By Jim Greenhalf
LONG before the 1985 Valley Parade death blaze, visiting supporters in the end facing the steep open-air terracing of the Kop would be assailed with the chant: “This is the valley, the valley of death!” If nothing else the fire proved how closely triumph and tragedy are allied.
Standing in the covered cowshed that was the Midland Road standing area in 1977 – the year I first ventured down the hill from Bradford College’s halls of residence to watch Bradford City – I wondered about the purpose of this chant.
Were the Koppites out to air their literary knowledge by paraphrasing the Charge of the Light Brigade poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, putting rival fans in fear of a verbal bombardment? Or was there scarcely concealed irony in the fact that City fans often chanted it when their team was on the receiving end of a hiding? The valley of death, for them in those days, often turned out to be the death of the hope of victory.
Several lifetimes later, or so it seems now looking back, I was having a conversation with Geoffrey Richmond, Bradford City’s chairman, about how successful clubs are built and sustained. It occurred either after City’s successful play-off match against Notts County at the old Wembley or after City’s promotion to the Premier League. “Of course, City will never be as big as Manchester United,” I said airly, or words to that effect. “Why can’t Bradford City be like Manchester United?” came the Nero-like reply. This was a rhetorical question. If Geoffrey Richmond believed that his club could in its own way be as big of Alex Ferguson’s Lancashire outfit, I wasn’t inclined to make him grumpy by comparing and contrasting the two clubs’ trophy-winning traditions.
My personal transition from a supporting reporter to a reporting supporter took place in the early 1980s. In those days I had a weekly column called Fifth Column. My brief was to say the unsayable on behalf of the public, within the laws of libel and decency. Prior to City’s 1979 FA cup match away to Durham amateurs Brandon United I wrote a less-than-flattering piece about the team’s style of play. It wasn’t long before I got a less-than-delighted telephone call from City’s then-manager, George Mulhall. To rephrase an old saying: Laugh and the world laughs with you: cause a stir and you stand alone. I survived, however. George went the way of all managers as did most of the players he brought in.
As a supporting reporter, watching a club yoyo from Division Four to Division Three and back again, I found myself becoming attached to City’s struggles embodied by dependable regular first-teamers such as John Middleton, Peter Downsborough, Hughie Martinez, Ces Podd, big Joe Cooke and an inside forward, Bernie Wright, whom I nicknamed The Stoker because he seemed to be as tough and indefatigable as an old ship’s boiler – a human template for Bobby Campbell, who was to come. I was especially pleased when Bernie barged his way through to batter in a scoring shot. I used to feel that way about Malcolm McDonald in 1973/74 when for six months I lived in Newcastle and stood in the corner Paddock of St James’ Park.
As a reporting supporter I tried to get inside the story of the club’s financial collapse in the summer of 1983. In spite of a reasonable weekly income from the club’s lottery, Bradford City Football Club (1908) Ltd wound up in the hands of the Official Receiver with debts of £374,000. The commonly-held view among City supporters was that the lottery had been plundered by some of its board members. Thirty-two years later and the story of that slide to near oblivion has still to be explained by those in the know. Perhaps it never will. The summer of 1983 been surpassed, of course, by the more costly collapse into administration that followed City’s relegation from the Premier League in 2001. And who can say with any certainty how much fans’ natural scepticism became muted by protective loyalty following the inexplicable fire disaster on the afternoon of Saturday, May 11, 1985?
All that season and the season before it, I had watched City as a paying customer in the Midland Road, occasionally writing colour pieces for the paper. I had started to discover what a homely little club it was under the dual control of Stafford Heginbotham and Jack Tordoff in the boardroom and Trevor Cherry and Terry Yorath on the pitch. “You have to smell the roses along the way,” Stafford used to tell me, as though trying to infiltrate my defensive scepticism with his Lancashire optimism. There was nothing about the team’s zestful attacking play, however, that encouraged dolefulness. Stuart McCall, John Hendrie, Bobby Campbell, Dave Evans, Greg Abbott, Mark Ellis, Chris Withe and fellow Bantams stormed to the top of the table by sinking doughty Millwall 2-0 in November, 1984, and never looked back. Warmed by the spirit of victory I’d often run part of the way home down Manningham Lane and Keighley Road – a 35-year-old man body-swerving between clusters of happy City supporters on their way home.
On that chilly May afternoon in 1985, an irritating scudding breeze was blowing haphazardly from the west. There were several of us from the T&A newsroom among the 11,000 at Valley Parade: reporter Peter Carroll, who had been assigned the job of spending several months with the City players behind-the-scenes; and Barry MacSweeney , the Geordie poet who was the paper’s abrasive news editor.
In a departure to my normal routine I had planned to sit in the main stand with my friend Tony O’Callaghan and his mum; but they cried off a day or two before the match and so, in another break from my usual routine, I drove to the T&A offices in Hall Ings, parked up round the back and walked to the Midland Road stand and took up my usual position near the halfway line. I witnessed the start of the fire from there. I saw the end of it on the pitch amid scraps of discarded newspaper pages, programmes and pale-as-paper human beings lying between the bits of debris. I saw grown men weeping in rage and anguish at the sight of fate’s latest thunder-bolt.
The sight made me understand what City meant to people from Bradford’s recession-hit roads and streets. One of their few redeeming, life-affirming, public attachments was being destroyed before their eyes, on the very afternoon of the Third Division Championship. “This is a world exclusive,” Barry MacSweeney said as we surveyed the smoking, smouldering wreckage of the main stand. Neither of us thought that anybody had died in that blackened tangle of stanchions. We assumed the stand had emptied either through the gates at the back or over the wall to the heat-battered pitch.
Only when we returned to the T&A newsroom later that evening and the telephones started ringing in the rising death toll did we realise. Thirty years ago the T&A newsroom was a square pale yellow room clacking with an assortment of typewriters and wreathed with cigarette and cigar smoke. As Denis Flatt’s rolls of film were processed in the photography department on the fourth floor, T&A editor Terry Quinn was hurrying back to Bradford from Scotland. Back in his office I saw the graphic pictures he rejected for publication. News agencies from all over the world were ringing up asking for pictures. The paper agreed to sell them. All the money would be contributed to whatever fund was set up in the wake of the disaster. It was journalism with no-nonsense compassion. We had to tell the story but we were also part of the community and wanted to help. We worked through the night.
I drove MacSweeney home to Fairweather Green early on Sunday morning and returned to my top-floor studio flat in Selborne Terrace, Heaton. The pre-match records I had played the previous morning lay strewn over the green carpet. Through the window I could saw a pale blue glow over Valley Parade from a floodlight near the main stand that had been left on. I didn’t start shaking until later, however, when the road outside the main stand was a sea of wreaths and I watched young reporters being sent out of the newsroom to knock on the doors of bereaved families. The occasionally irascible MacSweeney took them under his protective wing, encouraged them and praised them. The Newsdesk did not receive a single complaint from any of the afflicted families.
My transition from supporting reporter to reporting supporter took me from the terraces into the press box in the new main stand for the match between Bradford City and an England XI on Sunday, December 14, 1986. Ten years later, on Sunday, May 26, 1996, I was in the press box at Wembley for the Endsleigh Division Two play-off. After City’s 2-1 victory, thanks to goals from Des Hamilton and Mark Stallard, I walked across part of the pitch (impressive) to the dressing rooms (not at all impressive) for post-match interviews.
Along hospitality refreshments came a bit more behind-the-scenes recognition. Passing the time of day with Bryan Edwards, the club’s physiotherapist in the 1980s, I learned that he was in the Bolton Wanderers team which played Matt Busby’s Manchester United before and after the Munich Air Crash. Bolton lost the first match in 1957/58 7-2 but the following season beat United 6-3. Bolton also beat United 2-0 in the 1958 FA Cup Final. Other behind-the-scenes faces who became familiar tome were stadium manager Allan Gilliver, club secretary Terry Newman and groundsman Jonathan Smith. That was in the days when there were 70 staff and players on City’s £1.5m payroll.
One of the many things Geoffrey Richmond did during his ten years as chairman was install an inclusive banqueting suite in the main stand, replacing the exclusive executive suite. I liked to go there for lunch on days off – paying my way of course – and look out over the pitch. One sunny day in the mid-1990s I went in and Kris Kamara, who was manager at the time, was at a table talking to a foreign player he was keen on signing. It could have been Marco Sas, Erik Regtop, Ole Bjorn Sundgot or Robert Steiner. Exciting times were in the air. The ‘valley of death’ of 1977/78 had been transformed. The Midland Road cowshed was now a 4,500-seat stand opened by the Queen in 1997, the year after City had beaten Notts County at Wembley to win promotion to the Championship.
One of the unwritten rules of the press box is that journalists should restrain their partisanship and emulate the spirit of Kipling’s poem If – treating triumph and disaster alike as imposters. In December 1988 City played a midweek cup match against Everton. Among the Toffees was Stuart McCall – one of the casualties of City’s failure to win promotion to the First Division the previous season. I was sent to do a colour piece for the paper. The spirit of Kipling’s If was not with me that night, as the following extract shows:-
Did the spectator who left his car lights on actually leave the ground to switch them off? If he did he missed the second goal by Ian Banks a few moments later. The crowd went crackers.
And so did in the second half when Leigh Palin zonked in goal number three. I hugged the bloke on my left – T&A sports editor Alan Birkinshaw – and pummelled the shoulder of the bloke on my right – freelance journalist Terry Frost.
Behind me the bloke doing the live radio commentary was roaring away like Peter O’Sullevan.
Within weeks of that result City’s likable and not unsuccessful manager and coach, Terry Dolan and Stan Ternant, were fired. Dolan, whose midfield play and penalty taking had been a feature of City’s team when I was a paying customer, had worked on a community football scheme at Scholemoor after his playing career ended, before he graduated as a qualified coach. I always found him considerate and even-tempered, but his reputation took a knock when City failed by two points to get out of Division Two. Had they beaten Ipswich Town at Valley Parade instead of losing 2-3 the story might have been different.
That Saturday afternoon the ground was pack. So was the press box. Aliens from the national press were among the regulars. I felt especially irked when one of them, the esteemed Ian Woolridge I think it was, stood by the side of chairman Jack Tordoff. “All this,” he said, gesturing somewhat grandly towards the far distant industrial sites along Canal Road – still visible in those days because the roofline of the Midland Road cowshed was much lower – “All these…cotton mills.” Cotton mills? In Yorkshire? Dear me. I was a bloody southerner but at least I knew that cotton was Lancashire and wool was Yorkshire, unlike this famed scribe who had reported from around the world. That seemed to set the tone for the game. Stuart McCall’s midfield burst and 20-yard net-buster for City’s second goal wasn’t enough. I probably wasn’t body-swerving my way home down Manningham Lane that evening. It felt like the end of an era. It was.
Geoffrey Richmond’s arrival at Valley Parade in January 1994 turned out to be a terrible shock, for here was a man of bold public statements like the one he gave me when I went to see him at Valley Parade: “I believe Bradford City can become a very big club; I can see Bradford City as a Premier League club. I don’t see any reason why this city wouldn’t support a Premier League club.” Those who expected a comfortable life at the club didn’t last long in his employ. For six years of his ten years as chairman he upset a few people but won over a lot more because everything he promised he delivered.
He wanted to build a big multi-sports academy on the site of the old Manningham Middle school. But for a bit of double-dealing by Bradford Council, which handed over the site to a Muslim madrassa, Richmond would have delivered that too. He had the support of Sports Minister Richard Cabourn and Yorkshire West MEP Barry Seal. Bradford’s rulers, it seemed to me, were happier dealing with talkers rather than doers, hence the six years wasted over John Garside’s preposterous proposal to build a covered superdome at Odsal. Garside was a member of the board of directors of City’s 1908 club which went into the valley of death in the summer of 1983.