Remembering Bradford and the questions that still need answering


Guardian HeaderThis Bradford City Fire article is re-published here with permission from The Guardian. The comments section on this post at the Guardian website makes for some interesting additional reading, with a comment from Martin Fletcher himself regarding criticisms of the article. You can read the original article here.

A few months back an old friend of mine put a photograph on Facebook that, for those of us who know his story, was both beautiful and tragic. His name is Martin Fletcher and the picture was of him and his brother, Andrew, at Christmas 1984. Andrew is 10 at the time. Martin is older by a year and, without a doubt, the most resilient and courageous person I know. Reading his words brought a profound kind of sadness. “Should be celebrating our kid’s 40th today,” he had written. “Happy birthday bro.”

Martin went to my school but talked with a different accent from the rest of us. He and Andrew had grown up in Yorkshire, in a family of Bradford City fans, before moving to Nottinghamshire because of his dad’s work. A few months after that photograph was taken three generations of his family were at the game when, on 11 May 1985, an inferno tore through Valley Parade and killed 56 people.

They had seats in the wooden stand and, when the smoke started licking through the floorboards, they were among the crowd ordered by police to the back, not realising the exits were boarded up or padlocked. When the fireball erupted Martin somehow got through the flames and was dragged over the wall at the front of the stand with his clothes, already smoking, about to catch light and his baseball cap melting to his head.

His dad, John, 34, uncle Peter, 32, and grandfather Eddie, 63, did not get out. Nor did his little brother. Andrew was the youngest victim of Bradford, three weeks after his 11th birthday. That photograph – such a handsome boy, showing off his new Christmas jumper, eyes sparkling, big smile – was among the last to be taken of him.

When Martin was well enough to come back to school, his hair was charred and the blisters on his ears still looked raw. Some of the kids – and, bloody hell, there really is nothing crueller than children – used to make jokes about him, often to his face. At other times you would see him sitting by himself, flicking through the scrapbooks of photographs and newspaper cuttings that he had made of the disaster.

On a geography field trip six years later we were woken most nights by the screams of his nightmares. More than once – frequently, in fact – I have wondered how he possibly summoned the courage to go back to football. Yet I remember asking Sir Bobby Charlton a few years ago how he could get on a plane again after the horrors of the Munich tragedy and he explained that football shaped his life so he just had to get on with it. Martin would offer a similar reply and I’m reminded of something his mother, Susan, a woman of immeasurable strength and dignity, once said about it: “He’s lost so much, how can I take football away from him as well?”

So Martin went back to football and he kept going back even though, four years after Bradford, he was at Hillsborough to see his adopted team, Nottingham Forest, play an FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool and watched the full horrors of the crush in the Leppings Lane end. Martin hyperventilated after that match. When he was reunited with his mother he asked why the fences had not come down after Bradford and why two catastrophes had been allowed to happen this way, one after another. And that question, a quarter of a century later, has still never been answered.

A lot of people reading this might not know, for instance, that two days after Bradford the then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, promised Parliament “there is no question of putting up a fence that would create a trap”.

Did you know as well that after the Ibrox disaster in 1971 the Safety of Sports Grounds Act was introduced, anticipating fires and including regulations that wooden stands should be capable of evacuation in two and a half minutes, that all combustible material must be removed from beneath them, all voids sealed and no one should be more than 30 metres from the nearest manned exit?

None of these conditions was met at Bradford. The government had indefinitely postponed their introduction at lower-division grounds on the basis they did not bring in large crowds and just stop to think about what that says about how football was regarded in those days. Imagine, say, the outcry if public-safety legislation were abandoned for other buildings – the cinema, theatre and so on – where there were much smaller numbers.

Bradford is described sometimes as the “forgotten disaster” and plainly that is wrong when the supporters of Hull City and Arsenal took it upon themselves to choreograph a minute’s applause in the 56th minute of last season’s FA Cup final.

It is true, however, that for a long time Bradford’s way of dealing with it was to clamp their jaw shut and stare ahead. Anniversaries would pass without even a mention in the programme. The team did not wear black armbands. There was no minute’s silence and the memorial outside Valley Parade did not go up until 2001, 16 years after the disaster. The club, for many years, did not even send anyone to the annual memorial service in Bradford’s Centenary Square.

The Football Association has just announced the 30th anniversary will be marked by a minute’s silence before every game in the country and, nearer the date, we will hear a lot more about 11 May 1985. There was a time, however, when that would have been the last thing the club wanted. “We have our own way, perhaps a very Yorkshire way, of living with it,” Jack Tordoff, who had taken over as chairman, said on the third anniversary. “It may not be everybody’s way but it’s ours.”

Fair enough. Nobody wants to be told there is a right or wrong way to grieve but attitudes have changed over the years and it does strike me that maybe there were people at Bradford who actively wanted us to forget about it, judging by the scale of negligence and mismanagement that led the coroner to admit, in retirement, he had given serious thought to pressing manslaughter charges.

Bradford might not be the forgotten disaster but what is often forgotten is that the club received three different warnings, two from the Health and Safety Executive and another from the county council, from 1981 to 1984, about the potential fire risk created by a build-up of litter rising beneath a timber structure.

It also can be forgotten that the public inquiry started on 5 June, so close to the tragedy that most of the victims’ relatives did not have the strength to attend. It lasted a mere five days and concluded that the fire was probably started by a discarded match, a cigarette or pipe tobacco. West Yorkshire’s chief fire officer admitted the authority had received its own warnings but never inspected the stand and, to offer some idea about how long this deathtrap had been forming, there was an old copy of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus found among the debris, dated 4 November 1968.

Yet there was no independent investigatory police force appointed and, astonishingly, the people who were running the club received so much public money to rebuild the stadium they eventually admitted they had come out with an extra £200,000. The chairman, Stafford Heginbotham, sold his shares in 1988 to Tordoff, previously his vice-chairman, for a £370,000 profit.

Tordoff sold out two years later for another “decent profit” of around £300,000. Valley Parade had been a ticking time bomb and it is amazing, looking back, that the media did not ask more questions, not just locally but right to the top of the country. Bradford, like Hillsborough, was not just a national disaster; it was a national scandal.

Martin did eventually start watching Bradford again and renewed his love for the club. Before then he would stick to Forest and I’m sorry to say the press, despite the “Bravest Boy in Britain” narrative, were insensitive in the extreme, doorstepping him at home and even turning up at our school after Hillsborough.

He tells a story about one day, in the Junior Reds section at Forest, when one of his mates’ dads appeared and tried to take a group photograph. We have that picture and it shows Martin, the poor kid, ducking down, instinctively covering his face with his programme, while everyone else is smiling or waving. Yet he is still going to matches, almost three decades on, wearing a Bradford shirt with the number 56 on the back.