Following the announcement Bradford Bulls are to relocate outside the city, John Dewhirst examines the historical significance and what it might mean for the future of Bradford sport.
Bradford was originally a rugby town. In the late nineteenth century, enthusiasm for the game was reflected in the passionate rivalry between Manningham FC at Valley Parade and Bradford FC at Park Avenue as well as the existence of a multitude of local clubs across the district. By 1890 Bradford FC was reputedly one of the wealthiest sports clubs in England, the focus of a high profile investigation by the tax authorities shortly after.
In those early decades of organised sport, association football was crowded out. In fact if people spoke of ‘football’ in Victorian Bradford what they meant was rugby. A shortage of suitable vacant sites on which to play sport meant that ‘soccer’ had limited scope to become established. Such was the strength and popularity of rugby that the round ball game was given little opportunity to flourish despite attempts being made to introduce the rival code. (Refer to the recently published book by Rob Grillo, ‘Late to the Game‘.)
The introduction of the Football League in 1888 transformed the profile of association football in England and very soon the game had become established as the principal winter sport. By the end of the following decade it was Football League clubs who enjoyed the biggest crowds and boasted of the highest gate takings. The launch of the Northern Union in 1895 (precursor of the Rugby League) did little to revive the standing of rugby and by the beginning of the twentieth century soccer was dominant.
West Yorkshire, like South Wales and parts of west Lancashire, became cut off from what was happening elsewhere in the country and the growing national obsession with football, or in this case soccer. The adherence to rugby football had more to do with historical accident and inertia as well as the stubborn resistance of so-called rugbyites.
Nevertheless in 1903 the leadership of Manningham FC seized the opportunity to convert to association football to safeguard the viability of the club, gaining election to the Football League as Bradford City AFC without having ever previously played a competitve fixture.
Across the city at Park Avenue, by 1905 came the recognition that soccer was the future and that continued devotion to rugby represented financial suicide. Bradford FC became described in the local press as Rip Van Winkle, unimaginable in the 1880s when it had been enjoyed such a high profile.
For a club previously feted as one of the wealthiest it was unacceptable to live in the shadow of the former rivals at Valley Parade. Besides it was recognised that the future of the Park Avenue enclosure was at risk unless it could attract the sort of crowds watching association football in Manningham.
In 1907 came the much contested decision to abandon rugby at Park Avenue and with it the birth of Bradford Norhern by local enthusiasts anxious to maintain a Northern Union rugby club in the city. Such was the controversy and emotion that the momentous decision became known as ‘The Great Betrayal’. The events of 1907 dictated the course of Bradford sporting history and the most recent announcement that Bradford Bulls – successor to Bradford Northern – are planning to vacate Odsal should be seen in the historical context of what happened so long ago.
The Great Betrayal brought a fragmentation of sporting interest and investment with competition between City, Avenue and Northern for the attention of the Bradford public and the financial support of its businessmen. This was further compounded by the emergence of Bradford RFC and the relaunch of a senior Rugby Union club in the district in 1919 which provided additional competition, in particular during the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s.
There is a strong case that this fragmentation undermined the viability of each club. Since 1907 different clubs assumed ascendancy in Bradford, falling in and out of fashion. At various stages, Bradford was better known for its rugby – Union in the mid 1920s, League in the late 1930s and immediately after the last war and Super League after its launch in 1996. Ever since 1903 an underlying theme has been the competition between the rival codes of (association) football and Rugby League which has mirrored the struggle at a regional level for the latter to avoid being smothered by soccer.
Changes in rules, formats and structures of Rugby League have essentially represented a forlorn attempt to compete with soccer and retain spectator interest – the fate of Bradford Northern / Bulls has thus been wrapped up in this bigger struggle. It has become difficult to pretend otherwise that Rugby League has lost much of its appeal and with each passing decade it has been hard to avoid the conclusion that the sheer scale of Odsal Stadium has become increasingly anomalous with the needs of RL and levels of public interest.
One thing that will never change is the physical relief of the Bradford district and a shortage of flat land has restricted options for where sport can be played. In the aftermath of the Valley Parade fire, investigation of options for a new stadium identified Baildon Bottom or redevelopment of Park Avenue. In 1907, the new Bradford Northern club considered options in Girlington and Undercliffe before opting for the Greenfield Athletics Ground at Dudley Hill. In 1908 the club relocated closer to the centre of town at Birch Lane which had originally been used for Rugby Union by Bowling Old Lane FC between 1887 and 1897 and Bradford Wanderers, 1899-1903.
It soon became clear that Birch Lane was unsuitable and the inadequate facilities were identified as an obstacle to the future viability of the club. Even though relocation to Odsal in 1934 provided an immediate fillip it did not represent a solution to the ‘ground question’, an issue which has hung over Bradford Northern / Bulls ever since the Great Betrayal and to this day.
Odsal Stadium has proved to be as much of a handicap as Birch Lane. Whilst its size has always represented a potential opportunity this has been forever unattainable for reasons of basic economics and the cost of its upkeep has represented a considerable burden. Crucially Bradford Northern / Bulls have always been the tenant of the local authority which has similarly agonised over the financial wisdom of how the site should be utilised.
It is an open secret that the value of this civic asset is not best realised as a Rugby League stadium. Odsal was originally developed for political purposes and it was a matter of convenience that five years after its original conception it became occupied by Bradford Northern.
The tragedy of the Odsal Stadium was that it was never likely to be financially viable nor justify the sort of investment that it required. Odsal was not unique in that many other football stadia were built on the premise that if they were big enough they would somehow get filled. The problem for Odsal was that it needed a lot of people to fill it and not just once every so often.
The financial difficulties of Bradford Bulls and the club’s recent collapse surely brought the day of reckoning about Odsal much nearer. The financial difficulties of Bradford Bulls were not only a consequence of poor management and weak financial control, it was also driven by the hard realities and financial pressures of professional rugby.
The biggest surprise is that it has taken so long for there to be talk about Odsal’s future. Only 18 months ago there had been the suggestion of Bradford Park Avenue relocating to Odsal. Current speculation about Bradford Bulls moving to Horsfall marks another chapter in the story of Bradford sports grounds and their occupation by the different senior clubs.
The significance of Bradford Bulls vacating Odsal is not simply the emotional issue, it is the admission of revised ambition and acceptance of the fact that RL can no longer aspire to attract bigger crowds than soccer in Bradford. It confirms that Bradford is a soccer town even if its senior club, Bradford City AFC is prone to underperformance.
The size of Odsal has previously detracted from the reality that RL is a much diminished sport. When the Bradford Bulls leadership talks of a ’boutique rugby stadium’ what is meant is a ground with modest capacity in keeping with reality.
For the last fifty years there has been doubt and uncertainty surrounding the future of Odsal and with it, Bradford Northern / Bulls. The insolvency of Bradford Northern in 1964 had arisen in part from the financial burden of the ground’s upkeep and the club has never had the means to assume full financial responsibility for the development of Odsal Stadium.
Bradford Corporation and latterly Bradford Met Council have struggled to identify feasible options to optimise their asset and avoid a similar burden. As a consequence, Bradford Northern / Bulls have remained at the mercy of local planners and the political agenda about Odsal.
In the early 1970s there was the attempt to engineer the relocation of Northern to Park Avenue. Twenty years ago the Superdome was a supposed panacea. The local authority has desperately wanted to extricate itself from Odsal and its link with Bradford Northern / Bulls has become mutually inconvenient.
The timing and circumstances of the statement by the Bradford Bulls CEO, Andrew Chalmers that his club is looking to relocate in Dewsbury raises inevitable suspicions that there is posturing ahead of subsequent negotiations with the RFL, Bradford Council or indeed Bradford Park Avenue. Neither would it surprise me if there was a secret agenda concerning the development of Odsal for non-sporting use.
Yet whilst it is an emotive issue it is hard to disagree with the logic that it is not tenable for the Bulls to remain at Odsal Stadium indefinitely. It is a marriage whose convenience has long since evaporated and a decision that could or indeed should have been made long ago.
Nevertheless, the conundrum remains, where can the club play? In 1908 Bradford Northern opted for the least worst option and relocated to Birch Lane. It is hard to see how Bradford Bulls have the luxury of choice in 2019 but if the club is to remain in Bradford rather than become a West Yorkshire franchise surely it points to a new future at Horsfall? Or for that matter why not at Keighley (in what would be a delicious turn of events after the controversy between the Cougars and the Bulls twenty years ago)? And has the option of sharing at Valley Parade truly been ruled out?
Should the Bulls move to Dewsbury it seems probable that Bradford Park Avenue would launch a new club. Like Harry Briggs at Park Avenue in 1907, Bradford Park Avenue benefactor Gareth Roberts is mindful of how best to utilise the Horsfall Stadium but it would be ironic if the decision of the Bulls to vacate Bradford led to further fragmentation of sporting loyalty in the city with the formation of a side claiming the inheritance as a Bradford based senior RL club. It would probably condemn Bradford rugby to a junior status from which it might take decades to recover (if at all), just as Bradford Northern struggled to emulate Bradford FC after 1907 and did not do so until moving to Odsal in 1934.
Never before has a Bradford club deliberately exiled itself outside the district. Given a paucity of options for a new ground in Bradford there is little certainty that the Bulls would ever return and should a new club become established at Horsfall, there seems even less prospect of the Bulls coming back to Bradford.
We can expect further twists and turns but for reasons of sentimentality I’d encourage people to attend Odsal for one last time. I doubt very much that it will continue as a RL ground for much longer.
John Dewhirst is author of ROOM AT THE TOP and LIFE AT THE TOP (pub BANTAMSPAST, 2016) which tell the story of the origins and early history of professional football in Bradford. [Tweets: @jpdewhirst]