The Paraders’ record breaking season: 1928/29

Bradford City’s Division Three (North) Championship season

by John Dewhirst

BCAFC 1928-29

This year marks the 90th anniversary of one of the most remarkable campaigns in the club’s history when it secured promotion as champions of Division Three (North) in record breaking fashion. It was the reversal of a decline that had begun immediate after the war, relegation from Division One in 1922 having been a major body-blow to the club from which it had not recovered. It did not help that the local economy was depressed and the affairs of both City and Avenue were impacted by the competing attraction of a rugby revival in Bradford at Lidget Green (the new Bradford Rugby Union club had been formed in 1919) and the emergence of Huddersfield Town as a leading club in English football.

Bradford City had been relegated to Division Three (North) in 1927 after a disastrous season in which the team won only 7 games of which only one away from home; the corresponding points tally of just 23 was the lowest in the club’s 19 seasons in the Football League. The 1927/28 campaign was overshadowed by financial turmoil. City finished in 6th place and 15 points behind neighbours Bradford Park Avenue who were champions – Avenue thereby secured a return to Division Two having previously been relegated in 1922. By the end of that season, Bradford City teetered close to insolvency and it was a refinancing combined with a board restructure in May, 1928 that safeguarded the club.

Two individuals in particular were closely involved with the restructuring arrangements. The first, William Sawyer is probably better known. A journalist by background, he was instrumental in the launch of the first match day programmes at Valley Parade in 1909 and remembered for having written a history of the club in 1927. He later served as a director between 1928-30 and 1934-38.

Thomas Paton is best described as the invisible hand at Valley Parade who made possible the club’s success at winning the FA Cup in 1911 and establishing itself as one of the leading sides in England before World War One. Sadly he has tended to be overlooked, not even given a mention in the footnotes of an earlier history of Bradford City’s golden era.

The club’s finances had deteriorated significantly during the relegation season of 1926/27 and the first season in Division Three (North); a signal that things were going from bad to worse had been the resignation of manager Colin Veitch in January, 1928, frustrated by the financial constraints that he was subject to. The then directors at Valley Parade could neither afford to underwrite continuing losses but neither could they afford to write off their loans to the club. Similarly, there was little incentive for a new director or investor to introduce monies if all that did was to service the loans of former directors. With Paton in the background, Sawyer conducted negotiations and secured the agreement of the chairman (and principal creditor) Thomas Power in addition to Messrs Dallas, Driver and Welch to defer loan repayments to them by the club with the promise that if they resigned, new funds would be forthcoming – coordinated by Paton – and hence Bradford City would remain solvent (thereby the old directors would not have to write-off monies owed to them). Notwithstanding, the individuals concerned were still required to remain bank guarantors.

The existing directors had little choice than to agree. To have rejected Sawyer’s plans would have plunged the club into insolvency. They would have been forced to write-off their loans and suffered the opprobrium of the public. There was little else to celebrate the landmark occasion of the club’s silver jubilee of its formation in 1903. Although Bradford City had avoided insolvency, it found itself in a division below cross-town rivals Bradford Park Avenue for the first time in its history (and indeed, City would remain in the shadow of Avenue for much of the next twenty-five years). Having been acclaimed as pioneers of association football in West Yorkshire, City were now at the level of Halifax Town whilst near neighbours Huddersfield Town and Leeds United were established in Division One.

The rescue of Bradford City in the 1928 close season reflected a determination to reverse the decline of the club that had occurred since the end of World War One. Of course, the slide of the two Bradford football clubs was not dissimilar to what had happened to the local textile industry and little by little, the standing of the city – its economy, financial well-being and sporting stature – had been rewritten and not for the better. Sport remained a core ingredient of civic patriotism and identity, Partisan rivalries aside, Bradfordians welcomed the revival of Bradford Park Avenue. However, for so long having been the senior club and standard bearers for the city of Bradford, it was unpalatable for anyone involved at Valley Parade that the Paraders should remain in third division obscurity and surrender its status.

A make or break season

Little wonder then that Sawyer went so far as to suggest that the forthcoming 1928/29 campaign was a make or break season. In August, 1928 for instance he reportedly told the players ‘This club is in a serious position; we have to go up or down, and you are the people who can put us up.’ He knew that the club remained heavily indebted and the only way to repair the balance sheet was through escaping from Division Three (North). Put simply, Bradford City could not afford to spend as long as Bradford Park Avenue had (1922-27) in the lower division. It was as much a matter of finance as self-respect.

The changes at Valley Parade after the board restructuring demonstrated the commitment to lift the club. Whilst the principal headline was the return of Peter O’Rourke as manager and the influx of new players, there was also a major overhaul in the way that the club was run.

O’Rourke was the most obvious candidate for the role of manager at Valley Parade in 1928 and crucially, under no illusions about what the job would entail. His working relationship and familiarity with the likes of Sawyer, Paton and for that matter Jack Nunn would have been a further advantage. So too the fact that he was well known to, and popular with, the supporters. Possibly his most important signing was that of George Livingstone, as trainer in June, 1928. A former Scottish international and player who had represented both senior Manchester clubs as well as Glasgow Rangers and Celtic (in addition to Sunderland and Liverpool), he remains the only man to have scored for both Manchester and Old Firm clubs in respective derby games.

Livingstone had previously been engaged as trainer at Ibrox between 1920-27 and immediately after World War One had been manager of Dumbarton. There is a good chance that he may have been put in touch with City by Tom Paton whose contacts in Scotland were legend. On the other hand, he would have been known to Peter O’Rourke having been a member of the Manchester United side that won the Football League championship in 1910/11. (Livingstone remained at Valley Parade until 1935, latterly assisting Jack Peart between 1930-35 who took over from O’Rourke.)

Much of the success of O’Rourke at Valley Parade before World War One had derived from the contribution of his trainer Charlie Harper and he opted for a similar approach in 1928. Harper had been an accomplished sprinter (acclaimed between 1893-98 as ‘champion professional of the world’) who introduced high standards of fitness and endurance to the City team after his appointment as trainer in 1905 and it is fair to assume that O’Rourke looked for something similar once again. Livingstone had already demonstrated his worth alongside Bill Struth at Glasgow Rangers who later secured legendary status during his 34 years in charge of the ‘Light Blues’. Struth had selected Livingstone after he had been appointed as manager in 1920 and during the seven seasons that they worked together at Ibrox the team finished as champions in five. Livingstone had been forced to resign in 1927 as a consequence of ill-health and the need to recuperate from a reported complex appendicitis. Nevertheless he came to Valley Parade with impeccable qualifications.

With the announcement in July, 1928 that the club had committed to investment in training apparatus in its Burlington Terrace premises, it was clear how priorities were being defined. A gymnasium was installed in the old billiards room and the Yorkshire Sports reported the installation of ‘Livingstone’s apparatus of electrical treatment for injured limbs, two great teak baths each capable of holding 16 players at a time, a big recreation and tea room, and a well equipped kitchen and washing and drying room for the field kit.’ Collectively it amounted to best practice, if not a better way of operating than how things had been done previously.

These subtle changes would have given Bradford City an immediate advantage over most other third division clubs and provide an important insurance policy against players getting injured, as well as through improving rates of recovery. Alongside the investment in training facilities was the appointment of a new groundsman tasked with making improvements to the pitch.

The Yorkshire Sports of 28 August, 1928 reported that ‘the ever-recurring bugbear of the ground trouble appears to have been overcome at last by the thorough preparations the playing area has undergone, and an expanse of rich, green grass is the result, while a new track has taken place of the old cinder running track, and many of the terraces have been improved.’ Judging from a headline in the same paper, sheep played their role in this transformation. In order to preserve the grass at Valley Parade came the decision that the players should train on the Leyland Lane / Garden Lane field in Heaton.

sheep aug-28

Another important development came in the form of a new supporters’ club. The crises of 1927 and 1928 had demonstrated the fragility of the club finances and the growing dependence on fund raising by supporters (much the same as at Park Avenue and Bradford Northern). Efforts were thus made to reconnect with supporters and in November, 1928 new premises were opened by the Bradford City Shareholders’ and Supporters’ Association at 1 Thorncliffe Road. These provided a permanent venue for supporters to meet as well as to host BCSSA events that had previously been held at commercial venues including the Belle Vue Hotel. (NB It seems unlikely that these were licensed.)

What may have prompted the decision to secure club rooms for the BCSSA was that the Bradford Park Avenue Supporters’ Club had itself opened premises at 21 Morley Street at the start of the season. The two clubs were commercial rivals whose initiatives were invariably designed to attain local advantage. Judging from the price of season tickets at Park Avenue and Valley Parade for instance it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Avenue sought to capitalise on the attraction of higher standard football by charging generally lower prices. For the Bradford City directorship, it was another obstacle to financial recovery.

O’Rourke’s signings

Budget constraints were a big factor in determining O’Rourke’s recruitment strategy. Instead of big money transfers or reliance on former high profile players , his approach was quite the opposite. Neither could O’Rourke rely upon players progressing through reserve teams and in June, 1928 the club had resigned membership of the Central League for economy reasons. In fact all of this was no different to what he had been used to the first time as manager of Bradford City between 1905-21.

Prior to World War One, Peter O’Rourke with the help of Tom Paton had been successful in identifying young, talented players in junior (mainly Scottish) football. So too his initial recruitment strategy in 1928 was based entirely on signing players from junior clubs although this time they tended to be Welsh.

This approach contrasted with that of O’Rourke’s predecessor, Colin Veitch who had relied upon signing veteran League players to get out of the third division. Not only was this a more expensive option but it was probably ill-suited to a third division dog-fight that had more to do with kick and rush than fancy football.

In June, 1928 O’Rourke exploited his contacts from when he had been manager of Pontypridd (1922) to secure three players from Aberdare whose financial difficulties had forced it to withdraw an application to join Division Three (South). Among them were Trevor Edmunds, a prolific scorer in Welsh and Southern League football, David Thomas and Alex Davies. Later that month came Cornelius White from Bangor City. Other new signings included J Charlton and J Jamieson from Wallsend and Fred Smith (a goalkeeper) from an Aberdeen junior side, St Machars. Others included Donald McArthur, signed from Scottish junior club, Glasgow West Park and Tom Moon from Dick, Kerrs of Preston.

These were essentially speculative, opportunist signings and although Edmunds and White managed hat tricks on the opening day of the season, none of these players established themselves at the club and all were released nine months later. What may have had something to do with this was that with the exception of George Hobson, a Leeds amateur in the squad, all the close season recruits were from afar and did not relocate. In fact City could not afford to pay them to do so and arrangements were made for players to train near their homes. This could not have been ideal, particularly given the emphasis on fitness and may explain why results were fairly mixed during the initial stage of the season.

O’Rourke was used to having to operate on a shoestring at Valley Parade and it meant that he was not averse to making difficult decisions. Just as he had been prepared to release club favourites such as James Conlin in July, 1906; Bob Whittingham in April, 1910; James Speirs in December, 1912; or Dickie Bond in May, 1922 he sanctioned the transfer of goalkeeper, Jock Ewart to Preston North End. Ewart had made 255 appearances for City between 1912-23 and then returned at the beginning of the 1927/28 season when he played a further 28 times.

As City manager, O’Rourke’s focus was on fitness, a strong work ethic and a strong team spirit that brought the best out of his players as a whole. The characteristic of his approach was to build a team around a tight defence. It was also said that under his supervision, Veitch’s signings had given performances as they never had before at Valley Parade and longer-serving players such as Ralph Burkinshaw and William Watson enjoyed a new lease of life. As the history of Bradford City has demonstrated time and time again, O’Rourke’s was a successful formula. What is telling from match reports is that whereas supporter barracking had previously been a recurring, problematic issue at Valley Parade in the preceding five years, a good rapport evolved between players and spectators during the 1928/29 season. No doubt O’Rourke recognised that spectators would get behind a hard-working team, an implied criticism maybe of what had happened in the past few years.

Bradford City also benefited from O’Rourke’s experience as a manager, not simply his tactical awareness but his judgement of players and willingness to make changes. Recognising that his close season transfers had not been particularly successful, signings made in October, 1928 proved timely for strengthening the team and getting momentum underway for a promotion challenge. His later recruits, Adam Mitchell (an inside-right from Scottish club, Penicuik) in December, 1928 and then Sandy Cochrane (a Scottish inside forward, from Darlington) in January, 1929 were equally important. Finally, it was the acquisition of Albert Whitehurst from Liverpool in February, 1929 that arguably secured promotion.

In these dealings, the role of Tom Paton was decisive. He was equally a good talent spotter and was credited in the Liverpool Echo for his part in the negotiations for Whitehurst’s signature. Paton provided a good sounding board for O’Rourke and in combination the pairing was an effective partnership.

Rivalry with Stockport County

There was a gulf in standards between Division Two and the regionalised third division (and of the two, the northern section was considered the weaker). Needless to say this was matched by similar inequalities in financial strength between the clubs in the different divisions. Yet whilst most relegated clubs secured a prompt return to the second division, achieving promotion was statistically at least, a difficult proposition. For instance only the champions of the respective third divisions won promotion and this made it extremely competitive between the stronger sides as to who could escape.

In 1928/29 Division Three (North) was dominated by two exceptional teams and this was the season in which the historic rivalry between Bradford City and Stockport County was born, one which had a particular intensity for the best part of the next fifty years.

The League games between the rivals were reported to have been particularly tense affairs with 2-1 home advantage in each case. City derived psychological one-upmanship with a 2-0 victory at Valley Parade in the FA Cup Third Round watched by a bumper crowd of 30,171. Yet for most of the season, Bradford City sat behind Stockport County in the table.

stockport 28-29

It was reported that there was considerable enthusiasm among City supporters for the start of the season and a new era for the club under its famous old manager. An opening 11-1 defeat of Rotherham United provided the best possible start and set a new club record. Nevertheless, at the beginning of October when the club was placed in 5th position there were misgivings being expressed about team strength and the effectiveness of the forwards. The weakness of reserve players forced entry into the transfer market and O’Rourke signed Fred Bedford from Morecambe and James Randall from Ashington (the latter signing financed by new director, Frank Naylor). It had immediate benefit and by the following month the team had confirmed its credentials as a championship contender.

Newspaper reports attributed the improvement in form to the influence of captain Tom Cairns, the strikeforce partnership of Moon and Randall and the versatility of Sam Barkas at wing half. In fact the emergence of Barkas who became a regular in the side from November, 1928 (playing in midfield) was one of the highlights of the season. He made 26 appearances in 1928/29 and subsequently gained a reputation as one of the club’s best players, representing Bradford City on 202 occasions in the League before his £5,000 transfer to Manchester City in April, 1934. Thirty years later he returned to Valley Parade and had responsibility for the club’s pools and fund-raising but left in 1966 amid rumours of embezzlement.

Sam Barkas had joined Bradford City as an eighteen year old in August, 1927 from junior club Middle Dock that competed in the Wearside League. He made his debut in February, 1927 as a right back and had made four appearances in the 1927/28 season. He had four brothers who each played in the Football League, the youngest of whom joined City in 1933/34 and made 16 appearances before signing for Halifax Town in 1934. For the Barkas brothers, becoming a professional footballer was an escape from the Durham coal mines.

A significant factor in the success of the team was the consistency and effectiveness of the defence, the same hallmark that had distinguished O’Rourke’s previous reign at Valley Parade. Between them Watty Shirlaw (goalkeeper), Sam Russell, William Watson, Ralph Burkinshaw and William Summers were virtually ever-present and only Summers (5 out of 42) and Watson (1) missed games that season. Above all, the strong team spirit and a growing self-belief that was shared among the players as well as the supporters was cited as the big difference, exactly the same characteristics instilled by O’Rourke in the City team before World War One.

It was unprecedented to have scored 52 goals in the first 15 games and this was sufficient to have lifted the spirits at Valley Parade. However, what was all the more remarkable was that unlike the defence there had been no consistency in the selection of the forward line and the ongoing changes reflected O’Rourke’s efforts to achieve the ideal combination.

The return League fixture at Edgeley Park on 2nd February, 1929 was billed as one of the most important games played by Bradford City since relegation from Division One in 1922, a true ‘four-pointer’. It was designated by the BCSSA as the occasion of its annual trip and it was estimated that as many as 5,000 followers travelled to Stockport by trains. Defeat in that game came as a major disappointment, not simply because of the result but because it highlighted deficiencies in the side. There was considerable despondency among supporters and after the game at Edgeley Park people feared that City would fall away from the top and concede the championship to County. The considered view was that weakness in the centre forward position was the achilles’ heel of the team.

It seems bizarre that a free-scoring club such as City should not have had a dedicated centre-forward until the signing of Albert Whitehurst in February, 1929. Prior to that, as many as five men – Bedford, Clarke, Moore, Scriven and White – had between them played as a centre-forward but none had been an ideal fit. Whitehurst was an accomplished centre-forward and had been a prolific scorer for Rochdale in Division Three (North). Such had been his record that he was targeted by Liverpool at the start of the 1928/29 season but he struggled to make an impact, scoring twice in only eight games in the first division.

Back in the third division with Bradford City, Whitehurst soon rediscovered his scoring boots. In only his fourth game for the Paraders, he scored seven goals against Tranmere Rovers to equal a Football League record. By the end of the season he had managed two more hat tricks and finished with 24 goals to his credit from only 15 games. He was indeed one of the best signings ever made by the club and Liverpool were understood to have accepted a fee of only £525 – much less than the £1,500 they had paid Rochdale eight months before.

1928 team b

An undefeated run in the final 16 games – with 13 victories and a total of 55 goals scored – secured the title for Bradford City in the last match of the season and Stockport County finished as runners-up. That run coincided with the signing of Albert Whitehurst who scored 24 goals in the last 15 games. During March/April there was a sequence of six fixtures in which City had high scoring victories: 8-0; 8-0; 5-0; 5-0; 3-0 and 4-1; of the 29 goals scored in those games, Albert Whitehurst claimed as many as 17 including 7 in a single game (vs Tranmere Rovers).

Willie Watson D3N medal 1928-29 F

William Watson’s championship medal

In terms of results there was little between the two leading sides. Bradford City managed 27 wins and 9 draws, suffering only 6 defeats out of 42 matches. Stockport gained 28 victories and 6 draws but unlike City, County went undefeated at home and won 19 out of 21 games at Edgeley Park. All told the Paraders finished one point ahead of Stockport although with three points for a win, the tally would have been equal at 90 points apiece. To put this into context, there is a good chance both would have topped 100 points had there been 46 games as is the case for the third tier nowadays.

New Records

What set the teams apart was the goalscoring record and whilst Stockport managed 111 goals for with 58 against, the Bradford City team scored a new Football League record total of 128 goals (of which 82 at Valley Parade), conceding 43. Albert Whitehurst scored the 100th goal at Chesterfield on 16 March, 1929 and from that stage the club began to target a new record to beat the 127 goals scored by Millwall in Division Three (South) the previous season. It was an era of high scoring and Bradford Park Avenue for instance had managed to score 101 goals in three successive seasons to 1927/28.

Previously the highest aggregate number of League goals scored in a season by Bradford City had been 90 in 1907/08, a record subsequently exceeded only in 1928/29 and 1961/62 (94 goals) and matched in 1950/51 (90. (NB Both post-war seasons involved 46 games whereas in 1907/08, 38 games were played and in 1928/29, 42.) The club also set itself new records in 1928/29 with the highest number of goals scored in a League fixture, both at home (11-1) and away (8-2).

The leading goalscorer was Albert Whitehurst with 24 (a new club record) despite having only joined the club in mid-February. The next highest was Tom Moon with 15. However, it was the mark of a free-scoring team that as many as 16 City players scored in League games and of those, 14 got two or more. For Bradford City it was a remarkable transformation because the lack of a prolific goalscorer had been the prime reason for the club’s decline after World War One. In fact, no City striker had managed 20 or more League goals in a season since Frank O’Rourke (20) and Bob Whittingham (21) in 1909/10.

Albert Whitehurst

A characteristic of Division Three (North) was the extent of home advantage and the consensus was that promotion depended on away wins, an adage confirmed by the experience of both Bradford clubs. For example, in 1927/28 City had been defeated only twice at Valley Parade which contrasted with just three victories away from home and ten defeats.

Club officials had admitted that the state of third division grounds had taken them by surprise after relegation in 1927. In April, 1928 the Yorkshire Sports contrasted Feethams, Darlington with the grounds of Barrow, Durham City, Wigan Borough and Rotherham United that were described as ‘unloveliness personified’. Mention was also made of the Rotherham crowd that was said to be unpleasant. As a club with a respectable pedigree, Bradford City was a team that a lot of minnows would have identified as a scalp and quite likely this made the challenge of winning away more difficult.

During 1928/29 City were defeated only 4 times away from home and won 10 out of 21 games. It was a season memorable for its excursions, the first of which was a trip to Carlisle United, newly-elected to the Football League in place of Durham City. The game at Brunton Park was the first in the League and set a new attendance record of 13,496. (For the record the result was 2-2 and there were positive comments made about the standard of the ground.) The 8-2 victory at Ashington in October, 1928 was memorable also as a new club record.

The visit to Nelson on 27 April, 1929 set another attendance record, two years after the fixture with Bradford Park Avenue had attracted 14,143 to the Seedhill ground. Excursion trains priced at 2s 6d carried 7,000 City supporters to Nelson, by far the majority in a 14,979 crowd. City won that game 1-0 but with Stockport winning at Doncaster Rovers it left the Paraders a point behind and a game in hand. Three days later, another fixture in Lancashire provided the opportunity to leapfrog Stockport and go into the final game knowing that a draw would be sufficient to secure promotion.

That penultimate game at Rochdale attracted a 20,000 crowd – around four times higher than the usual gate and a new record for the ground. By winning 3-1 at Spotland, Journalist Dick Williamson (Wanderer) of the Telegraph & Argus was gushing in his praise of the City players for their performance. He described it as a wonderful exhibition of team spirit and singled out Cairns for his own performance, described as one of the best of his career. A large crowd was said to have cheered the team on its arrival back to the old Exchange station.

Bradford City were left in control of their destiny and the championship was won with a 3-1 victory over South Shields at Valley Parade – the attendance for the South Shields game was recorded as 28,778 (although the caption of the photo below suggests that it was much higher).

The advert for the Belle Vue Hotel is a reminder of its historic significance in Valley Parade affairs [1].

The following Thursday, supporters toasted championship success at a celebratory dinner held at the Connaught Rooms. On the menu was claret and amber pudding and Valley Parade trifle.

goal 128 v south sh 1929.jpg

The average League gate at Valley Parade in 1928/29 was 18,551 and this was the highest in the two lower divisions (closely followed by Fulham in Division Three (South)). Away attendances averaged around 12,000, undoubtedly boosted by visiting Bradford City supporters who were a boon to the finances of other clubs. Gate sharing arrangements also benefited visitors to Valley Parade and were thus of net disadvantage to Bradford City.

The crowds at Valley Parade contributed to a financial recovery although ominously the club remained heavily indebted and in December, 1928 was faced with major expenditure to rectify storm damage to the roof of the Midland Road stand. At the start of the season there was a fear that attendances would be depressed with floating supporters preferring to give their allegiance to Bradford Park Avenue. If anything, it was probably the attendances at Valley Parade that constrained those at Park Avenue in the second half of the season. Certainly the Park Avenue gates were boosted by attractive fixtures and Avenue spent most of the season in the top five – finishing 3rd, just below the promotion places. Yet it was the Paraders who had traditionally been the better supported club and this was reflected in the fact that despite Avenue being in the division above City, the average gate at Park Avenue in 1928/29 was only 17,240.

What is remarkable is the extent to which Bradford football attendances improved during 1928/29 with the average at Valley Parade increasing by 52% from 12,180 and those at Park Avenue by 28% from 13,514 in 1927/28 – and these increases were without the benefit of a derby gate which had inflated the average in 1927/28. (NB Despite winning the championship in 1927/28, the Avenue gates had been only marginally higher than in 1926/27 when they were 10,507 whilst those of City had been 12,595.)

The Football League safeguarded gates by ensuring that there were no fixture clashes and (if it could be afforded) it was therefore possible for people to watch League football in Bradford every Saturday. Bradford Northern RFC did not enjoy the same fixture protection and attendances at Birch Lane suffered in 1928/29 as a consequence of the revitalisation of City and Avenue. Neither did it help that Northern had a particularly weak team such that Rugby League was a far less attractive entertainment option.

Football was an escape from a phenomenon that defined the era. There had been a persistently high level of unemployment in Bradford after World War One and after a brief respite during 1926-27, the number of jobless increased sharply from the beginning of 1928, virtually doubling during the next 18 months. What is notable is that the rise in football attendances was in parallel to this increase in unemployment and despite the fact that Bradford had become known as an unemployment blackspot. [2] In this context the attendances at Valley Parade and Park Avenue surely confirm that football was an important feelgood factor for the city.

1929 celebration menu detail

Shortly after the football season ended, on 22nd May, 1929 Valley Parade hosted the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin who held a rally at the ground the week before the General Election. It was a reminder of the traditional political sympathies of those in charge of the two Bradford football clubs. A reported crowd of ten thousand attended the event with Baldwin addressing those assembled from a platform in front of the old main stand. His efforts made little difference and all four Bradford constituencies as well as Shipley continued to elect Labour Party MPs, each with slightly higher majorities and a combined vote of 49% (compared to the Conservatives, 27% and the Liberals, 24%).

No more pudding

The success of Bradford City in record-breaking fashion in 1928/29 created unreasonable expectations, exemplified by a programme cover adopted during the first half of the 1929/30 campaign with a cartoon that claimed ‘Promotion is only a matter of time’. The manner in which Bradford Park Avenue had challenged at the top of Division Two in their first season back convinced City supporters that their club could do likewise, maybe even going one step further and regaining first division status. Why then was the championship season of 1928/29 not a springboard to further success and why was it that only eight years later, in 1937 Bradford City returned to the third tier, to remain a lower division club until 1985?

The answer was money and in my opinion the impact of the trade depression on Bradford football had less to do with attendances as opposed to the willingness or inability of local businessmen to commit significant funds to either of the two senior clubs. Indeed, the fact that unemployment continued to rise – such that by its peak in September, 1931 it was double what it had been two years’ before – confirmed the extent of the downturn in the textile market. In the context of a worsening trade outlook it would have taken a brave man to invest his wealth in Bradford football.

In 1929 O’Rourke delivered what had been asked of him but he would have known that further team strengthening was necessary to consolidate the club in the second division. So it proved and in the 1929/30 season Bradford City narrowly avoided relegation by a single point having struggled throughout.

The bulk of the first team was retained but with notable exceptions (in particular, Sam Barkas), the players who had won promotion were not the men to take the club much further as O’Rourke knew only too well. As for the brilliant Albert Whitehurst, he suffered injuries and could manage only 7 goals in 23 games in Division Two. He eventually left for Tranmere Rovers at the end of the 1930/31 season.

Without the assurance of major investment it would have been a daunting task to rebuild the team and this became the cause of tension between O’Rourke and certain of the Valley Parade directors. Peter O’Rourke was a man who was forthright with his views and probably used to getting his own way. No doubt there was also unease in the boardroom that he was too powerful, someone connected with the club for all but seven years since formation in 1903.

Politics at Valley Parade have typically revolved around money and the relationship between the team manager and the club’s directors. Disagreements over funding for new signings during the 1929/30 season evolved into a debate about extending Peter O’Rourke’s contract beyond the end of the season and that culminated in a boardroom split. In March, 1930 those directors who were supportive of O’Rourke – Messrs Sawyer, Hey and McDermott – resigned and it was no surprise that the manager handed in his notice of resignation in June, 1930. Ultimately it was the failure to invest in the team and build on the momentum of success in 1928/29 that would be the club’s downfall. The financial crisis in 1928 left a shadow over Bradford City AFC as it became distinctly risk-averse with succeeding directors pre-occupied with reducing debt rather than speculating.

NOTES:

[1] The story of the ‘City Rendezvous’, the now forlorn former Belle Vue Hotel at the top of Valley Parade is told here.

[2] In February, 1929 there were more people unemployed in Bradford than in any other Yorkshire town or city (including Sheffield and Hull) and more than twice that in Newcastle. To its credit, Bradford Corporation had introduced a number of work creation programmes dating back to 1922 and again in 1928 it responded to the problem with a number of imaginative as well as ambitious projects across the district.

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