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.