By Jason McKeown
On this month 20 years ago, Bradford City were hosting a Premier League West Yorkshire derby against Leeds United where Stan Collymore scored a wonder goal, all shown live on Sky Sports’ Super Sunday.
On this month 15 years ago, Valley Parade was host to Sky Sports cameras once more, as the Bantams took on local rivals Huddersfield Town in a Monday night encounter settled by the Terriers’ Andy Booth.
On this month six years ago, West took on South Yorkshire live on Sky Sports, as Phil Parkinson’s City were beaten by a Sheffield United side who took clinical advantage of Stephen Darby’s red card.
And now, in this month, the Sky TV cameras are back to BD8. Only this time, the derby is Bradford City vs Harrogate Town.
As statements of how far City have fallen and been left behind, it’s a pretty depressing moment. In the last fortnight, Sky Sports has covered Leeds United locking horns with Man City, Huddersfield Town entertaining Nottingham Forest, and Sheffield United travelling to Arsenal. There is no such glamour for the Bantams, who come up against a club they’re well versed at playing against in pre-season friendlies.
Harrogate Town, the small club who play at Wetherby Road. The scene of City’s first game after being recused from the brink of oblivion in 2004, when Colin Todd’s charges won 5-0. The setting, also, of Stuart McCall’s first pre season game in charge of the Bantams in 2007, when David Wetherall scored the only goal. The place where the Edin Rahic revolution looked doomed after City embarrassingly lost 7-2 in 2018.
Harrogate Town, a team City only ever face in July, when the nights are still warm, the trialists are still hoping to earn a deal and the real action is still a few weeks away.
Not a team to be playing on an October evening. In a league fixture. Live on Sky.
It’s not hard to see why, for many City fans, this Monday’s derby is more a source of embarrassment than excitement. How has it come to this, that City are playing at the same level as a club who 20 years ago were playing in the seventh tier of English football? And what does it say about the depth of the Bantams demise?
The answer, as is often the case in football, is that it’s complicated. There’s no getting away from the frustration that the days of locking horns with clubs like Leeds, Huddersfield and Sheffield United now belong in the distant past. That City are playing at a level well below their true capability.
There’s no denying, either, that there has been a decline at Valley Parade. But it isn’t a case of things being so bad, City have sunk to Harrogate Town’s level.
That would be to do a disservice to Harrogate Town’s remarkable rise.
There are two, really important factors that have led to Monday’s historic Yorkshire derby meeting between clubs separated by just 21.1 miles. The first is the wider landscape of non league and lower league football over the past two decades, that has led to an ever-speedier evolution.
It’s only in recent times that clubs have swapped between the worlds of non league and the EFL. For the first 100 years of the Football League’s existence, a re-election system was in place. It meant the worst few clubs in the bottom tier had to apply to be allowed to continue in the Football League the following season. With the remaining 92 clubs voting on their fate. If any were voted out, the winners of the National League would be voted in to replace them.
It was very rare that any club would be voted out. Between 1920 and 1958, when the Football League’s bottom tier was split North and South, just eight clubs lost their place. The regional split ended in 1958 with the introduction of a national fourth tier, where re-election became even more of a formality. Over this period, 32 different clubs out of the 92 faced at least one re-election vote. Just five were voted out – including, of course, Bradford Park Avenue in 1970 (even then, they’d finished bottom of the Football League three years in a row before patience finally ran out).
Bradford City faced re-election three times in their history, always winning the vote to retain their status. Hartlepool faced the vote an astonishing 11 times – succeeding every occasion. For non-league clubs, the door was almost permanently shut. Wigan, Wimbledon, Hereford, Cambridge and Peterborough did get elected into the Football League during this period. But they were the fortunate few.
What it meant was the Football League built up a collection of clubs who have a rich heritage and secure status. The furniture was rarely altered. And even the lowliest of lights had a level of prestige.
The closed shop began to change from 1987, when one promotion spot from the National League and one relegation place from the bottom tier was brought in. Within years, names like Scarborough and Wycombe joined the scene.
Yet even with this seemingly open door to Football League membership, success in the National League still wasn’t a guarantee of joining the 92. During the 90s the Football League set strict criteria over whether the National League winner’s ground was deemed up to scratch. And if they fell short, they would be denied promotion – with the club who finished bottom of the Football League spared relegation.
In the mid-90s, the champions of the fifth tier were denied promotion for three years in a row. It must have really hurt the fans of Kidderminster (1993/94) Macclesfield (1994/95) and Stevenage (1995/96) when they were denied, but at least they did eventually get promoted in subsequent years. Going back the 90s rules, Harrogate Town would surely not have been allowed to be promoted this year.
Only since Macclesfield’s 1996/97 promotion has the winner of the National League always been promoted to the Football League. And, in 2003, a second promotion and relegation spot was added. Since that point especially, the scenery of lower league football has really changed. Two clubs coming in and out of the Football League every year has, over time, really shaken up the previously static membership.
Indeed, looking at the 48 clubs in the third and fourth tier today, 13 were not part of the Football League in 1997 (27% of clubs). Another 12 clubs have experienced the drop to non-league and come back, plus Championship Luton Town. Nearly 40% of the 72 have first-hand experience of the switch between the EFL and non-league.
And that’s the current Football League membership. Since 1997, Macclesfield (twice), Kidderminster, Rusden & Diamonds, Boston, Yeovil, Dagenham & Redbridge, Aldershot and Halifax Town have made into the EFL but were not able to stay there. Their arrivals and departures adding to the turnover.
Meanwhile some very prominent lower league names – with their years and years of Football League history – have fallen through the non-league trapdoor where they continue to languish. Notts County, Barnet, Chesterfield, Hartlepool, Stockport County, Darlington, York City, Torquay United, Wrexham, Chester, Hereford and Bury.
When you go down, there are no guarantees you’ll bounce back. The National League has become too strong. Which is where the second key factor comes in. Given the relative financial riches that come from being in the Football League, the non league scene has over the last decade attracted a flood of investors. Buying clubs and investing with the aim of reaching the EFL. The National League, until relatively recently a semi-pro division, is almost completely filled with full time clubs now.
You can see the attraction in taking over a small non league club compared to an established Football League outfit. It’s cheaper to buy, with less of a legacy of debts and declining stadium infrastructure. Less of a fanbase, even, to oppose radical plans, like the Class of 92 changing the colours of Salford City. Anyone wanting to buy Bradford City will find its only real asset is its Football League share.
Many of those non league clubs who have made it to the Football League have arrived with financial resources that outstrip many of their new, failing rivals. Fleetwood Town are a good example, as were Crawley Town for a time. Salford City have arguably the biggest budget in League Two this season, offering striker Ian Henderson wages that Bradford City were unwilling to match.
Below the 72, still, are clubs like AFC Fylde, Boreham Wood and Solihill Moors, who have ambitions and financial resources to reach the Football League. At least they did before the pandemic realities. It’s little wonder, then, that – alongside these upstarts – the established names of Hartlepool, Chesterfield and Wrexham have struggled.
This evolution to the Football League membership is only going to continue. Back in 1997, when promotion to the 92 became a clearer route, it would have been unthinkable to believe the likes of Forest Green, Morecambe, Fleetwood, Crawley and Salford would become part of the EFL club.
Just as it seemed unthinkable, even just a few months ago, that Harrogate Town would ever make it.
10 years ago, Harrogate Town had just seven season ticket holders and were about to be relegated from the National League North. Back to the seventh tier. They were spared demotion by financial irregularities elsewhere, but had financial issues of their own. Irving Weaver, a property magnate, assumed control of the club. An awkward moment for the club’s manager of two years, Simon, who happened to be Irving’s son.
Yet the father-son act has worked wonders, with Irving rebuilding the club on and off the field. Improving the stadium significantly, from the days when City would be pre-season visitors and there was only ever one stand you could sit in.
On the pitch, Town were the sort of club where you’d see City cast offs from several years earlier. Gareth Grant, Chib Chilaka, Ryan Kendall, Joe Colbeck, Danny Forest, Adam Baker, Simon Ainge. But in 2017, they took that big leap to going full time. And a year later, they won the National League North play offs to earn promotion to the National League.
It was the first time they’d been in a national league, but with son Simon at the helm they didn’t stop there. That infamous 7-2 pre-season victory over City set them up for a season where they reached but lost the National League play offs. And in 2019/20, after the disruption of Covid-19, they went one better and were promoted to the Football League. The fact they beat Notts County – for so long the oldest member of the Football League – in the play off final at Wembley was a telling moment in the modern day evolution of the lower tiers. The old guard losing out to the new.
The potential is there to kick on further. With a population of 75,000, Harrogate is the UK’s 124th largest town or city. Bigger, in terms of head count, than places like Crewe and Walsall, who have maintained Football League clubs for decades. It is also one of the wealthiest parts of the country, with some of the UK’s highest property prices. Although Town’s 2019/20 average attendance of 1,301 is pitiful in Football League terms. They’re competing with Harrogate Railway for the locals’ football attention – not to mention the close proximity to Leeds United, Bradford City and York City.
Nevertheless, the potential for Town to establish themselves in a League Two severely weakened by Covid-19 is obvious. And as much as it still seems utterly strange that they will be lining up at Valley Parade this Monday on merit, recent history of football at this level suggests their presence in League Two is something that we will quickly become used to.
“Look at Burton and Accrington,” Simon Weaver told the Guardian at the start of September. “Clubs who’ve come up and done it the right way and established themselves in the league. Why can’t that be Harrogate?
Indeed. From time to time, when a new club is promoted to the EFL you can scarcely believe they have the stature to be part of such a historic institution. How strange it seemed, at first, when Morecambe were promoted to the Football League. Ditto Burton Albion, Fleetwood Town, Crawley and Salford City. It didn’t feel like they really belonged at this level. But after a few years of establishing themselves – very often winning a promotion if not two – they become an accepted, respected member of the EFL club.
No one is raising eyebrows that Bradford City will play Morecambe later this season. What was once a quirky fixture is now one that has a history.Image by John Dewhirst
Which brings us back to those acute feelings of embarrassment about Monday. It is an understandable, justifiable reaction. Imagine how hilarious it will seem to any Leeds or Town fan flicking through the Sky channels on Monday evening, and seeing the derby match is ‘exclusively live’. If the roles were reversed, we’d be laughing. But as tempting as it might be to attribute this fixture as an illustration of City’s slump, in truth it’s more an example of our stagnation.
As we wrote two weeks ago, “In the 68 years since English football was restructured to four divisions, City have been in the bottom two leagues for 49 of them. And 27 of those 49 have been spent in the fourth tier.” It is a source of real frustration that City are stuck in League Two right now, but – sadly – it is not out of sync with our history.
There is nothing remarkable about the fact City are playing fourth division football this season. This is a familiar ditch we’re scrambling around in. What’s different is the supporting cast around us. We’re no longer playing Stockport, Wrexham and Chesterfield in the fourth tier, we’re playing Harrogate, Salford and Forest Green. But it’s still us, it’s still – sadly – who we are. A club stuck on a cycle of success and failure, that habitually bottoms out with a few years struggle in the fourth tier.
Playing Harrogate Town is an uncomfortable warning against the dangers of slumbering. Of getting too used to mediocrity. Because a lot of clubs with no history, no prestige and no real support have in recent years overtaken us. And watching someone right on our doorsteps attempt to do the same should act as a jab in the chest to get our act together.
It has taken me back to watching Bradford City away at Wrexham, Stockport County, Kidderminster Harriers, Chesterfield and many others.
It is sad, if that’s the correct word to use, that we are playing the likes of Salford City, Forest Green Rovers and Harrogate Town. However, in a quirky way, I’m happier watching us play in the lower levels than dining at the top table.
What we have experienced over the past 30 seasons is a rollercoaster ride, switching divisions on numerous occasions. Can you imagine being an Arsenal supporter for the past 100 seasons? They’ve never experienced promotion or relegation.
And so back to Harrogate Town. I remember that game at their ground back in the summer of 2004. I was simply pleased to see Bradford City playing. Yes, it’s not ideal being in the fourth tier. However, supporters of Chesterfield, Notts County and Stockport County would swap league positions with us right now.
Even worse, what about the supporters of Bury and Macclesfield? What they have experienced with the demise of their clubs is awful and I don’t ever want that to happen to Bradford City.
I agree with everything you say. Jason. I live in Harrogate and have to suffer the jibes of the come-lately Town supporters. I feel ashamed of City. Harrogate Town are a perfect example of a wealthy man using his money wisely, running his club professionally and honestly, and their success, probably like that of Forest Green , shows what can be done.
In another football code, Warrington and Castleford show the same.
I saw the future when I watched Town play the fallen Chesterfield about 2 years ago. I felt sorry for the great Chesterfield support.
Now I feel sorry for myself and all the other loyal City fans. I have supported City for over 70 years, and we are reduced to playing Harrogate Town. This is the legacy of unremitting bad management and bad ownership dating back to the 1940s and beyond. Rhodes and Lawn gave us hope, only to be dashed by their choice of buyer. If only we could find somebody to buy and manage us out of this .
All persons involved in the management of City should be ashamed of their performance. I exclude Parkinson and McCall from this, and McCall is, in my opinion, our only hope.
I have no idea how or if we shall rise from this. Due to Covid I shall almost certainly not visit Valley Parade this season, maybe never again. That hurts even though it’s not City’s fault.
But I shall watch on Monday night , feeling shame, anger and particularly despair.
I am sorry I feel this way. I wish I didn’t, but it’s true.
Crawley, Fleetwood, FGR, Salford, HTFC are heavily reliant on owner funding. It will be interesting to see how they fair long term with salary restrictions and limits on outside funding in ratio to overall turnover. Dale Vince confirmed recently that gate receipts were only 20 per cent of their income which illustrates how much he must be putting in at FGR.
The effective creation of football clubs from scratch grafted on a non league minnow is a relatively modern phenomena and we will see in due course how sustainable they are. None of the teams listed above could hope to compete even in tier five pre -investment without significant subsidy. Rushden and Gretna are good examples of how vanity projects have only a limited shelf life and how difficult it is to establish a Club without a fan base and any roots in the community and in towns without any feeling for the game. I am pretty sure Harrogate will be replete with fans of the white persuasion and hence the shocking turnouts.
The likelihood is that they may have a few years in the sun but establishing themselves will take more than a property developers deep pockets. In the meantime if we have to play them whilst we are at our nadir so be it. Its a shame we could not be their to show them what it is to support a proper football club
Harrogate is a real Leeds United stronghold. Without weaver they would be nowhere. Their fans are come latelys. I have watched them off and on for years and they have about 500 real supporters if that.
About the same as Avenue then John. That pretty much sums it up!
Paul your reference to City being a “proper club” is such a naive remark. A proper club doesn’t do desperate acts like signing an inexperienced striker and hope for a miracle. Then there is the farcical situation regarding Doyle and Vaughan who they mismanaged.
Woody you have a very shallow and jaundiced view of the club you purport to support. I guess it is a reflection of the fact that have rarely actually been directly involved in the clubs journey. If you had stood shoulder to shoulder with your mates and thousands of others at Chelsea or Villa or Blackpool in 95 or watched Bobby C get us promoted in 82 or a myriad of other games you would have a different attitude. Maybe if you had been there in May 85 or when we returned to VP you might have responded differently . I am proud of my club despite its lack of success . You obviously cannot say the same
Paul I tend to agree with your response. My proximity to the Club is about 3,000 miles away which means my opinions do not have the emotional influence of being a local. I definitely lack the aspirational thinking that you have. Therefore, my expectations tend to be more realistic and based on facts rather than wishful thinking.
In sixty odd years of following City the triumphs have been minimal and mediocrity the norm. Being a City fan requires patience and a lot of tolerance for management that never learns from their mistakes. In fact, the fans have more patience than management who are always looking for the quick fix with no road map. Ask yourself, how have Harrogate come so far in the past ten years while City spin their wheels and are going nowhere?? Harrogate appear to know where they are going and are focused while City are lost in the wilderness and are clueless to where they are going.
As a Bradfordian and supporter and latterly follower of City since 1947 I am particularly looking forward to Mondays match after living in Harrogate for 50 years.Whatever the result I will regard it as win win even if it’s a draw !!
Now living on the dark side of the Pennines
I enjoyed reading your article but I don’t think we should feel “entitled” to be playing anyone other than Harrogate on Monday. On numerous occasions you have shown that City have scratched around at the lower end of the Football League for much of the last century and more. The beauty of football in this country is that small clubs can progress through being the best on the pitch. The advent of the Premier League was always going to lead to the outrageous proposals made by the bod from Manchester City, this week.
Our problem as a club is that we seem to have chosen to adopt the mantle of “Pity Poor Bradford”. If we had pursued a sensible, realistic policy on season ticket prices, for example, it is quite likely that even with lower crowds, the club would have generated enough capital to buy back the ground. This in turn could then have been utilised as an asset. Instead, we have turned a (necessary) marketing tool into a statement of principle. We could afford to sign up better players and make the improvements in our off-field operations that so many supporters claim they want to see.
Forest Green are a club with a sense of purpose. When I was a kid over 60 years ago, my village team used to play them in the Stroud and District League. We were the big shots! They have rational pricing with season tickets at over £400 this season. Harrogate Town are charging £314 for new season ticket holders.
But it’s not just the money, it’s the sense of purpose displayed by all these “small” clubs that really counts.
We have had numerous opportunities to re-set the direction for City and each time the moment has been let slip. I truly hope that we are able to plan how to get beyond this current Covid-19 moment.
In terms of season ticket pricing you are comparing apples with pears. FGR do not rely on gate/season ticket money as a major revenue source. Dale Vince clearly has a “sense of purpose” at FGR but the drive of one man provides a very shaky foundation upon which to create a durable football club. Lets see whether a town a little larger than Wildsen can support a football club once DV has lost interest or control of Ecotricity whose profitability underpins the club. There is a discussion to be had about increasing ST pricing but unless you only want 6000 in VP £400 is pie in the sky.
I think we need to look a bit deeper into all this, we have not had the rub of the green and we were on the cusp of nearly playing in the Championship, and from this we are now playing Harrogate Town on Monday who we used to play in pre season friendlies, yes I would prefer to be playing Sheffield Wednesday as a local derby, but we are where we are and building again and from all the turmoil, it could be even worse now and let me explain, if Billy Clarke had put that one away against Millwall and the game changes and we get promotion.
Then that idiot 20% part owner who I don’t even want to speak his name would have then thought he was God and things would have got worse, imagine a bigger financial backing with that clown pulling all the punches and picking all the players, and believe me Stuart would have still got the sack Full Stop and he would have brought in a yes man manager for big bucks to then let him buy all the journey men rewarding them with long contracts cos they scored a wonder goal or blocked one the previous season to spiral out of control to then fall with a massive financial impact would have been devastating.
We are now in L2 from the above happening in L1, fortunately for us we still have a football club in the black from the Ollie McBurnie money to take the hit on that and we could not stop the free fall with the style of play we were under and were struggling to push straight back up with the current squad last season and let’s face it Covid stopped us from failing again.
Small Mercy’s, Glass Half Full.
So I think we need to look forward to Harrogate Town game and embrace the occasion in history, first time ever in L2 in front of the Sky Sports cameras, back playing entertaining football with Stuart McCall, who has had a clean slate to recruit again and yes even the man above Billy Clarke as well in the fold, who for me has had a great start to the season, thank god you missed that sitter against Millwall, we go again towards the future with attacking football, desire and commitment.
COME ON CITY……………
Good article Jason, but the last paragraph is what many of us have been saying all year and getting shot down for it, told we’re being Orwellian and have no understanding of “financial realities”. Just saying like.