Comment – Why flares and smoke bombs must be stamped out of the game

Not required: 'Smoke bombs and flares have no part to play.
Not required: 'Smoke bombs and flares have no part to play.
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BRADFORD CITY’S last game of 2018, away at Rochdale, should have been remembered entirely for the attacking football in the Bantams’ 4-0 win.

Instead it was tainted by the actions of a few who gave no thought to the safety of the rest of the away fans packed into Spotland.

More needs to be done to deter this thoughtless and dangerous behaviour. Making these acts criminal is not enough in itself.

Paul Firth

So it is that I find myself writing as a lifelong Bradford City fan and as a survivor of the Valley Parade fire of 1985, but with my legal background refusing to go away.

During my years as a lawyer I never found it good enough to know that something or other was ‘the Law’. I always wanted to know why it was so.

So why does an Act of Parliament make it a criminal offence to possess a flare or smoke bomb in a football ground during a game? And why is the offence punishable with imprisonment?

The answers are not that difficult. Flares and smoke bombs burn at very high temperatures. Flares, in particular, can reach 1600 degrees C and are designed not to be put out quickly.

Smoke bombs, not intended to be used in the middle of a packed stand, can be dangerous to asthma sufferers and those with other breathing difficulties.

As evidence of just how dangerous these devices can be, one City fan suffered bruising and a burn near to his eye and another had to leave the concourse under the stand, unable to breathe in the smoke-filled atmosphere after a device was ignited in an even more enclosed area.

And ‘atmosphere’ seems to be the justification for letting off these devices. The young fans involved – and it seems always to be young fans – claim that the pyrotechnics add to the atmosphere of a game. Some of us, never mind that the law is against them, might disagree. Take, by way of contrast, flags and banners.

There is a good argument that they are a way of showing support for the team, thus improving the atmosphere.

But would those supporters who bring in their banners want to claim the right to drape them over other fans in the rows below, so that those other supporters could not watch what was going on?

And therein seems to be the crucial point. What, if any, consideration do the smoke bombers have for their fellow fans?

I have seen the argument that we, the more considerate group, are just killjoys.

Even if we are killing some of their joy, we are at least trying to prevent them from truly killing a real person. As recently as 2013 a 14-year-old boy was killed in Brazil.

The son of a man killed in Cardiff in 1993 says ‘nothing has been learned’ from the tragedy.

And as soon as the word ‘tragedy’ comes up and the concept of learning from deaths at football grounds, it is inevitable that all Bradford City supporters who were around in 1985 are taken back to the ultimate tragedy, involving thick smoke and intense heat.

I do not need to be told that the Valley Parade fire could not happen in these days when wooden stands are outlawed. I know quite a bit about that day, not least how thick, acrid smoke in a confined space is a killer.

Four years ago I was working as programme adviser on a documentary about the 1985 fire. I was constantly reminded how difficult it was for some to discuss or watch the scenes from that day.

Equally, I realised how little knowledge so many people, including the younger people of Bradford, have about those events. I was even asked one day during filming if anyone had been injured.

I helped the programme makers mainly because they wanted to tell the story of the fire through the voices of those most deeply affected.

The film, like my earlier book, was simply a historical account from survivors.The more hours I put into that film the more I knew we had to emphasise how quickly the fire spread, how ferocious the flames were and how lethal was the blinding smoke.

None of this should be forgotten, painful as it is for so many.The messages clearly have not reached those who let off flares and smoke bombs. It isn’t enough to call them idiots and shrug one’s shoulders. More needs to be done to deter this thoughtless and dangerous behaviour.

Making these acts criminal is not enough in itself. Detection, conviction and some tough sentencing is essential. Long banning orders keeping them away from football grounds will be gratefully received by the rest of us.

One last, but significant, part of the deterrent is publicity. So far as is possible, given that some of these miscreants will be juveniles, names have to be published – by the press and by any club seeking to restore its reputation.