I was never a serious football fan. I preferred the ebb and flow of cricket, a game that seemed to me to have more diverse individual skills that contributed to an all-round team performance, a more all-encompassing, more satisfying contest, even if it did take a bit longer to reach a result. The more impulsive aspect of football with its tendency, or opportunity, to rely on chance, was somehow less attractive.
Nevertheless, when I was about ten, a friend of my dad’s called Billy Ingham used to take me to Turf Moor to watch Burnley, in those days championship contenders led by Northern Irish international Jimmy McIllroy with handsome blond Ray Pointer at centre forward. Then I followed Leeds United under the management of Don Revie and even went to Elland Road a few times with a photographer’s pass from the Bradford Telegraph & Argus, where I worked in 1968/9, that enabled me to sit behind the goal Leeds were defending. To this day I can name most of the players in the all-conquering side led by Billy Bremner that it became fashionable to hate: Sprake, Reaney, Cooper, Giles, Charlton, Hunter, Jones, Clarke… you know them. One Wednesday night in April 1971 fellow Melody Maker writer Roy Hollingworth dragged me to White Hart Lane to watch his beloved Derby take on Spurs but we ended up behind a goal surrounded by home supporters. Roy, more attuned to the moods of football crowds than I, advised me to keep quiet in case my Yorkshire accent attracted unwelcome attention. I think Tottenham won 2-1. When Sam was about seven or eight and we lived in Shepherds Bush I took him to Loftus Road to watch QPR a few times, always with walk-up tickets bought on the morning of the game which meant we sat in a stand where the locals had refreshed themselves pretty thoroughly beforehand and called the ref rude names that Sam didn’t understand. “What’s a cunt, Dad?”
At around 3.30 on 11 May, 1985, I too had refreshed myself with a few lunchtime pints, at my local the Thatched House on Dalling Road in Hammersmith, and was settling down in front of the TV in my basement flat with a girlfriend named Lucy Phillips. We’d probably lit up a spliff, too. About ten minutes later I was glued to that TV, horrified by the scenes from Bradford City’s Valley Parade ground where the Main Stand was engulfed in flames. TV didn’t normally show games from Bradford but the cameras were there that day because City was about to be promoted to Division 2. I wasn’t a Bradford City fan, never had been, but having worked in it I knew the city well and that afternoon my heart went out all those caught up in that inferno.
Among them, I was to discover later, was Roy Mason, who died that afternoon aged 74, whom I had known from my days as a reporter on the Craven Herald & Pioneer, the weekly newspaper published in my hometown of Skipton. This was the first job I ever had, and Roy was a kindly reporter of my father’s generation, slightly austere but ever willing to share his long experience with newcomers to the profession like me. I was friendly with his daughter Cathy, too. A tall, slim girl with long dark hair flicked up at the ends and a pretty smile, she worked on the Keighley News and we’d chat together at NUJ meetings and on the journalism course we both took at Bradford Technical College. It was conveyed to me by another CH&P reporter called Marcia Williams that Cathy wouldn’t turn down a date if I was to ask, but I felt a bit constrained because her dad might disapprove and I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Roy.
Among the others who died on that dreadful day were the father, grandfather, younger brother and uncle of 12-year-old Martin Fletcher who somehow got out alive and, because of the misfortune that befell his family, became synonymous with the Bradford Fire, at least in its immediate aftermath when newspapers were looking for stories about ‘heroes’ or ‘victims’. Now Martin has written a book, 56: The Story of the Bradford Fire published by Bloomsbury, which I have read over the last few days, my mood as I read it alternating between deep sorrow and furious anger.
Martin’s book has caused a storm of controversy, largely because he points out that the owner of Bradford City, a local businessman who was a bit of a cowboy called Stafford Heginbotham, had somehow suffered no fewer than ten fires at business premises he owned during the previous decade, so much so that this had come to the attention of the brilliant investigative journalist Paul Foot. Martin doesn’t go as far as to lay the blame directly at Heginbotham but he naturally suggests this is too much of a coincidence. His detailed analysis of events surrounding the fire and its aftermath also throw up questions about the haste in which the official inquiry into the fire was conducted, conflicting evidence offered to it by Heginbotham and others, the abysmal lack of safety precautions at Valley Parade and why letters from the local council and fire department drawing attention to this were ignored by Heginbotham (who died in 1995). At the very least, Fletcher’s investigation suggests that criminal charges of negligence ought to have been brought against Heginbotham and, probably, others. The only man who queried Heginbotham’s role in the tragedy, the fan club secretary, was promptly banned from the ground.
Part autobiography, part investigation and part condemnation, Martin’s book opens with a portrait of an immensely happy family with an industrious dad keen to do the best he could for his family. And so he does, working hard, gaining promotion as a bright salesman, doing all the things that the Thatcher government of the time encouraged. Unfortunately, and this is one of the many sub plots in this wonderfully readable book, he and the rest of his family were football fans, and the Thatcher government cared not one jot for this section of society which is why the ground safety recommendations of various committees were never enacted into law by her government. Hell, they had more important things to do: defending the Falklands, trying to force through the poll tax and, most importantly, putting miners out of work, many of whom might just have been have been Bradford City fans.
Martin’s book goes on to describe in graphic reality the events of 11 May 1985 and his miraculous escape, the speed in which the fire spread, his separation from the rest of the men in his family, his arrival on the pitch and at a hospital, thanks to the good nature of a lady called Margaret, and his eventual realisation that he had survived. Then there was the agonising comprehension of what had happened, the newfound closeness with his mother and the ongoing mental and physical issues he has suffered as a result of the disaster. Martin doesn’t hold back in describing all of this, nor in his determination, the months of hard research he undertook, to uncover misconceptions and get to the truth. The second half of his book describes in pitiless detail how he – and he alone – uncovers the facts about what precisely happened on 11 May 1985.
If you care about truth, if you care about justice, if you care about how society desperately needs to address issues that politicians of whatever hue and men of wealth and power seek to brush beneath the carpet in order to be re-elected or sustain their position, read this book. Martin Fletcher is a hero and no mistake.