Valley of tears

On this day, thirty-five years ago, what should have been a day of celebration for Bradford City quickly escalated into tragedy. Brian Jeeves offers a recollection of footballs saddest tale…

When I think back to Saturday, May 11, 1985, I should have been rejoicing the end of a particularly bleak chapter in the ever-changing drama that is my beloved Southend United. A late penalty by Steve Phillips had beaten Torquay United at Roots Hall, thus saving the Shrimpers from the indignity and uncertainty of having to apply for re-election to the Football League. As I said, I should have been rejoicing; but along with football supporters all over the country, I wasn’t.

The whole day had been quite dramatic, as the last day of any football season tends to be. Southend’s plight was quite serious. If they failed to stay in the League this would surely be the end of the club. Results were terrible, and attendances were well below the 2,000 mark – in fact, the 1,700-strong crowd that turned up for the Torquay match was one of the biggest of the season. Even my cousin Wayne – a big West Ham supporter – had made the pilgrimage from East London to help the Shrimpers’ cause.

Manager, and former World Cup winner, Bobby Moore, stated in his programme notes that he knew things were at their blackest at the moment, but assured us that the darkest hour is just before the new dawn. 

Come three o’clock on that fateful day the tension was quite unbearable. Outside Roots Hall stadium the world went about its everyday business, but inside the ground, none of that mattered. Our own desperate self-importance had taken over our lives, the week leading up to the game had been any supporter’s nightmare, now we had just ninety minutes for players and supporters to save us from the unthinkable and possible oblivion.

The game produced very little in the way of quality, as tends to be the way with these affairs, but as half time approached news started to filter through that would put our entire season into perspective, let alone that day’s final outcome. 

I remember having one ear to the radio and hearing that there had been an incident at Bradford City’s Valley Parade ground and the match had been stopped. The Bantams were celebrating the climax of a wonderful season in which they had clinched the Third Division title. Today they would receive the Championship trophy and then put fall guys for the day, Lincoln City, to the sword in front of a crowd of more than 11,000 – A far cry from the scenes 200-odd miles away in Southend. 

The Bradford City match programme was proudly headed ‘Third Division Champions’ – Ironically, the next match at Valley Parade advertised on the pages in between was set for the following day, when Bradford Fire Fighters would take on a team consisting of ex-Bradford City and Park Avenue players. Little did readers realise that the brave firemen of the City would be appearing at the ground a lot sooner than they anticipated.

The first signs of smoke seeping through the wooden floorboards of Valley Parade’s old grandstand appeared at about 3:40pm. Within four minutes the fire had taken hold and indeed the lives of people who had simply gone to watch a game of football.

3:45pm; Roots Hall, Southend – News had started to reach us on the terraces via radio, but with our destiny still in the balance people took little notice, after all, why should we? Bradford City were Third Division champions and was hardly likely to cast an eye down upon poor old Southend. The painful truth is that those of us standing on the terraces simply didn’t realise the scale of awfulness that was unfolding up in Yorkshire.

The fire had engulfed the stand in a matter of minutes – now the desperate struggle to evacuate and preserve lives was at its height.

It was clear to everyone that several people had not survived. Match commentator John Helm (a Bradford Park Avenue supporter), was covering the game for Yorkshire television, and was clearly very emotional as he delivered a report that would never be forgotten, describing it as “a catastrophic sight for Bradford City Football Club,” and adding, “this is human tragedy, this is a burning hell.” Bradford City’s biggest day since winning the Third Division (north) some 56 years earlier had turned into one of the worst disasters in footballing history. 

After seventy-seven minutes at Roots Hall, Southend’s leading marksman Steve Phillips converted the penalty that guaranteed the preservation of League Football in south-east Essex. The players and supporters took one collective deep breath. Once again, to us, nothing else mattered.

By the time the dust had settled and I had arrived home, it was around 6pm. It was only then, faced with television news pictures, that I realised the full horror of what had taken place at Valley Parade. Footage of a policeman – his hair on fire – as well as a poor soul staggering away from the inferno, completely alight, before fellow fans and officers dashed to help him, will live in my memory forever. Despite the supporter’s heroic efforts, the man would lose his battle for life later that evening in hospital. 

I didn’t go out that night, I just sat numbly in front of the television. Stories unfolding of how people had become trapped and lost forever, each story seemed more tragic than the last.

The next morning I was off to football again. I caught an early train heading for the Black Country to take in a testimonial for former Walsall player George Andrews at Tipton Town FC. As I made my way down the road, still somewhat sleepy, I asked myself if I’d just had some kind of terrible nightmare?

On the way to Rochford railway station, I picked up the early edition of the Sunday paper. On reaching London I brought another, and then again when reaching Birmingham. In each tabloid the death toll had risen – it eventually halted at 56. The tragedy had shown no mercy. Men, women and children had lost their lives. The human cost affected both Bradford and visitors Lincoln – it had sent shockwaves around the world.

Despite the best efforts of the players at Tipton that afternoon, the crowd’s mind was elsewhere. Walsall like Southend had been regular visitors to Valley Parade – perhaps the shock amongst lower league supporters was greater as it had been one of our own who had suffered?

The weight of human support was quite incredible. Football matches were arranged to raise funds for the families of victims. A recording of the song ‘You’ll never walk alone’ sung by ‘The Crowd’ raised in the region of one million pounds. Bradford City moved into the Odsal Stadium after playing a handful of games at Huddersfield and Leeds. They would return to Valley Parade on December 14, 1986, when City took on an England XI to re-open the redeveloped ground.

Bill Shankly once famously said, “Some people think football is a matter of life or death. It’s far more important than that!” However, on this occasion, the Scots words paled into insignificance. But in football’s darkest hour players and fans united in support

 In the thirty-five years that have followed that fateful day, Bradford City has experienced football’s highs and lows – reaching and briefly surviving in the Premier League before crashing back down to the fourth tier in double-quick time. But none of the on-field drama will ever erase the memories of May 11, 1985.

As I’ve said before, I should have been rejoicing a famous victory that day, but the football match I’ll always remember will be that one in West Yorkshire that I didn’t attend.

Brian Jeeves