The Valley Parade fire: football's forgotten tragedy

As Bradford grace Wembley, the players are eager to pay respect to the 56 who died in the fire of 1985

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The names on the Valley Parade memorial stone tell the real story of the disaster which Bradford City will remember at Wembley this weekend. Arthur, Edith, Fred, Norman – so many of those who perished in the fire which claimed 56 lives were of a certain generation and so many of them died with their own kin, too. There are three Ormondroyds on the stone, three Greenwoods – real Yorkshire surnames those – and four Fletchers. This is a disaster which appears in the margins of the familiar narrative of how football pays its players well but cares for its supporters rather less, yet when you delve into the small details, you discover that a tragedy like no other will be commemorated in crests bearing the number 56, sewn into the players' tracksuits at the Capital One Cup final.

It was a family day out, you see – a spring afternoon when Bradford, with the Third Division championship secured the previous Bank Holiday, were laying on marching bands and presentations. So sons took their elderly fathers, perhaps the mothers too, and the children, for a treat. A dozen of school age perished, a father and his twins, a father and his two children, and elderly men like Norman Hall – listed on the memorial stone beneath the Greenwoods – whose age and size, perhaps 15st, made it impossible for his son, David, to navigate him down the stand, over a concrete wall and onto the pitch, to safety.

It is fair to assume that few know all this beyond Bradford, a city where, 28 years on, the tragedy is still known as "11th May" – nothing more. Nor are they aware of another particular of that day: the terrifying pitch darkness in the stand which meant that those seeking an escape could not make out so much as a shadow by their side. It is this factor which still resonates most with Paul Firth, a survivor, who is unrelated to the tragedy's oldest victim, 86-year-old Sam Firth.

The reason, says Firth – whose book Four Minutes to Hell: The Story of the Bradford City Fire (Parrswood Press £7.20) remains the only one on the subject – is that the inferno which took hold in the Valley Parade main stand that day was only the start of the problem. It was when the raging flames hit and ignited the stand's asphalt, tarpaulin and bitumen roof that the grey smoke became jet black.

"It was black then. Not dark and not grey," Firth tells me. "I survived because I saw some grey below me and moved towards it. I settled for grey rather than black."

He still has no recollection of his feverish scramble to safety. (The brain's capacity to switch off in moments of extreme stress is known as "fugue syndrome".) Only the horizontal lines of paint and melted polypropylene on his trousers told him that he had scrambled over the wooden and plastic seats. He and his elderly father-in-law Arnold Whitehead, now 92, were separated in the chaos. The older man would certainly have suffered Norman Hall's fate had not John Hawley, ex-Arsenal, Sunderland and a Bradford City player that day, dug his hands into the pensioner's armpits and hoisted him over the concrete wall.

Such are the victims and heroes whose stories lie behind the crests worn by the Bradford players, whose journey to Wembley has been so punctuated by football miracles that it is easy to become complacent about how extraordinary their place in the match against Swansea City actually is. Their manager, Phil Parkinson (right), reflects that it has become the "forgotten" tragedy because of Bradford's descent to footballing obscurity, though, as Firth attests, it is actually more to do with the fact that there was no acrimony, cover-up or recrimination afterwards – and that within 18 days the Heysel disaster unfolded on live television, sweeping Bradford's story away.

It is a measure of the Bradford people's feeling for their team that the club got away with their extraordinary neglect. The unmaintained stand was such a monument to neglect that a charred copy of the Telegraph & Argus, from Monday, 4 November 1968, was discovered in the debris. This, at a time when the club had a turnover of more than £600,000 – enough to make their stadium safe – but chose to blow nearly £420,000 of it on wages to chase the promotion which was being celebrated that day. "Within six or seven weeks Mr Justice [Oliver] Popplewell had held his inquiry and the owner Stafford Heginbotham had admitted his failings," says Firth. "That was that. It wasn't a time to be against the club."

And that, in a nutshell, is the indefatigable nature of the team you will be watching tomorrow afternoon, in a final of wild romance. Chasing a ridiculous dream is something Bradford were doing in the 1960s, when they were so broke they couldn't even afford to print a match programme, and what they were also up to in 1983, two years before the disaster, when they collapsed into receivership after they were unable to pay £10,000 they owed Leeds United for Trevor Cherry. And it is what they continued to do after the disaster palpably revealed how they had their priorities all wrong.

The biggest financial calamity was yet to come, after Geoffrey Richmond swapped his ownership of Scarborough FC for Bradford and, with businessman David Rhodes, began the giddy, unsustainable journey to the Premier League. The height of the folly was Bradford laying out £40,000-a-week in 2000 for Benito Carbone and buying him a house in Leeds with seven bedrooms and five en-suite bathrooms. All complete fantasy, of course, which would bring two periods of administration and a collapse all the way down to professional football's bottom rung.

This cataclysmic recent history has chastened the club, says Parkinson, the manager whose intelligence and modernity Bradford stumbled upon after Peter Jackson became the third to fail the challenge of bringing the club deliverance from League Two laid down by owners Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn. "I sense since I've been here that Julian and Mark have been very careful," Parkinson reflects. "In 10 years' time we want to be in Swansea's position now. Swansea City is not a much bigger club than Bradford. They achieved it by getting the structure right, the foundations in place."

The manager's own salary – £1,000 a week and an additional £1,000 for every point Bradford earn above 52 points – proves his own point. He's still working for that bonus. Bradford's two league wins in 10 amid their cup glories leave them currently 11th in League Two on 44 points.

Parkinson has been allowed nothing like Richmond's "six weeks of madness" in the summer of 2000, when £2.5m David Hopkin, £1.5m Ashley Ward and £1m 32-year-old Dan Petrescu preceded Carbone through the door. His six weeks last summer were spent on an exhausting hunt for cheap acquisitions, seeking to "redraw the squad", as he puts it.

"We trawled around the country meeting players, watching DVDs," he says. "I felt this club needed players with real commitment and desire. People looking for a fresh challenge. Not just there for the money." He cites 35-year-old Gary Jones (left), his captain, released from Swansea by Jan Molby and on the Wembley stage he thought beyond him after a lifetime at Rochdale. But there is also Zavon Hines, bombed out at Burnley, and the remarkable 22-year-old Nakhi Wells, a Bermudan once of Dandy Town Hornets, on that island, who reached Valley Parade via a British university study visa and run-outs with Eccleshill and Carlisle United.

Tomorrow, Wells will also remember his great friend and compatriot, Tumaini Steede, killed in a motorcycle crash last summer. His goal in the semi-final first leg against Aston Villa is one of his 18 in 38 games and he has an extraordinary belief that the big time will be his one day. "Hopefully people look at me as someone that's destined for greatness because I know I am," Wells says. "I'm the only one who can hold myself back. I think I can play in the Premier League if given the opportunity, the chance, then I have no doubts that I can do it."

This is one dream Parkinson does not object to. "He's an exceptional athlete and when that chance comes around the box he's got the ability to be cold," the manager says. "Time seems to stand still for him, that's why he's scored the goals he has."

Football gets you that way. The dreams always win through in the end. Another of those for whom this club is everything, Mick Shackleton of the Friends of Bradford City, will tell you that there is no universal hatred among supporters for those whose Premier League dreams almost destroyed the club. "It's double-edged," he says. "Richmond got us into the Premier League. While it was there it was excellent but it's why we're in this state."

The same forgiveness came in the aftermath of 1985, too, though the lives passed up that day will not be forgotten today. For a club which has seemed only to know the crazy extremities of football, and is about encounter some more, tomorrow will bring a moment to pause and reflect.

Sixth time lucky? Final underdogs

* It has been 22 years since a team from outside the top flight won the League Cup – Bradford become the sixth side to try and emulate Sheffield Wednesday's feat of 1991.

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1998: Middlesbro' lost 2-0 to Chelsea

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