The Sad Demise of Bradford Northern 1963-64 by Ian Hemmens
Over recent years there has been a terrible feeling of deja-vu with regards to the troubles faced by the city’s premier Rugby League club. As the Bradford Bulls, the club had reached the very heights of the sport reaching the pinnacle as World Club Champions, Serial Super League and Challenge Cup Winners. Over ambition, dubious ownership and the eternal problem of Odsal have conspired a downfall few would have forecast during the glory days.
Now, transport back to 1950, the then Bradford Northern were arguably the sports premier club having just achieved a hat-trick of appearances in the the prestigious Challenge Cup, a playing squad full of internationals featuring some of the biggest names in the sport. If you had said to one of the faithful back then that within 13 years the club would have been liquidated after a terminal decline which culminated in a pathetic attendance for one game of a paltry 324 in the vast Odsal bowl that had just 9 years earlier held a World Record crowd of 102,569 for a Challenge Cup Final Replay, you would have been laughed all the way down Manchester Road!
Before we get to that sad occasion we must go back to the glory days of the immediate post war era, the great players of that era started to grow old together and although certain ones were replaced by arguably stronger players who would in turn become club legends, the club slowly lost ground on its opponents, selling players to rival clubs, not replacing proper quality like for like. Huge stars like Ernest Ward & Ken Traill were allowed to move on, others like the great Trevor Foster finally bowed to old Father time and retired. Charismatic Chairman Harry Hornby pulled 2 rabbits out of the hat with the signings of Kiwis Joe Phillips & Jack McLean who went on to become bona fide club legends but they weren’t replaced but the same quality and then when even the lesser players were sold off, the quality dipped even further. The club took a massive hit in the mid-50s when Harry Hornby had to step down due to ill health. Without its major backer and his entrepreneurial ways the club became almost rudderless.
Set against these problems, the post war years had seen a change in lifestyle by a population worn down by 6 years of war. People were wanting a brighter future than had been given to the population after the carnage of the Great War where promises weren’t kept, life was a huge struggle and the Great Depression of the 1930s killed off much of the trade people relied on for just basic living. By the 1950s, Northern were still having to compete with the Citys 2 professional Soccer clubs, 2 dog tracks, a successful Speedway side, a reasonable Rugby Union side at Lidget Green and this was all before non sporting activities begin to be brought into consideration. A boom in picture houses, dance halls, pubs & clubs as well as milk & coffee bars for the ‘new teenagers’ that ‘appeared’ with the arrival of Rock ‘n Roll from the USA. Homes were starting to be able to buy televisions, cars were becoming more affordable and all these things had a pull on the monies people put aside for leisure activities.
We also now have to face the problem of the ‘elephant in the room’, Odsal Stadium itself. The huge bowl has always seemed to have a life of its own climate wise the cost of maintaining such a huge area has always been a millstone for Northern & the Bulls. Even though the likes of Speedway, Stock Cars, Kabbadi & all others sorts of events brought in valuable income, they also brought with them additional costs due to safety aspects pertaining especially to the motor sport events. In the late 50s the club ran a successful pools competition, a precursor to todays lotteries but in their wisdom they dispensed with its creator who took his idea to Keighley RL and created similar success over at Lawkholme Lane. The club had to go cap in hand to the council twice in a 4 year period to try & renegotiate their rental position and to ask for help and although these gave a temporary respite, the financial spiral was still in a downward direction. Crowds had plummeted from an average of 15000 in 1950 to barely 2500 by the late 50s. These would continue to fall as the fare on offer declined. At shareholder meetings, disgruntled fans would ask why the best talent was continually being sold off, why wasn’t there any visible investment from the Board and what were the Boards plans for halting the decline but sadly there weren’t any answers coming from the Board. They seemed trapped in the downward spiral and unable to find solutions.
1963 saw the low point when a meagre 345 souls turned up to see Northern lose 0-29 to Barrow in a game which brought in just £30 in gate receipts. The clock was now ticking and only one more fixture was fulfilled against Leigh before the full truth of the situation emerged to shocked fans. The headline in the T&A on Tuesday December 10th read ‘The End of the Line for Northern’, Money Difficulties mean we can’t go on. The whole Rugby League community fell into shock, never mind the Bradford public. The RL were informed that the club were unable to fulfill their fixtures as there simply wasn’t any money in the kitty.
Within days, club legend Trevor Foster (pictured) and assorted business associates offered to take over the club if the present board would resign & liquidate it. As 1963 moved into 1964, meetings were had with the Foster consortium and the RL, shareholders, creditors, the Council to find a way forward but the RL dropped a bombshell announcing that as Northern hadn’t been able to fulfill their fixtures, their membership of the RL was at risk and their players could be classed as free agents & able to sign for other clubs as their contracts hadn’t been respected. This blow raged on into the March of 1964 when it was announced that with no further progress in respect of protecting the players contracts, the RL had no other option but to terminate Northerns membership. March 18th 1964 ultimately was the day the founder member of the Northern Union became extinct.
Club legend Joe Phillips had now joined the fight with Foster to save the club and explore any possible avenues open to keeping Northern going. A consortium was quickly formed and public opinion was gauged before approaching the council about the Odsal problem. The authorities thankfully gave their permission for the bowl to be used if the consortium could form a new club. March 23rd saw them then approach the RL for membership for the new club. A public meeting at St Georges Hall attracted over 1500 to hear the consortiums plans. There were pledges of support from former legends Ernest & Donald Ward, Eric Batten & Vic Darlison. Former Coach Dai Rees also sent a telegram with the inspiring message of ‘Its a long way from Birch Lane to Wembley, it can be done again’.
A sum of £5000 was needed by the RL as assurances against the fixtures and other requirements. A £1 share option was started to run the club day to day whilst other donations flooded in along with further promises of assistance. Such a success was the share issue that the consortium were able to officially announce the formation of the new club on 20th April 1964. It would be named Bradford Northern (1964) Limited. By the middle of May the sum required by the RL had been reached and membership was granted for the new club. The prompt & proactive action by Trevor Foster had proved vital as any delay might have seen public enthusiasm & also that of the RL wane & possibly die. Even after such a problematic period, there was still an appetite for professional Rugby League in Bradford.
A ground to play on, fixtures to be looked forward to, the new club was up & running but it now needed a team that would be competitive. Fellow RL clubs were approached for any available players whilst from the previous club, only 6 were retained but they were only squad players. A better class was needed and the 1st signing was Jack Wilkinson from Wakefield Trinity who became Player/Coach. New players arrived almost daily with some of good quality & good potential also. The players such as young Scrum half Ian Brooke also from Trinity, Welsh forward Idwal Fisher along with others such as Levula, Lord, Rae finally saw the squad take some shape for the new season. They made their debut in the Headingley Sevens to create a familiarity between the new players. To the surprise of everyone the new squad took the tournament by storm winning the contest by beating Huddersfield 16-7 in the final. Northern were back!
The months of worry & trepidation, the hours of hard work to build the new club all came to fruition on Saturday 22nd August 1964 in front of a magnificent crowd of 13,542, the opponents being the beaten 1964 Challenge Cup finalists Hull Kingston Rovers which despite a valiant & honourable fight by the new club saw them succumb to a 20-34 defeat. The spirit shown gave the newclub home that they could at least be competitive. 2 more defeats followed both away at Hunslet & Featherstone before finally on 2nd September a first victory was gained with a 20-12 win over Salford.
Over the season stability was maintained and a final position of 17th out of 30 clubs was a very creditable & respectable return to the sport. Initial struggles in that first season gave the management an idea of the standards required and it was quickly decided that new blood would be required to compete. Of the 1st starting 13, only 5 would be still there at the final game. Names who would become well loved by the Odsal crowds, Dave Stockwell, Terry Clawson, Alan Rhodes & Tommy Smales amongst them. A mammoth cost of £24,500 had been spent on team building brought a seasonal loss of £20,550 which was £12,451 over that which was the debt when the club had collapsed. The news of these figures brought about fears that another collapse was on the horizon. Such a large debt was surely unsustainable but by any means possible they managed to continue. The council in the meantime had kept its promise to upgrade Odsal and a massive bank of concrete terracing was laid at the Rooley Lane End. On the field the team started to gel the faithful fans were rewarded by a success in the 1965 Yorkshire Cup beating Hunslet 17-8 at Headingley.
After being back in existence only a matter of 14 short months, it was a great reward for everyone who had helped to reform the club and the fans who had backed them. Over the next few years, less choppier waters were entered and the club began once again began to progress towards the upper end of the table. Players of undoubted quality like Welsh stars Berwyn Jones & Terry Price arrived, Geoff Wrigglesworth & Ian Brooke all attained International class which in turn kept the club progressing and the turnstiles ticking over. For now, the club was back and although, several times in the future, problems of varying degrees and severity would hit the club, there would also be a couple of periods of real glory & reward for the club. Rugby League in Bradford is always and has always been a turbulent affair never far way form crisis but also glory to the highest the game can give.
As we speak, the club is again in a dark period of its existence and in fact not even present in Bradford with games for the forthcoming season due to be played in Dewsbury. A mixture of RL politics, bad ownership and the perennial problem of Odsal all no nearer being resolved. Who knows what the future holds, if there is indeed any future but looking back to 1964, it seemed like the end back then until honest people with the club at heart stepped up to save the club from extinction.
by Ian Hemmens
Ian is a regular contributor to VINCIT and has written widely about different sports in the district including boxing, soccer, cricket and speedway. You can find links to his other features about Bradford rugby from this link. Tweets: @IHemmens
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