On 11th May 1985, Bradford City FC were playing Lincoln City in the final game of the season. It was a day of celebration that saw 11,076 supporters at Bradford’s ground, Valley Parade, to see the club collect its first trophy for 56 years. Minutes before half time, smoke began rising from the Main Stand and within four minutes the fire engulfed the entire structure, reaching a temperature of 900 degrees Celsius.
56 men, women and children were killed and 265 were injured. It was one of the most deadly fires in British history which, after a five day inquiry that blamed a dropped cigarette, was widely regarded as a tragic accident. But to some, there is an alternative ending that involves organised crime, a cover up and even the British government. Now, British journalist, presenter and filmmaker Mobeen Azhar has embarked on a journey to find out what really happened that day.
In this compelling eight-part series created by What’s The Story? Sounds, Mobeen Azhar goes back to his place of birth in West Yorkshire to speak to survivors of the Bradford City Fire, police officers and lawyers involved in the inquiry. The series culminates in an intense conversation with Mobeen uncovering a remarkable new claim which forces listeners to question everything they’ve been told about the incident until now.
Speaking about the making of the podcast, Azhar says “This is a story that has been overlooked for generations. Many lives have been blighted by the lack of answers. That creates a climate in which rumours, conspiracy theories and half truths take root. This series cuts through the noise and serves the public interest. That is something I really believe in, regardless of how many people are offended by the questions being asked.”
The first episode is available now on all streaming platforms, with further episodes released weekly.
EPISODE 1: 11th of May 1985 Saturday the 11th of May 1985 was supposed to be a day of celebration for the fans of Bradford City AFC.They’d just clinched the Division Three title and the last game of the season against Lincoln City was set to be a lap of honour. But as half time approached, faint wisps of smoke appeared from the Main Stand of Valley Parade. They quickly turned to visible orange flames. The carnival atmosphere took a turn as the flames grew. In just over four minutes, the entire stand was ablaze. It’s estimated that temperatures reached 900 degrees celsius. While many fans survived by escaping onto the pitch, 56 didn’t. But despite it being one of the deadliest events in football history, the fire at Valley Parade has faded somewhat into obscurity. Investigative journalist, Azhar, speaks to those who were at the ground that fateful day, to get a sense of the tragedy. From police officers, to the radio commentator, we hear the shocking details of one of the worst days in football history.
EPISODE 2: The Inquiry As the Sunday papers went to press, the British public wanted answers. How could such a tragic fire have happened? Why were so many lives needlessly lost? The locals of Bradford and victims’ families were especially keen to know as rumours were now circulating. Mobeen speaks to those who followed the aftermath of the fire closely as he seeks to understand how those in authority reacted to the devastating events. Shortly after the fire, Margaret Thatcher’s Government established an inquiry. It would be led by the High Court judge, Sir Oliver Popplewell. We hear from him and others in attendance about how the fire was said to have started. There are some who are critical of how the inquiry was run. Was it too fast? Was its scope broad enough? Crucially, were its conclusions correct?
EPISODE 3: The Fletchers Mobeen goes to meet a fan who has some lingering questions about the true nature of the Bradford City Fire. Martin Fletcher was just 12 years old when he and four members of his family went to watch his beloved football team play on the 11th of May 1985. He tells Mobeen how he came to fall in love with the club and how that day came to totally alter the course of his life. Martin has a tragic memory of the day itself. But something his mum told him years after the fire has prompted him to revisit the details of the tragedy, time and time again. His conclusion? There’s been a massive miscarriage of justice.
EPISODE 4: The Chairman Bradford City has had a tumultuous history. For decades before the fire in ‘85, the club had lingered in the lower leagues of English football. But they may have ceased to exist at all. For many fans, the fact they are still a club today is down to one man: Stafford Heginbotham. Mobeen goes in search of those who remember the club’s enigmatic chairman. Even to this day, fans still regard him as a hero. But we hear how in fact there may be reasons to question his hero status. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Heginbotham’s media appearances only added mystery to the tragedy. And Mobeen discovers that the fire at Bradford’s stadium was by no means the chairman’s first. It turns out, his history of fires was the joke of the town.
EPISODE 5: A dropped cigarette? Were Stafford’s previous fires considered as part of the inquiry that examined the Bradford City Fire? If not, then surely the evidence that it was started accidentally must have been overwhelming? Well, it turns out that may not be entirely the case. Mobeen investigates the testimony from fans who were sitting right where the fire started. And we hear from a fire investigator who has some lingering questions about the inquiry’s conclusions. But in 2015, a retired detective went on TV and told the watching public he found the man who dropped the cigarette that started the fire. Case closed? Mobeen discovers this detective may not be entirely trustworthy. If he is lying, it adds yet more questions to a growing list.
EPISODE 6: A sinister theory There were countless heroes on the 11th of May 1985. Without the selfless actions of fellow fans, police officers and nurses, the death toll would have been even higher. Mobeen hears remarkable testimony detailing the heroics. But as his investigation deepens, he also discovers more evidence that questions the official conclusion of the inquiry. Why did fans report smelling a burning toxic rubber prior to the flames? Was Bradford City and its Chairman in financial trouble going into the new season? Were the doors unlocked that day as opposed to general policy? Was there evidence of foul play? A sinister theory begins to emerge. One that many think is beyond the pale. As Mobeen takes stock, questions remain.
EPISODE 7: The Class Thing Four years after the Bradford City Fire, tragedy struck again. Hillsborough Stadium played host to the semi-final of the 1989 FA Cup. The police failed to manage the entrance to the stadium and an ensuing crush led to the deaths of 97 more football fans. It raises the question, why weren’t those in authority taking the safety of football fans more seriously? The Bradford Fire has long drawn comparisons to Hillsborough. But unlike Hillsborough, it has faded into obscurity. Why? Mobeen discovers it may be down to a reluctance among many to ask difficult questions. But in 2015, Martin Fletcher published a book questioning the official verdict. It looked like those difficult questions would finally get some satisfactory answers. It certainly seemed necessary. So what happened next?
EPISODE 8: Always remember the 56 Despite fading in the nation's memory, the impact of the Bradford City Fire will be everlasting for anyone who was there that day. It’s perhaps this reason why many fans have so far declined to engage in another examination of the evidence. But Mobeen thinks another examination is needed. And there’s one more piece of the incomplete and ugly puzzle. Mobeen speaks to a man who makes an extraordinary claim. We hear again from Sir Oliver Popplewell, the man who ran the inquiry to put the new information back to him. Does he think a fresh look is worthwhile? No matter what the conclusions of any future examination will be, one thing is certain: The fans who lost their lives that day will never be forgotten. If lessons are to be learnt, they simply cannot beforgotten.
“900 Degrees” was created by “What's The Story? Sounds”. .For more information on “900 Degrees” podcast or other series from What’s The Story? Sounds, head to whatsthestorysounds.com or follow on Instagram/Twitter.