We 3,000 Bradford City fans jumped around and screamed ourselves hoarse, celebrating an incredulous ascent into the old League Division Two. Crowned as champions.
On a bank holiday Monday, in the Lancashire sunshine, Yorkshire’s Bantams had clinched the Division Three championship with a 2-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers. On the pitch — as fans perched and balanced on terrace fencing — the players sang and chanted with us, throwing their sweat-soaked shirts into the crowd, and spraying magnums of champagne.I stood at the front with my twin brother Ian – the most ardent fan who decorated his bedroom walls with match programmes collected over the seasons. I spun around to find Dad stood at the far back of the terrace, ensuring his 6ft 6″ frame blocked no-one’s view. He clenched his fist and punched the air. Emotional. Proud. Disbelieving. Beside me, my brother held onto the fencing with both hands, not taking his eye off the jubilant team, and absorbing every joyous moment. For us both, as thirteen-year-olds, it felt like the kind of excitement that would keep us awake all night long, for days to come; an ever-lasting Christmas Eve.
The following Saturday — 11th May 1985 – was supposed to be the champions’ memorable home-coming to Valley Parade, where, week after alternate week, we had witnessed an incredible season as Messrs Hendrie, McCall and Campbell weaved their magic, going on a 13-match unbeaten run.
Having clinched the title a few days earlier, it seemed the entire city of Bradford couldn’t wait to welcome home the team and see the first piece of silverware arrive at Valley Parade for the first time in 56 years; the kind of celebration not seen for a long time at a club not used to celebrating. Bizarrely, with one of those twists of fate that can only be put down to grace, Dad and I chose not to go that day; instead, he chose to umpire and I chose to score at a cricket match. We’d already savoured the glory and so, with nothing else to play for, we opted for cricket in our divided loyalties between sporting passions. Odd in hindsight, but there it was. My brother wouldn’t miss the big game though, and our decision transferred him from the main stand to the Kop, behind the goal, with friends from our local village.
The thousands who couldn’t make the Bolton match would share the home celebration. Mums, fathers, sons, daughters, grandfathers and grandmothers all turned up to share the triumph. It wasn’t only a football day out; it was a thoroughly family affair. Almost 12,000 fans crammed into the stadium that carnival afternoon, turning up on a simple Saturday afternoon to watch a simple football match.
56 of those people – 54 from our club and our community, and 2 from the opposing club Lincoln City – never returned home.
One lit match, or possibly a discarded cigarette butt, slipped down a crack in the wooden main stand and ignited piles of rubbish beneath, an inquiry later found. In the space of four terrifying minutes, the wooden main stand turned into an inferno.
The majority of people who perished had rushed to the back doors only to find them locked. Among them was 11-year-old Christopher Bulmer from a small town just down the road from us. Another was Roy Mason, 74, from our neighbouring village, Silsden – the man who staggered out of the stand, fully ablaze. I think every community of West Yorkshire knew the grief of that day, or knew one of the 270 fans that were injured. And every single City fan knew that stand like the back of their hand, so it felt like we’d watched our childhood home burn to the ground, replayed over and over on television.
The 11th May 2010 marks the 25th anniversary of the fire. With the Heysel Stadium Disaster and the Hillsbrorough Stadium Disaster that followed, the Bradford tragedy almost became the postscript at the bottom of the darkest scroll. The ‘forgotten tragedy’, as some called it.
No-one from Bradford will forget. As my brother would confirm, it’s hard to forget the image of hell at the ground where all your match day memories are bottled. It’s hard to forget a day of joy turning to disaster so frighteningly quick. So today, 25 years on — for the sake of those families whose last sight of their loved ones was of them leaving home waving their flags, clutching their claret and amber scarves, desperate to buy a souvenir match programme as a momento — let us remember what happened that day, and let us reflect on the 56 lives that were lost before the half-time whistle even blew. God bless them all xx