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Remembering the Burnden Park Disaster: the forgotten tragedy, 67 years later

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Michael Steele

March 9, 1946. It was some six months after the end of World War II and Bolton Wanderers welcomed Stoke City to Burnden Park. The Football League had not yet started back up following the war and the FA Cup was the major attraction for football fans hungry for a return to normalcy. The match in question was a sixth round tie between the Trotters and the Potters. Bolton had won the previous year's Football League War Cup but were looking to win their first FA Cup since 1929. Stoke City had never made it past the sixth round before.

Bolton Wanderers had traveled to Stoke City's Victoria Ground a week earlier and left 2-0 winners with Ray Westwood's brace putting the Trotters in pole position.

The attendance situation at Burnden was a bit of a strange one. The season's highest draw was just shy of 43,500 but well below the club's record attendance at Burnden, a massive 69,912 that came to watch a fifth round FA Cup match in 1933. Yet, on that fateful March day, attendance was buoyed by the crowd's thirst for football. The Stoke City side also featured Sir Stanley Matthews, a veritable legend at that relatively early stage of his career. Many had come specifically for that spectacle.

The Burnden Stand, which offered about 3,000 seats, was not available for use as the Ministry of Supply had requisitioned it during the war. Bolton fans had to enter through the Manchester Road end and make their way around the pitch to the Burnden Paddock. The turnstiles at the railway embankment had been closed for over five years before that and that added to the pressure on the already stressed entrances.

At 1 pm, the crowds began arriving in the thousands. An hour-and-a-half later, the embankment was getting dangerously close to capacity. Ten minutes after that, the turnstiles were closed. That did not stop the fans from trying to get into the ground as thousands still wanted to see the the match. They broke through an old fence that kept the railway from the ground and thousands more would pour through an open gate that a concerned father used to get him and his son out of the ground prior to the starting whistle.

The teams entered the pitch and a crush began as the crowds swelled. This caused a number of fans to spill onto the pitch. The match kicked off anyway.

Not longer after that, the crowd pushed forward again and the metal crush barriers could no longer stand the pressure and they folded. The crowd collapsed in on itself with one witness describing it as "all falling down like a pack of cards." People were being stretchered away, many seemingly lifeless. At 3:12 pm, a police officer ran onto the field and alerted the referee, prompting the teams to leave the pitch.

A half hour after that, upon instruction by the police, the match kicked off once more and was played out to a scoreless draw. The difference in the second half was that while the players were doing their thing on the field, there were countless stretchers with bodies on them along the side of the pitch.

Many were unaware of the damage.

When the dust cleared, more than 400 fans were injured and 33 had died. Prior to 1971's Ibrox Stadium Disaster, it was football's greatest tragedy. There were other disasters like Heysel and Hillsborough yet Burnden Park was largely forgotten by non-Bolton Wanderers fans.

Remember the 9th of March.

Remember the 33 that went to watch the Whites play and never came home.WILFRED ADDISON Moss Side, Manchester.

WILFRED ALLISON (19) Leigh.

FRED BATTERSBY (31) Atherton.

JAMES BATTERSBY (33) Atherton.

ROBERT BENTHAM (33) Atherton.

HENRY BIMSON (59) Leigh.

HENRY RATCLIFFE BIRTWISTLE (14) Blackburn.

JOHN T BLACKSHAW Rochdale.

W BRAIDWOOD (40) Hindley.

FRED CAMPBELL (33) Bolton.

FRED PRICE DEARDEN (67) Bolton.

WILLIAM EVANS (33) Leigh.

WINSTON FINCH Hazel Grove, Stockport.

JOHN FLINDERS (32) Littleborough.

ALBERT EDWARD HANRAHAN Winton, Eccles.

EMILY HOSKINSON (40) Bolton.

WILLIAM HUGHES (56) Poolstock, Wigan.

FRANK JUBB Rochdale.

JOHN LIVESEY (37) Bamber Bridge, Preston.

JOHN THOMAS LUCAS (35) Leigh.

HAROLD MCANDREW Wigan.

WILLIAM MCKENZIE Bury.

MORGAN MOONEY (32) Bolton.

HARRY NEEDHAM (30) Bolton.

DAVID PEARSON Rochdale.

JOSEPH PLATT (43) Bolton.

SIDNEY POTTER (36) Tyldesley.

GRENVILLE ROBERTS Ashton-in-Makerfield.

RICHARD ROBEY (35) Barnoldswick.

THOMAS ROBEY (65) Billinge, Wigan.

T SMITH (65) Rochdale.

WALTER WILMOT (31) Bolton.

JAMES WILSON Higher Openshaw, Manchester.