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Op-Ed \ Ed. C. Morgans

Bradford City’s Premier League debut evokes memories of tragedies of a past era.

Special to SoccerTimes

(Thursday, August 12, 1999) -- Even from a continent away, the images of May 11, 1985, are impossible for me to forget. Yes, this is a soccer column. But you don't have to understand the game at all to comprehend the following.

On that aforementioned day a little more than 14 years ago, the Bradford City soccer team played host to Lincoln City. It had been a good year for "The Bantams," who finished 28-8-10 and won England's Third Division.By doing so, Bradford City had ensured promotion to the Second Division, just one step away from the nation's top league at that time -- the Premiership as its now constructed didn't exist then.

But the events of May 11 are probably still tucked away in a distant part of your memory. And it's not a goal or a trophy presentation that grabbed the headlines that day.

The match opened as a scoreless duel, with Lincoln City, which finished 19th that year, trying to hold down Bradford on its home ground. But by 40 minutes, the efforts of Lincoln and Bradford were futile, as were those of security and other officials.

A fire had begun in the stands. No small one, either. Soon, the overhanging portion on one of the old stands was engulfed and the game was abandoned.

The game was no longer the issue. Fans were struggling to find safety. A total of 56 didn't make it out, their lives ended in an inferno.

The scene played out on our national newscasts that night. I can still remember a man walking across the field; he was on fire. I remember the voice of the match commentator, who courageously stayed on the air, looking at the unfortunate soul and saying, "Aye ... poor man." To be honest, I don't know if the man lived or died.

The Bradford Fire, as it has become known, came as only one event in a dark time for English soccer. Teams from England were barred from the European Champions League for five years because of riots that marred the Liverpool\Juventus final in 1985, causing more fans to lose their lives.

A few years later, 96 soccer fans died when a stampeded ensued before the Football Association Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on April 15, 1989, at Hillsborough, a neutral site that was home to Sheffield Wednesday.

A memorial to the 96 now stands at Anfield, Liverpool's home ground. It is as much a testament to those who lost their lives at Hillsborough as it is a memory to the period from 1985-89 when far too many soccer fans paid the ultimate price for backing their club.

All of it helped give English fans their reputation as "hooligans." It cast a shadow over English soccer that even now is just starting to clear in some people's minds.

Success on the field, as it can be a diversion from tension, also can send the tragedies of the 1980s deeper into the recesses of history. his year, English club Manchester United won the Champions League in dramatic fashion, become the first such team since Liverpool in 1984 to achieve the honor. That has focused attention back on how great the English game can be on the field, and no, there no reports (at least, none I've seen) of violence relating to the May 26 victory.

But even with Manchester United winning the league, FA Cup and Europe, an incredible achievement, that probably isn't the best news that's come from across the pond lately. For that, it's time to revisit Bradford, 14 years later.

The Bantams' stadium was reconstructed and the game went on, as it has at the Valley Parade site for more than 110 years. In one of the 10 largest cities in Britain, soccer went on, with Bradford toiling in the second and third divisions.

But then in May, the First Division season (one step below the Premiership) ended. Bradford City finished second. That placement means the Bantams return to the top flight of English soccer for the first time 1922, when Bradford concluded a 14-year run (interrupted partially by World War I) in the top flight.

Then last week, Bradford City topped itself, winning its Premiership debut 1-0 at Middlesbrough on Saturday.

The accomplishment has been a time of joy for city residents, though it is tempered by history. A memorial service was held in May in observance of those who perished, even as fans celebrated their club's hard-earned promotion.

"It shows what a club like Bradford is all about, that we should remember those that died in light of what has just happened," Bradford City Chairman Geoffrey Richmond told the British news outlet PA Sport. "But quite simply, the 56 will never be forgotten."

Neither will that era of soccer in England. But thankfully, successes like those in Manchester and more importantly, Bradford, have led the sport out of the shadows and back into prominence for all the right reasons.

Ed C. Morgans is sports editor of the Prince William (Va.) Journal and can be e-mailed at manunited99@yahoo.com.

Articles and opinions expressed by other columnists are not necessarily the opinion of SoccerTimes.