have used the disaster to issue some wholesale changes to the safety and quality of the country’s stadia. Instead, it was left to a high-court judge, Lord Taylor, to dish out the cold, hard facts four years later that football grounds, and the supporters who flocked to them, had been neglected to deadly levels.
The most important thing about the past week is that the families of those 96 people can take some, small amount of solace in knowing it was not their fault. The police, the government and even The Sun newspaper have held up their hands at last and admitted what they did was despicable, insensitive and fundamentally wrong.
There is no political narrative to the Bradford fire. The city and club responded well to the tragedy and it united their fans. Speaking in 2003, supporter Dave Pendleton points out that, “the relationship between the club and the fans became invisible. It became one community, a group of people who had been through the worst imaginable horror, but wanted to support the club even more as something positive, an affirmation of life carrying on.”
Unfortunately though, the football world and wider British society did simply carry on. This was a society all too concerned with condemning supporters as second-class citizens when it should have learnt from Bradford that treating people like animals can have disastrous costs. The consequences of these mistakes have been well documented, but the precursors have been too quickly forgotten. We may complain about the concrete corporatism of new stadiums, but there is nothing romantic about the football grounds of the 1980s. The neglect they suffered meant they were death traps waiting to happen.
The Bradford City Fire has always struggled for column inches and the truth is, the vast majority of football fans simply don’t know about it. Let’s remember Hillsborough, but let’s not forget Bradford either.
Follow Hugo Greenhalgh on Twitter: @HugoGreenhalgh