Greg Abbott’s story ‘It was a kind of hell’

“Where’s my dad? Where’s my dad? WHERE’S MY ******* DAD?” Greg Abbott apologises for the profanity, as he did to his father on the afternoon of May 11, 1985 when he gripped him in a bearhug and wouldn’t let go.

He is describing the moment when he found Fred Abbott, bewildered but unscathed, in the smoky aftermath of the fire that killed 56 people at Valley Parade.

Greg Abbott
Greg Abbott

“I called him an idiot and that’s the clean version of what I said,” says Abbott junior, 25 years on.

“I had found my mum, my girlfriend and her family earlier on, so I knew they were all safe.

“But a good 45 minutes after the fire had started, there was still no sign of my dad.

“I just knew his first instinct would be to go in there and help people. I was going hysterical, not knowing that he had been safe all along. He had just been trying to round people up and see if they were alright.

“When he eventually turned up I gave him the biggest hug, and then I swore at him. I said, ‘Why don’t you just do what you are ******* told? Why do you have to get involved?’ That has always been his way – he would help anybody if he could. I’m proud of him for that. But
he knew why I was mad with him. He understood.”

Abbott shivers in his seat in Bradford City’s Co-Operative Stand, the modern structure that has long since replaced the stand that was claimed by the inferno of ‘85. A biting Yorkshire wind is unsettling the Carlisle United manager and he asks if the interview is almost through.

A request for 10 more minutes is granted and we then discuss the civic service in Bradford tomorrow that will mark the 25th anniversary of the tragedy.

“Unfortunately, I can’t be there,” he says, gazing down at the pitch. “But whatever I am doing on the day, I will spare a thought for that little piece of green grass that I stood on 25 years ago, and saw those things that still feel like they only happened yesterday.”

The day that feels like yesterday began like so many other mornings in the 1984/5 season for the 21-year-old Abbott: up at 9am, a full English breakfast and then off to Valley Parade.

Bradford City v Lincoln City. The final game of the Division Three season. The coronation of the champions and a title winner’s medal for Abbott, the emerging midfield battler in Trevor Cherry’s Bantams team. The greatest day of his young career.

“We were a bit of a rag-arse and bobtail unit, but Trevor and Terry Yorath, his coach, were brilliant motivators,” he says.

“All the lads loved each other. We were like family. We would go 1-0 down and never worry because we had such an incredible spirit.

“Valley Parade was a brilliant place to play in. It was a tight ground and 10,000 in there felt like 100,000 at Wembley.

“It was a homely, family club. It had been through some difficult times but it got back on its feet. I came for less than half the money I had been on at Coventry but it was the best thing I ever did.”

Abbott remembers the euphoric mood in the dressing room as he pulled on his amber kit and his boots, as his team-mates’ thoughts drifted to their holiday to Torremolinos, which was planned for the following day.

He remembers his first glimpse of the trophy, which was duly lifted by Peter Jackson, the captain, before the game. He remembers the lap of honour, and the way the players then stood in a line, each raising a cardboard letter to spell out ‘THANK-YOU FANS’. He
remembers the affection that flowed back towards them from the 11,076 crowd.

He can’t tell you much about the 40 minutes of football that followed but can guide you to the precise blade of grass where he was standing when he first saw the flames and the smoke.

“My first thought was that some idiots were messing about with a bit of fire,” he says. “It didn’t look like much. Within a few seconds, the situation had changed into a kind of hell.”

The fire in the Main Stand started when a cigarette was dropped into a polystyrene cup and ignited piles of rubbish which had been allowed to gather beneath the old, wooden seats. With staggering force, it swept through the structure as supporters scattered for safety.

“Very quickly, you realised this was trouble,” Abbott says. “You started to think about people you knew, wondering if they were going to be safe. But you didn’t have much time to think. Myself, Dave Evans and Peter Jackson were lifting people from below the terracing,
over the wall and onto the pitch, because that was the only escape route. The people who tried to go the other way, towards the turnstiles…” His voice falters. “…God bless them.”

A few moments later, he resumes. “On the pitch, we found strength from nowhere to lift supporter after supporter over that wall. It could have been 15, 50 or 100 people. People were saying, ‘Greg, there are people in there, we’ve got to get them out.’ We were very warm
down there in our shirt-sleeves, but we were in the safest place . The people who were in the stand were hysterical and probably didn’t know where it was coming from.

“My mum and everyone else I knew had gone to the players’ bar earlier on, so I was happy that they were safe and hadn’t got caught up in it. Not being able to find my dad was horrendous, until he eventually showed up. Later on, after the firemen had taken over, we were
all ushered to a pub up the road and we tried to get to grips with what was happening.”

The fire had eviscerated the entire stand in four minutes. “Somebody came into the pub and said, ‘It’s alright, nobody has been killed’.

“That was unbelievable to hear and for a moment there was a feeling of celebration. Then someone came in and said there had been a fatality. Your heart sank. Then there was news of another. That number eventually got to 56. You appreciated then how horrendous this had been. And the more you think of it, you can’t help but wonder how it wasn’t so much more.”

Torremolinos was cancelled, along with all other planned celebrations, as the city of Bradford mourned the dead and tended to the 265 injured.

“As players, we paired up into twos and threes and went on hospital visits, attended funerals, went to charity events and everything else,” Abbott says. “And what you found then was that the Bradford people united and started looking after each other.”

The Queen and Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, were quick to convey their sympathy but Abbott had no interest in the tragedy’s national significance. This was Bradford’s own suffering. “Everybody from outside paid their respects, said the right things, but it was the people here who stuck together and battled through it all,” he says.

Abbott could not bear to revisit the smouldering shell of the Main Stand until it was demolished and rebuilt.

During that process, Bradford relocated to Huddersfield, Leeds and the city’s Odsal rugby league ground. “It was quite scary to talk to the injured people in hospital, when all they could say was, ‘Make sure you have a good season next season. That will make us better’. That shows you how strong they were.

“My mum is still reeling from it all now. And I won’t deny that it hit me hard. I’m an emotional man and I don’t like to see people being hurt. My only way of thinking I could help was to come back and help the club drive forward. Every game we played from that point onwards was done for all those poor people.”

He looks around Bradford’s impressive arena which bears little resemblance to the doomed arena of ’85, and which has housed Premiership football before the Bantams’ slide towards League Two. He says: “This is their memorial. Everything this club has achieved, I put down to the memory of the people who we lost that day. They will never be allowed to be forgotten.”

Three weeks ago, Abbott drove out of Brunton Park after a frustrating defeat to Oldham and aimed his car towards Valley Parade (the Coral Windows Stadium, to give it its current sponsored title). At the charity dinner, attended by most of his old-team-mates, he was invited to speak for two minutes and hogged the microphone for at least 15.

During an impromptu stand-up show, he jested about the TV punditry of the old Bradford striker Don Goodman (“he tells the viewers about getting in front of the marker and hitting the target…I never saw him do that once in three years”), poked fun at his old midfield partner Stuart McCall (“He had me to thank for making him look good”) and reminisced about the first game back at the repaired Valley Parade, when Abbott and Bradford took on a star-studded England XI in December 1986 (“I thought I was on the wrong side that day”).

Later, the jokes stopped and the more meaningful memories drifted back down the years as Abbott and his colleagues stood in sombre silence. How, a quarter of a century on, does he now reflect on his experience of one of the game’s most disastrous days?

“I don’t think it’s changed me,” he says. “I can’t use it as an excuse or a justification for anything I have done wrong over the years. That wouldn’t be right.

“My life is not as affected by it as others. People suffered a lot more than I did from it. It is for them that I wish it all never happened.”

This being the first interview of any length he has ever given about the tragedy, the questions keep tumbling. Is it not entirely proper that Abbott and his team-mates should be regarded as heroes for pulling so many people to safety on that horrific afternoon?

“No,” he replies, firmly. “There were a lot of good people attached to that club who did what they could to make the day less disastrous than it could have been.

“The real heroes are the people who were really badly affected, and have since come to terms with it. Not people like me.”

Has he ever witnessed the footage of the inferno, which remains freely accessible at the click of a computer mouse? “To this day, I haven’t,” he says. “At the dinner the other week, somebody had a book which was raising money and my lads were going through the
pictures. I couldn’t even look at them, so I doubt I’ll ever be able to watch the film of it.

“But I was there. I saw it. I know what it was.”

What, then, from this tale of appalling tragedy and courageous renewal, is his most vivid memory?

He considers the final question for a moment as his eyes film over. “There was one guy of about 40 who came out from behind the goal,” he eventually says. “He was saying, ‘Greg, I’ve lost my dad, I’ve lost my dad.’ I tried to reassure him, saying he would be alright, that he would find him and that everything would be sorted. About an hour later, I saw the same guy wandering around, crying his eyes out. ‘Greg, I still can’t find him.’

“It might be that his dad had just gone off home, because a lot of people got separated in the chaos of what happened. But to this day, you can’t help but wonder. It was such a desperate situation.”

The original Cumberland News article can be found here.