Bradford’s grief over fire borne in general behind closed doors

Today in Centenary Square, Bradford, a service will be held ' as it has in past years ' to remember those 56 football fans who lost their lives in the fire at Bradford City's Valley Parade ground on this day in 1985 (Picture: Gerard Binks).
Today in Centenary Square, Bradford, a service will be held ' as it has in past years ' to remember those 56 football fans who lost their lives in the fire at Bradford City's Valley Parade ground on this day in 1985 (Picture: Gerard Binks).
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TODAY, I’LL be in Bradford’s Centenary Square. Just as I was on this day a year ago and the year before that.

Once again, I’ll bow my head with others who have made the same pilgrimage. Once again, I’ll listen in silence as the bells of City Hall play You’ll Never Walk Alone and Abide With Me.

And, once again, I’ll, no doubt, catch up with a few familiar faces, most of whom – after the usual small talk of what the past year has brought – will want to talk about the football season that has just ended. That’s invariably how it is most years.

Above all, though, today a city will remember. Remember that horrific day exactly 30 years ago when Bradford was plunged into a nightmare that, for some, is still going on.

Click here for our series of stories marking the 30th anniversary of the Bradford fire

I wasn’t there that awful day. Nor did I know any of those 56 men, women and children who lost their lives.

But, as someone born and bred in nearby Keighley, I did live through the aftermath of May 11, 1985, and saw what it did to the city.

Later, on joining the Telegraph & Argus, Bradford’s evening newspaper, as a cub reporter nine years after the disaster, I started to attend the annual remembrance service.

Initially, as part of my duties as a trainee newsman and, then, because I simply wanted to be there to quietly remember not just those who died or were injured, but also remind myself that this was a disaster that could have happened to any sports fan in an era when attitudes towards safety were disgracefully cavalier.

All these years on from not just Bradford but Hillsborough and Heysel as well, it is hard to believe how such appalling tragedies were allowed to happen. But they were and if there is to be a legacy from such unimaginable horror it is that the chances of a repeat in today’s modern stadia are almost unthinkable.

Back to Valley Parade. I’d sat in that main stand many times, the most recent being just three weeks before the fire. As had been the case on all those previous visits, I saw nothing unusual in the row towards the back of the stand where we were sitting being made entirely of wood.

Every other Sunday, we would cheer Keighley rugby league club on from an identical structure at Lawkholme Lane. A lot of grounds were like that in 1985 and the biggest problem as Burnley, my Dad’s team, slipped to a late defeat on a cool April afternoon, certainly from our vantage point, was finding a clear view of the pitch not impeded by the many stanchions holding up the roof.

That notion, of course, was shattered just 21 days later. The biggest problem at Valley Parade was not being able to see the pitch clearly. Instead, the main stand was a deathtrap.

From the back few rows made entirely of wood, through to the rubbish that had been allowed to accumulate below, to a roof so highly flammable that the fire spread, as one eye witness put it later, “faster than a man could run”, hindsight should not have been needed to tell us this was an accident waiting to happen.

Tragically, though, it was. No one foresaw the true danger. Not the club and not the authorities. Or if either did, not sufficiently enough to do anything about it.

In the cruellest of ironies, an overhaul that would have involved re-roofing, replacing the wooden seats and concreting the entire area was planned that summer. The steel girders had even been delivered ahead of that final-day meeting with Lincoln City, ready for the workmen to start the following Monday.

That upgrade, however, was more to do with City’s promotion to Division Two meaning Valley Parade would suddenly be subject to the Safety of Sports Grounds Act (1975) than any deep-rooted fears about supporters. Sadly, it was only after the inferno swept through with such devastating effect that things began to change.

The fire, of course, has been back in the headlines lately. The publication of Fifty Six – The story of the Bradford fire by Martin Fletcher, who lost three generations and four members of his family that day, has re-opened some old and very painful wounds around the city.

This is not the place to go into the contents, most notably the implications made about Stafford Heginbotham, then the chairman of the Bantams, and a number of fires at business premises that he either owned or had connections with. That is best left to those who have either the access to all the evidence or who lived through that dark, dark time.

But one consequence has been a revival of the debate as to how Bradford dealt with the tragedy in comparison to others elsewhere, most notably Hillsborough.

To me, Bradford is very different.

The families fighting for justice over Hillsborough had to use public opinion to sway ‘the establishment’ to agree to the long-overdue inquiry that has been under way in Warrington for well over a year.

In contrast, Bradford’s grief has been, largely, conducted behind closed doors and without pointing fingers. A desire to return to some form of ‘normality’ is how many fortunate to escape the blaze have explained to me their own attitude in the aftermath.

Many of those same supporters have also spoken of their unease at well-meaning gestures such as applause in the 56th minute at last year’s FA Cup final.

What many don’t want is May 11 to be turned into an ‘event’, something at which the rest of the country will rubber-neck before moving quickly on.

Others, though, believe more expressive shows of emotion, such as a minute’s applause or chants ‘for the 56’, are the best way forward.

There are, of course, no rights or wrongs in any grieving process. What works for some will not work for others.

Personally, however, I have always admired Bradford’s response to the unimaginable horror that befell its people.

From the understated but moving ceremony in Centenary Square to the two memorials at the re-built Valley Parade, itself a monument to that awful day, how the city remembers is, to me, done in a very ‘Yorkshire’ way.

A year ago, after saying my goodbyes and heading back towards the car park that sits behind the Victoria Hotel, I decided to tweet my own very minor tribute. It read: The Bradford fire is seen by many as the forgotten disaster. But not here and not today. #bcafc #lcfc #abidewithme

On this, the 30th anniversary, recent events have made redundant the suggestion that the disaster is no longer in the wider country’s conscience.

But I will still, as the City Hall bells ring out, feel very proud of how Bradfordians continue to pay tribute to those brothers, sisters and children who never made it home from Valley Parade on May 11, 1985. RIP.