Bradford City: After the fire

Twenty years ago today, Bradford's afternoon of title celebration turned into a tragedy which left 56 people dead and 200 injured

Phil Shaw
Thursday 06 October 2011 02:37

Twenty years ago today, just when Stuart McCall expected to be pogoing on the pitch with his Bradford City colleagues and the Third Division championship trophy, he was stumbling through the streets by the Valley Parade ground wearing his kit and club blazer. The old main stand was ablaze - and McCall's father was missing.

Twenty years ago today, just when Stuart McCall expected to be pogoing on the pitch with his Bradford City colleagues and the Third Division championship trophy, he was stumbling through the streets by the Valley Parade ground wearing his kit and club blazer. The old main stand was ablaze - and McCall's father was missing.

Increasingly frantic, he stopped a policeman. "Everyone got out OK, didn't they?" he asked. The reply sent shivers through McCall even as his face and legs felt the searing heat from the fire 20 yards away. "Those who could get out," said the officer, his face ghostly, "got out."

Panic gripped McCall. Climbing into his car, its bodywork scorched, he sped off to Leeds, hoping that his 60-year-old father Andy, a former Leeds United player, had driven home. The radio brought news of a mounting death toll. There was no sign of Andy at his house, so with head spinning and stomach churning, he made for Bradford Royal Hospital.

He was told there that his father had been taken to the special burns unit at Pinderfields Hospital at Wakefield. Torn between relief that Andy was apparently alive, and concern over the injuries and trauma he might have suffered, he arrived to find his father in a bed, covered in bandages and ointment. Still in his sweaty strip from Bradford's abandoned game with Lincoln City, McCall hugged the nurse and then burst into tears.

Andy's head was badly burnt and he needed skin grafts on his hands. There was the mental scarring, too. Once a proud observer of Stuart's progress, he subsequently became an infrequent attender as the midfielder played for Everton, Rangers and Scotland before returning to help Bradford into the Premiership and moving on to his current role, at the age of 40, as player-coach at Sheffield United. Yet Andy was one of the fortunate ones.

Fifty-six men, women and children died and more than 200 were seriously injured. McCall, who spent much of that summer attending funerals and visiting and raising money for the survivors, will today join his old team-mates, community leaders and a civic party from Lincoln at a remembrance service in Bradford's Centenary Square. A wreath will be laid at the Disaster Memorial Sculpture while the city bells will play "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Abide With Me".

Those gathered will no doubt reflect that, when Saturday came on 11 May 1985, it felt euphoric to be a Bradford City supporter. The Third Division title won, six decades in the lower divisions were over. After years in which cars made the short run from Bradford to Elland Road, City would be competing at the same level as Leeds the following season. A full house of 11,000 came to see the captain, Peter Jackson, collect the silverware, and McCall remembers a "carnival" atmosphere.

Minutes before half-time, a small fire broke out near the back of Block G, which probably started when a dropped cigarette stub or match had ignited the piles of rubbish that had accumulated beneath the seats for many years. The dilapidated main stand, with its wooden seats and tarred-and-timbered roof, had stood since 1908. By the cruellest of ironies, it was scheduled to have its wooden terracing replaced by concrete less than 48 hours later.

Lincoln's visit was the last time it would be occupied in its original form. Steelwork had been delivered and stored behind the stand, ready for work to start on the Monday. In Football Grounds of Britain, Simon Inglis, who is an authority on stadium history and architecture, wrote poignantly: "Just another 90 minutes and the stand would have done its stint." Instead, it was about to become a death trap.

Terry Yorath, who today works as assistant manager to Jackson at Huddersfield Town, was then coach to Trevor Cherry at Bradford. He thought nothing of it when a policeman asked where he could find water, pointing him to a tap near the groundsman's hose in a far corner of the pitch before refocusing on the goalless match in front of him.

Suddenly he became aware of spectators clambering over the wall and drifting on to the pitch. Looking round, he saw smoke rising from the stand. The referee called the teams off the pitch. By the time Yorath had walked briskly from the halfway line to the corner which housed the dressing-rooms, he could see flames shooting up.

He went in search of his parents, his then wife and their three children (one of whom is now the television presenter Gabby Logan), who he soon discovered had all got out safely. Astonished to find people in the directors' room, Yorath screamed at them to "Get f***ing out!" A female member of the Lincoln contingent, who was oblivious to the gravity of the situation, took exception to his language but heeded the advice.

Yorath helped a man whose hands were burnt white. Then he heard "a whoosh". The fire, fanned by the wind and trapped by the roof, had flashed through the stand, "faster than anyone could run". Breaking a window in the players' lounge with a chair, he jumped into the street. There he saw the Bradford chairman, Stafford Heginbotham, who told him two people had died. Yorath warned him that the number was far higher. On re-entering the ground, he had witnessed numerous charred bodies.

It took just four-and-a-half minutes for the stand to become an inferno, engulfing those who tried to escape via the back of the stand through turnstiles which had been locked. Among the fatalities was a former girlfriend of the Bradford striker Don Goodman; she had phoned him to ask for tickets for this celebration of a match. The club's oldest fan, 86-year-old Sam Firth, also perished, as did two Lincoln supporters.

The Bradford players were told to assemble in a public house, where, dumbfounded, they watched live coverage of the developing tragedy. The Yorkshire Television commentator, John Helm, had come to report on a football match but, instead, found himself describing the nightmarish image of a policeman running on to the grass with his hair on fire. The heat was so fierce that Helm talked of a feeling of burning, even from his gantry on the far side of the ground. Two decades on, he has never watched the footage.

Stuart McCall, who was often unthinkingly portrayed as "flame-haired" as his profile rose in the ensuing years, took the championship trophy around local hospitals over the days that followed. Far from being deemed insensitive, the gesture was seen by doctors as a positive aid to recovery for the injured, many of whom formed enduring friendships with the players who visited them.

Valley Parade rose from the ashes, reopening as a modern stadium after 19 months in which Bradford played their home fixtures at Odsal Stadium and at Leeds and Huddersfield. The Popplewell Inquiry led to Parliament passing legislation to improve safety standards (although events at Hillsborough three years later suggested it did not go far enough).

The disaster fund raised more than £3m for the survivors, the "lucky" ones who scrambled over the front wall on to the pitch. As a day of joy and pride turned into a scene of biblical hellishness, with molten tar raining down and the unforgiving fire devouring everything in its path, that was the route to safety for Andy McCall. He recently turned 80. Time may have helped to heal the wounds, but Bradford will never forget.

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