By John Dewhirst
Contrast the current feelgood mood at Valley Parade to that four years ago when morale was at a low. A highlight for me in 2011 was the Glorious 1911 centenary dinner at the Midland Hotel that commemorated the famous date in the club’s history. In attendance at the dinner were members from the 1975/76 squad who had achieved fame for reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup for the first time since 1920. That night we remembered a goalscoring hero who was to give his life in World War One.
It has often felt as if we had nothing but our history to celebrate. Like previous generations of supporters, on that occasion we looked back at the club’s history to reinforce our pride and belief. For example the concept of ‘Glorious 1911′ originated in 1927 at a time when the club was on its knees. The foreword of the supporters’ club programme for its fund-raising bazaar at that time stated: ‘There is much to inspire and to encourage in the early history of the club. Probably it will help to stimulate and restore the old-time enthusiasm.’
Fast forward to the 5th round tie against Sunderland at Valley Parade last month. It was not only an awesome performance but a massive historical achievement. The first time we had reached the quarter-finals since 1976; the sixth time it had been achieved – 1911 / 1912 / 1915 / 1920 / 1976 / 2015 – and only the third time in the last 100 years.
I looked across from the Kop at the packed main stand and a sell-out 24,021 crowd. A new history was being made, the third highest attendance at Valley Parade since 1946. With the possible exception of the 5th round tie against Burnley in February, 1960 (26,227) it was the first capacity crowd at Valley Parade in living memory – my assumption being that the 23,000 who attended the Spurs cup tie in January, 1970 and 27,083 v Hull City in February, 1949 were not capacity crowds at the time given the respective configurations of the ground.
Having previously had to look so far into the past for memories of success we now find that history is being made in the modern era – a novel experience for any longstanding City fan. And for younger supporters the club’s earlier history seems increasingly irrelevant. The last fifteen years have delivered experiences that our predecessors could only dream of – the return to the top division after a 77 year absence and the recent cup success.
However, to paraphrase the words of the academic Francis Fukuyama, it is not the End of History. Indeed there has been a nagging habit of history repeating itself at Valley Parade and without sounding like a miserable old git, the good times will not last forever. History teaches us to savour these moments. In the aftermath of the Premier League for example came financial crisis and years in the wilderness of the basement division, neither of which could be regarded as a new experience.
Arguably the cup feats of 2012/13 and 2014/15 are an affirmation that BCAFC, like its predecessor Manningham FC, has traditionally been a club that thrives on cup competition. Although successful cup campaigns have not been a regular feature of life, the original reputation of BCAFC between 1910 and 1920 and that of Manningham FC in the 1880s was based on cup competition.
The FA Cup campaign in 1976, like the League Cup campaign in 2013 breathed new momentum into the club. In most decades there has been at least one headline about a giant killing and the rise to prominence of the original Manningham FC was on the basis of participation in cup competition. Whilst Manningham never actually won a cup (other than the Bradford Charity Cup), it was runner-up in the 1885 Yorkshire Challenge Cup – a competition that captured the imagination of local people – and this achievement was the basis of the club becoming established at Valley Parade in the first place.
The success of the FA Cup campaign in 2014/15 is exceptional by any standard but nevertheless it should still be seen in the tradition of previous seasons going back to 1881/82 when Manningham FC first competed for a cup. Today is about continuity, from 1911, from 1976 and from other cup campaigns, not least 2013.
My own interest in the club’s past stemmed from wanting to understand the heritage of an institution that I had committed emotional energy to following. The fundamental thing I wanted to understand was why a city the size of Bradford had such a crap side. And the Bradford City that I grew up with in the 1970s brought a whole new meaning to the word.
Last year I finally put the memories to print. A HISTORY OF BCAFC IN OBJECTS is essentially a celebration of memorabilia but when I wrote it I had two underlying objectives. The first was to provide a definitive record for posterity of how the club’s identity has evolved. The second was to identify historical trends and offer comparisons between the different eras at Valley Parade.
I could hardly avoid the conclusion that the common experience of succeeding generations at Valley Parade since 1903 has been a struggle to make ends meet with reliance upon a hardcore of supporters to rescue the club in recurring times of crisis. Nothing much has ever really changed and I don’t think we should forget that. If in 2000 someone had claimed that history had ended they were soon to be proved wrong.
In collecting material to feature in that book I found that club relics and artefacts from before 1970 are few and far between and dwarfed by what exists from the last thirty years. Frankly there is more surviving evidence about prehistoric man in Wharfedale than of BCAFC in the 1960s.
Another conclusion was to highlight the acceleration of change since 1985 such that it now requires a leap of imagination to explain to someone aged 40 or less exactly how derelict the old Valley Parade had become by the time of the fire. The extent of change is so great that the club’s pre 1985 history seems increasingly alien and disconnected. And yet as we approach the anniversary of the fire disaster in 1985 there is all the more reason to remember our history, the origins of the club and its struggles.
Admittedly it hasn’t always been a glamorous history but it is who we are as a club and what we are about. Much as though people might wish, we cannot change it in the same way that you cannot change your family history (or for that matter, what you are called).
The internet distorts perspectives. My scientific assessment is that 98% of what exists on the internet about BCAFC is to do with the last 15 years and the likelihood is that the club’s history and identity will become defined by the results of a Google search, the brevity of a superficial tweet or comments posted to a message board.
Nothing better illustrates this than the fact that BCAFC is more commonly referred to as ‘Bradford’ as opposed to Bradford City and this lazy shorthand – or, if you will, inattention to detail – has become orthodoxy for the club’s name. The danger of the internet is that it also propagates inaccurate and unreliable information. For example much of what you find on the web about the history of BCAFC is complete garbage and yet it becomes accepted, verbatim.
As soon as we forget our history or allow it to be distorted we lose our self-respect and identity and this applies to football as much as anything else. We should not concentrate on BANTAMSPAST to the exclusion of celebrating BANTAMSCURRENT or indeed BANTAMSFUTURE but we cannot ignore the past and deceive ourselves that what happened in the last century is irrelevant.
Today is about continuity, all the more valuable given the occasions on which the club has come so close to liquidation. Those of us who are sensitive about the club’s identity – ie Bradford City AFC as opposed to ‘Bradford’ – are not motivated for reasons of nostalgia as opposed to pride in the club’s heritage, for which there is no reason to be ashamed.
Today James Hanson follows in the footsteps of others before him – including the celebrated Jimmy Speirs of Glorious 1911 – to write a new chapter in the club’s history. In future years we will derive faith and inspiration from this experience and who knows, perhaps future generations will be talking about what we are about to witness in much the same way as we celebrated Glorious 1911.
A HISTORY OF BCAFC IN OBJECTS by John Dewhirst – acclaimed by Hunter Davies as ‘the best illustrated history of any club that he has ever read’ – is available on Amazon.
John is currently working on a sequel project to examine the rivalry between Bradford City AFC and Bradford (Park Avenue) AFC, from the rugby origins of those clubs in the nineteenth century to the 1970s, and to challenge the myths that exist about their respective histories. Details of a planned publication later this year will be announced shortly.
Tickets for this year’s Bantamspast History evening – with dinner at the Bradford Club on 26th April – are now on sale. Refer http://www.bantamspast.co.uk for detail.