KEIR RADNEDGE REMEMBERS —- May 11 is a particular day in the annals of the black side of English football. This date 35 years ago precisely in 1985 was the one scarred by the Bradford fire. Some 56 fans died after a four-minute inferno raged through the main stand. But they were not the only fans to die after events on this day.
That same afternoon I had been sent by the Daily Mail to Birmingham, to St Andrew’s, to report on the season-concluding Second Division match between Birmingham City and Leeds United. This was the darkest decade of English football, when hooligans ran wild despite the best efforts of police and confused appeals of politicians.
A certain cynicism also ruled. The establishment knew that trouble-makers would be exploding in and around football grounds. To that extent football violence was ‘acceptable’ and could be contained. It was not Government Ministers or MPs coming under violent attack.
May 11 was a Saturday afternoon of high tension around St Andrew’s. A corps of Birmingham’s fans had their own reputation but nothing to compare with the notorious hard core following Leeds.
Angry antagonism between the fans at opposite ends of the ground grew the longer the game went on. They taunted each other from behind one goal to the other. Missiles were thrown on to the pitch and at the police.
At the end of the game Birmingham fans, celebrating a 1-0 win and promotion, invaded the pitch. They were driven back by police who then formed up across the ground after Leeds fans at the opposite, Tilton Road End, spilled over on to the pitch.
One of the senior officers on duty later described it as “the most terrifying experience in my police career.” He added: “The intensity, the anger, the violence shown by Leeds fans was something else. They were throwing coins at us, officers were getting slashed in the face when they were hit.”
The Leeds’ fans refused to go back into the terracing and began to advance, threateningly, down the pitch.
At that moment a corner entry at the opposite end opened up and a phalanx of mounted police rode into the stadium and fanned out across the pitch. You could sense a chill thrill running right around the terraces and stands where thousands of fans remained, transfixed by the confrontation between police and hooligans.
At a given signal the mounted police launched a cavalry charge down the ground. It was one of the most mawkishly surreal sights I have ever seen in more than 50 years of reporting football.
Later journalists were told later that a Leeds fan had been seriously injured as a wall collapsed under pressure of retreating fans.
Around 145 policemen were injured, 125 fans were arrested and more than 50 were treated for injuries at local hospitals. The then Chief Constable Geoffrey Dear later described events as “possibly the worst crowd disorders ever seen at a football ground in this country”.
TV and radio news that night and the papers the next day were all about the horrific events at Bradford’s Valley Parade.
Almost lost amid the shocking reports and pictures of the fatal fire was a news item reporting the death of the 15-year-old who had been sheltering behind a wall at St Andrew’s against which Leeds fans had retreated.
The 15-year-old was Ian Hambridge, a Leeds fan from Northampton who had been attending his first football match. He had merely been standing in the wrong place at the wrong time and had died overnight at the Midland Neurological Hospital in Smethwick.
Mr Justice Popplewell, appointed to head the inquiry into the Bradford fire, was also instructed to include events at St Andrew’s in his work.
He described events as “more like Agincourt” than a football match. He inspected the wreckage of the wall and noted evidence that Leeds fans had been wearing Nazi swastika armbands and had been chanting “Sieg Heil”.
Alcohol he identified as a crucial contributing factor and thought trouble could have been avoided had police cleared Leeds fans from a refreshment area.
Birmingham City were fined £5,000 by the Football Association for failing to take adequate preventative measures while Leeds had a name-only ticket-sale order imposed the following season’s away games.
Worse was to come in the hooligan wars: some 18 days after that tragic May 11, so 39 Juventus fans were killed in the Heysel Disaster.
Remembrance today for the victims of Valley Parade is perfectly appropriate; also, on this particular day, Ian Hambridge should be remembered too.
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