By John Dewhirst (@jpdewhirst on Twitter)
The last time that the Football League was suspended was in 1939, and the competition did not resume again until 1946. As many as seven seasons were lost – nearly twice as many as the impact of World War One when the competition was shut down for four seasons.
When war was declared in September, 1939, the Home Office initially placed a ban on professional football taking place. This was revised a fortnight later to allow friendlies to be staged between local sides, albeit only in centres were there were no evacuation arrangements in place.
It was only in late October, 1939 that a new competitive structure was established and thereafter there was a series of different geographically based leagues that existed to the end of the 1945/46 season. To that extent, even though the Football League stopped, football continued and crucially, clubs could generate income even though much diminished.
The Football Association issued a ruling in September, 1939 that player wages had to be significantly curtailed, with match fees limited to £1.50 for no more than 12 players. It didn’t stop clubs employing players on a part-time basis but the maximum cap was strictly enforced.
For Bradford City, then of Division Three (North), it amounted to potential savings of 75% of payroll costs. For Bradford Park Avenue, then of Division Two, the potential savings were as much as 85%. It was the reduction in player wages and economies in overheads that allowed the two Bradford clubs to manage their finances; despite losses during the first half of the war, in the later years both became more profitable than had been the case since before World War One.
The two clubs differed in so much as Bradford City owned the freehold to Valley Parade whilst Bradford Park Avenue was a tenant at Park Avenue. For Bradford, the rental charge of £600 per annum was a sensitive issue and relations with the club’s landlords – the trustees of the Harry Briggs estate – were extremely fraught.
The Bradford Park Avenue directors had hopes of buying the ground (an objective later fulfilled in 1947) and wasted no time after war was declared to see if the Football Association would grant a loan to allow a purchase to be achieved and rental savings secured. When this was turned down the club successfully negotiated with the trustees for a reduction in rent and thereafter the club paid £300 per annum.
Both clubs reduced their activity during the war although whereas at City this tended to be confined to matchday, Bradford still invested considerable effort to player development. City retained a small hardcore of players who were engaged on a part-time basis and increasingly relied upon guest players on a match by match basis.
On their part, Avenue retained a larger number of players albeit also on part-time terms. In fact, Bradford benefited from having a fairly settled side. However, the Avenue team was also built around a number of talented youngsters recruited by manager David Steele and their development benefited enormously from first team experience.
For Bradford Park Avenue, the discovery of players such as Len Shackleton, Johnnie Downie, Jimmy Stephen and Billy Elliott yielded significant reward when football resumed. (The club opted to sell them whereas retention could have supported a promotion challenge, but that is another story.) At Valley Parade, Joe Harvey similarly benefited from wartime football experience and his sale to Newcastle United in 1945 effectively bailed out Bradford City.
Of course none of us expect the Covid emergency to last indefinitely, or the seven years of the wartime hiatus, but we are already coming to terms with the possibility of league football being abandoned until the new year. A second wave of the pandemic could create lengthier disruption. The financial implications of shutdown are likely to be far greater than was the case between 1939-46 given that no revenue can be generated at Valley Parade.
Whether the EFL / PFA consent to cuts in player wages will have a major bearing on the losses which will be incurred by Bradford City. As in wartime, those losses will have to be funded by a benefactor and in that regard we are reliant on Stefan Rupp.
Just as in 1939, the club is looking to make cost savings and there is a remarkable similarity with the circumstances at Park Avenue, where negotiations with the landlord were crucial in conserving cash.
However, if there is a lesson to be learned from what happened in wartime it is the policy adopted by David Steele at Park Avenue. His focus and investment in young player development was unprecedented as far as Bradford football history is concerned. Whereas most clubs, including Bradford City, effectively went into hibernation during war, Steele’s approach was quite unique. He saw the wartime emergency as an opportunity to rebuild his club and it is that vision that ensured Bradford Park Avenue emerged much stronger from war. (He had left to manage Huddersfield Town in 1943 but again, that is another story.)
There is no doubt that the Covid shutdown will be costly for Bradford City and Stefan Rupp in particular but – looking for positives – it could potentially provide an opportunity to rebuild the club for the better. For sure, Stuart McCall cannot be expected to unearth new talent in the space of nine months but now is the time to draw a line in the sand.
For David Steele at Bradford Park Avenue, the historical record is that he recognised 1939 as the Year Zero whereas at most other clubs – Bradford City included – Year Zero was 1946.
The news about Stefan Rupp’s financial commitment to BCAFC is good for two fundamental reasons. The first is obvious but the second is that the club will have stability to plan for the future when many of our competitors will be in midst of crisis. At Valley Parade, now is the time for Year Zero and a new vision. The test is as much one of finance as imagination and resourcefulness.
John is currently working on a history of the City / Avenue rivalry. In the meantime his next book, an illustrated all-colour history of the two clubs, will be published in September (the seventh volume in the Bantamspast History Revisited series).