Girlington AFC, very nearly Bradford City AFC

By Rob Grillo

Had things been different, the formation in 1903 of Bradford City AFC could have occurred twelve months earlier, if the result of a ploy to create a professional association football at Valley Parade from the seeds sown by two local football clubs and the city’s existing pool of amateur footballers had proved successful.

The Bradford & District FA, founded in March 1899 had overseen an exponential growth in the number of local clubs in the area as the round ball game took over from rugby as the number one winter pastime across the region.

The West Riding, however, was lagging behind the rest of the country. Rugby was still number one in the region, the Yorkshire Rugby Union having accepted that league and cup competition was inevitable and allowing its clubs to introduce the Yorkshire Senior Competition (and a number of lower divisions) as well as the Yorkshire Challenge Cup (t’old Tin Pot). This kept association football at bay for a little longer, while the seeds were sown in the game locally.

Girlington AFC was one of clubs that emerged in the late 1890s, in the wake of a failed attempt to form a successful association team at by Bradford CA&FC at Park Avenue. Poorly supported, and seriously outclassed on the field by South Yorkshire opposition, the Park Avenue team had been banished to Birch Lane in the summer of 1898 before folding at the close the 1898/99 season, several of its players becoming dispersed around the junior (in status) clubs located around the city.

The Girlington club was formed by A H Grunberger and several of his acquaintances in 1896. Its first meeting was in August of that year with just nine members in attendance. All members of the club paid an annual subscription and initially paid for their own playing kits and travelling expenses, and in the early days was run on strictly amateur lines. Grunberger himself fulfilled several roles, including those of secretary and financial secretary. F Bradley took over as corresponding secretary, with other early committeemen including: W Rycroft, A Robertshaw, E C Robertshaw, J S Hawkins, F H Kemp, C Firth, P D Mortimer, S Gibson, and A Broadley.

That first season saw the club win four and draw two of their eleven friendly fixtures, against the likes of Bradford Spartans, Shipley and Pudsey. Initally the club played at a ground near the tram terminus at Four Lane Ends, using the Fairweather Green Board Schools for changing facilities. A new ground at Thornton Road was used for the 1898/99 season, before becoming founder members of the Bradford & District League in 1899. Their headquarters by then was the Red Lion Hotel at Four Lane Ends, with another new home ground close by at Duncombe Street, off Ingleby Road. This pitch, which was actually situated with Wallis Street to the north and Duncombe Street to the south, was also one of those considered for the home games for Bradford CA&FC team’s reserve team games in the mid 1890s.

Girlington were immediately successful in the Bradford & District League, being champions in the league’s first two seasons, 1899/1900 and 1900/01. The following season they won the District Cup, after having lost the previous two finals.

A major influence on the original Girlington team was Duncan Menzies, whose brother David had also played with him Park Avenue. The Scot was described in Yorkshire Sports in October 1901 as ‘a tower of strength’ for his club. Although described as ‘rather short of stature’, it was felt that his ‘cleverness with either foot, and sound judgement to draw out a defence’ were important characteristics of his play. He was, it was argued, ‘one of those ‘knacky’ men on his feet who seem to be born footballers’, who it was hoped, would go on to lead Girlington AFC ‘into the higher flights of the ‘socker’ world’.

To cater for a growing number of spectators, Girlington’s home matches were played at Valley Parade from 1901, the first soccer team to do so. Those in charge at Manningham Football Club were well aware of the potential that soccer offered, and this gave them the opportunity to hedge their bets without the financial outlay that their neighbours at park Avenue had experienced with their failed soccer experiment.

While this move undoubtedly attracted more spectators for Girlington, raising the club’s profile even further things were not always rosy. With both rugby and soccer being played on the same pitch, then wear and tear of the turf was increased, and several games were cancelled because of this. The ground had also been impacted by the staging of the non-sporting ‘Savage Africa’ show during 1901, which caused unexpected damage to the pitch.

There is also a suggestion that things were not all well behind the scenes, with the Leeds Mercury reporting in November 1901, ‘Girlington are not enjoying the state of tranquility which in other years has been their portion, but the management is making every effort to maintain the great reputation which the team has made for itself. The restlessness of the team suggests and unsatisfactory state of affairs, for with all the new men and outside talent, and the acquisition of the Valley Parade ground, they have not been so successful as expected.’ Additionally, although Manningham club was clearly showing interest in association code, the ground wasn’t available to Girlington as often as expected. With Manningham’s own teams taking preference, and Girlington were behind with their fixtures by the time Christmas arrived. It was still a surprise though when the club disbanded in the summer of 1902 despite being accepted into the West Yorkshire League.

The Bradford Daily Telegraph correspondent known as ‘Goalkeeper’ expressed his surprise on Saturday 19th July 1902: ‘The sensation of local football this week has been the withdrawal of the Girlington club from the West Yorkshire League, and practically the ending of the team seeing that the Bradford Leagues are now all completed. Their collapse is most regrettable. Only last season they gained the height of their ambition and became Cup holders. Their record in local football is really admirable, and only intensifies one’s regret at their unhappy ending. Into the pros and cons of the case I do not propose to enter, but I should have thought that entry into the West Yorkshire League bringing with it Competition matches with such clubs as Hunslet, Huddersfield, Altofts, etc’, to say nothing of Airedale and Rawdon, would have meant the beginning of a new era of prosperity to the club. The dispersion of players among other teams should, however, have its useful side. The experience of one of the older hands amongst a club composed of rising juniors would be bound to be beneficial.’

Had the issue over the pitch been the deciding factor, then Girlington would surely have made an attempt to return to their old ground at Four Lane Ends. They would have had to find a new ground within twelve months anyway, given that the professional Bradford City club was to take the ground solely for themselves. Although there clearly was a pitch issue (confirmed in the Yorkshire Sports on 11th October 1902) it would seem that internal politics led to the closure of the club. There were diagreements regarding the ground options open to them, and also over the number of new players who were drafted in during the season, and whatever the truth was, it caused Girlington’s downfall at the time.

However, an alternative reason – or at least contributing factor – can be proposed. The Bradford FA, in conjunction with the Manningham Football Club, could well have been involved in a strategy to base a professional association football club at Valley Parade from 1902, based around Girlington AFC and the appropriately named Bradford City AFC which had finished close runners-up to Airedale during the 1901-02 Bradford & District League campaign. Players representing that club 9formerly known as Harewood Recreation AFC), along with several of those from Girlington, had already represented a local XI teams in exhibition games but they too folded, at the same time as Girlington in the summer of 1902, this time seemingly without any explanation. John Dewhirst has suggested that behind the scenes the local FA may have tried to form a professional club from the two teams, but when it became obvious that the local pool of players was too short of talent to form a competitive side in, for instance, the Midland League. The scheme was shelved for twelve months, with both clubs disintegrating as a result, while the Bradford & District FA assisted club Manningham in a new application to join the Football League. Given that Manningham had allowed Girlington to use Valley Parade, and their agreement to host local and regional cup finals, then it is obvious that the club were hedging their bets should the round ball game continue to grow exponentially, without taking the risks taken up the road at Park Avenue. Twelve months later, Manningham was indeed elected to the Football League – as Bradford City AFC – but instead with a team imported from regions more established in the round ball game.

In January 1903 there was an effort to reform the Girlington club, with the Yorkshire Evening Post reporting, ‘Practically all the difficulties that caused the team to be disbanded during the present season have been overcome. The old committee who brought the team to such a prominent position are ready to help, and the majority of players have expressed the desire to come back.’ The club sadly failed to be revived at the time but Girlington AFC did reform prior to the 1907/08 season, although there was little coverage of their return in the local press. The new team won the Bradford & District FA Cup again at the first attempt (winning 2-1 against Fairweather Green at their old Valley Parade ground), and played in the second division of the West Yorkshire League. The following season they were back in the top division of the Bradford & District League before fading away before World War One.

Rob Grillo is author of LATE TO THE GAME, Volume 6 in the Bantamspast History Revisited series which tells the story of the origins of association football in Bradford. Details of his book and online ordering is available from this link.

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Future articles are scheduled to feature local boxing, the military heritage of sport in Bradford, the forgotten sports grounds in the Bradford district, the politics of Bradford sport, the financial failure of football clubs in Bradford and the history of Bradford sports journalists.

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