During my two years as an apprentice at Bradford City, one of the jobs we had to do after every match was clear the main stand of all the litter left by spectators. It was an old, dilapidated wooden stand that was built in 1908 and had long since seen better days. There were holes in the floor, under the rows of seats and on the stairways. And when we were clearing up, we’d just brush everything down those holes.
For years, generations of apprentices had done exactly the same thing so you can imagine how much rubbish had piled up down there under that old wooden stand. It was a tinderbox. All it needed was a stray cigarette down one of those holes and whoosh.
The stand had already been condemned as we prepared for our final match of the 1984-85 season against Lincoln City on May 11. In fact the demolition teams were going to move in two days later and knock it down once and for all. Tragically, however, that last match, when we would be presented with the Division Three Championship trophy in front of a full house, would prove to be one game too many for the old stand.
I can’t remember being as excited about a football match. I’d hardly slept a wink all night. I was a local lad and I was going to be the first Bradford City captain to lift a championship trophy for 56 years. Imagine that! It was a really big honour for me, almost like winning the FA Cup. My dad and brothers were going to be there; so were Ali, her dad and her brothers. And little Charlotte, too. It was the kind of day every footballer dreams of and it was going to happen to me. I had shredded wheat, bacon and eggs and toast for my breakfast as usual…and then I couldn’t settle all morning.
I usually got to the ground at about half past twelve, which was earlier than most of the other players. But I was even earlier this time. It was a sunny, windy day and there was a real party atmosphere as the fans started to arrive, with lots of supporters in fancy dress. And a party atmosphere in the dressing room, too. I’ve talked earlier about the fantastic spirit right through the club and particularly in the team and it really shone through that day.
Valley Parade was nothing like the top-class stadium it is now. There was a small, covered standing enclosure at the city end of the ground, an open Spion Kop at the opposite end and another small, low terraced stand on the Midland Road side. And then there was the main stand with its rows of seats, some wood and some plastic, behind an old-fashioned standing paddock area.
About half an hour before the kick-off we lined up and walked down the tunnel and out on to the pitch. A huge roar greeted us and we walked to the centre of the pitch and unfurled a banner, reading ‘Thank You Fans!’ I put the same picture in my office at Valley Parade when I became the manager in 2011. Then I was presented with the trophy and we did a lap of honour. Usually, a trophy ceremony used to take place after the game, followed by the lap of honour, but for some reason they decided to do it the other way round this time. I never found out why.
It was a nothing game for both sides and while it would be unfair to say we were going through the motions a bit, it wasn’t particularly intensive. With five minutes to go before half-time the score was still 0-0.
The first sign that something might be wrong was a puff of smoke at the kop end of the main stand. It grew bigger very quickly indeed and in no time at all the strong wind was blowing the smoke down the stand towards the City End. A few spectators were spilling from the front of the stand into the paddock and then on to the pitch and already I could see flames, also fanned by the strong wind, starting to run along the tarred roof of the stand.
Yet from the pitch we could also see that the people underneath obviously had no idea what was happening on the roof nor, for that matter, in the empty spaces below the stand where the blaze had actually started. They were more concerned about the smoke billowing around them. I knew straight away that this was big trouble. So did all the players. The referee stopped the game and called us together near one of the floodlights and not far from the burning stand.
By now hundreds of people were piling on to the pitch and I remember particularly one young boy who was struggling to clamber over the wall. He was a little coloured lad, no more than six or seven, I suppose. And instinctively I grabbed hold of him and hauled him on to the pitch. It was all done in an instant yet 26 years later, after I’d been given the manager’s job on an interim basis, a chap came up to me and said, “You won’t remember me, Peter, but you pulled me over the wall on the day of the fire.”
As soon as I realised how serious the fire was going to be, my only priority was my family and above all, Alison and Charlotte. I knew they would be in the players’ lounge so I just dashed off the pitch and forced my way into the bar. I could see them down at the front so I pushed my way through to them, grabbed hold of Alison and hauled her and Charlotte out of the room. I jumped over a wall on to the side of the pitch, Alison handed down Charlotte and then she jumped, too. We ran out of the stadium and the thing I remember most was the eerie silence outside in the street. There was no screaming, no pandemonium, as you might expect. Just the silence, a whirring noise and the smell of burning.
Once I knew Ali and Charlotte were safe I had to find out if my dad and brothers and Alison’s relatives were OK as well. I found her dad and told him where she and Charlotte were. Then as I set off to find my own family I was told that all the players had been asked to report to the Belle Vue pub at the top of the street for a head count.
As I walked into the bar, still in my kit, I saw that ITV’s World of Sport was on the television. People in the pub were watching quietly and almost as soon as I arrived, Dickie Davies, the presenter, said there was a news flash from Bradford City. He reported that there had been a fire at the stadium and the match had been stopped. And I remember him adding, “But at this stage there are no reports of any fatalities.” Instinctively, I knew he was wrong. I’d seen how quickly the fire had spread through the stand and how intense the flames were. I’d seen some people escaping on to the pitch but knew with absolute certainty that others would have been trapped in the stand. And I knew no one could have survived for long in there.
Almost immediately, live pictures were transmitted with a commentary from John Helm, ITV’s man in Yorkshire. It was hard to accept that the horrific pictures on the screen were of events happening 200 yards away and that I’d been out there on the pitch a few minutes earlier.
I don’t remember how long I was in the Belle Vue with the other players for the head count but as soon as we knew everyone was OK, I decided to go back to the dressing room and find my false teeth – I’d had two of my front teeth knocked out in a match when I was 16 – and my car keys. There was a fireman on duty near the entrance to the dressing rooms and office block, which had not been affected by the fire, and at first he said we weren’t allowed in there. But eventually I persuaded him to let me rescue my teeth, my club blazer and a pair of shoes.
I left the dressing room and walked up to one of the offices that overlooked the ground and saw body bags out there on the pitch. There were a lot, although the official line was still that there weren’t many fatalities. I knew different.
By this time I also knew that my dad, Anthony and Gerard were OK. One of the lads said he’d seen them but as there were no mobile phones, it wasn’t until I could ring them at home later that I could be sure. All my family and Alison’s family had been in A block, at the far end of the stand from where the fire started but even so my brother Gerard was almost caught up in it. He was at the back of the stand and said later it was like a wind tunnel carrying smoke and flames through the stand. He said people were trampling over one another as they rushed for the exits but he managed to find a way out just in time.
My dad was one of the survivors who escaped on to the pitch and one of the first people he saw was Stuart McCall’s dad, Andy, who was badly burned. Dad stayed around to help him until the ambulance people arrived.
I climbed into the car and for some reason didn’t follow my normal route home, via the city centre. Instead, and don’t ask me why, I chose a route that took me past Bradford Royal Infirmary. Maybe it was a subconscious thing. As I approached the hospital, I could see people sitting on the walls outside with bandages on their hands and faces. I simply had to stop and see for myself what was happening inside. Apart from the shoes and blazer, I was still wearing my City strip. I walked into the accident and emergency unit and I just could not believe the number of people in there with burns. It was horrendous, it really was. The smell of the hospital, the smell of burnt flesh.
The staff were doing a fantastic job but they were simply overrun by the number of casualties. I felt the least I could do was try to console some of the victims as best I could. And it was just so moving because there were people lying there with major burns who only wanted to talk to me about Bradford City. They wanted to congratulate me on what a wonderful season we’d had.
They said how great it would be to play against teams like Leeds, Huddersfield, Sheffield United and Sunderland next season and how they wouldn’t miss those games for anything. This was from people with sixty or seventy per cent burns. Tragically some of them didn’t make it to the start of the new season but survivors still come up to me to this day and remember how they talked to me in the hospital after the fire.
I’ve no idea how long I stayed but when I got home, the television crews were there with reporters wanting to talk to me. I was just a little-known footballer caught up in an enormous tragedy but minutes later pictures of me were being beamed around the country and beyond. When everyone had gone and Charlotte and Alison were in bed, I stayed downstairs in the lounge. I spent the night on the sofa, still wearing my kit, dumbfounded. Every television channel was showing footage of the fire over and over again and I just sat and watched. Transfixed, numb.
I may have slept, maybe not. Then the following morning, the screens were full of the story again and all the newspapers were carrying reports on their front and back pages and inside. It would have been impossible to get away from it all, even if I’d wanted to. Which I didn’t. On the Monday the players got together to talk about what we should do next. The full horror of the tragedy was known by this time and we knew that we would have to attend funerals and visit victims in hospital.
I suppose that if something so awful happened today, the players would receive counselling. They would be given some kind of advice about how to approach visiting people in hospital with sixty or seventy per cent burns. Or how to talk to relatives of the dead when they attended the funerals. We were, after all, a very young side and obviously none of us had ever been through anything remotely like this before. But there was no help, no advice. All we could do was just get on with those awful tasks in the only way we knew. As a team.
I have to say the players were fantastic. As captain it was down to me to draw up a rota for some players to attend every funeral. Trevor Cherry, the manager, and his coaching staff and club officials had their own arrangement. There was another rota for visits to the burns unit and another for fund-raising events in aid of the injured and the bereaved families. Two months after the disaster players from both sides attended a memorial service at Valley Parade and we all gave up our summer to do what we could.
The Bradford players had been due to go to Spain on the Wednesday after the match for an end-of-season trip but obviously that was cancelled, although some of the Lincoln players did go ahead with their own trip to Mallorca. And they had a major scare when their plane landed at Leeds Bradford airport at the end of the return journey, overshot the runway and the passengers had to leave by the escape shoots.
Incredibly, there was a suggestion that the Football League wanted to replay what was in effect an abandoned game. I even had a call from Gordon Taylor, then the chairman of the Professional Footballers Association, asking how the players felt about that. I told him in no uncertain terms that there was no way the Bradford City players would even consider it. The idea was dropped almost as quickly as it had been raised.
I will never forget May 11, 1985. It was a day that started happily and quietly but in the end a day that, in the space of a few minutes, changed the face of football and the safety of football grounds. It was a day that affected me for a very long time. It affected us all. And people all over the country can remember exactly where they were on the day of the Bradford City fire.
Eventually, as a group of players, we had to prepare for the new season. Obviously all our home games would have to be played away from home while Valley Parade was rebuilt, at Leeds, Huddersfield and, for the most part, Odsal Stadium, home of what was then Bradford Northern Rugby League club, now Bradford Bulls. Our first ‘home’ game, four matches into the season, was against Stoke at Elland Road. I’d been there many times as a supporter and had also played in a West Riding Cup game for Bradford. But I don’t recall any kind of special feeling because I was in the home dressing room at Elland Road. It was an important game for Bradford City, our first ‘home’ match since the tragedy and we needed to win it for our supporters. And we did, beating a good Stoke side 3-1.
Our next two games were played at Huddersfield’s old Leeds Road ground, the first an away match against Town, the next a ‘home’ game against Hull City. In the away dressing room one week, in the home dressing room the next. How bizarre is that? Town beat us 2-0 but we won 4-2 against Hull. Seven of our first nine matches were officially away from home and it wasn’t until November 2 that we played out first league game at Odsal. In all we played eleven league matches there, with six at Huddersfield and four at Leeds, and we started with a 1-0 win against Crystal Palace.
We won the next three on the bounce and in the end won six of the matches we played at Odsal. There should have been more but there were a lot of mid-winter postponements and sometimes it wasn’t fit for a rearranged game, which was then switched to Leeds or Huddersfield. Odsal is an impressive stadium these days but had not been fully redeveloped at the time. It was a vast bowl that in 1954 had staged a Rugby League Cup final replay between Halifax and Warrington in front of an official attendance of 102,569. But people say the crowd was much bigger, more like 120,000, because a load of fans had got in without paying. So you can imagine what an enormous ground it was and how a crowd of 10,000 or so would look lost in there.
And as well as being Bradford Northern’s HQ, it doubled up as the home of the Bradford Dukes speedway team, with a cinder track running all round the pitch. The corners of the pitch stuck out into the track and had to be removed if there was a speedway meeting and then replaced for football and rugby matches. They were just wooden boards with turf fixed on top so often a player would scuff the wood as he took a corner.
At first, we had to change in portakabins right at the top of the ground and then walk down a flight of steps on to the pitch through the crowd. It was a hell of a climb back up for the losers. Eventually, proper dressing rooms were installed under the main stand as part of the stadium’s redevelopment.
Despite its drawbacks, however, we didn’t mind playing at Odsal. The pitch wasn’t the best, the facilities were a bit primitive, the floodlights weren’t really up to standard and it was hellish cold in winter. So cold that the fans used to call it Ice Station Zebra. So if we thought it was tough, what was it like for visiting sides? Particularly against a side as committed as we were. After the fire, we stuck together like never before and that togetherness ran right through the club. Not just the players, manager and coaches but the supporters, the office staff, the directors, everyone.
We all knew what a fitting memorial it would be if we could not only survive at the higher level but also perform well. And we did. Given all the circumstances, to finish 13th in what is now the Championship was a tremendous performance by those players.
Lincoln City, our opponents on the day of the tragedy, did not play at Valley Parade again until Boxing Day, 2007. I was manager of Lincoln, Stuart McCall, my team-mate on that awful occasion 22 years earlier, was in charge of Bradford City. It was an emotional day.
Living with Jacko – From Touchline to Lifeline by Alison and Peter Jackson.
Published by Great Northern Books www.greatnorthernbooks.co.uk. ISBN:978-0-9576399-3-5
Personalised, signed copies are available at no extra cost from www.greatnorthernbooks.co.uk