John Collins: I can smell the day now as I write

I was a 14 year old who had being going to watch Bradford City since the age of 11, City were due to be crowned champions of the old division 3. The sun was shining and everything was set up for a day of celebrations.

Bradford City FireMyself, A couple of friends Andy Priestley, Pat Gartland and my Cousin Paul Taylor were looking forward to the day in front of us. We arrived early at the ground to take in the atmosphere, Andy was a programme collectors dream, always bought one. Little did he know that this programme would be a collectors item a couple of hours down the track. We entered the ground and moved our way down the paddock to the front wall just in front of the stand, I can smell the day now as I write. The ground was practically empty, it must have been a good one and a half hours before kick off. I can still hear the song that seemed to be played at every home game at the time, The Rolling Stones – Undercover of the night. The players came out to warm up to applause from the fans in the ground.

The atmosphere was building, the club were planning to present the league trophy before kick off. Casting my mind back now, there were 56 people who had the same feeling of excitement and anticipation of a great day ahead that we had, not knowing the fate that awaited them. With 20 minutes to kick off, the ground was packed with 11,000 supporters all whipped up ahead of the trophy presentation. The players came out to rapturous applause and were presented with the trophy, they took a lap of honour with Jacko leading the charge, some fans joined in the celebrations on the pitch ! But everyone including the authorities were in good spirits and didn’t attempt to eject them from the ground.

We were witnessing the best team  City had produced for many a year, McCall, Hendrie, Jackson, Goodman, players who would go on to have distinguished careers, take the club to the next level. After all the pre match hullabaloo it was inevitable the game wouldn’t be a classic, and true to form it was 0-0 as we approached the 40th minute. I remember a minor disturbance just behind us and remember seeing some supporters in the furthest corner of the seating area standing up as smoke started to rise. I’ll always remember the City fans singing in a light hearted way “p*ss on it, p*ss on it” they believed, as we all did, that it was something and nothing. The fans were blissfully unaware that in 10 minutes the stand would be burned to the ground and 56 people who were in great spirits a few minutes previously would no longer be with us.

The smoke was getting more and more now and you could sense that people in the area and police officers were getting concerned. The songs weren’t being sung anymore and the game had become a by product of what was unfolding in front of our eyes. We were urging the police to let us over the walls but while the game was ongoing they were reluctant to allow us to do that.  By this time the whole seating section had been evacuated and the first orange flicker had appeared, this was the sign for the police to start asking people to climb over the paddock wall – unbelievably the game continued.  Until I saw the unedited video I was beginning to think I had imagined Mark Ellis running past me down the wing, but I can see myself take one step forward as he whistled past me. He was that close I could feel the breeze he left in his wake.

I was thinking in my mind why isn’t the ref blowing up ! A few seconds later he had no choice as the number of people climbing over the wall were starting to spill onto the pitch. I remember looking up and seeing the entire section of seating where the smoke started in flames, it took my breath and I started to panic that it could envelope three quarters of the ground. I moved to the midland road side of the ground without looking back and once there I turned round to see the nightmare quickly unfolding. I had to get out of the ground. I walked out of the midland road exit and once on Midland Road I looked into the sky and saw thick plumes of acrid black smoke billowing hundreds of feet into the sky.

I had lost Andy, Pat and my Cousin Paul in the kerfuffle and didn’t know what to do, I started walking along Manningham Lane, I don’t know why or where I was going, I remember seeing a coach load of kids  who had been part of the pre match razzmatazz driving past, tears streaming down their faces. I stopped and started making my way back to the ground and bumped into Andy, Pat and Paul. At this time everyone was oblivious to the notion there would be any victims, and fans were flocking away from the ground almost dumbstruck by what was happening, but not once did you get the impression anyone thought there were people dying .

My family had been at a wedding all day so I arrived home to catch the back end of the live shots on ITV’s World of Sport. It seemed like everything was in limbo, yes the stand had burned down but that was it, all I could think of was “when will they replay the game”.  As a 14 year old you move on to the next thing and although it was the topic of conversation there wasn’t enough information coming through – a sign of the times.

The family were aware what had happened and had come home before heading back to the night doo. There was a period of 3 or 4 hours where nothing seemed to happen, then the news came on TV with a picture on screen later that night. It took me a few seconds to realise what the picture was, I was thinking, “has there been another fire somewhere” ? Then the announcer said “40 dead at Football Stadium Fire”, the stand was no more than a few burned beams.  I have to say it sent a major shiver down my spine and I found myself not wanting to be confined to the house, I wanted to share the grief with everyone who was there that day. We all know the final figure would rise to 56.

I representated Bradford Schools in the October following the fire at Valley Parade, and we went out to warm up before the game. Only the two floodlights at the city end were lit up and I jogged down to the paddock area where we had been stood on the day of the fire. It was dark and I recall standing there for a few moments to take in what had gone on that day in May. I was looking into an empty terracing that once housed the old timber stand, where when I was 11, my dad had taken me to watch City play Man United in the league cup, it was windy and wet and some of the tarpaulin from the stand roof was falling onto the pitch, I’ll never forget the United fans from across the kop mocking the club for the embarrassment it was causing – the stand would have the last laugh.

I think to 11,000 people who were there that day time froze, and a part of them  will forever stay in Saturday 11th May 1985. I know for me, I began to lose interest in following the club once the ties to that fateful day left the club and new faces arrived. Peter Jackson left a season after the fire and when City just missed out on promotion in 87’ to the then division one, Stuart McCall, John Hendrie, Don Goodman and most of the key players who had been part of the worst day in the history of Bradford City had departed, and a huge hole had been left from my viewpoint and any affiliation to the club had gone.

No matter what, we will always remember the 56 and the events of that day should never be forgotten.

John Collins aged 42.

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