The play off final preview: The first era of Bantam Progressivism, 1981-88

Image by Kieran Wilkinson

By John Dewhirst

What was ‘Bantam Progressivism’?

Bantam Progressivism was a term that I coined thirty years ago to describe what became 7 seasons of consecutive improvement in league position from 14th in the fourth division in 1980/81 to 4th in the second division in 1987/88. It covered the period from the lowest League attendance at Valley Parade in May, 1981 (1,249 v Hereford United) to the ‘nearly season’ when the club narrowly missed out on promotion to the first division. It represented a climb of 57 places. It was also the period when City went from being known as the Paraders to the Bantams.

It was an amazing period, quite unlike anything known at Valley Parade during the club’s postwar history. At the time it was remembered for the fact that Bradford City had escaped the lower divisions for the first time since 1937. The era also included the tragedy of 11 May, 1985. Superlatives could do no justice to what occurred or what happened such was the transformation of Bradford City. If it wasn’t a Roy of the Rovers storyline, it was Stuart of the City.

Historically the nearest parallel was the rise of the club from formation in 1903 to a 5th place finish in the first division and FA Cup success in 1911. However, that involved only 5 seasons of successive improvement, 1906-11.

The inspiration for the term came from my own interest in communism and the history of the Soviet Union. It evoked the sense of Stakhanovite, superhuman achievement but there was also a tongue-in-cheek reference to Stalinist imagery – the chubby City Gent character with his red flag and revolutionary bantam icon. The rise of Bradford City out of a post-war slumber was nothing short of a revolution and hence the term ‘Bantam Progressivism’ seemed entirely fitting.

I derived considerable amusement from the fact that in 1987 copies of The City Gent with the revolutionary Gent on its cover were considered seditious material by the East German police when I posted them to a Lokomotive Leipzig supporter I had met the previous year on a visit to the German Socialist Paradise. (I subsequently discovered that the copies of The City Gent had been confiscated and they remained in the Stasi archive until discovery ten years later.)

The story of the 1980s: Managers who could make do and mend

The original era of Bantam Progressivism is best understood in the context of earlier disappointment and false hopes. In 1976 Bradford City had reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup which revived interest in the club and helped launch the momentum of a successful promotion season the following year. Despite relegation after only one season in the third division, City had been declared a favourite for promotion yet the 1978/79 season proved otherwise.

However it was the appointment of George Mulhall as manager in November, 1978 that laid the foundations of the club’s subsequent revival. One of his most influential signings was Bobby Campbell in December, 1979 and another was Stuart McCall who was signed as an apprentice in the 1980 close season. Little did anyone know how Stuart would play his part in the recovery of Bradford City. (What is equally remarkable is how long he has been associated with the club and in historical terms Stuart McCall ranks alongside Peter O’Rourke for the length of service given as a player and a manager. In other words, he is not simply a club legend but a big part of its history.)

Sadly, Mulhall was unable to deliver an escape from the basement and in 1979/80 the Paraders suffered the frustration of being denied promotion in the last game of the season. It was a painful experience and I recall the silence on the CTC ’73 coach as it journeyed north from Peterborough, full of despondent supporters.

Everyone had expected that in 1980/81 Bradford City would finally escape the fourth division but once more it didn’t happen, hence fast forward to that game with Hereford United – a side that needed to win to avoid re-election. Hereford achieved the victory they required and City had the further indignity of the record low crowd. I recall that a friend of mine had bumped into Mark Ellis after the game in the former JBs wine bar on Manor Row – Ellis told him that he recognised his face from having been in the Bradford End. It is to be hoped that he had not been able to read his lips given the frustrations that were expressed that night.

Chairman Bob Martin recognised the need for radical change and shortly after the end of the season it was announced that the Derby County and former England international centre-half Roy McFarland had been appointed as player-manager with Mick Jones as his assistant. It was quite a coup and it proved successful in reviving enthusiasm for the following season.

An enduring rumour was that McFarland had targeted Kevin Hector to sign and it was considered that the former Park Avenue favourite would entice old Bradford PA followers to follow the Bantams. The signing did not take place, most likely because of the budgetary constraints that were forced upon the manager.

I left school in 1981 and during the summer had undertaken a couple of jobs. In between cleaning cars pre-auction and working in a newsagents I spent a couple of weeks providing voluntary labour at Valley Parade. The work was unglamorous but great fun and ranged from painting the Kop crush barriers and turnstiles to being the groundsman’s assistant.

On one occasion I recall that Stuart had been delegated the task of cutting the grass. Prior to doing so he had filled the motor mower but crucially, had forgotten to replace the cap on the petrol tank. Needless to say, grass had got into the tank and surprise, surprise the machine had shuddered to a halt. I was painting on the Kop and went onto the pitch to help get the grass out of the tank but we didn’t succeed in getting the mower to work.

I suggested to Stuart that he retrieve the telltale missing petrol cap but distinctly remember that the groundsman was not impressed by what had happened.

It was a fascinating experience that provided a unique insight into the preparations for the new season. It was clear that McFarland commanded considerable respect and it was therefore hardly surprising that he was able to get the best from what was a relatively small squad of players – only 18 players made a first team appearance – with the club finishing runners-up behind Sheffield United, finally achieving a return to the third division.

Promotion in his first season was hardly a bad start to his managerial career. His secret had been to instil the discipline of hard work and team ethic which became a mainstay of Bantam Progressivism.

McFarland remained with the club for only eighteen months, tempted back to the Baseball Ground by the mounting financial difficulties at Valley Parade. Indeed, it is a reminder that the era of Bantam Progressivism was anything but free of controversy. McFarland’s departure in November, 1982 was hard to bear and most supporters feared that the club was likely to sink back to the fourth division. His last appearance against Manchester United at Valley Parade was an impressive display of an accomplished player and few believed that he could easily be replaced.

McFarland’s departure was highly acrimonious and there was considerable ill-feeling towards him – the games against Derby County during the 1984/85 were particularly bitter affairs. With the benefit of hindsight McFarland was aware of impending insolvency at Valley Parade and presumably considered the circumstances to be impossible.

Trevor Cherry replaced McFarland as manager in December, 1982 with Terry Yorath as his assistant. The two of them must have wondered what they had taken on given that the club was placed in receivership the following summer. It truly felt that the odds were stacked against Bradford City and that is precisely why Bantam Progressivism was considered to be such an incredible achievement.

Yet Cherry sustained the momentum, stabilising the club in 1982/83 and managing an improbable escape from relegation the following season – the turning point of which was a run of ten successive victories over the winter months. The results in the second half of 1983/84 were consistent with promotion form and provided the young City team with the self-belief and confidence that underpinned the championship season of 1984/85.

By the end of 1984 there was a strong sense of destiny, exemplified by the never give up attitude on the field. The common theme in the original era of Bantam Progressivism as well as that in subsequent periods was the work ethic and team spirit. In the 1980s it was exemplified by Stuart McCall who made his first team debut at Valley Parade in August, 1982.  There were no prima donnas – Bantam Progressivism had profoundly basic ingredients and demonstrated what could be achieved on a make-do and mend basis with a limited budget.

It remained difficult to believe that Bradford City was on the verge of returning to the second division for the first time in 48 years and it was an incredible relief when it was finally achieved. The celebrations at Bolton when the club secured the championship were sweet because after two successive defeats at Bournemouth and then at home to Reading, it felt as though we might stumble on the final leg.

The response of the players and supporters in the aftermath of the fire disaster in May, 1985 revealed a bond that already existed and which grew even stronger during a traumatic summer. Again there was a sense of destiny in the first game of the 1986/87 season when City won at Carlisle and it affirmed that the momentum would not come to a halt. It spoke volumes about the strength of character that the players coped with the nomadic existence at Beeston, Huddersfield and Odsal.

Image by Kieran Wilkinson

Trevor Cherry and Terry Yorath had held the club together long enough for the return to Valley Parade in December, 1986. Even so it had become clear by then that momentum was being lost, quite possibly for the simple reason that people were exhausted. Terry Dolan was the man selected to assume the manager role in January, 1987 and provide the new ideas and energy. It helped that he knew the club and its people – his changes were subtle, hardly profound but sufficient to reignite Bantam Progressivism.

The pivotal moment was a 4-0 defeat of Millwall in his first month that broke a sequence of eight games without a win. A 5-1 victory over Oldham Athletic in the third round of the FA Cup victory followed two days later. The subsequent recruitment of Brian Mitchell and Ron Futcher strengthened the team. Seven wins and two draws in the last ten games of the season lifted the Bantams to 10th in the second division and by any standard it was a tremendous achievement.

Once more it was the second half of a preceding season that provided the launch pad for a promotion challenge and for the majority of the 1987/88 season, Bradford City remained among the leading teams at the top of the second division. It was the final frontier, not since 1922 had the club competed at the highest level. It was a dream that came close to being fulfilled but in the closing stages it was denied because of a lack of strength in depth.

This was the ‘nearly season’ and there was considerable bitterness that the directors had not strengthened the side to compensate for the inevitable injuries and suspensions. Victory over Middlesbrough in the first leg of the play-off semi-final at Valley Parade had kept the dream alive but it was aggregate defeat at Ayresome Park that drew a close to that first era of Bantam Progressivism.

The essence of Bantam Progressivism

The acid test of the original Bantam Progressivism era was that progress was achieved despite all the various crises and handicaps. In fact, only the 1981/82 and 1987/88 seasons could be described as having been unaffected by some form of off-field setback.

Given what the club went through it was amazing that there was any progress made at all and that is why that era was so unique. It really did feel as though the team could overcome anything put in its way. Stuart and Bobby were at the heart of the squad in that era but Bantam Progressivism was about the bond of the players rather than individual personalities.

Whilst it was difficult to sustain progress after the 4th place finish in 1988, it felt as though the soul of the club had been weakened after the sale of John Hendrie and Stuart McCall and the subsequent reliance upon buying expensive new players.

By 1990 Bradford City had been relegated and between 1988 and 1992 the club went backwards with four seasons of successive decline in league position from 4th in the second division to 16th in the third (a drop of 26 places). It struck me later that the eras of sustained progress at Valley Parade have been followed by equal and opposite eras of Bantam Regressivism, for example the next period of successive improvement between 1995-00 – a climb of 41 places – was followed by eight seasons of progressive decline between 2000-08 with three relegations and a drop of 58 places. Of course in 2011 and 2012 we finished 8 places lower than that.

(The collapse of the club in the last decade bore many similarities to the longer term decline at Valley Parade between 1922-49, from the top division to the bottom of the Football League. The only difference was the speed of the fall.)

Team work, spirit and self-belief were the characteristics of Bantam Progressivism in the period 1981-88 and it was no coincidence that it was achieved without expensive signings. The men who made Bantam Progressivism were players who came to the club to prove themselves rather than rely upon existing reputations or past records. However, the bond between the players and the fans was another core element, made all the stronger for the experience of what had happened in May, 1985 and the ability of the team to seemingly overcome all obstacles.

It was the positivity and self-belief of everyone associated with the club that made things happen between 1981-88 and for the record I believe that we have the same ingredients in place now.

There is an irony in the fact that Bradford City has for so long been constrained from competing in the transfer market and that when big-name signings have been made they have invariably flopped. Bradford City is not a club associated with success at signing star players and unsurprisingly, it was not the basis of Bantam Progressivism. For a start there was limited money available.

The recipe was therefore to focus on team ethic and work rate, relying upon hungry players eager to prove as opposed to mercenaries looking for the next pay cheque. In fact the strategy of the club’s current owners, Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp, is entirely consistent with those values and of how Bantam Progressivism was achieved in the first place.

It is worth noting that if Bradford City achieve promotion in the play off final this year, they will have recorded at least seven seasons of successive improvement between 2011-18 from a starting position of 18th in the fourth division. (Admittedly it includes a couple of cases of standing still by finishing in the same position but the point is that we haven’t gone backwards.)

Thus far, in this third era of Bantam Progressivism, there has been a climb of 37 places and all we would need is a top nine finish in the second division next season to match the rise achieved between 1981-88. Irrespective, the crucial difference is that the Bradford City of today has much stronger foundations.

In my opinion Bantam Progressivism is more likely to be sustained now than ever before which is the true measure of any turnaround. I genuinely believe that this era will be remembered as one of the most celebrated in the club’s history.

Long live Bantam Progressivism!

John was co-founder of The City Gent in 1984 and is the author of a number of books about the history of Bradford City including City Memories, A History of BCAFC in Objects, Room at the Top and Life at the Top. He is currently working on Wool City Rivals, a history of the City / Avenue rivalry details of which can be found at www.johndewhirst.wordpress.com

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Categories: The 2016/17 play offs

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8 replies

  1. Great piece, John. I think you mean Ron Futcher not Paul Fletcher. Probably some confusion in that Ron had a twin brother called Paul!

  2. It’s age! You are correct. Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Wonderful piece and just how I remember it. Captures all the ups and downs of this truely progressive era. Bradford city was a unique team to follow back then and I cannot imagine another club going through all the trials and tribulations City did. From triumph to disaster, administration, blown over floodlights, crowds of under 1500, no home ground and progessing from 18th in division 4 to 4th in Division 2.

    Unbelievable times and although everything else pales into insignificance given the fire it was my favourate era to watch the club develop, grow and move forward in the face of finacial constraints adversity, ultimate disaster and rebirth. Great piece John.

  4. McCall and Charlie Palmer in a 2-0 home win v Hull?

  5. Fascinating article. Thanks John.

  6. Great article and the pictures just bring back so many memories of how the ground used to look

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