The Forgotten Fifteen: Bury FC and football’s worst year
James Bentley is a lifelong fan of Bury Football Club. Now he’s published a book about the team’s extraordinary 1984/85 season and the state of British football in the 1980s. He writes for Northern Soul about how it all came about.
My parents tell me that while other kids spent the early 1980s reading Spot the Dog picture books, they’d find me leafing through the Daily Mirror. I doubt that I was passing much comment on the issues of the day (“I see Canada stalled on that trade pact, dad. Can I have another rusk please?”), but I was definitely interested in a world beyond Pigeon Street and Button Moon.
I was born in 1981 and have always been fascinated by that decade. My love for all things 80s was cemented by the BBC when, during my teens, they broadcast The Rock and Roll Years. A programme with a devastatingly simple premise (take each year of the 80s in turn, show archive news footage together with simple explanatory captions, and accompany it with an 80s soundtrack), it was social history coupled with the tunes playing on Piccadilly Radio 261 as my mum hung the washing out. I’d be eating eating a honey butty and sitting on the grass in our old back garden – tremendous stuff.
And then there was football. My dad took me to my first ever Bury game in the summer of 1988. Though the love took a little longer to develop than my feelings for Scritti Politti and Haircut 100, it too was deep and abiding by the time I was a teenager.
As I got older, I became a keen student of Bury Football Club’s history as well as the UK’s more recent past. This manifested itself in the perfect storm that was the 1984/85 season – what could justifiably be called the worst season in the history of the British game.
Two of the most shocking images associated with English football in the 1980s came from this campaign. There was the numbing picture of a grandstand which just minutes previously was crammed full of spectators, engulfed in flames at Valley Parade, the home of Bradford City. Then, in a match which took place just days later, there was the sight of dozens of Juventus fans crushing each other after a wall collapsed at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. Ninety-five people lost their lives in the two disasters.
Despite the season being three years before I first visited Gigg Lane, I knew that Bury had achieved something magical over the course of 1984/85. I’d kept my ears open when football fans talked about a minuscule squad of 15, and I’d always loved the photo of the squad celebrating promotion that used to hang in the social club.
In the 21st century, where football clubs name 18-man squads on each and every match day, Bury’s promotion from Division Four in 1985 using just 15 players will never be repeated. It was a squad led by ex-England international Martin Dobson who used his contacts to tempt massive names from his earlier career to Bury. At the time, Bury earned plaudits from across the sport.
But there was something else that helped me to discover this wasn’t just any old season.
In 2006, I began writing articles for Bury’s matchday programme in which I interviewed a former player in each issue. The page (I asked that it be called The History Boys in deference to my love of Alan Bennett) helped me to find out more about the threads connecting the small corner of British football at Gigg Lane to the wider sport. It also meant that I got to talk to my childhood heroes as well as the players my dad saw across his 50 years as a fan.
One of these team members was Dobson. The interviews usually took between 10 and 15 minutes which gave me plenty to be going on with for my 500-word features. But Dobson, who was Bury’s player-manager, reeled off memory upon memory of his time at the club. In the end, we spoke for almost an hour. By that stage I knew I wanted to write something longer-form about Bury but I didn’t have a clue what.
In 2010, the year after I gave up writing The History Boys after running out of interviewees, it was the 125th anniversary of Bury’s formation. On the afternoon of the closest home game to the milestone, a fixture versus Torquay United, the club invited several former players. Only one of those present played in the 1984/85 promotion squad.
On the same afternoon, the BBC Saturday lunchtime programme Football Focus was devoted to the 25th anniversary of the appalling Bradford fire in which 56 people died.
Bury lost 3-0 to the Gulls that afternoon, a result which effectively put paid to the Shakers’ chances of appearing in the end-of-season play-offs. As I had my traditional post-match pint in the social club with a resigned acceptance that I’d be watching League Two football again the following season, I looked at the picture of the 1984/85 squad again. A connection began forming in my mind.
‘Bradford was awful, and then just days later so was Heysel. What year was the Luton-Millwall riot in the FA Cup? I’m pretty sure that was 1985 too. And wasn’t there crowd trouble at the League Cup game between Chelsea and Sunderland that year as well? Didn’t Ken Bates threaten to pen supporters in on the terraces behind an electric fence after the crowd trouble? ’
‘But hang on. Today we celebrated Bury’s 125th anniversary. By the same token, that means it’s the 25th anniversary of the promotion in the same way that it’s the 25th anniversary of Bradford, but only one of the players from the squad is here to celebrate. Why? Why isn’t this remarkable squad getting the recognition it deserves?’
It was two years before I did anything. Realising that I had phone numbers for some members of the 1984/85 squad, I began ringing round. Joe Jakub, Leighton James, Wayne Entwistle, Dobson himself, John Bramhall, Terry Pashley and Craig Madden all agreed to be interviewed. I spoke to them after I’d spent an afternoon in front of the microfilm machine at Bury Museums and Archives service. Spooling through Bury Times match reports from 1984 and 1985, I started to feel like I knew these men despite only being a toddler when they played.
I learned about dark secrets from my own town too. The Miners’ Strike dominated news bulletins across the course of the season, but the Massey Street house fire which killed nine people on Christmas Day morning in Bury? I’d never heard of it, and it was only through a chance slowing down of the spooling wheel in the museum’s basement that I was able to refer to it in my book.
Meanwhile, I’d made a good start at talking to the players who played for Martin Dobson, but The Forgotten Fifteen as a construct needed contributions from all the players, not just the seven who I was able to speak to immediately. Here, then, was a challenge: how do you go about finding those who’ve never been back to Bury and who to all intents and purposes have disappeared off the face of the earth? It become my new obsession.
Using tactics I’d employed as a journalist (electoral searches, online directory enquiries), I found the squad’s right winger Winston White in Antigua (though we met in Birmingham when he was in this country), midfielder Kevin Young in Durham where he works in the prison service, and goalkeeper David Brown in Italy where I drank strong espressos in pavement cafés and piazzas in the days leading up to our meeting. Having found all the missing links, located as far apart as up the road in Ramsbottom to across the Atlantic in the Caribbean, I was ready to start writing.
But the combination of writing and working full time proved difficult. Eventually, a somewhat fortuitous period of unemployment allowed me to knuckle down and complete the book. Taking a chance and emailing Alastair Campbell to ask if he fancied writing the foreword – because of the Burnley connection – paid off. Interviews with a Bradford City fan who survived the fire, a Leeds fan who witnessed the riot at Birmingham on the last day of the season and a Liverpool fan who was at Heysel completed the painting of a bigger picture about football, its troubles and ‘the English disease’ in 1985.
By November 2015, I’d received its 1,000-copy print run. Later, when Bury fans who’d ordered the book had the opportunity to pick up their copy at Gigg Lane and have it signed by Leighton James, Trevor Ross, Gary Buckley, Chris Cutler, Wayne Entwistle, Martin Dobson, Frank Casper, Craig Madden and John Bramhall, they queued out of the door.
Demand for the book shows that the 15 men who rescued Bury from Division Four as British football was falling down around its ears haven’t been forgotten. They are very much remembered, just as it should be.
By James Bentley
For more information on this book, including the in-depth story of how each player was found, Spotify playlists containing hits from each month of the 1984/85 season and the opportunity to buy the book directly from author James Bentley, please visit www.theforgottenfifteen.co.uk
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.