Continuing the series that looks at those thankfully rare times in football history when fans went to a football match but never made it home afterwards.
Within less than three weeks of each other in May 1985, two disasters were to involve English football fans which were to starkly illustrate two of the problems facing the game at that time. The antiquated and poor conditions in which many of them were still expected to watch games, even towards the end of the 20th century, and the issue of hooliganism – the so-called “English disease.”
The Bradford City Stadium Fire
Valley Parade in Bradford was first built in 1886, and, although there had been a major upgrade before the First World War, very little had changed since. The main wooden stand, which was built on the side of a hill, and the entrances were all at the rear and higher than the rest of the ground.
Football commentators had warned of a build-up of litter beneath the stand because of the gaps between the seats, whilst local county council engineers had urged that repair work should be carried out as soon as possible, highlighting the potential fire risk of a potentially discarded cigarette.
Nothing was done.
The 1984-1985 season had been a triumphant one for Bradford City, and they had clinched the Third Division title away at Bolton on the penultimate weekend of the season.
That meant that captain Peter Jackson was presented with the league trophy before kick-off in the final game of the season against mid-table Lincoln City, and there was a party atmosphere in the ground.
Five minutes before half-time, a fire started when one fan, who was visiting from Australia, dropped a lighted cigarette between the floorboards and it ignited the rubbish below. When he saw a small plume of smoke he poured coffee over it, and that seemed to extinguish it, but then there was a bigger whoosh of smoke. He went to fetch a steward but, by the time they came back, the fire had taken off. Somebody ran for a fire extinguisher, but there were none.
The windy conditions meant that the fire spread quickly and, within four minutes, the entire wooden stand was engulfed by smoke and fire. The roof was covered with layers of highly flammable bitumen, and burning materials and molten materials fell into the crowd below.
People ran on to the pitch with their clothes on fire, whilst others were trapped at the back of the stands where they had tried to escape through the turnstiles. Most of these were locked, however, and there were no stewards available to open them, although several were forced open by desperate fans.
The fire brigade arrived on the scene within minutes of being called out but, by the time they arrived at the ground, the entire stand had gone up, and they were confronted by huge fames and thick, dense smoke.
When the fire was eventually put out, 56 people had died, many at the scene, although a few made it as far as hospital before succumbing to their injuries. Some of those who perished were still found sitting upright in their seats. The main cause of death was smoke inhalation, but a number of victims were badly burned as well.
More than 265 supporters were injured as well.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, an inquiry led to legislation to improve safety at British football grounds. This included the banning of wooden grandstands at al sporting grounds, and making the provision of safety equipment like fire extinguishers mandatory.
All existing grandstands made of wood faced imminent closure and, until they could be replaced, cigarette smoking in grounds that had them was banned.
The courts held Bradford City principally to blame, saying that they had given little or no thought to safety, despite the warnings they had received. The local council though also bore its share of responsibility for not acting sooner.
Andy is an exiled English football fan living in Cyprus. He loves all sports but football is his abiding passion, and he still has dreams every now and then about scoring the winning goal in a Wembley Cup Final, even though his playing days are long gone. He follows most major leagues, across Europe at least, and has a favoured team in each. When he’s not watching, listening, reading or downloading podcasts about football, he spend his time worrying about his beloved Arsenal.