Five hundred and eighty two days on from the horrific fire that had ripped through the main stand to claim 56 lives in what was then British sport’s worst disaster, a stadium that had begun life in 1886 was once again reverberating to the sounds of supporters cheering on their team.
An England XI featuring a host of star names that included Kevin Keegan and Peter Shilton were beaten 2-1. But, as warmly as Mark Leonard’s late winner was greeted by the capacity 15,000 crowd, what mattered most about December 14, 1986, was the fact City were finally back home.
A nomadic existence that had seen the club play ‘home’ games at Elland Road and Leeds Road in the immediate aftermath of the fire before adopting Odsal as their base was finally over and, as Heginbotham made clear, Bradford’s football club was truly alive once again.
“It is a day we have been waiting for,” the City chairman told the following day’s Yorkshire Post. “The emotion before the match really reached me.
“Obviously, I had a lot of private memories and thoughts. But once the match started, I felt the club had come to life again at long last and, hopefully, we can go on from here.”
City’s journey towards that emotional return had begun within days of that awful afternoon in May, 1985, when celebration at being presented with the Third Division title before kick-off turned to horror inside the four minutes it took for the main stand to be engulfed by fire.
As Bradford began a grieving process that, for some, continues today, Heginbotham and vice chairman Jack Tordoff had the unenviable task of trying to plot a path forward.
The duo had returned to Valley Parade two years earlier to save the club from bankruptcy and so much had been achieved.
City’s return to the Second Division, a level the club had last graced in 1937, was testament to that. As was the impending £400,000 overhaul planned for the antiquated wooden main stand that would see a new roof installed, the old wooden seats replaced and the entire area concreted.
The work was due to start on the Monday after the final game of the season, the fateful visit by Lincoln City that was preceded by captain Peter Jackson being presented with the championship trophy. Then, though, disaster struck.
Initially, many felt the club would never return to Valley Parade. Too much pain, too many memories. Odsal, the home of Bradford Northern rugby league club, seemed the obvious place for City to relocate, though the possibility of starting afresh on a new site was also considered.
One Bradford Council-owned patch of land further down the Aire Valley towards Shipley was looked at by the board but, soon, it became clear the emotional attachment to Valley Parade was too big for the club to contemplate a move away from their home of 82 years. This much had been clear when City’s reserve team had returned just four months after the fire, the symbolic significance lifting everyone.
With funding available through grants and Bradford’s own insurance, Tordoff – charged with overseeing the rebuilding of the stadium – set about the task.
As Trevor Cherry and his players made the best of having to lodge at Odsal, a venue wholly unsuited to football, by finishing a hugely creditable 13th in Division Two, plans were revealed for the rebuilt Valley Parade.
The building work quickly got under way and, by December, City were ready to move back in.
The big question was how to mark the re-opening.
In the end, an exhibition match against an England XI managed by Bobby Robson was decided upon.
“This turned out to be the biggest job I have ever done,” said chairman Heginbotham in the immediate aftermath of City’s homecoming win. “Bobby Robson told me he would bring the kit but the release of the England players for the match was down to me.
“The top Football League managers are not the easiest people to get hold of but when I did they were extremely co-operative. None of the players is getting a fee and we are just meeting expenses.”
Heginbotham also revealed how the families had been invited to a private visit to Valley Parade in the days leading up to the official re-opening.
“The victims of the fire say they didn’t want special arrangements made for them,” he added. “They didn’t want to be identified as a special group to be pointed out. That is why we arranged a visit last week.”
The game itself was an entertaining affair for the capacity crowd. Don Goodman opened the scoring for the hosts in the first half, Paul Mariner then equalised for the England XI ten minutes from time only for Leonard to net a late winner from a John Hendrie cross.
Malcolm Scott, now a club ambassador, had joined the City board as an associate director in the immediate aftermath of the fire. He was one of five appointments made with a view to bolstering a three-man board of Heginbotham, Tordoff and Peter Fletcher with additional skills and experience to help the club through such a difficult time.
“Stafford did brilliantly in pulling that day together,” says Scott, at the time the manager of Yorkshire Bank Finance in Bradford. “Kevin Keegan was the big name but there were so many big names there on the day.
“They all wanted to help, knowing what Bradford City had gone through. The day itself was a very emotional occasion but the thing that really stands out is the dinner that was held at the Norfolk Gardens on the night after the game.
“I had to go get Kevin from his room to tell him the dinner was about to start. He answered just in his pants, which wasn’t a sight I had been expecting.
“I chatted to Kevin on the way down to dinner and it was clear how pleased he was to be able to do his little bit to help. Everyone there was the same. It was really heart-warming.”
As for Cherry, he also has fond memories of that return to Valley Parade even though his own stint as manager was coming to an end.
“We’d wanted something special to open the ground and discussed a few ideas at board meetings,” he says. “But you can’t get much bigger than England and Kevin Keegan. Seeing Valley Parade full of supporters again was a wonderful feeling.
“It was a very, very poor ground back in the Eighties, anyone who went there will know that. But they did a good job with the rebuild and today Valley Parade is a marvellous stadium. You can’t fail to be impressed.”
Rebuilding of Bradford’s iconic stadium
IN the aftermath of the fire, Bradford City seemed destined to make Odsal their permanent home.
Plans were drawn up for a £15m redvelopment that would see two new stands built down each side of the ground along with terracing at each end, but the emotional draw of Valley Parade was simply too strong.
City supporters wanted to go home and they got their wish on December 14, 1986.
As part of the £2.8m total rebuild of Valley Parade, the new main stand and boasted an all seater capacity of 5,000. Built on a concrete base, the new structure was so large that it had to be extended over South Parade, which as a result was pedestrianised. A row of executive boxes were also included in the new structure.
Steel doors with magnetic catches that could be remotely operated from a control box were installed, along with CCTV cameras and smoke sensors.
To the left, the Kop terrace was rebuilt and a roof installed to finally offer shelter to supporters.
As for the other two sides of Valley Parade, the Bradford End terrace was re-roofed and new barriers installed to hold 2,000 visiting supporters while the narrow 1,000 capacity Midland Road terrace that stood opposite the main stand was tidied up.