I have just finished reading Martin Fletcher’s book entitled 56: The Story of the Bradford Fire. I urge you to do likewise. I hope to arrange an interview with him on camera later this year.
This weekend, because it is the last home game for Bradford City this season, there will be a minute of silence at Valley Parade. I trust the silence will be observed at every football ground.
The 56 who lost their lives on May 11th 1985 have not have been forgotten. But they might have been.
A game between Bradford City and Lincoln City was not high profile. I suspect that, had not the Yorkshire Television sports department I then worked for been covering the game, the Bradford City fire would have received much less attention than it did.
Four years later the tragedy at Hillsborough saw further avoidable deaths. An FA Cup semi-final was certain to attract more attention and, of course, more football fans died at Hillsborough than was the case at Valley Parade. But one death is one too many.
The 1980’s was a dark decade for English football. That fact is covered extensively in Martin’s book. He lost his father, brother, uncle and grandfather in the fire. He escaped, but only just. The chapter that conveys what it was like for a 12 year old boy to be in a narrow, pitch black corridor at the back of a wooden stand as flames engulfed him and many others, is the most vivid first hand account I have read of what it is like to be at the centre of such a tragedy. It is written in such a way that the reader feels as though he or she is there, with Martin. I can pass no greater praise on the book than that.
Of course, the controversy has surrounded Martin’s belief that the fire may not have been an accident. His extensive research led to him discovering several other previous fires at businesses owned by, or in some way connected to, the then Bradford City chairman Stafford Heginbotham. I have read what Martin has to say on that matter and I have my own opinion. I sat through every minute of the subsequent inquiry and I personally delivered to the home of Stafford Heginbotham the first copy of the report by Justice Oliver Popplewell.
The former judge disagrees with the assertions made by Martin Fletcher. His belief that the fire at Valley Parade could have been started deliberately has also not been well received in a city that I lived in for many years. Bradford City fans are furious with Fletcher. His comments have been called “preposterous” by some. It is claimed by The Guardian newspaper that there is a silent majority of Bradford City fans who agree with Martin Fletcher, but that they fear speaking out as he has done. If that is the case then I have yet to speak to one such fan.
I don’t know if Martin Fletcher is going to the Bradford City game this weekend. I imagine he will attend the memorial service that is held annually in the city on the anniversary of the fire itself, May 11th. When I was living in Yorkshire I attended that service each year and I expect my friend and former YTV colleague John Helm will be in attendance once again.
Martin Fletcher is a good man. I do not believe he has written the book for financial gain (as some fellow Bantams fans have alleged). If you want to make money these days, writing a book is not the path to take! Even with the excellent support he has received from writers at The Guardian, I guarantee Martin will not be retiring on the proceeds of this book.
56 is a book every football supporter should read. Keep an open mind while reading it.
I admire anyone who researches a subject as thoroughly as Martin Fletcher has. The dedication he has shown to investigating the causes of the fire, and the process of the Popplewell report into the disaster, is to be admired. He put his life and career on hold and his late father would rightly be very proud of him.
I have disagreements with some of the conclusions he has arrived at and I hope to discuss those with him on camera. I want us to have a conversation about a day neither of us will forget and about the implications of what he has written in the book.
In our own very different ways we were both involved in the fire. He escaped the smoke and flames. I arrived at the ground as the firemen were damping down the flames. I saw sights Martin didn’t see, and nor would he have wanted to. I wish I had not.
When he writes in the book about the smell that invaded his nostrils that tragic day, I too can still smell that odious odour. His writing took me back to a time and place part of me would rather forget.
But we must not forget. 56 football fans went to a match and died due to the incompetence and complacency of those in authority back then. It was an avoidable disaster and one that led me to produce a television documentary on safety at football grounds.
My former Sky Sports colleague Gabby Logan (nee Yorath) was also in the wooden stand at Bradford City that day. Indeed, as the book reveals, she was the last pretty sight Martin and his younger brother saw before the fire took hold.
The Bradford City fire lives on with everyone who was there and regardless of why they were there. Those who perished deserve to be remembered.
If you’re at a match this weekend, don’t forget that.