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.

Parkin’s bid lacks the substance to earn supporters’ leverage

There was a plan to build a bridge from Midland Road over Canal Road, and across the Valley to link Valley Parade with the other side of the City.

The plan – which was talked of much but I confess I have no idea how seriously it was took being but eight at the time – was supposedly the brain child of then chairman Bob Martin and would fund the clubs rise from the foot of football. By bridging the valley Valley Parade would be fuller, so more people would mean more money and more money would lead to an improvement of the club.

Not long later and Bradford City had called in the official receiver – administration in old money – to be bought back and re-established by Stafford Heginbotham and Jack Tordoff. On the plan to build the viaduct across the Valley which Martin had said would bring in the missing people to Bradford City Heginbotham said only that the club had to be based in the real world and not in cloudcookooland.

Steve Parkin’s bid for Bradford City may – or may not – include a significant bridging project across the Valley that divides Bradford but probably does not. Despite talking to the Yorkshire Post about his bid for the club and for our egg chasing neighbours at Odsal the Bradford Bulls Parkin has done little to outline his plan for progressing both clubs.

His stated aim is to share facilities – a good idea for sure if one considers the costs of running two ticket offices and extrapolates – but such vision hardly requires a change of ownership to achieve. Parkin talks about being the man who can stop the Rugby club and Football club distrusting each other. Perhaps Martin’s bridge idea was realistic in comparison.

Moreover though Parkin has a plan for both clubs to share a single ground – the most cost effective one – which would be Valley Parade. A summer of trying to get out of the deal with Gordon Gibb to rent Valley Parade had proved that it is not cost effective to escape that deal contract leading one to conclude that Parkin has a plan to divest the Bulls of Odsal and move them to Manningham.

Parkin’s plans expand to creating a new stadium for both clubs to share but there is no indication as to when such a project would be undertaken. The ramifications of recession should make construction costs cheaper so a plan that includes waiting for an upturn to provide the funds for a new ground would seem flawed. Parkin is not oblivious to this suggesting that he could pick up another club for nothing which had an asset of a ground. He is not incorrect, after all Gordon Gibb did the same to City.

Parkin’s offer to Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes compensates them £750,000 each for the club and pays back Mark Lawn’s loan over 18 months with and extra £750,000 based on performances and such a deal would leave the current owners out of pocket. Lawn and the Rhodes’ family recently bought the business block next to Valley Parade and while different people will give different figures for how much the chairman have invested and how much the club is worth there is no onus on them to sell for a price they do find acceptable.

One might argue that the pair promised to leave the club if someone came along with an offer which did not leave them out of pocket but that has not occurred in this case with Parkin’s offer failing short of that mark. Lawn and Rhodes have another promise to balance – that they would only sell the club to someone who could improve Bradford City – and thus far there is nothing in Parkin’s bid that guarantees he would do that.

Were Parkin looking to invest Jack Walker money into the club then there would be a pressure for the current chairmen to exit but he does not. He talks of the same kind of effects which the current board are tying to achieve and there is very little reason to believe that he would enjoy the success that eludes Lawn and Rhodes.

Parkin wants the club and he wants it for a price that is not as attractive to the current owners but if he has a masterplan which makes him a better option – which suggests that Lawn and Rhodes are standing in the way of the club’s progress – then he has yet to reveal it. Recalling Bob Martin’s bridge plans one might worry that without sight of those plans, they could be anything.

Perhaps Parkin’s plan is summed up with his phrase “I want to invest as much money in the team as possible as that is the most important part of any football club.”

Mark Lawn says the exact same thing.

One can only hope that Parkin has to offer something other than simply being someone else to impress the supporters of Bradford City as he – ostensibly, and through the press – attempts to use them as a crowbar for leverage in his attempts to get the current owners to accept his offer.

The Valley Parade talking shop begins

With the Premier League and FA Cup – perhaps – both being awarded today Mark Lawn hopes to end his season with a result as he is joined by Bradford City’s life president Jack Tordoff joins him in negotiations with the Flamingo Land Pension Fund – aka Gordon Gibb – and office block owners Prupim.

The City delegation hope to restructure the rent payments in order to link them to the position of the club in the football pyramid suggesting that the health and progress of Bradford City the tenant is in the interests of all. Prupim have indicated that they are prepared to negotiate. The property management company own the offices and carparks and have over £16 billion of assets in their portfolio.

One can imagine that – for them – this is a routine negotiation with a sole tenant who wants a rent reduction. One can imagine that in the last three or four years they have done this very many times.

The Pension Fund – on the other hand – are often personified by Gordon Gibb and there is bad blood between Gibb and City’s Julian Rhodes. The whys and wherefores of that bad blood are oft debated but getting to some facts Bradford City signed a deal on Valley Parade in early 2004. This deal was in place for five years at what Gibb had described as (but few other might call) a “pepper corn rent” at which point the rents were increased to a level which the club believe as unsustainable.

Tordoff’s return to the front line of action at Valley Parade has brought with it rumours that the club’s former chairman will be returning to the club as head of a consortium.

Looking at three of the men around the table Tordoff would perhaps have some sympathy. Rhodes, Gibb and Lawn have all got involved in the club and could all feel as if the situation they have ended up with it far from the one they wanted.

When Tordoff arrived at Bradford City in Stafford Heginbotham’s board he believed that football clubs drew their players from the City they were in in the way England draw their players from a country, or so it is reported.

During his time as chairman Tordoff infamously declined to sign much needed centre forward Jimmy Gillian for £70,000 because “he could break his leg next week” as well as option to sign the cheaper Mick Kennedy rather than the available Andy Townsend to partner Stuart McCall in the midfield in 1988.

Tordoff left the club to be replaced as chairman Dave Simpson and most seemed pleased by that. Some call him “Uncle Jack” Tordoff and not only is the name appropriated from the former Blackburn owner Walker but so are the happy memories. Tordoff returns to the public eye far more popular than he left it.

Which perhaps is the lesson learnt by all four people who have been Bradford City chairman sat around the table as the Valley Parade talking shop beings.

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