My first ever City game was against Liverpool, in League Cup 2nd Round August 1980 aged 9. My Dad had bought tickets for my brother and I in the main stand along with one of his mates. I will never forget that night especially the excitement of seeing the Liverpool coach arrive, then going through the turnstiles into the Valley Parade main stand and seeing the lush green pitch. I remember vividly the wooden walkways and the wooden seats, not to mention the aromas of the pies and the pipe tobacco synonymous with Football Grounds at that time.
Our seats which were closer to the Kop but half way up the block in the main stand. They must’ve been decent seats as Billy Bremner sat next to my Dad, working out the City tactics ‘on the back of a fag packet (seriously)for the game at Doncaster Rovers on the Saturday as he was the Donnie manager in those days. Admittedly my brother and I were Liverpool fans at that time, bearing in mind they were the best side in the world. Our idol was then ‘King’ Kenny Dalglish, however that was soon to change when Bobby Campbell unbelievably won the game for City. After the game we thought if we can beat the best team around then we can beat anyone! From that day on ,we were officially Bantams for life.
We were frequent visitors to VP in the coming years, however it wasn’t until the 84/85 season that my brother (age 16) and I (age 14)were allowed to go without our parents. What a season it turned out to be. We had gone to all the Home games and a few away games, culminating into in our last home game against Lincoln City. I remember catching the 629 green bus into Bradford, with Craig (Crag), Marco & Si Widdop getting off by John Street Market before walking along Manningham Lane, giddy thinking about being presented with the trophy. The weather that day was cloudy and cold, I distinctly remember feeling the cold that bit more, as I was wearing a brand new Adidas cagoule which was the fashion at the time.
We got to the ground and went through the turnstile and took up our usual places behind the goal at the Bradford End. We were in great voice, as the ‘Champions, Champions’ rang out from all sides of the ground. I can’t remember anything really of the game prior to half time, I think that’s because nothing really happened, but for obvious reasons it paled into insignificance anyway. I can remember just before half time, with City kicking towards the kop, a small plume of smoke which had appeared at the top end of the stand, but we all thought it was just the high jinks of the day rather than anything remotely serious. We joined in with the chanting of ‘piss on it, piss on it’ and continued to think nothing about it. It wasn’t until I saw fans, one by one encroaching on to the field, that I thought ‘hang on a minute’ this doesn’t look right. The smoke turned to visible flame and had quickly taken hold at the back of the stand, we stood in shock and awe at the people running onto the pitch and the amounts of black smoke that were now bellowing high into the grey cloudy sky. The smell of the burning wood and the bitumen/tar reminded me of the 5th November such was the speed and virility that the fire had taken hold of the stand.
The fire within minutes had engulfed two thirds of the stand, and it was at this point that everyone who had stood in bewilderment at the Bradford End terrace, were jolted into the first stages of panic thinking that the fire could spread across onto the roof of our stand. The men had started to try to rip down the then 80’s style ‘hooligan’ fences bending them back with enough force so that elderly fans, women and children would be able to be passed over the wall and onto the pitch where the majority of fans from the stand had gathered. There were many men that day that acted selflessly in the Bradford End ensuring the more vulnerable fans were able to vacate the terraces, and even though, looking back, there was little or no threat from the fire reaching that area, the initial reaction was of safety in getting everyone out. My turn eventually came to be picked up and thrown onto the pitch, I think there were three to four guys holding the fence down whilst two other picked up fans and passed them over to the pitch near the goal.
Once on the pitch all I could feel was the heat of the fire which had now completely engulfed the stand. I looked around for my brother and friends who had joined me on the pitch, but one minute they were there and the next they had disappeared amongst the throng of the crowd. Being small I couldn’t really see much whilst on the field and continued to wind my way in and out of shocked fans trying to find my brother. After heading over towards the Midland Road stand I remember some fans shouting at John Helm who was sat on commentating alongside a cameraman in a makeshift scaffolding vantage point. ‘Turn the f’ing camera’s off’ they shouted, which is ironic now bearing in mind the media world we now live in.
I gave up in trying to find my brother and friends and decided to try to get out of the ground, by way of a exit door by the Bradford End which had been forced open i think by some Policemen. As we filed toward the door again the heat was tremendous and we had to cower as we passed the inferno, even though we were at least 100-200 feet away from it. As we excited onto Holywell Ash Lane, I saw people with burns, coats melted and smoke stained faces, but the most memorable sight was that the players and their families had gathered in the area in front of the terraced houses. There were conversations going on between them ‘Stuarts Dad is still in there’, ‘where’s Taff’, ‘Everyone is meeting at the Belle Vue pub’. I remember the then Captain Peter Jackson running toward me ‘Are you alright Jacko?’ i shouted, ‘Yes lad’ he replied as he continued on passed me. I cringe when I think of that, ‘why did i say that’ I thought, suppose I’ll put it down to ignorance of youth!
I made my way onto Manningham Lane and headed towards where I usually caught the bus home. I decided to get on the first bus that came to the stop which was the 640 which went up Bolton Road from town towards Eccleshill. As the bus moved further out of town the chatter turned to disbelief amongst the passengers as the volcanic like smoke mushroomed into the sky. The driver stopped the bus near the Prospect pub and got out to look at the sight. I will never forget that image of the fire ravaged stand and the tower of smoke!
When I got home, I remember my Dad and brother kicking off with me, asking where I’d been, why hadn’t i stayed with my brother etc,etc. This was then followed by the constant ringing of the telephone which were calls from family and friends who had seen the television footage, and were worried that my brother and I were safe!
Admittedly at that time I never really took it seriously, I never thought that there may have been people fighting to survive at the back of the stands, or those poor souls who succumbed to the heat and the smoke but couldn’t get to the pitch in time, it just didn’t register at all. I think I was more upset that I had ripped my new Adidas cagoule on the fence getting out of the Bradford End. I was and still am Bradford City mad, all i was bothered about was Football. My parents had acrimoniously separated 5 months before the fire, and during that time the only constant to my brother Carl and me, was 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. I was only young and I didn’t really understand what had happened that day, and didn’t know anyone that had lost family or friends, so there is a sense of guilt that you just got on with it. It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that it brought it all home to me what those families and friends of the 56 must have gone through in the aftermath of the fire, losing their loved ones.
I have ensured that my two sons are fully aware of what happened that day 11th May 1985, and that the memory of the 56 fans who went to see their team, but never went home, lives on.
RIP the 56 – Always remember