For 100 years, Bradford City battled boardroom conservatism, economic decline and rival clubs of two codes – and won. Mike Harrison wonders when Leeds will notice
For a city with a metropolitan population of nearly half a million (more than Manchester and nearly twice the size of Newcastle), Bradford has rarely come close to fulfilling its potential as a football centre. In some ways the figure is misleading, including as it does the rural suburbs of Ilkley, Addingham, Menston and Burley. In addition, Bradford has had a growing Asian population since the 1960s, working in what remained of the wool industry. Very few have become regulars at Valley Parade, even though the ground lies in the heart of their community. While that does not reflect well on the club’s efforts to draw them in, it does help to explain why City, even in the Premier League, struggle with a relatively modest fan base.
However, the more fundamental cause of Bradford’s failure to establish itself as a football powerhouse lies in the city’s more distant history. Perhaps surprisingly for many, given the recent prominence of our nearest neighbours Leeds United, Bradford City was the first football club to be formed in the old West Riding of Yorkshire, traditionally a stronghold of rugby league. City grew out of Manningham RFC, who were reasonably successful with the oval ball, but who elected to switch codes after suffering financial difficulties at the turn of the century. Once elected to the Football League in 1903 (without having kicked a round ball in anger) only five seasons elapsed before the Second Division championship was attained and crowds rose steadily.
In 1911, City won the FA Cup and finished fifth in the First Division (still the highest position in their history), but by the time football resumed after the First World War the club was in no position to consolidate. Many of that successful Cup winning side did not return from the war. Bradford, once the wool capital of the world, had already started to decline economically and, most significant of all, there was competition from not one but two other professional clubs in the city.
Soon after seeing the success of their city rivals, the Bradford rugby club, based at Park Avenue, also saw association football as a more profitable venture and proposed amalgamation. The Valley Parade club rejected this offer (the first of many) and thus their rivals went on to form their own association club, Bradford Park Avenue, making Bradford one of the smallest cities in the country to have two Football League clubs. The football public was split roughly evenly between City and Avenue, while Bradford Northern rugby league club further diluted the potential audience.
By the time the two Bradford clubs met in the First Division for their first derby match in 1914-15, the other three West Riding clubs of Halifax, Huddersfield and Leeds City (later relaunched as Leeds United) had also been formed. But after the war City spent more time in the same division with Bradford PA than any of their other neighbours and the enduring rivalry remained purely a parochial obsession with the Bradford public. It did neither club any good once the glory years before and just after the First World War were over. Good old Yorkshire pig-headed stubbornness from both sets of directors kept both clubs apart and lurching from one financial disaster to another.
By the early Sixties, more of the Bradford public seemed to be making the short journey to Elland Road or even Turf Moor to watch First Division football rather than support the two Bradford clubs, then languishing in the Fourth. And who could blame them? City had to apply for re-election twice in four seasons and Avenue finished in the bottom four in four consecutive years before finally being replaced by Cambridge United in 1970.
Just 8,178 saw the derby match at Valley Parade in the last season the two clubs spent in the same division, 1968-69. All three professional clubs in the city nearly became extinct during that decade, also a time when many of the beautiful Victorian buildings in the city centre were demolished to make way for the monstrosities that remain today. It was grim up north.
However, the demise of Park Avenue could at least be seen as the first step in the broadening of City’s horizons and, ultimately, their emergence as the second strongest club in the region. In the mid-Seventies Huddersfield’s rapid fall from First to Fourth Division started a rivalry previously unknown to all except the very oldest supporters who could cast their minds ⌦back to the First Division days of the early 1920s. The two clubs’ fortunes have been fairly similar since then, with hostilities exacerbated by recent rows over ticket prices (resulting in Town directors being branded as “clowns” and banned from the Valley Parade boardroom) and the court case following the breaking of Gordon Watson’s leg by Kevin Gray in the 1997 derby match.
While City fans may see Leeds as the last obstacle to world (or at least West Riding) domination, the feeling is far from reciprocal. Even now, when we are in the same division, Leeds supporters tend to totally ignore us. You can see why, because since the mid-Eighties, when games between the two sides recommenced after a gap of more than 50 years, Leeds have suffered only one defeat in 12 games, and even the relative glory of that solitary victory in 1986 was spoilt by their fans in the infamous Odsal exploding chip van debacle.
Much has changed in football and in Bradford in the 15 years since that match – not least as a direct result of the Valley Parade fire. From City’s point of view, having been hamstrung through their history by the kind of short-sighted management that initially prevented the merger with Park Avenue, the most signficant difference is that the reign of well meaning but incompetent local businessmen is well and truly over.
When Geoffrey Richmond took control, fortunes both on and off the field changed beyond all belief. Bradford may still be thought of as the new Wimbledon of the Premiership, a gritty inconvenience to bigger clubs rather than a true rival, but after a history of struggling for credibility in west Yorkshire, City’s fans are more than happy to have transferred that status to the national stage.
From WSC 165 November 2000. What was happening this month