Book review: Room at the Top

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By Jason McKeown

A few years back, I was walking around Bradford city centre on a match day, sporting a Bantams replica shirt, when an old man beckoned me over. I was fully expecting him to ask me if City were playing today, but to my surprise he didn’t say a word, and instead opened up his jacket to reveal something unexpected, before walking away laughing.

It was not – I’m relieved to add – a certain body part that he flashed to me. It was his Bradford Park Avenue top.

As someone born several years after Bradford Park Avenue’s demise as a Football League club, the rivalry that the Stans harbour towards us has always bemused me. In my time supporting City, Park Avenue have always been a non-league neighbour you wish well. A side you never think much about beyond the annual friendly. But from regular trips to the Horsfall Stadium pre-season, and chance meetings with the likes of my flasher friend, I’ve long been aware that there is a level of hostility felt by Bradford Park Avenue fans towards Bradford City.

What’s so wonderful about John Dewhirst’s new book – Room at the Top – is that it provides a new perspective on the historical roots of this rivalry. It offers detailed insight on just how far back it goes that helps you understand and sympathise why it still prevails today. Room at the Top charts the birth and rise of both Bradford sporting clubs, and just how important they were in shaping Bradford sport as we know it today.

And that is the real beauty of this comprehensive book. Until I read Room at the Top I thought I knew how Bradford City emerged in 1903. But compared to what I learned from the 320 pages that make up this book, my previous knowledge could have been written on a postage stamp.

Room at the Top takes us all the way back to the early 1800s and the beginnings of the Victorian era. Back then the mills and factories of Britain were operated six days a week, and people young and old worked painfully long hours to keep them going. But then the law was changed to allow workers Saturday afternoons off work, which suddenly presented populations up and down the land with the welcome challenge of how to fill their leisure time. With drinking and gambling frowned upon, sport began to flourish. The likes of Lister Park and Peel Park were built, which today are a lasting legacy to the social boom of Victorian era.room at top cover

The story is told of how Bradford Cricket Club emerged – established in 1836 – which was the city’s first major sporting club (Room at the Top also explains how Park Avenue was one of Yorkshire’s most important cricket locations). The growth of Rugby Football eventually saw Bradford FC take the place of cricket as the area’s big sporting outfit. Until, that is, Manningham FC grew in stature across the other side of town.

John covers in excellent detail the social and economic background of the time, and how this helped the at-the-time affluent Manningham area become a rival to the Park Avenue side of the city. In rugby terms, Manningham FC was the junior club initially not taken seriously by Bradford FC. But by the end of the 1800s that had changed and there was no love lost between the two sides.

The biggest strength of Room at the Top is the stunning depth of research that has gone in to telling the story of the origins of sport in Bradford. John was supported by a team of researchers including City fans Ian Hemmens and Francis Williams as well as a number of undergraduate students. Between them they have trawled through decades’ worth of newspaper cuttings, and the book features numerous extracts that really help to build a picture. The photos of players from the time and cuttings from newspapers are very interesting – I especially like the inclusion of illustrated match reports.

This book is a project that has been carried out studiously and comprehensively. There are no short cuts or assumptions, and the story is all the more credible and real for the length that John and team have gone to. The content challenges many of the superficial and questionable statements that have previously been made about the rivalry of the Valley Parade and Park Avenue clubs.

Although Park Avenue and Manningham are the main focus, the book also features details of all the Bradford area sporting clubs that emerged at the time, how they fared, and (very often) where they failed. It is really interesting to read about sports grounds that no longer exist in parts of the city we all know too well.

And that in itself is one of the best insights offered in the book – the importance of Valley Parade. Manningham FC began life playing at a ground on Carlisle Road but were forced to relocate when the land was acquired to build Drummond Lane school. With Bradford as a city developing at a fast pace, the options for an alternative ground were lacking and finding Valley Parade – with its unusual half-way-up-a-hill location – was vital. John explains how, without the move to Valley Parade, Manningham FC would have ceased to exist – and that would have meant no Bradford City today.

Room at the Top is the third book in the new History Revisited series. Volume four (Life at the Top) will pick up where this one left off, and tell the story of the switch to association football and the ultimate rebirth of Manningham to Bradford City. I’m already looking forward to reading it and this volume will be available in the shops towards the end of the year.

It’s easy for us to take things for granted, and to assume Bradford City has existed forever. Room at the Top takes you back to a time when this was not the case, to give you a sense of just how big an achievement it was to establish our club – and why those from the other side of Bradford still carry a grudge.

Copies of the books in the Bantamspast History Revisited series including Reinventing Bradford City by Jason McKeown are available as follows:

Ebay; Bantams Banter online shop; Waterstones Bradford and Salts Mill bookshop or direct from Bantamspast. Refer to www.johndewhirst.wordpress.com for details. (NB the books should be available on Amazon later this month.)

John is currently working on a sequel volume, Wool City Rivals which will tell the story of the twentieth century rivalry between City and Avenue. He is looking for volunteers who would be interested in helping to undertake research in Bradford Local Studies Library, specifically looking through old newspaper articles.

Another book in the Bantamspast History Revisited series is being planned and details will be announced shortly.


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Categories: Opinion

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3 replies

  1. I am about half way through the book. It is very detailed and I would suspect, the definitive history of how football, cricket and Rugby began in Bradford. For those interested in not only football ( and sport/leisure), and local history from the late 1800’s, it is a superbly written and illustrated book. It is beautifully presented and packaged, a true collectors item.

  2. Believe me Jason the antipathy is, cert in my case as an old man, mutual.

  3. It is a great and fascinating read.
    It brings the Victorian period into clear focus giving you get a greater sense of who the people were that started these clubs, why they were started, how they developed and the external factors which affected that development. I have only got 100 pages in (I am a slow reader) but have been given a great picture of Victorian Bradford at the time and the world these clubs operated in.
    John not only talks about the clubs but has brought in and thought about every conceivable influence on the growth and development of sport in the town to tell a much more rounded story, one that will appeal to non sports fans as well as those with an interest in BCAFC etc.
    Considering the dearth of source and contemporary material available they have put together a unique and valuable book with many interesting characters and facts that would have been lost without their dedication and hard work.

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