Just another day at the football
End of season 1985. I’m at Piccadilly station having just been told that the train to see United play away at QPR had been cancelled.
I had a good mate who was a sports reporter who used to take me to games he covered in Yorkshire and I’d sit in the press box with him. I’d got a day pass off the wife and didn’t fancy going home, so I went to a call box to get hold of said mate before he set off to where ever he was going.
He worked at the Express buildings round the corner and he agreed to pick me up and take me to an end of season party affair at Bradford City, who had gained promotion and were set to celebrate against Lincoln that afternoon.
It was to be just a normal football day. We collected our press passes and made our way into the Main Stand, which like the rest of the ground, was packed.
We were told that the players were to do a pre-match lap of honour and the mood was one of a relaxed party. We spent some time chatting to a young good-looking girl in the burger bar at the back of the stand, who told us she’d never known it so busy.
I took up my seat in the press box as my mate handed me the stopwatch. My job was to call the times to him of significant moments such as sending-offs, goals and the like.
Just before half time I became aware of smoke coming from the stand away to my left. I pointed this out. “Smoke bomb,” said my mate. “What time was it thrown?”
I called a time from the watch and we carried on with the game. I became aware that the smoke was building up and some people at the far end of the stand were starting to move.
I stood up, but could see little. Within seconds the smoke became an orange glow and a wall of heat hit my face. The roof of the stand burst into flames away to my right – the opposite side to where the first smoke was seen.
I became aware of bits of the roof coming down and the flames growing all around us. It was time to go, and rapid. I was calm at this stage and my exit route was down the steps towards the pitch.
I’d seen people around me heading down the steps at the back of the stand but I knew the gates would be locked. I’d been around when trouble had kicked off at United aways over the years and, like at West Ham in 1977, the safest place would be in the centre circle!
My mate wanted me to go down the steps into the back of the stand and that was the direction he set off in. I grabbed his coat and swung him back in the direction of the pitch.
People were passing us heading to the back of the stand and I tried to block their path and get them to go the other way. Over my shoulder down the steps I could see a crush was already starting to take place.
Many did turn as I shouted in their faces, but others told me to get out of the way saying ‘you aren’t allowed on the pitch’.
By now the heat was becoming unbearable and the smoke was that thick you could hardly see.
I dropped to my knees, where the air was clearer, and set off towards the pitch pushing people in that direction as I went. The stand was seated until about three quarters of the way down, then it dropped into a paddock about ten feet deep.
This was tough to negotiate for older people in the chaos that was all around. I was more than aware how serious this was by now as people had been dropping around me overcome by smoke and they there smouldering in the heat.
Once you got to the front of the paddock you met the next problem. It was at least chest high so you had to pull yourself up and over onto the side of the pitch. Once over, I started pulling people out, who seemed wedged in behind me. Some had given up and were just falling back into the stand.
I had my coat over my head to try and keep off the heat. When it started to melt around me, I knew it was time to do one.
The heat was now burning my eyes and I was unable to see where I was going. The next moment I can remember, saw me in the centre circle looking at the stop watch. There had been three-and-a-half minutes from the first moment I’d seen smoke and pressed that stop watch. Three-and-a-half minutes for the whole stand to go up and for such a scene of devastation to develop.
We made our way in a daze out of the ground. After setting out for just another day at football, my mate was suddenly covering a big story. We came to the back of the stand that was now a twisted, charred wreck. The doors were opened and bodies piled high around them.
We could see sheets being put across bodies, where the stand had been and the smell of smoke was still choking all around.
The situation seemed unreal. My hands were sore, my hair burnt and my face felt like I’d been out in the sun all day.
Just another day at football had seen over 200 people injured and 60 fans would never go home.
On the journey home my mind drifted to other disasters I’d heard of – Bolton, Ibrox and others around the world. These all happened to people who were just going to another football game. Their lives changed or ended, forever.
As a red I’d been to a number of grounds where we’d all suggested there was a disaster waiting to happen – the tunnel at the back of the stand at Spurs, the holding paddock in the corner behind the visiting section at Ayersome Park and not least that Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough.
Most nights I still see the picture in my mind of the kid in the burger bar, I can’t attend a BBQ without getting the shakes and can point out the fire exit in any building I’m in. It’s changed my whole life, but I was one of the lucky ones who came home from Bradford after just another day at the football.
- This article featured in issue five of A Fine Lung. For back issues visit our online stall here