Each year, 11 May is a date where the football world comes together to remember the tragic events on this day in 1985, which saw 56 fans go to a football game at Valley Parade and never return home. Loved ones were lost and, for those who survived, it’s a day that will stay with them forever.
Having attended the final game of the 1984/85 season with his dad as an eight-year-old, lifelong Bradford City supporter, Christian Oldcorn, recalls his memories – in his own words - of arguably the most significant days in Bradford City’s history.
I have been a Bradford City supporter for as long as I can remember.
According to my dad, my first game at Valley Parade was in the 1980/81 season, during which I turned four years old. My first proper memory was from the following season, when we secured promotion from Division Four by beating Bournemouth at home; a match where, due to having a broken leg, I sat with my dad in the main stand, rather than standing in our usual spot on the Paddock.
I feel very humbled to be asked to contribute to the remembrance of the 35th anniversary of the Bradford City Fire Disaster. There are many people who are connected by the events of 11 May 1985, some of whom will never feel able to share, and others who have already documented their memories of those times. These are my memories, in my own words, and I speak only for myself.
Under the leadership of Trevor Cherry and Terry Yorath, things started to improve on the pitch and, by the start of the 1984/85 season, they had assembled a side with a great blend of experience and youth. Players such as John Hawley, Yorath and Cherry himself, had played at the top level, and younger players such as Stuart McCall, John Hendrie, Don Goodman and Peter Jackson would do so later in their careers. And we had Bobby Campbell leading the line.
As the season went on, we just kept getting better and, in November 1984, we went top of the league. Game by game, the crowd at Valley Parade seemed to get bigger and bigger, with excitement building as we continued our push for promotion. We eventually sealed the title with a 2-0 win at Bolton Wanderers in the penultimate game of the season.
The last game of the season was going to be special, there was no doubt about it. With promotion and the title already secured, prior to the game we would get our hands on the trophy and celebrate a memorable season.
The day itself was a bit of a rush for dad and me. My uncle got married that day and we left the celebrations early, with a promise to return in the early evening. We got into the ground later than normal, but still managed to get our usual places. As an eight-year-old, the St John’s Ambulance staff allowed me to sit with them pitchside, so I was able to see and not get knocked by the crowd. To this day, I am grateful they did.
Many people refer to the events that followed as a forgotten disaster. I disagree. It is remembered vividly, and full respects are paid by many. Perhaps the way we remember it is just different.
Shortly before half-time, I remember sensing that people weren’t really watching the game. The next thing I remember is feeling my dad grab me and put me in some sort of headlock, under his long coat. We went onto the pitch. From memory, my dad was careful to try to distract me from what was actually happening. However, his efforts were not wholly successful.
The things I witnessed have stayed with me ever since. There is no need for me to recall these fully, but they just don’t go away.
What happened for the next hour or so is a bit of a blur and, for many years, I was unable to speak to anyone about it, my dad included. However, having read Paul Firth’s book ‘Four minutes to hell’, and subsequently watched the BT Sport film ‘One day in May’, I began to realise that I had to confront my recollections from the day and the feelings they raised. So, well into my thirties, I finally spoke to my dad.
It turns out, we walked around on the pitch for some time, trying to work out what to do. I saw people losing their lives and people with injuries that would change their lives forever.
We left the ground through the Kop; I remember having to step over the fire hoses as we made our way up to Manningham Lane. I remember seeing the huge column of black smoke - we could see it still when we got home, about five miles away in the south of the city. I remember getting home and having a wash, before going to the evening reception of my uncle’s wedding. That night people made a fuss of me, and I didn’t really know why. The human brain has a way of protecting you from certain memories.
In the coming weeks, days and months, both our city and football club were on the TV and radio a lot. These were the days before the internet, before satellite TV and before 24-hour rolling news or Sky Sports. Seeing our little Third Division club getting media coverage was not the norm. I vividly remember the following day, listening to Pennine Radio. They read the names of the victims with music playing behind the announcements, a few songs from that time which even now I find difficult to listen to.
Dozens of families lost loved ones. Some lost more than one generation and two of the victims were supporters of our visitors that day, Lincoln City. Many hundreds more were injured, with the casualties taken to St Luke’s and BRI hospitals in Bradford, as well as the specialist burns unit at Pinderfields in Wakefield - not forgetting, of course, those who had wounds that were not physical.
From these awful times, as the disaster unfolded, our community began to rally, starting with the families that lived in the streets around the ground. Of course, in 1985, nobody had a mobile phone, so many local families opened their doors for other people to make those important calls to loved ones. It was a small but important gesture that brought people together.
Pretty soon afterwards, a fund was set up and events large and small contributed, including a number of charity football matches - from a full re-enactment of the 1966 World Cup Final to smaller local amateur matches.
The wider football community rallied around too. A re-recording of the famous anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by popular celebrities of the day reached number one in the charts for two weeks in June.
The work of the staff in the Bradford hospitals was incredible. The work of Professor David Sharpe and his team was a great example of how local people of Bradford coped. They dealt with things that they had never even considered, but they did so with a stoicism and single-minded determination that gave a focus for the future. The Bradford Burns Research Unit was founded, and it continues to work to this day to pioneer new treatments in the field of Burns and Plastic surgery. This is but one legacy of that terrible day.
I was lucky. Neither my Dad nor I were physically hurt, nor were any of our friends or family. Many others however, were not so fortunate. Each year, our city and our club mark the disaster at the final home game of the season at Valley Parade, as well as on the actual day itself at the memorial in Centenary square.
I work in a secondary school, less than half a mile away from Valley Parade. To ensure that we don’t lose sight of something so significant in our local community, I make a point of leading assemblies at the start of May, telling some of the stories of loss and heroism.
For many personal reasons, few people speak much of that day in 1985, but at the commemorations each year, we stop what we are doing and remember.
Our club and our city has had many ups and downs in the last 35 years, on and off the football field. On the football front, we have had promotions - all the way to the Premier League, and relegations all the way back down to League Two. We’ve had some tough times, and we’ve had some great days.
But that football team we had in 1985 was one of our best. They are, and always will be, considered as legends of our club. Those players have a bond with the club and the city way beyond Bradford just being a club that they once played for. We are lucky that one of those players, Stuart McCall, is now our manager. It’s almost as if the bonds created by the tragedy in 1985 have enabled him to be something for our club, that others cannot be.
The continuing legacy of the Bradford City Fire Disaster is seen in the work of the Plastic Surgery and Burns Research Unit, based at Bradford University.
Should you wish to contribute, you can do so using their JustGiving page; to support their valuable work, and as a tribute to those effected by the Bradford City Fire Disaster.
Photo taken early in the Match between Bradford City and Lincoln City, May 11 1985. Christian can be seen in the blue jacket to the left of the St John Ambulance staff.
Photo credit: JD Collection.