Pyromania – how many deaths will it take?

Date: 4th November 2023

Note from SFSA Chair:
Following my Andy’s Sting in the Tale blog which discussed the aftermath to the pitch clearance at Dens Park I received this considered summary from a football historian.


In the summer of 1920, the General Accident Fire & Life Assurance Corporation wrote to the St Johnstone directors, pointing out that the grandstand at the Recreation Grounds was “an abnormal risk” as regards fire insurance.  Regrettably, the Saints’ board decided to seek a different insurer, a decision that could have come back to haunt them.

Just a few weeks later, during a match against Clackmannan on 16th October 1920, as the club’s official history describes it, “a quantity of inflammable material under the stand was ignited by a cigarette. The Perthshire Courier recorded that, ‘fortunately the necessary precautionary steps were immediately taken with the result that no damage was caused.’ The report went on, “The accident, while trivial in itself, should come as a warning.” The paper went on to say that the Saints’ management should take care to remove heaps of sawdust and wooden material from below the stand as they were a great danger.”

Luckily, there was no tragedy that day.  There had, of course, been a major football disaster some 18 years earlier, when a wooden terrace at Ibrox collapsed during a Scotland vs England game, with 26 people losing their lives. Then, 26 years after the near miss at Perth, 43 fans were killed at Burnden Park, Bolton, when 85,000 turned out to see Stanley Matthews and two crush barriers broke, leading to the fatalities. In Lima, in 1964, 300 people died during rioting at the end of a Peru vs Argentina game. Back in Scotland, 66 died at the second Ibrox disaster – the same number of fatalities as at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow when, in an echo of the Ibrox disaster, crowds surged towards the exit at the end of the game.

Since then, we’ve had Heysel, Hillsborough and also several hundred deaths across three matches in Bastia (France), Accra (Ghana) and Port Said (Egypt).

Of course, the one other infamous disaster which I’ve not so far included is the one that occurred at Valley Parade in Bradford on 11th May 1985.  Like the situation in Perth in 1920, warnings had been given about the build-up of inflammable materials (specifically litter) below the stand.  A visiting fan from Australia had tried to stamp out his cigarette on the wooden floor of the stand, but it slipped through a gap.  The ensuing fire killed 56 people, with a further 256 injured.

Last week, Rangers’ fans, in what was clearly a co-ordinated action, lit a profusion of flares at Dens Park, causing the match to be substantially held up.  The same night, Kilmarnock fans threw two flares at McDiarmid Park.  The second of these delayed the start of the game after Kilmarnock had scored.

Many – far too many – fans think these pyrotechnics are a wonderful spectacle.  In the right place (a firework display), they are. In a football stadium, they are simply irresponsible and potentially very dangerous.  There are still many old wooden structures in Scottish football, and in case anyone hasn’t noticed plastic burns very nicely too.  I’ve seen a flare lit by St Johnstone fans in the old wooden stand at Morton, and felt positively uneasy until it was extinguished.  If anyone really thinks pyrotechnics are a good idea, I ask them to watch the video below, of the Bradford fire, and then ask themselves if they want to be responsible for something like that…

There is an easy answer.  Clubs, aided by their CCTV, stewards and the police need to make examples of anyone who indulges in this anti-social and potentially life-threatening behaviour, banning them for life from all football grounds until they get the message.  Unless, of course, they want to wait for another Bradford…

Alastair Blair
Football historian and writer

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