Of all the horrible stadium disasters, the one that always has haunted me the most is the Bradford City fire in 1985. I remember watching the television news in horror, as they showed how the flames spread in seconds. 56 died in this tragedy.
The fire happened on what should have been a great day in the history of Bradford City. 11th May 1985, they were presented with the Football League division 3 trophy before their final match of the season. The ground was packed, and television was in place to report the great day. But five minutes before halftime, fire started in the wooden main stand. After a few minutes, the fire spanned the entire stand.
For my visit, I purchased a book on the fire by Martin Fletcher, who 12-years-old managed to survive, but lost his father, brother, grandfather and uncle in the fire. His description of the event is horrendous. How people was evacuated from the stand down in a corridor that was locked-up. Absolutely horrible. Fletcher also describes how the inquiry afterwards was rushed, not allowing for all witnesses to be questioned. Also, he states that Bradford City’s chairman had a prehistory of fires in 8 other companies he had been involved with. A remarkable coincidence.
So a visit to Bradford City is quite an emotional experience. Already in the city centre, you find this memorial for the victims of the fire, presented by Bradford’s German twin city, Hamm. It shows three persons in a broken circle, with the names of the victims enscribed.
Valley Parade was rebuilt after the fire, and reopened in December 1986, a year and a half after the fire. I remember that back then I wondered why they did not build the stadium in another place. I thought that it would be traumatic to go back. But I understand now, particularly after reading Fletcher’s book. His grandfather’s and uncle’s ashes were scattered on the field in the stadium where they lost their lives. It is something that you cannot turn your back on. You cannot just leave.
After a walk around the city centre, I make my way to the ground with my son Thomas. It is a bit depressing. So many beautiful houses, so many shops empty and boarded up. It seems that Bradford has had a rough time.
Knowing that Valley Parade has been completely rebuilt within the past 30 years, my expectations are moderate. I have a fancy for the old grounds, irregular in shape, with layers of history, hidden away among narrow streets and alleys. So the first sight of the ground is a pleasant surprise. An improvised football car park with the floodlights rising above the houses at the end of it.
A little further down the road, we find the residence of an Islamic Society. This is yet another instance of the neighbourhood of a football club developing into a multi-cultural community, without affecting the composition of the crowd. I do my usual count of a random 100 people in my section of the ground. And it is 98% white. Even though it is a middle of a vibrant Asian community, where we can see hundreds of splendidly dressed wedding guests around a restaurant.
Valley Parade is fittingly located on a hillside, halfway down a valley. The roads leading from Manningham Lane down into the valley, past the stadium, are steep. And when you get to the bottom in Midland Street, the huge Midland Stand built in 1996-7 seems to be sliding down the hill out into Midland Street.
Whereas the foundation follows the line of the street, the stand itself follows the line of the pitch – and indicate that pitchside is a lot higher than the street. It looks quite odd, but when I make a comment about it to a steward, he claims that he has never noticed!
Any fears that this would be just another anonymous modern steel and concrete construction are proven groundless as we walk along the Bradford End up Holywell Ash Lane. Irregular shaped brickwalls, narrow alleys, a distinct fortified appearance.
Almost ghostlike, there are traces of recent fires just opposite the stand. Normally, I would just think “senseless”. Now, I also think “disrespectful”. The Bradford End – or the T. L. Dallas Stand, as it is now called – was built in 1991, five years after the main stand was rebuilt. But as the mainstand has been repaced in the meantime, this is the oldest remaining stand in the ground. The irregular shape and the use of bricks make it look much older.
At the corner of the T.L. Dallas STand, we find the club shop. It looks closed – but it can’t be on a matchday. And it turns out that it is open, after all.
The shop, though, is a disappointment. I know that Bradford has a very strong historical identity with several books published by “Bantamspast”. But none of them or any other historical books are on sale in the shop. There is nothing related to the history of the club.
But the spectre of the past looms over the place. You will find ‘no smoking’ signs such as this at any ground – but it just have another significance here.
Maybe it is because we are so aware of the history, we notice a fire assembly point next to the ground. I have never noticed such signs at any other ground. Maybe because I wasn’t paying enought attention? Or maybe it is because it IS more visible here in Bradford.
Later, indside the ground, we come across the largest fire exit sign I have seen. In stark contrast to the steel and concrete surroundings. In most grounds like this, I groan about “soulless car parking house architecture”. But here, the size of the sign and the tragic history make the barren architecture a sign of respect.
We proceed our walk around the ground. As mentioned, after the fire, a new main stand was opened in 1986. It hardly lasted 15 years. With newly won premiership status, Bradford City had replaced the old Kop stand in 1999, and in 2000/1 they decided to bring the main stand up to the same state of the art. But at the end of the season, Bradford were relegated, and plans to proceed with the new modern, two-tier constructions were shelved. But the glass and steel facade of the main stand really form a stark contrast to the T.L. Dallas stand built only ten years earlier.
Here at the main stand, you find the club’s memorial for the victims of the fire. Among them, the four Fletchers.
Somebody has placed a Feyenoord scarf among the flowers. I don’t know if Bradford has any special relations with Feyenoord – or whether it is just a case of footballing tourists from Holland paying their respect. We chat with another steward, who tells us that many foreigners come to visit the stadium.
He confesses to being a Chelsea fan. He explains that his family had so many gatherings in London in his youth – so he and his cousin sneaked off to the football. But when Bradford played Chelsea in the League Cup a couple of years ago, he did support Bradford. He is asian. If we had had the chat after the match – and my count of etnicity – I would have asked him, why so few of the local asian community attend matches.
There is another memorial for the fire victims above the entrance to the “1911 club” executive boxes by the corner stand connecting the main stand and the Kop End.
Also in the corner stand, we find the ticket office and collect our tickets for the match. At least the steel constructions are in Bradford’s claret. But compared to the small T J Dallas stand down the other end of the ground, it is rather depressing.
We walk to the Kop end, where we have our seats. There is a detached entrance with a peak gable. It looks oddly out of place, either because of the peak gable or the very sterile look. Next to the Kop end is the players’ car park. We see one player arrive and walk the last 30 metres to the ground. There are no autograph hunters around. Maybe because it is cold and windy.
There are no obvious choices for a pre-match meal around, and we decide to walk back down Manningham Lane to find a table inside where we can some hot, Indian food.
When we return to the ground after the meal, darkness has descended and the floodlights been turned on. There is nothing quite like it to give a an air of magic. The empty, floodlit ground, and the streets around it coming to life.
I still prefer the Bradford End – or TL Dallas Stand. The neighbouring houses are no more than 3-4 metres away. The road running along it is sloping and curvy. And light spills out of holes and cracks in the ground.
But even the Midland Road stand has got a mysterious appeal. We buy a programme and talk to the steward selling it. He figures out that we are groundhopping, since we have come to Bradford. “How many have you made?” he wants to know. I tell that is number 41. Well, he had made the 92 recently. But all of them as a travelling Bradford fan. He generally preferred the older grounds, but he also gives a mention of Old Trafford and Anfield. Both of which, of course, are old grounds in terms of history, but they have both been completely rebuilt.
He had been following them for some 40 years, and in one of his first seasons, he did all matches, home and away. He was trying to repeat that feat with his son this season. So far, they had booked all their travelling tickets up to Christmas to make it cheaper.
We enter the Kop through the turnstyles at the corner of the Midland Road stand. The stairway taking us up to the stand looks like it is much older than the stand itself. But it has got the feel of a “real” ground.
We have a snack at the bar – the first bar I have seen advertising that all supplies on sale are free of GM modified ingredients.
The view from the stand is really impressive. You can see Bradford by night in the background. And although we are seated in the fairly streamlined new Kop stand, there are plenty of stadium oddities to look at.
First of all, the main stand only runs 2 thirds of the length of the pitch. You wonder, if the architect made some gross miscalculation; or money simply ran out as they were assembling the concrete elements. Ot whether, perhaps, somebody else owns the club shop building and has refused to sell it to the club.
Because it is the club shop building that is tucked away in the corner of the ground. They have squeezed in a section of uncovered seating next to it – not the best place in the ground on a rainy day.
Actually, it is not just the club shop. The dressing rooms must also be there, as the players emerge for the match from this corner. But it makes it a bit odd that the players’ car park is located outside the exact opposite corner of the ground.
The T L Dallas stand not only looks small from here. It looks much older than the 25 years. I cannot believe that pillars still were part of stadium design that recently. Apparently, away fans have in turns been placed here or in the neighbouring corner of the Midland Road Stand. At the moment, they are in the latter. And as Bradford at the moment draw crowds around 17.000 for their home matches with a capacity of around 25.000, they can afford to leave the TL Dallas stand empty for the match.
Being in Bradford, I cannot help noticing the billboard advertising for “Keybury Fire & Security”. It seems bad taste. Or then again. Their may be similar billboards at other grounds – it is just that the spectre of the tragic fire looms so large here that I notice it.
It is not just the TL Dallas stand looking diminutive from here. Also the Midland Road Stand looks old and small compared to the Kop and the Main Stand. It is amazing that it was built just 3 years before. The difference reflect the importance of getting a share of the big money in the Premier League. The Midland Road stand was built in 1996 as Bradford won promotion from 3rd to the 2nd tier of English football. The Kop in 1999 when they won promotion to the Premier League. The 2 thirds of the main stand followed in 2000 as Bradford avoided relegation in their first season – but building stopped, when they were eventually relegated in 2001. Football and material culture.
Another odd things are flags placed at regular intervals around the Kop for fans to pick up and wave. Not everybody takes up the flag – I, for instance, don’t. But the elderly lady in front of us do.
There is plenty of flag weaving around us. And there is a drummer a couple of rows behind us, trying to orchestra singing and chanting through the match. A hard core section of some 30-40 supporters follow the drum – the rest of the stand joins in occasionally. Still, the atmosphere is fairly good.
It is really a very strange place to watch football. There is the tragic history. The fire broke out in the old Main Stand, right next to the Kop. In the direction this photo is taken. And now, when you look in that direction, the two-tier stand with executive boxes have the look of a top premier league ground.
But if looking in the direction of the Midland Road stand and the TL Dallas Stand, Valley Parade looks like a traditional, average English league club.
The match? Bradford City close to the top of League 1 are hot favourites against Southend United near the bottom. But Southend for long spells look the better side. But twice they have a defender slipping in a dangerous situation giving Bradford a free run at goal. They survive the first, but not the second. The goal gives Bradford a little more confidence, but after half time, Southend comes out and have another go. And get an equaliser.
The match is heading for a draw. Five minutes before the end, Thomas and I decide to head for the station to catch the last train but one back to Manchester – enabling us to be home at around midnight. Rather bizarly we find all the gates locked. We get back to the steward following the match from the stairway. He follows us to the gate and unlocks it.
The visit to Valley Parade leaves a very strong impression. Not just because of the tragedy of the fire. But also because the different stands embody the shifting fortunes of football clubs; and the passion of their fans – some of whom have witnessed the tragedy – make you reflect on football’s power in creating identities.
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