Playing with fire: A brief and personal look at ‘survivor guilt’

Football. Love it or hate but you cannot ignore it. For many people, football is a central part of their lives (mine included). That is one of the reasons I carried out research on football fanaticism because I believe there is a tiny minority of fans that are addicted to the football teams they follow (see my previous blog on ‘fanorexia’ for an overview).

Apart from a four-year period in my life (more of which later), football has always been an important part of my leisure time. Like many children I was brought up on a healthy diet of football. In the 1970s, my dad and brother were staunch Liverpool fans (as they were both born there) but I was a Sunderland supporter (and still am). I have supported Sunderland ever since I was six years old when I watched them beat Leeds 1-0 in the 1973 FA Cup final. This was certainly the first match I remember watching and for years after I had lots of flashbacks of seeing captain Bobby Kerr lifting the trophy and manager Bob Stokoe’s run across Wembley at the final whistle.

Despite my almost religious love of football as a child, I didn’t go to a single live football match simply because my family couldn’t afford it. I grew up in Loughborough so the nearest football teams were Leicester City, Nottingham Forest, Notts County and Derby County. My parents couldn’t even afford to travel to the games let alone watch one (and we never had a car until I reached my later teens). At the time (in the 1970s and early 1980s) I could still get my weekly fix of soccer action on Match of the Day (on BBC1) and the Star Soccer match (on ITV).

Throughout my formative years I not only watched football but also played it a lot too. In my junior school I shared the captaincy with one of my best friends at the time but on getting to secondary school I discovered I wasn’t as good as I thought (I only ever managed a regular slot in the second elevens; first team call up only ever came if there were lots of injuries). I devoured football. I used to be one of those very sad individuals who could not only tell you the score of every Wembley cup final since 1923 but could also name all the scorers. This came to great effect when I was 14 and my class at school (3L4 – so called because the class was the third year at secondary school and our form tutor’s room was ‘Laboratory 4’) won the Question of Sport team prize (mostly thinks to my sad but encyclopaedic knowledge of all things sporting). This passion stayed with me until I was 18 years old.

The first live football that I started watching regularly was Bradford City. As a first year undergraduate at the University of Bradford I got a student discount to go and situate myself in the Midland Road Stand at City’s home ground Valley Parade. That was 1985. The year that Bradford went up as the Third Division champions with ex-Leeds United legend Trevor Cherry as manager. After Sunderland, Bradford City became my ‘second team’. The last game of the season was against Lincoln City and it was billed as a ‘celebration’ game as Bradford City were already the Division winners. It was May 11th, I had just finished all my end-of-year university exams, and I was in great spirits. As usual, I attended the match with my best friend Geoff Harvey (now a well respected author of books on both football fans and sports betting). As it was a celebratory occasion we also managed to convince two of our female friends to join us (neither of them had ever been to a live football match before that day).

The day turned out to be a day I will never forget. As the game kicked off, little did we know that 45 minutes later the whole of one of the stands would be up in flames – ‘The Bradford Fire’. For those reading this who have no idea what I am talking about, here is the relevant information (from Wikipedia):

“The Bradford City stadium fire was the worst fire disaster in the history of English football. It occurred during a league match in front of record numbers of spectators, on Saturday, 11 May 1985, killing 56 and injuring at least 265. The Valley Parade stadium, long-established home to Bradford City Football Club had been noted for its antiquated design and facilities, including the wooden roof of the main stand. Warnings had also been given about a major build-up of litter just below the seats. The stand had been officially condemned and was due for demolition. The match against Lincoln City had started in a celebration atmosphere, with the home-team receiving the Football league Third Division trophy trophy. At 3.40 pm, a small fire was reported by TV commentator John Helm, but in less than four minutes, in windy conditions, it had engulfed the whole stand, trapping some people in their seats. In the panic that ensued, fleeing crowds had to break down locked exits to escape. There were, however, many cases of heroism, with more than fifty people receiving police awards or commendations”.

Thankfully, I was in the Midland Road stand (directly opposite to where the fire started). The one thing I still remember to this day was the intense heat inside the stadium. I have never experienced anything like it in my life. Everyone’s faces around me were bright red from the heat of the fire. None of us particularly like to think about death, but I have always thought that the two ways I wouldn’t want to die would be to either burn to death or to drown. As we left the stadium and made our way back to the Halls of Residence (about a 45-minute walk) I grateful to be alive. I knew I would have to ring my parents to let them know I was alright (as they knew I was going to the game). As this was in the era before mobile phones, another memory I have was the long queues outside all the telephone boxes as people wanted to let their loved ones know they were safe. I didn’t manage to get through to my Mum until about 6.15pm. Even by this time, the first deaths had been recorded. It was mid-evening that the horror of the day started to sink in and the next morning as all the Sunday papers’ front pages were about the 50+ deaths.

Over the next few months, I ruminated a lot about the deaths that day. At the end of July 1985, I took a walk to the Valley Parade stadium and broke down in uncontrollable tears. That was the first time I had cried about the tragic events of May 11. When the new season started, I lost all interest in football. I didn’t watch a full match for the next four years. Whenever I thought about football, I thought about the Bradford fire and had flashbacks. In December 1985, I began a long-term relationship with a woman who’s grandad had been burned in the fire. It was around that time that I found out that one of the technicians in our Psychology department (who I had become friendly with) had lost his father in the fire. Although I could go hours without thinking about the fire, when I thought about it I felt psychologocally uneasy. It was hard to put into words. It was much later that I came across the concept of ‘survivor guilt’. The Wikipedia entry notes:

“Survivor guilt (or survivor’s guilt; also called survivor syndrome or survivor’s syndrome) is a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. It may be found among survivors of combat, natural disasters, epidemics among the friends and family of those who have committed suicide, and in non-mortal situations such as among those whose colleagues are laid off. The experience and manifestation of survivor’s guilt will depend on an individual’s psychological profile. When the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) was published, survivor guilt was removed as a recognized specific diagnosis, and redefined as a significant symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”.

Although this description does not totally match the symptoms and thoughts I had, I do think (in retrospect) I had a mild from of ‘survivor guilt’. I also think that what I suffered was a mild form of PTSD given that PTSD refers to a group of symptoms, such as disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and hyperarousal, continue for more than a month after the occurrence of a traumatic event” (Wikipedia). Thankfully, the cliché that ‘time is a great healer’ is true in my case. During the end of my PhD at the University of Exeter (1989), I began to watch football again and was a regular at St. James Park for Exeter City’s home games. My love of football returned and I began to think less and less about the Bradford Fire.

This is the first time I have ever written this down fully and is a good example of what I would describe as ‘therapeutic writing’ (something I have occasionally written about – see my previous blog on diary writing). I hope that you will forgive me for the lack of empirical data in this particular blog but just writing this all down has helped me feel better about one of the most heartfelt days of my life. Normal service will be resumed next time.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Wikipedia (2014). Bradford City stadium fire. Located at:

Wikipedia (2014). Post-traumatic stress disorder. Located at:

Wikipedia (2014). Survivor guilt. Located at:

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on September 4, 2014, in Case Studies, Games, Mania, Obsession, Pain, Popular Culture, Psychological disorders, Psychology, Unusual deaths and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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