Sir Oliver Popplewell, Bradford, Liverpool, Hillsborough and the obstructions to moving on

I was sitting in the back row of the old wooden stand on that fateful May afternoon. Four years later, when Hillsborough was the scene of the next football disaster, I was living in South Yorkshire. In 2004, while I was researching what became ‘Four Minutes to Hell’, I spent a number of days in a room at Bradford University reading the original papers from the Popplewell enquiry and even corresponded briefly with the (by then) retired judge about using quotes from his 2003 book ‘Benchmark’. I moved from Yorkshire to sit as a judge and by now I have lived on Merseyside for the best part of seventeen years. So I suppose it was inevitable that I would get the media phone calls.

For those who haven’t read the letter from Sir Oliver Popplewell, published in The Times on Wednesday of this week, it can be summarised as praising the dignity and courage shown by the citizens of Bradford in 1985 and asking whether there is ‘a lesson there for the Hillsborough campaigners.’ Crucially, Sir Oliver uses a short phrase about those of us involved in the fire, to sum up what the lesson might be; he says we ‘moved on’. There is no way to exaggerate the effect those two words have had on so many people in this part of the world.

I was asked several times to comment on what he had written. Some of my comments were used as sound bites, others given a little more air time. But I always feel happier writing than speaking, not least because I can re-read what I write, whereas I can never pull the spoken words back into my mouth to re-arrange them. So here is what I did say to various media outlets, except this time it’s better constructed.

I was proud to see again Sir Oliver expressing his opinion on the city where I grew up. I had read it before, both in his report and his book, but we don’t get too many compliments of that sort these days, so it’s always good to read one. Letters to newspapers are often reduced, sometimes vastly, to the point where the author may wish he’d never sent it. Perhaps that happened to Sir Oliver. I don’t know. ‘Moving on’ is a risky phrase to use in these circumstances. Making such a direct comparison between two disasters also has its problems. Valley Parade and Hillsborough are different, but not just because one was a fire and the other a crushing. Valley Parade is unique as the only football disaster in this country where the fatalities were caused by fire. Hillsborough followed Burnden Park and Ibrox, either of which might have been a more relevant comparison.

The essential difference is in the immediate aftermath. There was one reporter, whose words I will not dignify by naming either him or his newspaper, who insisted that he ‘knew’ that the fire had been started by a smoke bomb, an act of vandalism so common in football grounds of that era. There were other reporters who intruded into the recovery of hospital patients, even to the extent of erecting ladders so they could look through first floor windows. But by and large the press was not a problem.

The most significant difference was in the way the enquiry was conducted. Sir Oliver heard the evidence he needed to hear within little more than a month after the fire and produced his first report within another month. The reason he could do all this is familiar to those of us accustomed to the way courts work. You only go in detail into the evidence that is disputed. Hardly any evidence was disputed after the fire, although there were disagreements about what inferences should be drawn from the admitted facts. In particular, Stafford Heginbotham, the club chairman at the time, admitted publicly all the things that might have been done better or more quickly. The experts and the other witnesses made it easy for Sir Oliver to conclude that the fire had been caused accidentally. It was equally straightforward for Mr Justice Cantley to conclude the proceedings in the civil courts, which resulted in the payment of damages, and for the Coroner to hold a fairly non-controversial inquest.

Within a few weeks most of us felt we knew what there was to know, that such blame as there was had been apportioned and that we could now look to the future and decide how to ‘move on’. Moving on is a very difficult phrase. First and foremost, it quite decidedly does not mean ‘forgetting’. We will never forget. It seems to me it involves finding a way of going about our day-to-day lives without allowing the events of 1985 to intrude unnecessarily or inappropriately. They will come back – and very sharply – at the most unexpected moments. I remember sitting one day in 1999 or thereabouts in a courtroom in Liverpool. There was some work being done outside to a building with a flat roof. Bitumen was being heated to apply to the roof. The smell took me right back to that melting bitumen on that Saturday afternoon. I took over another courtroom.

So ‘moving on’ is not an exact science. It means different things to each of us. Some, I know, cope with the fire only by blanking it out. Others feel better for talking about it. But most of us in our personal and individual ways have ‘moved on’ since 1985. We were given the opportunity to do so because we felt that we knew what had happened. We need not go back over past events to discover the truth. We could draw a line and were given the chance to look to the future. In the more modern parlance, we had closure.

Hillsborough is just not like that and therein the essential difference (and the problems with Sir Oliver’s letter) lies.

Lord Justice Taylor’s enquiry took much longer. There were no clear cut admissions; the evidence had to be gone into in greater detail. He made his findings, particularly about the inadequacies of the policing on that afternoon, but the families of the deceased were not satisfied that they had discovered the whole truth. It became clear, for example, that the senior officer, David Duckinfield had at one time said the gate was forced and later accepted that he had given the order for it to be opened. Duckinfield and his immediate junior, Bernard Murray, were the defendants in a private prosecution, which was halted on the grounds of Duckinfield’s health. But by this time the families had evidence that the police had not told the whole truth.

They also had to face ‘The Truth’ from another source, a headline in The Sun, a newspaper which many shops in Liverpool refuse to sell to this very day. Unnamed sources made claims of disgraceful actions on the part of some supporters. That particular obloquy remains the subject of another campaign, still in the news this week.

Sir Oliver’s letter was, of course, published because of its newsworthiness, following close on the debate in Parliament about the pending release of further papers. But it is the very release of those papers that ensures that the Hillsborough families will not be ‘moving on’ just yet.

Twenty two years later, they do not feel they have heard all there is to hear about why those fans died. Despite the detail of the Taylor report, they do not believe that blame has been fully and finally apportioned. They do not believe they have been told the whole truth. They do not believe they can draw a line. They do not believe they have been given the opportunity to look to the future, to ‘move on’ in their individual ways.

When the documents are released next year, they may be given that opportunity. They may, however, still feel that they have not been told the whole truth, that blame still has not been properly apportioned and that their campaign for ‘Justice for the 96’ must continue. If that is the case, they will still be unable to ‘move on’, which will be even more sad. I can only say that it took me and, I’m sure, many others at Valley Parade a very long time to reach an accommodation with the events of that day. We had the benefit of being able to start on that process quite quickly and yet it still took many of us half a lifetime to make such progress. You have to feel sorry for those who, so long after their own loss, still have not been able even to begin that process.

The Hillsborough families will be given the opportunity to ‘move on’ only when they are satisfied that they know the whole truth. I hope that day arrives soon for them.


Retired Judge Paul Firth is the author of Four Minutes to Hell which presents the details of the fire of 1985.

Facts, rumours and Twitter

Take a look at those paragraphs to the right of this page. They come under the heading ‘External News’. They provide quick links to stories that the editors of BfB think might be of interest to the readership.

Now take another look at the links that are on this page as I write. One says that a goalkeeper from Tottenham is rumoured to be joining City because Hansen will not be allowed to play at Leeds. Another link is headed ‘Liam Moore announces he is going to join City’ and clicking on the link brings you to Moore’s Twitter page. Go down a little further and there is a story, under ‘more external news’, because it was posted last week, to the effect that Martin Hansen ‘is to arrive at City on loan tomorrow, or so it is said’.

I use these three stories merely to illustrate that BfB is not in the habit of reporting as fact stories about players coming to the club, when those players have not yet signed on the proverbial dotted line. Further, BfB goes to some lengths to make clear that these items of external news are ‘rumours’ or what someone else has announced, which is a fact in itself, when you can read it on a social network. The fact that Moore announced this did not make it true at the time and BfB did not claim it was true then.

I make this point by way of contrast with two recent items on the club website, both of which make clear the extent to which the club is upset either by rumours or by the inability of some people to distinguish rumours from fact, resulting in implied criticism when the club is not quick to report these ‘facts’. The first of these items was about the same Liam Moore and went to some length to say that he hadn’t actually signed until Friday (the day the item was posted), contrary to stories that he had signed on an earlier day.

It is the second item on the club website that troubles me more. It isn’t about any particular player. It is headed ‘Dealing in fact, not rumours’. It was posted on Sunday and, in my ignorance I took it to be either a follow-up to the remarks made in the Moore news or an explanation for why the club had not reported anything about the Tottenham goalkeeper. Either way, it looked as if the club was reacting to criticism, implied or actual, from fans that they were not being kept up to date with the ‘facts’ at Valley Parade.

Since then, via another Twitter feed or two, I gather that the latest rumour is about a player leaving, so now I’m guessing that the new piece on the club website was probably provoked by criticism that the club had not reported that ‘fact’.

I’m all for these social networks and message boards, just so long as they’re not compulsory. I haven’t joined any. I don’t have a Facebook page. I don’t have a blog. Maybe I should have a website, but I’ll talk to an expert (he’s reading this) about that another time. But I can see how these methods of communication can be great fun and provoke endless interest. So I’m not knocking them.

I don’t think the club is knocking them either. I just think the club wants to make clear that they don’t report ‘facts’ until they are facts, if you see what I mean. Two cheers for the club, then. But not quite a third cheer.

Let’s use Liam Moore again as an example. He tweeted that he was going to sign. He hadn’t signed then. He was at that point a Leicester player and no other club had any rights over him whatsoever. When he signed the loan agreement, City’s rights became a fact and were reported as such. Only then did the club comment on the status of player who, until then, had belonged entirely to another club. That seems to me to be the right way of doing business. The same principle applies about players who might or might not be leaving. I wouldn’t expect another club to say publicly that one of our players ‘was going to sign’ for them. Neither should our club, then, say that the same player ‘is going to sign’ for another club. We all know potential signings that have never happened. Let’s wait until it happens.

But the reason I can’t give the club three whole cheers lies in the mere fact that they have, not once, but twice, made a point about their policy. If this is intended to head off further criticism of not revealing ‘facts’ as early as other sources report them, then I suppose it might have that effect. I wouldn’t be holding my breath, though. I would have preferred that the club and those who criticise just accept the difference between something that finally becomes a fact, to be compared with rumours, reports and what others might put on social networking sites.

The club, in my view, would have done better not making an issue of this. Let’s be really professional and say nothing. Let’s not come over as prickly, as a bit on the precious side, as responding sharply to unjustified criticism. Those who prefer rumours must recognise them for what they are, regardless of the reliability of the source, and stop complaining that the club doesn’t repeat them until they are confirmed. But, if there are continuing complaints that the club does not deal in rumours, surely the club is big enough to shrug off that particular criticism.

Maybe the key is to accept that the club website is not another social networking site and has to be controlled in a manner those sites do not. That way we might all get on in peace.

Bruce Stowell, an amateur turned professional

Two years ago Stuart McCall was debating whether Bradford City could offer James Hanson enough of a weekly wage to improve on his combined income from Guiseley and the Idle Co-op. Fifty years earlier Bradford City were saved from an identical dilemma when Bruce Stowell, who had initially signed as an amateur, turned professional. But Stowell was from another era.

When I was a lad, there were two certainties at Valley Parade – three, if you count the occasionally threatened prospect of Fourth Division football. One was that City would play in amber shirts with claret pinstripes, the sort you could see from the Kop, not the 2011 version. The other was that Bruce Stowell would always be in the team, usually wearing a number 4 shirt. Neither was quite as certain as a young fan might have liked, but Stowell saw me through my youth and left only when I was 21.

Bradford born and leaving school at 15, Stowell followed so many of his generation into the mills. He was still working there when he signed professional terms at the end of 1958 and he stayed in the mill until 1967. For the best part of a decade one of City’s most consistent performers played part-time and did a proper job the rest of the week. And, to borrow the old cliché, I bet he did come to games on the bus.

When Stowell won a regular first team place, he was a wing half. Only when Alf Ramsey’s wingless wonders won the World Cup did Stowell become a midfield player. He was maybe more of a defensive minded player than another number 4 who followed him, via the same brief and mistaken route as a Leeds United schoolboy. But Bruce had played for Bradford Boys and would become, to all intents and purposes, a one club man.

As soon as he became a full time professional, he was the obvious choice to captain the team. In his first two seasons as a full time player he hardly missed a game. At the end of the second season, 1968-9, City secured their first promotion for exactly forty years. The captain, still with the same hair cut that he had sported as a mill hand, led the way. However deep the Valley Parade mud became, Stowell covered every inch of the pitch game after game after game. He tackled, he passed and he cajoled the younger players in a team where the Bradford accent predominated. Ian Cooper, Bruce Bannister and Bobby Ham were all regulars in that promoted side and maybe we could forgive John Hall for being born just over the boundary in Bramley.

The record books will tell you that Stowell’s most significant game was played in October 1970. It was his 344th league game for City and it broke the club appearance record. There is a nice mathematical symmetry about that game. The new record holder was wearing his familiar shirt. The number three shirt that day was Ian Cooper’s and in the number two shirt it just had to be Ces Podd. Each in turn would hold that appearance record. Bruce went on to play 437 games in a variety of claret and amber strips, scoring 18 goals.

So much for the record books. But those of us who saw him play on 3rd January 1970 witnessed his finest hour. The match was in the third round of the F.A. Cup and the opponents were Tottenham Hotspur. Jimmy Greaves had whacked the ball against the post after four seconds. Pat Liney never even saw the rebound. The usual Valley Parade mud had iced over. The Southern Softies clearly didn’t fancy it. (OK, so not all of them were southerners. Out of interest, the starting eleven were: Jennings, Kinnear, Knowles, Mullery, England, Beal, Johnson, Greaves, Gilzean, Perryman, Morgan. Not a bad side, I suppose.) But the Bradford lads (with Denis Atkins at right back, five Bradford born players faced Spurs) were proper footballers, who played in all weathers for their team. One of those 18 career goals from Bruce Stowell secured a 2-2 draw against the super stars and cup specialists.

In 1972 he left Valley Parade and played just 16 games for Rotherham before emigrating to Australia. There he continued to play for another three seasons before embarking on a coaching career in Queensland and Malaysia.

Maybe Bruce Stowell really was just one of those players ‘from another era’. But maybe that
‘other era’ is not too distant after all. Bruce played in City teams that struggled to keep their League status. He knew how lucky he was to make a living out of the game. And he gave his all every week. Not quite a fully fledged hero, but Bruce Stowell and what he brought to the teams of my youth deserves to be fondly remembered and, by someone at least, to be imitated.

Rules is rules

The International Football Association Board met in South Wales last weekend. This is the body that reviews the rules and guidance to referees. It has a peculiar constitution – the four British home associations plus FIFA – and a voting system that makes the choice for the World Cup finals look like tossing a coin. (Maybe that’s really how they do it?) Anyway, they met and made some significant rule changes, many of which had an immediate impact at Valley Parade on Tuesday night.

The first change was to Pidgeley’s dress code. Snoods were banned, either with immediate effect or from 1st July, depending on which report you read. Pidgeley was clearly taking no chances on whatever the penalty for this new offence is, and the snood was absent. Or maybe it had just got warmer. IFAB had not, apparently, banned Terry Butcher style bandages, so Worthington was able to start the game with a covering for the eight stitches in his head wound. There was a spell toward half-time when he lost his bandage and the thought occurred that he might be committing some unspecified offence, contrary to some new directive introduced just days ago. If so, Mr Hegley didn’t spot it and it wasn’t until the start of the second half that a fresh bandage was applied, this time with sufficient glue to stay in place for the rest of the game.

But enough of what you can and can’t wear on a football field, unless you want to start on about the idiot in the mankini who ran on to the pitch at Havant and Waterlooville, in which case we would have to discuss whether that ref made the worst decision of the season by sending off the Dorchester captain for tackling said idiot. (Right now he has my vote.) This is supposed to be about Bradford City versus Rotherham United, so I had better get back to the plot – or the other rule changes.

I hadn’t read about some of these new rules, so it’s only my assumption they come from IFAB, they being the only ones allowed to make up (or not make up, as they think fit) new rules. The next one struck me as an unusual attempt by IFAB to brighten up the game. It seems they’ve abolished the rule that said you have to have all eleven men back in your own penalty area when the opposition have a corner. I was always unsure what the sanction was for breaking that rule, given that several visiting teams seem to have got away with persistent offending at Valley Parade this season. However, taking IFAB’s new ruling into account, Jake (or Jack, according to the BBC) Speight remained upfield for every Rotherham corner and was thus allowed to hold up the ball when Pidgeley played it swiftly upfield.

That very action on Pidgeley’s part also reveals another rule change that I hadn’t noticed. It seems to be no longer compulsory, but still optional, for the goalkeeper to roll the ball to a defender, who used to have to pass it to another defender, who was the one allowed to kick it as far as he could. I think IFAB should be congratulated for this amendment, which seems to me to have increased the pace of the game and thus the entertainment level. Who said Blatter’s a fool? (OK, so there is a long list of answers to that question.)

I’m a little unclear about what I saw as the next rule change, namely that there is no longer anything to say no home team member can play within twenty yards of James Hanson. Certainly Speight seemed to break that old rule many times, so I reckon they must have abolished it. Mind you, Speight was so obviously unsure of whether or not the rule still existed that he found it impossible to concentrate on what he was doing so close to Hanson, resulting in five or six excellent goal scoring opportunities going to waste. (They haven’t done something with that rule about ‘obvious goal scoring opportunities, have they? It just struck me that, if a defender can be sent off for denying just one OGSO, maybe there’s something now about a forward having to miss six OGSO’s before some action can be taken.)

Now the one IFAB decision I do know about is to do with goal line technology. We’re not having any. Well, not yet, say IFAB, because they don’t know if it works properly. It’s much better to rely on the human eye, whether that is the ref, the lino (sorry, the assistant) or that chap behind the goal, who must be about the fifth or sixth official and is not to be confused with a steward, even when he’s wearing a bright yellow top. Given my previous congratulations for Mr Blatter and his mates, I can hardly complain now about their decision not to make a decision on goal line technology. Excellent decision (or non decision) again, Mr B!

I can’t let IFAB get away with total credit. I have to say how disappointed I was to see that they’ve extended that rule that used to apply only at Old Trafford. You know the one I mean. It’s that part that allows a whole posse of players to surround a lino (sorry again, assistant) who’s just made a decision they don’t like. Even at the Theatre of Dreams I’m sure I’ve seen one or two bookings for that, whereas on Tuesday all I saw was the fourth official running on to point out to Mr Hegley that, while he and his assistant (see, I can get it right sometimes!) were doing ten rounds with the Rotherham players, somebody had committed the still grievous offence of taking his shirt off. Perhaps Mr B could have another think about the ‘mass berating of the officials’ rule and confine it to Old Trafford.

I’m still troubled by all these new rules apparently coming in virtually overnight. There must have been plenty in the crowd on Tuesday who, like me, weren’t aware of some of these excellent changes and shared my disbelief at how astute IFAB had been in their attempts to make our game more entertaining. But I shouldn’t complain about the haste with which these changes have been implemented. I have, after all, been one of those shouting longest for something to make our game more entertaining (see my match report from Hereford last March) and, swift as these alterations have been, they certainly go a long way to meeting what I’ve been asking for. I like these new rules and I think we should stick with them.

Norman Corner: A folk hero of his time

Not all of us at BfB are too young to remember watching Norman Corner. Some of us – well, this one, anyway – have the fondest memories of the big fella and feel a little upset by the crass comment on the club website about his not being the cleverest of players.

Norman played in an era when every lower league team had a big centre forward with a clearly defined set of objectives. Bannister may have most famously become part of the ‘smash and grab’ pairing only when he played alongside Warboys at Bristol Rovers. Toshack and Keegan were not to form the most famous such partnership until 1971. But Corner and Ham did their fair share of damage to City’s opponents in 68/69 and 69/70.

The stats will say that it was Bobby Ham that scored all the goals, but Bobby would be the first to say that he couldn’t have done it without Norman, whose task it was to win and hold the ball.

It has to be remembered that the Valley Parade pitch in those days was little more than a quagmire from about November onwards. I can still picture Norman, having won one of the thousands of headers that he had to get to, given that passing along the ground was a recipe for disaster. Norman, having done the aerial stuff and by now trapped face down in the mud, managed to stick out a leg to score one of the goals that brought Bradford City promotion.

A few seasons ago I was in conversation with Bobby Ham, then a director at Bradford City, before kick off at Yeovil – that game where a brilliant Dean Windass free kick brought three totally undeserved points. Bobby got talking about the kit back in those days, when there were no names on shirts and one shirt had to last all season.

Bobby reckoned they all came in one size, Norman Corner size. Given the disparity in their heights, it is no wonder that Bobby recalled his own shirt was always so long that, despite always tucking it into his waistband, it stuck out below his shorts.

He also remembered how, when he was playing in the rain, the shirt got heavier and heavier, until he would end up trying to run around with the equivalent of another half stone in weight. I guess Norman, with his power, wouldn’t have noticed a few extra pounds to quite the same extent.

Jimmy Wheeler, a more astute manager than many City have had, paid £4,000 for Norman, a lot of money in January 1969. His first game was a 0-0 draw at Park Avenue. Little did any of us know that this was to be the third game of an unbeaten 21 match run on the way to promotion.

Norman played his full part in that run, scoring eight goals and assisting in countless more.

He deserves the recognition of the current generation, even though many of them never saw him play. A minute’s applause and the unofficial naming of the North West stand would both be appropriate for a folk hero of his time.

Withdrawing the question as City lose meekly to Oxford

Since the earliest days of Peter Taylor’s managerial career at Bradford City, I have been asking questions about the respective priorities of winning and entertaining. The game at the Kassam stadium provided the definitive answer to those questions and I shall ask no more.

Those among the travelling band – and there were a good number who made the long journey – will also know the answer. For those who weren’t first hand witnesses, please bear with me while I give some brief details of how the latest defeat panned out.

Before kick off there was the familiar sight of a changed City team. Hanson and Evans could only make the bench; Cullen made his first start; and Luke O’Brien moved forward to make room for Robbie Threlfall at left back. It looked like a fairly orthodox 4-4-2, with Cullen and Daley as the front two. So City wouldn’t be hitting any high balls up front, would they?

The Kassam could have been built anywhere – and it was. It is probably the only ground in the league which you approach from a science park. We kept being told that it would be 11 or 12 degrees during the game and maybe it was. But the wind blowing straight into the faces of the visiting supporters still felt remarkably cold and was to feel ever chillier as the game wore on.

After a couple of early Oxford shots, one going over the bar and the other being deflected gently into Lenny Pidgeley’s arms, City produced a surge up the left and, from Luke O’Brien’s cross, won their first corner after eight minutes. The home defence failed to deal with Robbie Threlfall’s set piece and, almost inevitably this season, David Syers was the man to put City a goal up.

I move forward at this point to some seventy minutes later, when the home team scrambled an equaliser, to be followed another six minutes later by an equally close range winner. The nearest Bradford City came to their own equaliser was when James Hanson, an 88th minute substitute, stretched, slipped and failed to make contact with a short back pass to the home goalkeeper. 2-1 it was, then, and it was impossible, even for those with the most blinkered claret and amber outlook, to deny that Oxford deserved their win.

I left out some seventy minutes, didn’t I? Well, here goes with my description of that period between City taking the lead and Oxford equalising, although it will follow a theme or two, rather than a minute by minute account.

Not for the first time this season a City goal almost immediately brought about an obvious tactic of settling for that one goal and defying the opposition to score. This strikes me as an increasingly bizarre strategy, not least because of the number of occasions when, in his after match interviews, Peter Taylor has complained about giving away soft goals. With such a risk being so evident, defending a 1-0 lead for 82 minutes seemed a foolhardy approach – and so it proved.

But this is not just any old defending. The cliché of the two banks of four was there in abundance, with the two front men a little unsure whether to stay somewhere near the front (i.e. roughly in the same county as the other nine) or to come within sight of the midfield and thus stay in City’s half of the pitch. This dilemma was caused because the bank of four that wasn’t the defence was almost indistinguishable for the other bank of four, so close together were the eight. For most of that seventy minute interlude eight white shirted players (and one in green) rarely ventured more than 30 yards from the goal they were defending. There was no such concept as ‘the goal they were attacking’.

Body after body was hurled in the way of Oxford shots. Pidgeley flew across his goal to make one blinding save and the home team’s finishing was sufficiently wayward to keep the score at 1-0 for what seemed like an age. There was no attempt to stop Oxford from playing the ball among themselves until they approached to within thirty yards of goal. Even then they had plenty of opportunities to pass through and round the massed ranks of the visiting defence. For long spells City seemed unable to keep the ball long enough to look up for a man in a white shirt. I was looking for a tell-tale sign of the invisible force field that prevented the ball reaching the half way line.

The familiar sight of eleven men back defending corners and free kicks brought the predictable result that the lines were never properly cleared. An interesting comparison here with the systems used by other managers in recent games against Bradford City. A week earlier Barnet, at 2-1 up and with quite some time still left to play, defended a City corner by leaving one man upfield and another out of their own penalty area. As the corner was cleared the two Barnet players lead the charge upfield that made it 3-1. Oxford, also 2-1 up but in the third of four minutes of stoppage time at the end of the game, also kept one man up while defending a City free kick. The clearance reached this one man, who held up the ball while support arrived and the pressure on the defence was eased.

The reaction of the away support told its own tale. Even during the heady moments of the 1-0 lead, the visiting fans were at best edgy, at worst critical of every breakdown of an embryonic passing movement. By the latter stages the mood became darker and darker, with hardly a positive word to be uttered by those who endured this match to its final whistle. And ‘endured’ strikes me as a mild term.

I must return to my original question about winning and entertaining. I do so with a heavy heart, both as a season ticket holder with next year already paid for and as a supporter of Bradford City Football Club, rather than as a supporter of any individual who might, for a shorter or longer time, have been connected with that club through the years of my support. In those years I have seen some poor sides. The Fourth Division strugglers of the 1960’s come to mind, as do later teams in the period before the glory days of Wembley and beyond. But none of those teams ever left me feeling as I did on my way out of the Kassam.

This Bradford City side spent seventy minutes offering nothing for its supporters to enjoy. It made no attempt to entertain. It concentrated on one thing only, namely winning by the only goal of the game. How and why the referee allowed Pidgeley to get away with such blatant and cynical time-wasting will forever remain a mystery. Less mysterious is what lay behind the strategy to defend the lead at all costs. Goal scoring and entertaining has become an optional extra at Bradford City. Winning is all that matters. Two years ago Wycombe Wanderers, managed by the same Peter Taylor, won automatic promotion from this league. In their 46 games they scored just 54 goals, but they lost only eight games. After 24 games Bradford City have scored just 22 goals, but have lost 12 times.

The plan, lest anyone else hasn’t noticed, is not working.

It has now become obvious even to this eternal City supporter that there is only the one aim. That aim is to win as many games as possible by whatever dreary means are required. That end, winning enough games to be promoted, will apparently justify those means. At least, that seems to be the thinking of those in charge at Valley Parade. But, unlike entertainment value, which up to a point is a matter of opinion and open to debate, winning is very black and white. Bradford City currently have nine white marks and twelve black marks. And, so far as concerns entertainment, they have precious little above no marks at all.

Even if we have to be so cynical as to think only about ticket sales for next season, does anyone in charge really think this will encourage those who are less mad than the 6,000 who have already paid their money? Is there really no thought to entertaining the fans? No, I promised I wouldn’t ask that question again, so I withdraw it. I know the answer only too well and I am much the sadder for that knowledge.

Leaps To Feet, Falls Over Sideways…

The bookmakers’ pre-season joint favourites for promotion were playing each other. In their first twelve games of the season they have managed just two wins between them. The visitors had, however, scored eight goals (including five away from home) to the home team’s three, only one of which (a penalty) was a home goal. So Peter Taylor’s choice of main striker should not have come as too much of a surprise. Enter Luke Oliver up front, with David Syers and Gareth Evans on the bench.

One of the big things about Peter Taylor’s renewed contract was that it came with conditions, including that the pitch be completely re-done. Not just a few bits of turf stuck down with dodgy glue. No, the full works, complete with drains, levelling, a new top surface and some proper seeding. And a grand job has been done, it must be said.

With a pitch like that, who needs a striker whose only threat comes from his height? Shouldn’t the home team make best use of that wonderful surface and pass the ball along the ground – preferably toward the opposition goal – as often as possible? Why does the man watching his first Valley Parade game of the season comment about the excessive use of long high balls?

There were times during this game when too many in the amber shirts (my seat is too far away to pick out the claret stripes) felt that the choice was between passing square, passing backwards and kicking the ball high into the air, albeit in vaguely the right direction. I heard Peter Taylor’s radio interview before the game, when he talked about decision making and nervous players, most of whom end up on the scrap heap, he told us. Some of the starting eleven must have taken his words as instructions.

Poor Robbie Threlfall, in particular, didn’t seem to know whether to stick or twist with the ball at his feet. As for running into the twenty or thirty yards of beautiful clean grass in front of him, that seemed to be practically against the rules. It was little surprise that he did not survive the half-time cull and that Luke O’Brien, at least willing to take a chance, moved to full back.

Those twenty or thirty yards of space were helpfully created by Gillingham’s total lack of desire to fill them. The team that has now not won an away game for 30 matches looked like a 0-0 draw counted as a victory in their book. Credit where it’s due, in the 22nd minute they had the one and only effort on target in the whole first half. It may have dribbled gently into Jon McLaughlin’s hands, but it was one more on target than City had in those 45 minutes.

That is not to say that City did not have efforts at goal. The unfortunate Luke Oliver (I don’t imagine it was his decision that he play up front) had two excellent chances in the first eleven minutes. A Threlfall free kick eluded the visiting keeper, only for a feeble header from inside the goal area to miss the empty net. Then a Luke O’Brien cross found Oliver on the far post, only for this header to go some few feet over the bar. I mean no disrespect to the makeshift striker, but a real centre forward would surely have put both of those on target and the game would have changed out of all recognition.

Enter the new star. Lee Hendrie, who had played only Sunday League football since early May and had trained with his team mates for just one day, started the second half, along with Leon Osborne, the unlucky Jake Speight being the other player to be hooked. He may only be fit for half a game at the moment, but Hendrie showed what he can do. He made a difference. One of the biggest differences brought a cheer from the Kop, followed swiftly by a shake of the head from your reporter.

City were awarded a free kick some thirty yards out on the left. The ball had rolled toward the Kop and it was Hendrie’s sprint to fetch it and throw it back that showed what he means to do. This particular free kick was, however, to be taken by Tommy Doherty. He was apparently surprised by Hendrie’s urgency, took an age to amble across from the other side of the pitch and any possible momentum was lost.

Leon Osborne, a product of our own youth system like Luke O’Brien, showed that he was up for the fight. Perhaps he showed it a bit too much and Mr Langford produced his first yellow card of the afternoon as soon as Osborne committed the inevitable foul in retaliation for the several kicks his ankles and shins had taken in the previous minutes. At least the home fans appreciated his effort.

After the game cousin John’s radio interview with Lee Hendrie made great fun of the tamest of shots from the substitute, which probably had just about enough power to have crossed the line in the absence of the keeper. It might have been equally relevant to point out that in the regulation 90 minutes this 61st minute roller was City’s only effort that would have actually gone into the goal.

Seven minutes from time Stanley Aborah kindly sent his free header straight into Jon McLaughlin’s hands and two minutes later a Leon Osborne cross-shot was already going nicely wide before the referee decided that Lance Cronin had actually pushed it further away and that City should be awarded a corner.

In the last minute of normal time Barry Fuller chopped down Osborne once too often even to allow Mr Langford to keep his card in his pocket, but it looked as though Gillingham’s long sought after point was making its interminable journey back with them. Even the three minutes on the fourth official’s board seemed unlikely to produce anything, especially given the Midland Road linesman’s repeated inability to spot Luke Oliver’s shirt being pulled off his back.

However, it was this myopia that indirectly changed the game. In the 92nd minute the home crowd were giving the assistant so much stick for his latest failure that all eyes were in his direction. All, that is, except for those of Tommy Doherty and Steve Williams. Doherty’s return cross saw Williams braver than Cronin and the ball nestled nicely in the net via some part of the centre back’s anatomy. A home goal from open play!
Gillingham finally crossed the half way line again and produced a 93rd minute scramble in the home penalty area, resulting in a City breakaway that ended with an Evans shot going narrowly wide. City had deservedly thwarted the visitors’ plans.

If this is anything of a turning point, the credit goes to those players who put in the commitment and as much skill as they have. The two lads from the junior ranks showed what this means to them. Even if Lee Hendrie is doing nothing more than seeking to convince people he isn’t quite over the hill yet, so long as he impresses in a Bradford City shirt that’s fine by me. And I didn’t see what else the makeshift striker could have given. After all, he is not the new Bobby Campbell.

The scenes after the final whistle were as enthusiastic as might be expected from such a late winner. I was expecting to see Michael Flynn jump out of the stand to run around the pitch with his fist in the air. Instead I only noticed that Tommy Doherty, booed at the previous home game, walked to the dressing rooms leaving his team mates to acknowledge the applauding fans.

On my way home I received a text message. My mate John is in hospital recovering from a stroke. He must have followed the match on his iPhone or by some other technical wizardry. His text read ‘Woohoo!! (leaps to feet, falls over sideways…)’ Two weeks ago there was no way he was even staggering to his feet and he could fall over sideways while being propped up by a heap of pillows. Now that one is what I really call a victory.

The Same Rules Should Apply for Every Football Match

I don’t suppose it’s very often that one contributor to BfB takes as his title a quote from the previous contribution but I can’t let Jason’s statement rest unchallenged. I agree with him that there should be a sensible debate about technology, but BfB has not, in my view, had that debate yet. A debate has two sides; the pros and the cons. When you’ve read both, then make up your mind.

Why should football have the same rules for every game, in the sense that Jason argues? Rugby doesn’t. Cricket doesn’t. Tennis doesn’t. Not in Jason’s sense. In all those sports games at the top level have technology; games at any other level don’t. I have watched days of first class cricket at Headingley without a replay in sight. Some of those l.b.w’s looked iffy from my seat, but I never will know what I might have seen had Hawkeye been around. I can’t possibly say the umpire got it wrong.

The best example of all is Super League. Most weekends seven games are played. Two have technology, because they are shown live on television. The other five have two additional officials unaided by cameras, replays or anything other than their own senses. Is there anything wrong with those five games? They may be less than perfect, but does that matter? Go down one division to the Championship and most weeks there will be one game live on television with the technology. Does that make the other Championship games any less fair?

‘Fair’ in this context surely means nothing more than ‘between the two teams’. How is it any less fair for the ten Super League teams this weekend who were not on TV? We can all say how important it was that City were denied a goal at Christie Park, but how many of us can be sure – yes, sure – that it was a goal? And would we have been equally adamant if Morecambe had been attacking that goal? We may well believe that the assistant referee made a mistake, but where’s the proof?

And therein lies the heart of this debate. Sometimes there is the proof. Sometimes the technology provides the proof. Sometimes even the technology doesn’t provide the proof. By and large we are talking about what TV cameras, sometimes with additional gizmos, can show. (Yes, there are other technologies, but one debate at a time.) TV cameras, suitably stationed, are fine at line decisions. They can be very good at showing other things, but may not necessarily be conclusive. Even technology has room for the benefit of the doubt.

The point surely is what happens when the technology is there, not what happens when it isn’t. This is my real bone of contention with FIFA. (Just as an aside, try typing Blatter into a spell-check and see what options you get!) FIFA, the Champions League, the Premier League and all the top football competitions rely on the cameras being there. They get their money from the TV companies and from the sponsors who want to see their adverts shown across the world. In these competitions the paying public contribute a small fraction of the income. So FIFA and the rest invite the cameras in for their own non-sporting reasons.

But what they don’t like is the way the cameras are used. Oh gosh, they have replays from different angles! They have slow motion! They even have virtual replays that look like Subbuteo players and can show you the referee’s view! How dare they?? Don’t they know this can make the referees look silly?

But no one in Geneva will say any of that. Instead they will have us believe this tale about ‘all or nothing’. They will tell us replays will slow down this quick moving game that is top class football. (Here’s another argument that those horrid technophiles have destroyed. Even at home with my Sky+ remote I can nip back to when a free kick was awarded. There will be a time in minutes in seconds. I can then fast forward to when the ball was next in play and time the delay. Try it with any free kick within shooting distance and you’ll average pretty near one minute.) They will tell us it would be too costly, without actually admitting that this assumes they have won their ‘all or nothing’ argument. And, if all else fails, they will tell us it’s a human game where referees must have the same freedom as players to make their mistakes. I happen to agree with that last one, but with one caveat.

Referees should be allowed to make their own mistakes, otherwise they would not be human. But why can’t they be allowed to correct them? Within hours of the World Cup farce I watched an excellent test match umpire correct one of his own mistakes. Does any one of those players think any the worse of that umpire? It was a very human error. Maybe if he keeps repeating the same mistake, the players might take against him before he gave it up or got dropped. But that’s no different for players. Make enough mistakes and you’re sitting in the stand.

The question for football is whether the authorities are prepared to allow their referees to make mistakes that the technology has shown across the continent or across the world, to deny those same referees the chance to correct their mistakes and then to let the poor officials carry the can. If you don’t buy the ‘all or nothing’ argument – and I don’t – then you have to deal with the presence of the cameras and the effect it already has on the fans and how they see the mistakes. All the rest are just excuses.

If you want a debating point, try this. When there is no technology, whether it be at Valley Parade or the Dog and Duck, what’s the problem? It’s all a matter of opinion. Where there is technology, there’s a potential problem. Other sports have solved it in different ways. Rugby League allows the referee to say ‘I’m not sure and I want another referee of the same status to check this with the benefit of the available technology’. The referee is neither surrounded by angry players nor accused of being short-sighted or anything else. Maybe football won’t allow referees to be seen to be ‘not sure’. Cricket had a good solution, especially for line calls, until it took a leaf out of tennis’ book and brought in player referrals. No, don’t go that way. Just let the referee have the strength to say ‘let’s check that’.

But let’s use what there is when it’s there. We have allowed all sorts of technology into football. If we hadn’t, Messi would be wearing boots like Jimmy Spiers wore and aiming at a goal without a net and with a length of tape running between two posts. Good job Sepp Blatter wasn’t around a hundred years ago. Or was he?

Being There

O.K, so the trip to Crewe seems a life time away by now. But, while I was looking forward to a break from the football, I’m ready to get back in there. And, since there’s a competition where every game is live on TV, what better way to meet the need?

Well, lots of better ways, actually. I could take up watching some dry paint get even drier. It’s not just that the games are pretty rotten so far; it’s the atmosphere I miss. Back in the Midland Road, there’s the same voices, the same cheering and the same referee baiting that have been together for years. If the game gets a bit dull (Dull? Bradford City?), we always find something to talk about, even if it is the price of bottled water. And there is a genuine atmosphere a Valley Parade. The volume goes up and down with the ebb and flow of the game. We may not like the booing of our own team – indeed we hate it – but it does at least reflect the ups and downs of the team we support.

Watching the World Cup on the TV is a poor substitute. There’s all that incessant background noise. No, I don’t necessarily mean the vuvuzelas, although they create such a monotone that they are the very antithesis of an atmosphere. I mean the commentators and their sidekicks.

Did I want to be told, as the first game was about to start, that we should all be South Africa supporters now? Why??? Still less was the first goal ‘a goal for the whole of Africa’. You ask the Ghana supporters, the Ivory Coast lads, the Algerians and the rest of the African tribesmen. And who thought it even worth saying, as we watched a village jumping up and down to celebrate the goal scored by their local hero, that ‘football is for people’? There I was thinking it was for sheep.

So far I’ve heard only one decent joke, from Barnsley’s very own Mick McCarthy, and he could have improved on his wit if only he’d said that a Nigerian defender was so bad they named him twice. The defender, by the way, is called Odiah and if you pronounce it as though he were Irish and the ‘i’ was a double ‘e’, then you might see the joke. But we deliver better lines than that in Block B.

Of course, the one time the persistent background noise went away, it took the picture with it, unless you count the advert as being anything worth seeing (which it wasn’t). Only England could be so cruel as to score at that moment. I bet down on the pitch somebody threw up another advert right in front of Rob Green. But did he want to buy a new car? Or perhaps it was an ad for Specsavers. No, too cruel.

Anyway, with the World Cup so far failing to satisfy my need for proper football, I’m not waiting for England’s next game with bated breath. No, before then there is the much more important day when the new fixtures are released. I shall be charging up the sat-nav, digging the road map out of the car boot and getting on to those websites where cheap hotel deals are advertised.

I shall be reminding myself of how to get to the football ground nearest to the River Mersey (useless fact, except for those who thought it was Anfield, Goodison or Prenton Park) and the best M5 junction for Cheltenham. I shall especially look forward to going there, in the hope of meeting the same steward as I met last year and whom I assured, having seen City fail to score all season and then leave both Thorne and Boulding on the bench, that the game had nil-nil written all over it.

Torquay will be a must, no matter what time of year, since it allows us to see friends and family. Hereford’s another good excuse for a weekend away, if you can forget about the inside of Edgar Street.

And this year there are two new grounds. Stevenage (no longer ‘Borough’, apparently) play just down the road from my old mate John. And Oxford might be on the cards, even if the memories it will bring back will mean less to Herself than to me. In truth, any Oxford football memories do not include the Kassam stadium. The few professional games I watched there were at The Manor Ground and included a dodgy encounter one evening with some Millwall fans.

I can still claim one little bit of football history from The Manor with a game a few of us went to only because we knew it was making history. So, for the anoraks, what was (and, with the arrival of penalty shoot outs, will probably forever remain) the longest F A Cup tie on record? Now, do you dare put a comment to this piece, thus revealing yourself as an anorak (join the club)? Or do you just Google it and sit in silence? Or do you hope that our editor rescues you from your dilemma by putting in his own, doubtless correct, answer as soon as he posts this piece?

So, forget about Algeria, Slovenia and the inevitable loss on penalties to the Germans. Concentrate on Thursday morning and work up your plans for being there. Just don’t bring one of those bloody vuvuzelas or any of that lot off the telly!

The Unknown Hero

No reader of BfB needs to be urged to ‘remember’.

There is by now a whole generation too young to have a memory of 1985. They can still pay their respects and most do.

Among those of us who have the clearest of memories, some would prefer to forget, but cannot. Others can contain the emotions that their memories evoke; some are less good at controlling those emotions.

Some are very private about their memories. Others share them more publicly. Emotions are like memories in that respect. Gone are the days when grown men were not allowed to cry in public. But it isn’t compulsory. Occasionally we just can’t help it.

There are so many sad memories that some of us need something more positive to act as a counterweight. And, just as we keep reading about how many people know so little of the events of that day, this year one of the most positive acts will be touched on in two television programmes.

Excellent as Football Focus was, the only detailed reference so far to real heroism came in the Gabby Logan radio programme. That gentle hero will be seen on both local television news programmes on Tuesday evening. I am privileged to have got to know him and to count him as a friend.

He won’t like my writing this, but he’ll understand. I’ve written about him at length before and I’ve told anyone who wants to listen that he is the only true hero I know. He will share his memories with you, if someone asks him, but he won’t volunteer. He’s far too modest for that.

But if it wasn’t for people like him, many more than 56 people would have lost their lives. One young man in particular will be seen with him and will, I’m sure, express again his eternal gratitude for that bravery.

At some time on Tuesday I shall shake his hand again, the hand that David Sharpe put back together. We might even give each other a hug, although I’m always afraid I will crush the still slight frame. He will go on telling me that ‘anyone would have done the same’ in that stand and it will be the only time I don’t believe him.

He will be somewhere in that crowd in Centenary Square, not a Very Important Person. I shall not even give you his name or a description, because he wouldn’t want the fuss, not on that morning. When you’ve seen him on television in the evening, the day of remembrance will be almost over. In a year’s time he’ll expect to be forgotten by the great majority of those who ‘remember’.

He knows a few of us need no reminding. He is never forgotten by those who know what he did. Those less fortunate, those who do not know him, may prefer to think of him as the Unknown Hero, as a symbol of all that is best from that dreadful afternoon. I find it helps get me through the day to know that he was there and that, amidst all that sorrow, his bravery shows there are a few moments that display the human spirit at its very best.

Now that really is someone worth respecting.

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