Bradford chairman was never questioned over spate of fires at his businesses

COMMENT: The force, like those who play hell when this subject is raised, will doubtless brush this aside

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The problem with the new research into the Bradford City disaster, which briefly took the news agenda by storm four months ago, was objectivity. That much was clear from the start. The writer who, among many other findings in a 246-page book on the subject, discovered that eight other businesses owned or connected to the football club’s chairman had been beset by fires, was extremely close to the events of 11 May 1985: deeply insensitive though that is to say is when he – Martin Fletcher – lost his brother, father, uncle and grandfather on that desperate day in 1985.

But should the depth of an individual’s grief inhibit our own sense of curiosity about what he says? And should the lack of logic to Fletcher’s insinuation that the chairman – the late Stafford Heginbotham – might have used a stadium packed with 11,000 fans to set off a fire for an insurance job, close off all questions? Fletcher did not ask us to focus on Heginbotham. He reached the subject on page 200, dwelt on it briefly, and it was not part of the way the book, 56, was promoted. But his testimony is being forgotten and overlooked, it seems – at a time when the modern demand for answers of infinitesimal detail in football would have led us to turn over every stone in pursuit of a chairman’s antecedents if, heaven forbid, 56 fans died watching the sport they loved tomorrow.

Fletcher’s discussion of Heginbotham’s business history raised many more questions than whether he struck a match. Might Valley Parade have been put in a state of readiness to go up in flames? What were the similarities or differences between this fire and the previous eight? Was Heginbotham issued with formal advice as to his responsibilities after the earlier fires? Did the collapse into receivership of his Tebro Toys business, three months after the fire, raise suspicions? The establishment’s track record when it comes to football disasters and transparency in the 1980s suggests we are entitled to ask.

My few days at the National Archive in Kew last April yielded no mention of Heginbotham in any of the files relevant to the fire and only a sense of chaos. Papers simply charted the Department of the Environment’s Fire Research Station’s frantic four-week efforts to pull together a report. Staff recreated a football environment by throwing matches into the air to test how many might ‘self-extinguish’ while falling to the terrace. Nearly three quarters of them did. Was this statistic significant? Probably not.

So it seemed the only way to discover how West Yorkshire Police had turned over the stones, questioned Heginbotham and discounted him, was to ask them outright. The Freedom of Information request I lodged four months ago asked the force for details of what they knew about previous Heginbotham fires; when, where and in what detail they had interviewed him about the football disaster; what lengths they went to to investigate whether some cause other than accidental ignition might have caused the Valley Parade fire. An email from the force dropped 44 days later, stating that only three of the seven pieces of requested information may be released to me. It was only last week, a further 60 days on, that a letter from the force arrived, by second class post.

It stated that there are “no records held by West Yorkshire Police regarding any fires at Mr Heginbotham’s premises”; that “there are no mentions of previous fires at Heginbotham’s premises within the Valley Parade Fire Investigation”; and, to my request for details of the force’s investigations into fires at properties owned by Heginbotham in the 20 years preceding the Bradford City fire: “West Yorkshire Police do not currently hold any.”

So, Heginbotham, a man whose track record for fires produced the page one headline ‘Firm is dogged by fires’ in Bradford’s Telegraph and Argus in 1977, was never questioned or investigated.

It is a revelation which bears out what many believed all along about this disaster: that the quality of the original, rushed investigation was substandard. It also flatly contradicts what a retired Detective Inspector, Ray Falconer, claimed in a BBC documentary about the fire, Missed Warnings, in April. “We knew that Stafford Heginbotham had had, shall we say, some spells of bad luck with his businesses,” Falconer said. “And all the fires at any premises he had been associated with were investigated.”

When Fletcher’s book was published, West Yorkshire Police said in the only utterance on the subject by a serving officer that: “Should any evidence come to light which was not available to Her Majesty’s coroner at the original inquest, then we will consider its significance and take appropriate action.”

The Heginbotham fires fit that category. Detectives did not even consider them. So there was nothing for the coroner to view.

The force, just like those on Twitter who play hell when this subject is raised and paint Fletcher in a malign light, will doubtless brush this aside again. But it was Andy Burnham who really reached to the heart of what it is incumbent on West Yorkshire Police to do. “If a bereaved family member feels that these allegations need to be investigated, then they should be,” he told The Guardian in April.

Read 56 in the round. See what Fletcher writes of how he and his mother tried to put a life together after Bradford, with a husband, father, brother and son gone: the two of them rattling around in a detached Nottingham home which “was almost mocking you, like the birds in the trees”. Then say West Yorkshire Police should not raise their heads and offer to pursue some answers to the questions which their detectives could not be bothered to ask.

Advocaat should eat his words at Watmore gaffe

You spend every waking hour analysing the merits and methods of managers, celebrating such developments as Dick Advocaat persuading his wife that another season at Sunderland is not grounds for a divorce. And then you read what Advocaat said about Duncan Watmore, whose performances for the England Under 20s in this summer’s Toulon Tournament saw him named in the team of the tournament and voted its biggest revelation.

Advocaat, who wants to have more players bought for him this week, said: “You always get what you pay for. Manchester City get a central defender this week for £32m. Chelsea have one bad game and they buy Pedro for £22m. And we have Duncan Watmore.” What a spectacular piece of motivational work. Where do we find these people and why do we pay them?