When Football Didn't Matter
(another in the series of my football memoirs)
When I was a youngster, one of the little treats that I had was being able to go and watch Manchester City from time to time. The 1984-85 season had been one of good memories for me, because I was able to go with my brother and our next door neighbour to some of the home games, and my uncle took me for my first away game to Blackburn, where a Steve Kinsey win saw City win 1-0 at Blackburn, which proved to be a catalyst for the final promotion push, as had been the signing of David Phillips from Plymouth, and for a mere £65,000, an absolute bargain.
It was the day after my 13th birthday, and all was set fair for the final game of the season as City were at home to Charlton Athletic. The maths were simple: City simply had to win to be promoted to Division One (ie: what's now the Premier League) from Division Two. As a little treat my Mum had said to me that I was allowed to go and watch that game. A large crowd was expected but I knew with me looking after my brother and neighbour, the three of us would be okay. We walked it through Platt Fields Park and on to Maine Road, entered the Kippax, and got a pretty good view close to what used to be Windy Corner and waited for the game to commence.
City were awesome that day - and destroyed Charlton, who had their later to be manager Alan Curbishley playing in midfield, and their goalie made his debut, not the ideal place to make it. City scored two in two minutes in the first half, Paul Simpson and David Phillips were on fire (Simpson was deservedly Man of the Match) and it was looking fairly easy even by half time. There had been talk amongst fans with radios of something happening at Bradford, but it wasn't clear to make out what as yet. City went on to win 5-1, Eddie Large (formerly half of Little and Large) jumped for joy in the dugout with manager Billy McNeill, and all seemed well. Lots of fans invaded the pitch at the end, including my brother, but eventually we went home.
When I got home, I could see something was wrong. Not because we'd got home later than planned because of the celebration of getting promoted, but by the slightly sombre faces of my parents. Normally this meant something had happened, and it was my Dad, as ever usually the sensible one in these sort of situations, to explain. "There's been a horrible fire at Bradford, with one stand going up in flames. There may be people dead." We then waited for the news so I could see what had happened for myself.
What I did see upset me to the core. It wasn't just the sheer speed at which the whole disaster had taken place, from the noticing of a small fire build up of rubbish to the way that the whole stand was just engulfed in flames in a matter of minutes, with everyone struggling to get over the barriers on to the pitch and out of the way of the place rather quickly. In essence, the build up of rubbish and debris complete with the fact that the stand was of mainly a wooden construction didn't help, no did the bitumen on the roof either. Nonetheless, it was just a horrible, horrible thing to see.
Suddenly, football didn't matter anymore. It was a case of life and death for those who had been trapped in the fire and whom had just, like me, gone along to watch and support their team. In a day when hooliganism was still troubling the game immensely (the Heysel tragedy was literally weeks around the corner) such a human tragedy such as this made you realise that as much as you enjoyed going to watch and support, you should also do so in relative safety. I didn't want to watch Match of the Day to be honest, and respectfully that night they didn't play a theme tune or indeed sound cheery whatsoever, but tried its best to carry on and show the football, with Jimmy Hill being able to give viewers that sense of humanity and how the football world had lost, not just the supporters of Bradford and Lincoln whom had perished.
Even to this day, it's one of the memories of football that I have - in that it told me that my life wasn't just about football, but about other things. To this day the local television company has very strict rights over the footage, which is often used by local fire crews for their fire safety training, which brings the message across that messing with fire is not a clever thing to do whatsoever. It's also, understandably, an emotional subject in Bradford especially, and having been to Valley Parade myself and seen how the ground these days is a much safer place to be, the one thing I can take heart from is that those who died did not do so without the thoughts of a nation behind them and neither in vain, because safety improvements following the Popplewell Inquiry may have indeed saved more lives.
But, nonetheless. Football didn't matter. The next few days I spent were reflecting on how such a thing might have happened and what I could do to help those suffering. It gave me a harsh lesson in reality and humanity and taught me to be grateful for what you have, and to help those less fortunate if you can do so. Needless, to say the charity version of "You'll Never Walk Alone", recorded by Gerry Marsden and a host of other stars of the time, did its bit for the local burns unit and kept the awareness going. I know too that it also was an eye opener to just how close knit football fans actually were - underneath the rivalry is respect and common love of the game, and how everyone helps out in situations.