I am a snob about football. One of those people who, like a reformed smoker, pretends it was never much fun and the cause of much harm. But the truth is that it was a massive part of my early life. I played every day, including in the winter, when we local lads gathered under the half-light of a car park. At school I was captain of the second eleven team which is probably more of an achievement than I give it credit for being, given that school was a big comprehensive of 1,400 pupils and I was a fairly puny specimen.
Like most of my contemporaries, I supported the UK’s Leeds United Football Club. This was the era of the pugilistic Billy Bremner, the subject of a recent episode in Radio 4’s Great Lives series, hosted by Matthew Parris. Bremner’s cause was championed by Anand Menon, a professor of politics, who I’ve interviewed several times on the telly-box. I had no idea he was a dogged Leeds fan. His description of walking into Elland Road in the 1970s and 80s, as an Asian man, and running the gauntlet of National Front activists, chimed with me. As a student, I remember taking a North African university friend to see Leeds play at home. It was a study in the contradictions of tribalism. Yacine, my friend from Algeria, shoulder to shoulder with heavily-tattooed men reading “The Flag”. In any other situation, I wouldn’t have fancied his chances. But he wore a Leeds scarf. And bedecked in those colours, all other emotions were – briefly – sublimated.
Professor Menon debunked the caricature of Billy Bremner as a gnomic “scrapper”, emblematic of a team for whom victory necessarily demanded gamesmanship and a fair amount of ankle tapping. Instead, we learned about Bremner’s good works, his Catholicism, his determination to help fellow professionals who fell on hard times. It made me look more kindly on the statue to Bremner outside Elland Road. Too often, it has seemed to me, football clubs seek to invest themselves with a spiritual significance they don’t warrant. Statues sometimes seem part of that self-mythologising for corporate gain. Camouflage for a sport that, in my eyes, became too venal to deserve devotion. Menon didn’t wholly change my mind about this. But he did make me realise that a statue to Bremner was wholly fitting.
Too often, it has seemed to me, football clubs seek to invest themselves with a spiritual significance they don’t warrant. – Colin Brazier
There’s a memorial of a different kind in my home city of Bradford, in the north of England. It’s a monument to the 56 people who died during the Valley Parade football stadium fire 35 years ago. I was 16 when the fire happened and, although primarily a fan of the more glamorous Leeds United, I occasionally went to see Bradford play. (Not so glamorous, but fewer buses to get there.)
I was among the many people who ran for their lives on the day of the fire, one of 3,000 spectators in the wooden grandstand. The disaster unfolded slowly, then quickly. People around me joked as smoke began rising, probably as a result of a dropped cigarette. But there was a discernible moment when the mood altered to one of palpable terror. Proper, grown-men-screaming, devil-take-the-hindmost panic. I was carried along by a wave of people climbing over seats to reach the safety of the pitch. Those who headed for the exits at the back found them locked and so perished there.
Mercifully, there were no fences, just a low wall separating the grandstand from the playing area. I found myself jammed up against the breeze-blocks until a stranger pulled me to safety, a hand on my shoulder and another holding a fistful of my hair. As I headed to the middle of the pitch, I looked back at the inferno and saw an old man standing stock-still high up in the stand. I watched as he disappeared under a collapse of burning timbers. It was pandemonium, in a way TV-footage cannot testify to. The sheer, roaring, mind-numbing din of a thousand degree fire, for instance.
For many people in Bradford, it became part of a story they mumbled to themselves about how other cities generated more official understanding, at least in the media. – Colin Brazier
People were wandering around, shouting out for lost friends and family. I was separated from mine and headed towards the end of the ground where I thought they might be. A handful of injured people were lying – beyond incongruity – in the penalty area. An image I still can’t quite believe – the sight of an older woman, obviously dead, a few feet from the goal-netting. Her nylon tights melted to her legs.
This was a disaster of its time. 1985. Pre-health and safety. Pre-counselling. Pre-stewards in high-vis vests. Pre-smartphones. Pre-viral videos. I left the ground through a gate. The old man in front of me, in a cloth cap and tweed coat, had what must have been third-degree burns to his ears and back of his head. He just walked away. I headed to the city centre and joined a bus queue of shoppers talking about bargains and fashion and the cost of living.
On the same day, in Birmingham, Leeds United fans were rioting (again). A teenage boy died when a wall collapsed. The number of injured came to 500. The inquiry which followed lumped together the Bradford fire and the Birmingham riot. At a bureaucratic level, this probably made sense. But the perception was one of crass insensitivity. For many people in Bradford, it became part of a story they mumbled to themselves about how other cities, and even other disasters, generated more official understanding, at least in the media.
Personally, it made me briefly fanatical about football. I never went back to Valley Parade, but followed Leeds home and away for a few seasons, until distance and rival attractions bore me off. Leeds United then had a spectacular implosion, in a fall from grace that seemed to owe much to greed and hubris. I set my face against football. Listening to Professor Anand singing the praises of Billy Bremner there was, for the first time in many years, just a moment of doubt.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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