By Rob Grillo
Many of us have vivid memories of Bradford City’s short spell in the Premier League, and of the successful and not so successful campaigns in the second tier. We all hoped those days would return in May 2017, but alas Millwall stood in the way. Now we face demotion to the fourth tier and we are quite rightly not happy about it.
But whether we like to admit it or not, Bradford City AFC has traditionally been a third or fourth tier club, having spent the majority of its 116 year existence at that level. Once the Football League became a truly national competition (after absorbing the top division of the Southern League almost in entirety in 1920) then the club – as well as Park Avenue – quickly fell from grace.
Could this be due to the way the clubs were founded in the first place, and a lasting legacy of the strength of the rugby game in the region?
Most Football League teams had tradition by the time they joined football’s elite. They were founded as offshoots of existing cricket clubs, or by local places of worship eager to increase their congregations, or by fellows who had learnt the game at public schools. They rose to the top of the pile in their districts, with a pool of players from which they had the means to pick from, and eventually the finance to import from far flung places like Scotland. Around them grew a strong grassroots structure that maintained that pool of players.
Bradford did it the other way round. Rugby was king long after it had lost out to the round ball game in other parts of the country. The strength of the Yorkshire Rugby Union was the key to this, going against the national body by ceding to its stronger members – which included the likes of Bradford, Manningham, Leeds, Huddersfield and Halifax – organising its own knock-out competition (T’Owd Tin Pot) and then recognising the inevitability of a league structure that would further local competition. This meant that local villages, workplaces, and indeed whole towns already enjoyed a competitive rivalry, one which was missing from the purely amateur rugby code in other parts of the country.
Association football therefore found it harder to become established, particularly in the West Riding.
Bradford Cricket, Athletic and Football club at Park Avenue was the first try it’s hand a founding a worthy city club. The club always played second fiddle to the rugby team, had far less finance available to it, and achieved little success – particularly against the reserve teams of South Yorkshire based teams like Sheffield United and The Wednesday, and was generally poorly supported by the Bradford public. After being exiled to Birch Lane in 1898, the club disbanded soon after, many of its players becoming dispersed among other local clubs.
Furthermore, in the early 1900s the West Riding FA found that attempts to organise a strong county league withered. It was argued that the professional Northern union clubs, who, in the 1890s experimented with the round ball game, and had the strongest teams were smothering ‘socker’ by not fielding sides in the attempted West Yorkshire/Yorkshire leagues.
Without a good county league then there was no chance of the non-league game existing at a high level. Lack of success in the FA Amateur Cup was proof of this, and Bradford based teams very rarely made it beyond the regional qualifying rounds of this competition.
There were attempts by the Bradford FA, formed in 1899, to form a professional city team based around Girlington AFC (who played at Valley Parade) and the amateur Bradford City AFC (who played at Greenfield), but this fell through in 1902, leading to the surprise disintegration of both clubs.
When Manningham Football Club turned its back on the Northern Union (Rugby League) game and was admitted to the Football League as Bradford City, it turned on its head the traditional means of attaining FL status.
Park Avenue’s second, and this more successful attempt to introduce professional soccer was a mirror image of that at Valley Parade. An existing, professional rugby team was embraced by the authorities with open arms. Had a second Football League team evolved from a successful non-league team then the venture may ultimately have proved more successful in the long run.
Bradford’s ‘top down’ approach’, with two Football League clubs, with very little in the way of successful non-league teams ensured that a strong pool of local players was not going to materialise. While Bradford’s amateur leagues thrived, there was no successful non-league club in the city until after the Second World War (save for a Bradford Schoolboys’ English Cup success in 1916).
Bradford’s economic woes as the textile industry shrank can in no way be discounted, but it is worth considering Bradford football’s roots, because the ‘top down’ approach adopted by the formation of Bradford City and Park Avenue clubs from existing professional rugby clubs is clearly less efficient, or as sustainable as the traditional ‘bottom up’ approach. It was perhaps inevitable then that Bradford was unable to have two\1 Football League teams, and the demise of one of them was bound to happen.
Leeds of course endured a similar checkered start to the growth of association football, but of course had the advantage of only one professional football team whereby finances could be consolidated, and growing and more prosperous population in general, and a club in Leeds City AFC that was founded from the ashes of the West Riding’s only successful ‘socker’ team prior to 1900.
Had the Bradford system proved sustainable, with only one Football League team, then that club could have easily established itself as a leading light in the game, with a firm base from which to garner support, finance and players. Its early history and development seems to have proved itself a millstone around the neck of professional soccer in the city, and possibly one which has prevented the club from ever catching up in terms of resources.
This early history of Bradford football, and of the sport of soccer in the West Riding in general, is covered in LATE TO THE GAME, published in May and the sixth volume of the HISTORY REVISITED SERIES, of which Jason McKeown’s book WHO WE ARE was the fifth in the series.
The BANTAMSPAST HISTORY REVISITED series
A further four volumes are planned to provide a definitive history of Bradford soccer from the beginnings until the present day. Through detailed re-assessment of the historic record our books explain why and how events unfolded as they did and demonstrate how the history remains relevant today.
Collectively they provide fresh perspectives to the history of Bradford football and the origins of sport in the district, debunking the myths and superficial narratives that have been told previously. All the books are produced in the same format incorporating a wealth of illustrative content to allow long forgotten artefacts to be featured.
The series is self-published – financial budgets are set on the basis of achieving break-even rather than profit which means that wherever possible content does not have to be sacrificed to satisfy a publisher’s targets. In so doing we have the freedom to publish what we want rather than comply with inflexible formats. However we are committed to producing books of high quality, in particular with hard cover subscriber editions.
A further principle is that each of our books has been produced and printed wholly in Bradford by a local printer, in this case the long-established firm Hart & Clough based in Cleckheaton. Details of how to order can be obtained from https://bantamspast.net/buy-our-books-direct-from-us/