The late development of soccer in Bradford


In relation to clubs in other parts of the country – West Yorkshire aside – Bradford City, formed as recently as 1903 is a decidedly modern club lacking the nineteenth century pedigree of those as diverse as Blackburn Rovers, Notts County, Reading, Southampton, Sheffield United or Walsall.

Overlooking for one moment that the club’s origins can be traced to Manningham FC – a rugby organisation established in 1880 – when it came to soccer, Bradford was left behind in terms of what was happening elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is a myth that Bradford was less sports-loving than anywhere else; in fact the record suggests quite the opposite. So why was it that soccer was so late in becoming established in Bradford?

One factor was the urban geography of the district combined with the rapid expansion of Bradford in the nineteenth century. Flat ground was at a premium and such was the extent of urban development that cricket and football tended to be staged on remainder ground. In West Yorkshire however, football was the colloquial term for rugby such was the popularity of the sport. It meant that soccer was crowded out with nowhere to play and it was only when rugby declined in popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century that there was momentum behind the spread of soccer in Bradford and rugby was displaced from the playing fields of the district.

Another dimension to the story is that rugby enthusiasts sought to choke the competitor code before it gained a foothold and this was a consistent, recurring theme in the two decades before Bradford City AFC was conceived. At the beginning of the 1880s there was a very real chance that soccer could have made inroads and Bradford might then have become known as a hotspot of the round – as opposed to the oval – ball game. This article examines the circumstances surrounding the exhibition game involving two Blackburn teams that was staged at Park Avenue in September, 1882. It was the first soccer spectator event to be staged in Bradford and it proved enormously significant to the direction in which sport developed in the town that the game seemingly made little impact on public opinion.

A lingering fascination with soccer

The Park Avenue enclosure had opened in 1880 as a joint cricket and football ground capable of hosting athletic events. The ground was essentially designed with cricket in mind and the football section occupied the bottom one third of the site. Bradford FC who had latterly played at Apperley Bridge merged with the revived Bradford Cricket Club to form the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club in 1880. The expectation was that it would mark a new era for Bradford football and there was expectation that the town club would win the Yorkshire Challenge Cup. However the first two seasons at Park Avenue proved a disappointment. Early elimination in the Yorkshire Cup and the lack of anticipated success was a cause of considerable frustration and dissatisfaction within the club.

Yet if Association football had been suggested as an alternative option, the report of the Leeds Mercury on 27 September, 1881 was a reminder that West Yorkshire was a rugby stronghold with no immediate likelihood of a change in the state of affairs:

The football season of 1881-82 opens with every prospect of surpassing all its predecessors in point of excellence. The increased popularity of the game as an athletic exercise is abundantly evidenced by the large number of new clubs which have recently sprung into existence with almost mushroom-like celerity, and judging from the support accorded to it, the future of the Rugby Union game in Yorkshire seems peculiarly hopeful. The prodigious strides that football has made during the last few years are truly remarkable. But a short time ago the only exponents of the game to be met with in this county of broad acres were some half-dozen organisations having their respective headquarters in the principal towns such as Leeds, Hull, York, Huddersfield and Bradford, from which our oldest clubs took their rise. Today there is scarcely a single village in the West Riding that has not a representative club, and in the towns they flourish by the score. It is only the rugby game, however that this can be said, for north of Sheffield Association football is but little played, and, considering the merits of the dribbling game, this is somewhat remarkable; but once having fallen behind in the run of popularity, it would appear that a general stimulus in its flavour can hardly set in without the simultaneous formation of several new clubs, for the impediment and difficulty would-be organisers of Association clubs in this district now have to contend against is that there are so very few Yorkshire clubs, at convenient distances, with which they could arrange matches.’

The comments about the difficulty faced by soccer (ie association football) to become established in the area are pertinent. Within the region ‘north of Sheffield’ association football lacked critical mass and for a club in Bradford to be a viable option it needed local rivals to emerge. Once rugby became established – and available grounds were taken up – it made it less likely that association football could be introduced. It would be another twenty years before a change of circumstances made it feasible.

Notwithstanding there appears to have been a lingering fascination with association football in West Yorkshire, the existence of which may have prompted the editorial in the Leeds Mercury editorial about the prospects for soccer. In February, 1881 Harry Garnett and several other prominent rugby players were reported to have been members of the Leeds FC (rugby) team that played soccer against a Durham side. This may have been on a purely recreational basis although I suspect that it reflected a disenchantment among old rugby players about the evolution of their game. Much in the same way rugby players became involved with lacrosse as if to explore a different option. At that stage association football may similarly have had appeal as an alternative, athletic sport that had not been commercialised to the same degree as rugby in West Yorkshire.

In March, 1882 the FA Cup semi-final between Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn Rovers was staged at Fartown, Huddersfield (a ground which had been opened in 1878). The venue was probably selected on account of geography, being equidistant between Sheffield and Blackburn, but it also offered the opportunity for an exhibition game of association football within the rugby heartlands.

Subsequent reports from the Huddersfield Chronicle suggested latent support for association football as follows: The football match at Fartown yesterday between Blackburn Rovers and Sheffield Wednesday, under Association Rules, was a grand exhibition of the noble winter’s game. Neither side won, and both teams were well appreciated. On all hands remarks were to be heard in praise of the Association game in preference to the Rugby game, the former being prettier, manlier, more scientific, and easier for bystanders to follow, besides being unattended with so much danger to life and limb. Huddersfield does not often see an Association game, but what was witnessed yesterday cannot fail to give impetus to the proposed reform of the Rugby rules. Football should be foot-ball and not hand-ball, which is too much the case with the votaries of Rugby.’ (7 March, 1882)

And from 11 March, 1882: ‘…great interest was manifested in the encounter, and not only was there a large attendance of people from Huddersfield, Halifax, and Bradford, but the Blackburn and Sheffield patrons of football also attended in large contingents, and when the time for the kick-off arrived, some 5,000 or 6,000 persons had assembled.’ However, it also recorded: ‘The play throughout was very exciting, but those present not thoroughly conversant with the Association rules appeared to regard the game unequal in point of interest to the Rugby Union code.’

There are two points that can be taken from the evidence of the Fartown game. The first is that for Bradford people to have attended they clearly had an interest in association football. The second is that traditional ‘rugbyites’ were keen to dismiss the rival game. The attendance was respectable given that the semi-final was played on a Monday and the replay of the game, staged at Whalley Range (home of Manchester (rugby) FC) attracted only eight thousand spectators. Hence it could hardly be said that West Yorkshire people were disinterested by the spectacle.

An exhibition game at Park Avenue

The committee of Bradford FC organised an exhibition game of association football at Park Avenue between representatives of Blackburn Rovers and Blackburn District on 16 September, 1882 as a curtain raiser to the new season (with the first rugby fixture taking place a fortnight later). It is hard to believe that this was not connected in some way to the game at Fartown and according to the Sheffield & Rotherham Independent on 18 September, 1882: ‘the committee of the Bradford club was desirous of introducing into that part of Yorkshire, of which Bradford forms the centre, the association game.’  Besides, the Bradford Cricket, Athletics & Football Club would not have wanted Huddersfield to steal the limelight and claim the status as the only senior ground in West Yorkshire to have staged soccer.

The motives of Bradford FC are worthy of speculation. It is unclear whether the initiative came from Blackburn on a proselytising basis or from Bradford. The motives to stage association at Park Avenue were various, the least contentious of which was that Park Avenue existed to promote athleticism in the town, of which association football was another form. There may have been commercial incentive to optimise the use of the ground.

There was also growing frustration and disenchantment about rugby. There was a local expectation that Bradford FC should win the Yorkshire Challenge Cup but in 1881/82, the club had suffered the indignity of a giant-killing in the first round at Horbury. To add salt to the wound, neighbours Manningham FC had reached the third round quarter final stage in only their first season as entrants. Enthusiasm for rugby may also have been undermined by perceptions that the game was becoming ‘too rough’.

The Blackburn fixture therefore provided an opportunity to gauge public reaction to association football in Bradford and can be identified as a decisive moment in the history of ‘football’ (a term applied to both rugby and association rules) in the district.

Blackburn exhibition game advert Bfd Obs 16-Sep-82

The adverts above appeared in the Bradford Daily Telegraph. Note the arrangement for the Bradford FC rugby players to have a practice on the field after the soccer match which suggests that they would have been present to see (at least some of) the exhibition soccer game. Note also the training plans of Manningham FC , the club which later became Bradford City AFC. Manningham FC had been formed in 1880 and played its games at Carlisle Road, moving to Valley Parade in 1886. 

Explaining the Association game

The Athletic News of 13 September, 1882 announced that ‘Although Bradford is one of the strongholds of Rugby Union, the game is exciting much interest in the worsted town.’ Few people would have been familiar with the game other than a small number who had played ‘socker’ at university and who might indulge in it as a break from – or indeed, preparation for – rugby. The Bradford Daily Telegraph provided the following description of Association football for the enlightenment of its readers on 15 September, 1882:

‘On Saturday next the first football match played in Bradford under what are known as Association rules will take place at Park Avenue; the idea of the committee of the Bradford Football Club being to afford the public generally an opportunity of judging of the respective merits of the Association and Rugby game. Hitherto Bradfordians have only been able to witness or take part in football matches governed by the Rugby laws, and as the advocates of each claim for their own system a superiority, arrangements have been made with the Blackburn Rovers – a crack Lancashire team – to visit Bradford and play a game with a team representing Blackburn and district. We have been asked to explain the salient points of difference in the two sets of laws; but we may state generally that the chief difference is that in the Association game no handling of the ball is allowed by any of the players other than the goal-keepers; nor are the contending sides allowed to ‘maul’ each other. Then there are no ‘scrimmages,’ and the only points that can be scored by association players are goals pure and simple, instead of the confusing scores of goals, tries, touchdowns etc. Notwithstanding these differences the Association game – for the government of which 15 laws are regarded as sufficient, as against 61 for the Rugby game – will be found, when such teams as those mentioned above meet, to possess as much interest, give rise to as much excitement, and afford as much scope for scientific play as the rival game. We should mention that whereas the field of play in the Rugby game should not exceed 110 yards in length or 75 in breadth, the maximum length of an association field is set down at 200 and the minimum 100 yards, the maximum breadth being 100 and the minimum 50 yards; while another important difference is that a goal is obtained by kicking the ball under the tape or bar in the Association game; in the Rugby game the ball has to pass over the bar. With a continuance of the present seasonable weather the match ought to be an unqualified success.’

Contradictory accounts

Blackburn Rovers won the game, 5-1 but what is bizarre is that accounts of the game were contradictory about its success. According to the Yorkshire Post on 18 September, 1882, it had drawn a large crowd ‘who watched with a great deal of interest.’ Similarly, the Blackburn Standard, on 23 September, 1882 reported: ‘in Bradford the sweetness and beauty of the dribbling style has been wafted by the gentle breezes of kindly comment which everywhere greets this fascinating pastime. The exhibition match which took place at Bradford last Saturday was of a first-rate description…I am pleased to say that the different parts of the game were sufficiently exemplified…The spectators, who were numerous, got quite enthusiastic over the fine kicking…and were delighted with the neat dribbling…’

The Athletics News of 20 September, 1882 was even more gushing: ‘So great an impression has Association football made of late in the minds of outdoor sport-loving people, that even in excluded centres of Rugby football, as Bradford, in Yorkshire, the dribbling code has caused a commotion of feeling in its favour. As an indication of this, several prominent individuals had made an engagement game in the great worsted borough. The engagement was brought off on Saturday last before a fair number of spectators. The play was such as may be calculated to infuse in the breast of those who witnessed it… xxxxno details need be given of the play, as the only point depending on the issue was to extend the Association game to Bradford, and that result will, no doubt, have been achieved.’

In complete contrast, The Yorkshireman of 23 September, 1882 reported that ‘Judging by the remarks of the spectators on Saturday, and the meagre enthusiasm displayed, it is not likely that the Association game will become popular in Bradford. There was, in fact, more interest exhibited by the spectators in the practice game of the Bradford Club than in the Association match.’ The Leeds Times of the same date reported that ‘There was not a very large gate, and little or no enthusiasm was displayed in the match, which, with the excitable incidents of the rough-and-tumble Rugby game, was considered a very hollow affair.’

Similarly, the Bradford Observer of 18 September, 1882 was relatively dismissive even to the point of questioning whether Park Avenue was a suitable venue by virtue of its size: ‘The rugby game is of course preferred far before the Association by the football spectators of the West Yorkshire district, so that in spite of the famous name which attaches to one of the teams that were to play only a couple of hundred persons witnessed the game. Although, however, the players were sadly out of condition, with the result that the game was slow, and although the ground is too small for a contest under Association rules, enough was seen to satisfy the spectators that there is plenty of science in the game and not a little amusement.’

The only explanation I can provide to reconcile these alternative versions is that the latter publications were fed misinformation in the absence of having a representative on site. The individual who had the role of reporter at the club was Edgar Charlton, formerly of Bradford Caledonian and a private in the Bradford Rifles who had joined Bradford FC in 1879. I assume that the issue of association football at Park Avenue was controversial and that these different newspaper accounts reflected internal politics. In my opinion it is evidence that certain people sought to eliminate the possibility of association football gaining a foothold in the area. Indeed, it was a criticism during the course of the next twenty years that the rugby establishment in West Yorkshire had sought to suffocate, if not control, the emergence of association football.

On 30 September, 1882 a similar exhibition game involving Blackburn Rovers against a local side was organised in Leeds. On this occasion there was no ambiguity about it proving to be a major disappointment with few spectators in attendance (albeit for which the weather was blamed). This appears to have destroyed any momentum that existed to promote association football. Although a further exhibition game took place in September, 1883 in Dewsbury featuring Darwen and Blackburn Olympic which attracted a ‘large crowd’ (and a fortnight later Wakefield Trinity and Dewsbury played a reciprocal rugby exhibition game in Blackburn) there were no further initiatives.

Rugby remains dominant

By 1883 there was no commercial reason to justify a switch from rugby to association football. The Leeds Times reported on 3 November, 1883: ‘Last Saturday’s gate at Park Avenue (vs Halifax) amounted to £144 – a rather startling piece of evidence of the popularity of the game in Bradford, and of the manner in which the town club is – not overrated, but recognised and supported ‘for the good that is in it.’ Furthermore, there was no reason to belief that association football would be any more popular than rugby football: in 1885 the attendance at the final of the FA Cup at The Oval was 12,500 whilst 15,000 attended the Yorkshire Cup involving Manningham FC and Batley at Cardigan Fields, Leeds. The latter generated receipts of £550 with many more reported to have watched the game from vantage points around the ground.

The lack of concerted efforts to promote soccer in West Yorkshire demonstrates that it was considered futile. The Football Association did not stage another semi-final in West Yorkshire (although in 1897 there were rumours about Park Avenue or Headingley being utilised). The fact that the association experiment was not repeated at Park Avenue until 1895 tells us that in the final event the members of Bradford FC wanted rugby.

In November, 1886 The Athletic News was dismissive about the prospects for soccer: ‘I don’t wish to be thought desirous of discouraging the efforts of the Associationists, but one cannot shut one’s eyes to the fact that Rugby is the game of the West Riding, is indigenous, as it were, to the soil, and the other football plant will always have an unhealthy growth hereabouts.’

If doubts had existed at Park Avenue about rugby football and the counter attraction of association football, the 1883/84 season put them to rest and a combination of success and riches defined the direction of travel and the trajectory of growth. By 1890 Bradford FC would be one of the richest sports clubs in England. It is a tantalising thought that if history had taken a different course Bradford FC could have been a founder member of the Football League in 1888 and one of the leading soccer clubs in the country. Quite possibly it would then have continued to be one of the richest by 1900. (In the 1890s it was association football that offered the biggest market and the scale of financial transactions in that sport would dwarf those in rugby by the end of that decade.)


The circumstances reveal the rivalry of the two codes and it is arguable that this has continued through to the present day with Rugby League and Association football being commercial competitors in Bradford – a theme explored in an earlier article published on VINCIT CLICK HERE!

Had the Blackburn exhibition game encouraged interest and enthusiasm for soccer in Bradford, then quite possibly the town would have had its own club much sooner and one that was a pioneering member of the Football League when it was formed in 1888.

By John Dewhirst


  • Further articles are planned for publication on VINCIT that will examine the experience of the earliest soccer clubs in Bradford, first Bradford Association (1888-90) and then Bradford FC (the soccer section of the rugby club, 1895-99).

Discover more about the history of professional football in Bradford and the rivalry of the Valley Parade and Park Avenue clubs in ROOM AT THE TOP and LIFE AT THE TOP by John Dewhirst (Bantamspast, 2016). The author is currently working on a sequel FALL FROM THE TOP: THE WOOL CITY RIVALS which covers the rivalry of Bradford City and Bradford (Park Avenue) in the twentieth century and will feature a wealth of archive images and memorabilia relating to the two clubs. You can find details at  

His earlier book A HISTORY OF BRADFORD CITY AFC IN OBJECTS published in 2014 (which also featured Bradford (PA) memorabilia) was acclaimed by Hunter Davies as ‘the best illustrated history of any club I have ever read’.


Other online articles about Bradford sport by the same author

John contributes to the Bradford City match day programme and his features are also published on his blog Wool City Rivals  





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