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Remembering the 56 and its effects.
Written by Curryman on Wednesday, 17th Dec 2014 16:46

A recent feature on the Bradford fire disaster in the Observer newspaper stirred up a predictably powerful reaction among fans of the Bantams, and rightly so. It was the worst fire disaster in the history of English football which occurred during a league match on Saturday, 11 May 1985, killing 56 and injuring at least 265. It was meant to be a day of celebration, City having won the 3rd Division title and being presented with the said trophy, but turned into a day of nightmares, consternation and horror witnessed by a full stadium of spectators and millions watching on television.

To say that 265 people were injured, doesn’t include the trauma suffered by innumerable relatives and friends of the dead and injured and even those residents of the City who were affected by the events of the tragedy and that was indeed most of them, including myself.

May 2015 will see the 30th Anniversary of the disaster and will, as in every year since that tragic episode, be remembered by those who were there and those who lost loved ones. Some will attend the annual remembrance at the city centre memorial whilst others will quietly reflect upon the day and their loss in their own or their family’s company.

I moved from Blackpool to Bradford in April 1982 to become the landlord of the Fox and Goose Inn, now unfortunately demolished, not far from the ground. It was a meeting place for home fans before the game and quite often for away fans also. Never once was there any trouble and it was certainly good business for me and my wife, serving copious amounts of pints and chip butties etc. It was here I got to know a number of Bantams fans and it was here that I was ribbed when City beat us 1-0 at Valley Parade shortly after I had arrived, yes, they knew I was a Blackpool fan. Over the years I’ve got used to the micky being taken by Bradford fans, particularly after their victory in the play offs at Bloomfield Road. That’s part of football and a part of it I like.

By the time of the disaster I had just moved to another pub, which is now an Asda, and overlooked Bradford from one of its hills. I was beginning to get to know my customers, again a number of them were City fans, their likes and dislikes and the ones who I liked and disliked.

On the day of the tragedy, a number of them came into the pub for a couple of drinks before setting off to get nearer to the ground before kick-off. This was the usual pattern of events apart from their being a certain air of festivity, jollification and an expectation of a great day out. Nothing was out of the ordinary, people came and went, food was served, in those days pubs shut at 15.00 and I duly called time and winkled the last hangers on out of the door before taking a deep breath and tidying the place up ready for the early doors crew who would be there as soon as the doors were opened at 17.30, just time to sit down for an hour.

I noticed a pall of black smoke and went into my car park to see if I could get a better view, it was then that I realised something was wrong and that it appeared to be the football ground that was alight. The whole episode was played out on the television and I sat there in disbelief at what I was seeing. Were any of my customers, old or new, affected; was there anyone I knew touched by the effects of the fire? I saw one person, who was a customer at my previous pub, being rescued from the now engulfed stand and I have to admit to openly crying and feeling totally helpless and empty, unable to in any way help or alter what was happening in front of my eyes. To this day I am surprised that the TV cameras kept rolling and recorded those horrendous events.

I think the easiest way to explain the feeling when I realised what had taken place was not just shock and horror, but a certain emptiness, news of the effects of the event was fairly sketchy even though it was national and international news.

I opened the doors of the pub with some trepidation at 17.30, it was normal for me to put background music on which could be over- ridden by the jukebox but felt it would be inappropriate that evening. The atmosphere was dreadful all night, a couple of customers had not been accounted for and no one knew where they were. There was a general feeling of helplessness and I suppose vulnerability, some of the lads who had been in prior to the match were in and were angry and frustrated at what they had seen, emotions were running high and it would have just taken the wrong word to have set the powder keg off. I can honestly say that in 25 years working in the licensed trade it was the worst night I can have ever imagined and experienced. Some good news arrived, the two missing souls were accounted for although one had been injured, fortunately not too badly.

I am still haunted by the images of that day, and even though I class myself as a fairly hardened individual, having had to investigate accidents and deaths to both adults and children in my time in Health & Safety. When I was teaching the subject, I could not use the footage of the fire, which is a standard piece of film to show how smoke and flames spread, due to me breaking down every time I see it.

I would just add that I am aware of two ex-customers from my first pub, whom I classed as friends, dying in the fire and of another two who were quite badly burnt, one of them whilst trying to rescue others.

Blackpool played Bradford City at Valley Parade on the tenth anniversary of the inferno and I, at that time, wrote to the Gazette pleading with the Blackpool fans to observe the solemnity of the occasion. I am pleased to report that they did both BFC and BCFC proud by respecting the formalities of the day with due respect.

RIP the 56.

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basilrobbiereborn added 12:01 - Dec 18
A superb and obviously heartfelt effort Wilf, which I've been looking out for ever since you mentioned it to me at Charlton. It's often described as "the forgotten tragedy" of British football, but I don't doubt the depth of feeling you describe in Bradford will always be there, as long as there are people around to remind us all, at any rate.

On a lighter note, I'm glad you got out of the pub trade before you wrecked it (smiley).

KhonKaenSeasider added 15:59 - Dec 18
Very emotive and well written piece Wilf. Didn't realise that you were a bar steward ;)

Curryman added 17:30 - Dec 18
Thank you both for your comments. I could have added a great deal more, but felt it would have been difficult reading. However, I feel a lot better after having written it. It was and is difficult being an outsider in someone elses tragedy but at the same time being part of it, if that makes sense.

As for the Licensed trade, I was active in it in various forms for around 25 years and was one of the original British Institiute of Innkeeping Members (No 210 I think). Not my fault the Breweries pulled the pubs down to sell the land after i'd left them.

Wizaard added 20:08 - Dec 19
Like Robbie I too have been looking out for this piece after our discussions on the subject over the last few weeks. A magnificent piece that puts the disaster into context within the city and a reminder that it could have been any of us. Just thinking about the underside of the South and West Stands at Bloomfield Rd up to their demolition gives me shivers.

Thanks again.

Plumbs added 22:12 - Dec 19
A great read and thanks for sharing. I remember that weekend and how local people I knew were affected by that terrible event,and how people came together to help from the wider area. We ran a coach to the fund raising match where the 66 England squad played, and took Blackpool fans along with others to show a unified respect.
It brought the best out of people but it's not forgotten on that side of the Pennines,although I'd agree elsewhere it's not as highly regarded as it should be.

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