By Jason McKeown
Timing is everything in football – and as Bradford City’s long and often difficult history shows, it can define the long-term status of a football club.
This season, Bradford City will wear a predominately white kit – 98 years ago since they first sported such colours as a home shirt. Back then, all-white debuted with City languishing in the English Second Division after they had been relegated from the top flight in 1922 alongside Manchester United. The all-white City of 1923/24 – there was a claret and amber V pattern in the middle of the shirt – finished 18th. They were relegated again three years later, to the third tier. And though they recovered to return to the Second Division before the decade was over, they ended the 1920s a long way short of where they had begun it.
The 1920s was also a decade where local rivals – Burnley, and most noticeable of all Huddersfield – soared. A trend in the 1910s of fans from all over Yorkshire travelling by train to watch Bradford City was reversed forever, as the club’s decline turned off a generation of floating football spectators – who looked elsewhere for greater glory. At the start of the 1920s Bradford City attracted average crowds of over 20,000 – towards the end of the decade they were down to 12,000.
The club’s demise from its 1910s glory days can be traced back to that crucial factor: timing. With the gambling of committing large sums of money on new attacking players at the start of the 1914/15 season. It was an outlay that soon hurt the club because the First World War began soon after, with optimistic predictions the war would be “over by Christmas” proving misplaced. For City and others, the War meant attendances collapsed and league football would ultimately be suspended for four years.
City emerged from the War in a much worse financial position, and a further unsuccessful gamble on team strengthening in the early 1920s was compounded by relegation from the top flight – a level they would not return to until 1999, 77 years later.
Adding to the frustration for those in charge at Valley Parade back then must have been the fact the club couldn’t capitalise on a boon period. The 1920s were a decade of great social change and widespread happiness. During the back end of the 1910s, there had been the First World War followed quickly by the influenza pandemic, where some 500 million people were infected. Then, as now, social distancing measures were implemented, some public gatherings banned, and schools closed. It took three years for the pandemic to be declared over.
Years of real struggle and hardship – from both the war and the pandemic – set Britain up for the 1920s and a period that became known as the ‘Roaring 20s’. Where the public’s response to the end of a very difficult few years was heavy consumer spending and widespread indulgence in leisure activities.
The popularity of nightclubs and cocktail bars soared – the cinema also really took off, as Hollywood’s dominance began. And, in sport, attendances at football grounds around the country grew. The greater popularity of football led to an increasing number of teams wanting to compete in the Football League – which, over the decade, saw the introduction of Division Three North and South, plus the arrival of Welsh teams. The game continued to expand globally and 1930 saw the first ever World Cup.
As Hebert Chapman produced inspirational miracles at Huddersfield Town down the road over the 1920s, City faded into the shadows. Slumping to then-new depths that only die-hard supporters were prepared to tolerate.
The so-called Roaring 20s proved largely a damp squib at Valley Parade. Although it didn’t help that Bradford as a city missed out on the positive effects of this period of economic prosperity – bucking the national trend. At the turn of the century, Bradford had a centre-of-the-world feel as a trading heart of the hugely profitable worsted wool industry. It was in decline even before the war, but at the start of the 1920s was still worth £140 million nationally. By 1931, this had shrunk to £31 million.
Mills closed across Bradford. Textile workers who didn’t lose their jobs would ultimately have to settle for reduced salaries after strike action failed. By the end of the 1920s, average wages in Bradford were 5% below the national average.
The Roaring 20s bypassed Bradford – and Bradford City.
Fast forward a century, and the start of the 2021/22 season is a hugely exciting time for football fans up and down the country. We’ve endured some 18 months of not being able to go and watch our club live – almost universally resigned to viewing games on TV or online, as our teams competed against each other inside empty stadiums. Cheering goals to the sound of silence.
That football continued behind closed doors was valued, of course. It offered us some form of escapism from the struggles of lockdown life – something to watch, and a sense of routine against the dreary greyness of weekend after weekend trying to find somewhere new to go for a daily walk.
But it wasn’t the same.
Returning to watch games live – with all the things we love about matchdays – feels incredibly exciting. Something we had once taken for granted; but have been denied the opportunity to do for so long. We can only begin to imagine what it will feel like to experience those first time since Covid moments. The first time since Covid – setting foot back inside Valley Parade. The first corner in front of the Kop. The first goal. The first three points.
It will be special. And it will probably bear huge similarities to how people felt as they revelled in the Roaring 20s a century ago. Since March 2020, we’ve all had to make huge sacrifices in our lives and many of us have experienced some really difficult moments. In that context, football really is only a game – but it means so much to us because of the joy it gives us. And after some very, very dark times we deserve the reward of feeling happy again.
Football in general could benefit from this backdrop. During the first half of the Covid pandemic, there was so much talk and speculation over the uncertain future that football clubs were facing. Clearly, many clubs have had to deal with some significant blows, but the collapse of the Football League that some gloomily forecasted hasn’t come to pass. Clubs are still standing, ready to open up the turnstiles again.
And they welcome back a football public who is ready to embrace them once more. Some experts are predicting a similar human behavioural reaction to the end of Covid as the Roaring 20s. Where after being restricted for so long, people will revel in the opportunity to go out, socialise and spend. It could fuel another economic surge. One that football clubs like City benefit from.
Part of it is related to the uneven financial impact of Covid. It’s true that many people have sadly struggled to get by on furlough pay or losing their job. Others – able to work from home and remain on full pay – have unexpectedly saved up a lot money because they couldn’t go out and spend it. Figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility estimate that, by this summer, households will have collectively saved £180 billion since lockdown began in March 2020.
That’s a lot of money, much of it likely to be spent on holidays, luxury items and other treats over the coming months.
Or spent supporting your football club.
At Bradford City, we’ve seen some positive developments over the summer in terms of interest – season ticket prices might have gone up, but uptake is higher than a year ago. The 2021 white home kit has been warmly greeted, with initial sales more than 80% higher than the 2020 kit launch.
These are positive indications of the club making good decisions that fans are buying into, and those at the helm – especially Ryan Sparks – deserve huge credit for that. A lot of people wrote Sparks off when he took the helm last November, and they’ve been proven wrong.
What’s also helping the club are wider matters like lockdown savings and the opportunity for us to embrace the return of normal life. Following Bradford City offers good reason to splash some of those savings. After all, if you’ve got a decent amount of money saved up and are missing live sport, why wouldn’t you buy a season ticket and a new shirt?
All of which puts City in a really interesting position going into this season. Just like the Roaring 1920s, this is a good time to become successful. Any football club who can capitalise on the feelgood factor of people enjoying their restored freedoms, by getting it right on the pitch, could find they really take off over the next few years. With the positive aspects of the Euro 2020 legacy also playing a part – this is a time where Bradford City could soar in popularity.
So, this white kit needs to be a successful shirt in the same way that it was 40 years ago, when fourth division promotion was achieved. Or the white kit of 1985, when City won the third division Championship. Be successful on the pitch this season, and the rewards could be far bigger than just promotion.
If the club can get things right now – when sentiment and engagement has the potential to be at its strongest level in years – it could prove a really special period in Bradford City’s history. Their own version of the Roaring 20s, after missing out on the party a century ago.
Categories: Season Preview