Boxing Day today sees the first league meeting between Bradford City and Lincoln City at Valley Parade since a fire at the stadium on May 11th 1985 left 56 supporters dead and another 256 injured (memorial, right).
Bizarrely, both Lincoln and Bradford are today managed by men who played that day. Bradford’s talismanic boss Stuart McCall was a midfielder for the club at the time. And Peter Jackson, Lincoln’s manager, was Bradford’s captain and had been presented with the Third Division trophy before the game, with an unusually large crowd of 11,076 there to celebrate.
Five minutes before half-time, a small fire began in G-Block (perhaps from a discarded cigarette), spreading rapidly as the mounds of rubbish that had accumulated over decades underneath the wooden stand caught fire and engulfed the main stand.
At least 50 policemen and supporters were later credited with saving at least one life, as most fans escaped to the pitch in a disaster that should never have happened. The resulting Popplewell Inquiry brought new safety legislation to English football, but action should have been taken both locally and nationally earlier to protect supporters by the powers that ran football.
As Simon Inglis explains, Popplewell’s report was damning:
Until the publication of Mr Justice Popplewell’s report into the fire, no members of the public had quite realised the risks they were running simply by entering the premises of one of our lower-division clubs.
Popplewell exposed a catalogue of errors and oversights. True, the Bradford stand was a unique design, being built over the side of a hill with a void between the earth and the wooden seating deck (into which litter was dropped, or deliberately swept as I once witnessed). The rear exit corridor was also at the topmost level of the stand, at the point where the most smoke would accumulate in the event of a fire.
But Popplewell’s list of Bradford City’s safety lapses could have applied to any number of clubs: the lack of fire extinguishers, the lack of trained stewards and of clearly signposted evacuation routes. No one knew who was in charge of match-day operations. Specific warning letters from local authority officials concerning the ground’s safety, going back to July 1981, were found to have gone unanswered or not been followed up. Most seriously of all, most of the exit gates at the rear of the stand, where most of the victims perished, were padlocked.
Popplewell made two biting judgments. First, he wrote: “Had the Green Guide been complied with, this tragedy would not have occurred.” Officially known as the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds, the Green Guide was first published in the aftermath of the 1971 Ibrox disaster. One of its prime aims was to assist first and second-division clubs whose grounds were to be “ designated” (that is, required to have a local authority safety certificate) under the 1975 Safety of Sports Grounds Act.
As the home of a third-division club, Valley Parade was not designated. Yet because City had just won promotion, the match at which the fire occurred was its last as an undesignated ground. Workmen were due to start on the roof’s replacement the following Monday. A terrible irony no doubt, but also an indictment of the system. The main reason that the 1975 Act had not been applied to smaller grounds by 1985 was that both the football and the local authorities pleaded poverty. No money for repairs. No money for inspections and paperwork. Money before lives.
Popplewell’s second telling comment revealed that “almost all the matters into which I have been asked to inquire and almost all the solutions I have proposed, have been previously considered by many distinguished Inquiries over a period of 60 years”. In that sense, the Bradford fire was caused by a dropped match or cigarette only in as much as the First World War was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914.
Sadly, whilst Popplewell’s reforms did lead to some new safety legislation, it would take the further tragedy of Hillsborough almost four years later for safety reforms to really take hold. Few people in power cared about the fate of British football supporters in the 1980s.
It’s also little remembered that two Lincoln fans lost their lives in the fire, adding further poignancy to today’s game. Collections will be held for Bradford’s Burns Unit and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” will be played before kick-off.