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).
Very interesting indeed. Thanks for writing it. Frankly I have no idea what will happen. Maybe because of our fanbase we will survive better than others.
It is a desperate situation
The only thing we can accurately predict is that the future football landscape is going to be radically different to what we have known. I genuinely believe that we are in a better position than most.
This is a frightening and uncertain outlook but it is also the opportunity for a fresh start. We either rollover and write the obituary or look to rebuild a new future.
For what it’s worth, my predictions:
1. Mass insolvency of professional clubs, including a number of high profile collapses.
2. Restructure of existing leagues / divisions arising from (a) loss of clubs; and (b) probability of Premier Lge giants seceding to join a European League.
3. Future collapse in football revenues generated from crowds and commercial income.
4. Massive drop in football wages outside premier clubs, potentially leading to PT and amateur players – nb implications for drop in standards of football.
5. Football clubs no longer considered targets for financial investment. Probably a return to traditional practice of local businessmen providing stewardship and guarantee of club affairs but an end to foreign investors looking to buy into English football.
6. New operating models necessary to ensure financial viability but potentially a modus operandi that is less prone to financial instability if only because there will be less debt in football and less money at stake.
7. Artificial pitches to better utilise stadia through ground sharing and multi-use. (ie Bulls at VP?)
8. New league structure we need to provide greater financial safeguards for clubs with regards membership and there is a good chance we will see something like in the US where the strength of a league is measured in terms of avoiding the weakness of those at the bottom. Maybe even a franchise style competition.
1. Relative stability derived from SR underwriting losses will allow the club to investigate different options as well as the opportunity to be pro-active in the short to medium term. It also gives BCAFC the opportunity for thought leadership to help to shape a new competitive structure – many other clubs will be in crisis mode and unable to do so.
2. Stability as above will provide credentials to ‘join’ any new league structure that will probably be akin to a franchise competition as in the USA.
3. Support base offers a critical mass.
4. Large stadium allows for social distancing given likelihood of low crowds.
5. Existing skeletal infrastructure – we are used to operating on a shoestring.
6. Size (and need) of urban population would provide potential for community initiatives involving links with amateur clubs to develop own players.
*** Rental liability – albeit strong leverage to renegotiate with landlord.
*** The Bradford factor.
I agree, absolutely. It’s going to be one hell of a white knuckle ride.
John, thank you for a very interesting article and predictions which I generally agree with. I would like to add some of my own predictions:
1. Transfer window to be abandoned or significantly changed for leagues below Championship.
2. L1 and L2 to likely be consolidated into one league.
3. Payroll cap and eliminating the loopholes in FFP.
4. Smaller squads with the emphasis on young player development.
5. No league play before next year at the earliest.
Finally, with regards to City, I remain skeptical about Rupp’s ongoing interest in the Club but his net worth and City being a profitable club this season certainly assures a degree of comfort. I would also question Rhodes signing of eleven players to multi year contracts. Four players, Longridge, French, Staunton and Hornsby I’ve never seen play for City. These multi year contracts appear to contradict the conservative spending promised by Rhodes. Going forward I would expect a lower number of players being signed to multi year deals.
I would like to add one more prediction regarding the government’s updated pandemic restriction announcement expected on Sunday. I expect no return to practices for professional sports teams before June. This will be a blessing to the EFL and Rick Parry in particular since he will no longer be required to make the false claim that at least L1 and L2 teams are looking at resuming league play in June. This likely also reduces the legal claims that potentially could be made against the EFL for abandoning the season. The EFL will claim they had no choice because of the government’s actions.
If my prediction is right, it will be interesting to see what the Premier League decide on resumption of league play. Regardless, UEFA expect a final decision by May 25th.
Thanks John for a timely and very interesting article, you learn something every day.
For what it’s worth, I think the two lower leagues should become regional, no more overnight trips necessary so a massive saving there.
I bet Stefan Rupp wished he had never heard of Bradford City..