By Rob Grillo
Bradford City AFC was already a pioneer club: First West Riding team to be elected to the Football League. First to be promoted to the First Division. And then the club only went and won the FA Cup in only its eighth year of existence.
The English Cup final was highlight of the season, a fitting climax to eight months of competition. A competition that has previously been dominated by the old boys teams had, since 1883 – with just one exception – been won by a team from the north or midlands. Following narrow victories over New Brompton (now known as Gillingham), Norwich City, Grimsby Town and Burnley, City had achieved a resounding 3-0 victory over Blackburn Rovers in the semi-final at Bramall Lane on 25 th March. For the first time, a team from the West Riding was making the biggest headlines. Eleven special trains took City fans to Crystal Palace for the final, in what was universally reported as a disappointing goal-less draw on Saturday 22 nd April. The occasion was reported nationwide, with varying support for the Yorkshire team.
The Leeds Mercury football correspondent Flaneur wrote his piece for his newspaper the previous evening before sending to his office. He was obviously quite excited:
‘London, Friday Night. Let’s to the palace. In a few short hours we who are fortunate enough to have a coign of vantage marked out for us amid the seats of the mighty will be watching the crowds assembling round the famous arena that has been the venue of so many great cup finals since 1895. It will be a familiar spectacle to many of us who have long ceased to wonder at the extraordinary enthusiasm which induces men to stand for hours in great physical discomfort for the sake of ninety minutes’ football, who no longer marvel at the providence which keeps the more daring safe in their perches among the trees that overlook the arena.
‘To the old stager there will seem to be nothing new. He may well imagine that he is watching last season’s crowd gathering again. He will see the same display of black and white favours, of black and white umbrellas, and even black and white top hat sand coats and trousers. He will hear the same hybrid twang that accompanies the wearers of the colours of Newcastle United, the twang that always seems to be a mixture of Scotch and Yankee; he will hear some good Yorkshire that is utterly intelligible to the man whose milk teeth have been cut elsewhere than in the broad acre. If he be a close observer, the old stager will note that the Yorkshire contingent is wearing the claret and amber of Bradford City, instead of the red and white of Barnsley. Otherwise he will see nothing that he did not see twelve months ago.
‘But to the novice in cup final football everything will be of interest. One’s first final at Crystal Palace is never forgotten. From early morn the crowds hurry through the turnstiles and a continuous stream of people invades every nook and corner of the Palace grounds.’
There was no doubt in anyone’s minds that final itself was a disappointing affair, but it wasn’t the first time that this had happened. However, Sporting Life was less than flattering of the occasion than most, the London broadsheet adopting a high-brow attitude towards the attendance that ‘ only numbered 69,800.’ The reason for this, for them, was obvious. ‘Bradford City is a club with practically little history. It has become one of the most powerful in the land but it has had a comparatively uneventful career. It is not yet a name to conjure with. There is no glamour about it.’ The writer perhaps failed to appreciate, or was maybe unaware of the club’s long history as Manningham Football Club in the Northern Union, and perhaps did not appreciate just how the club had managed to capture the imagination of the whole of the West Riding as its pioneering club took on the might of Newcastle United, cup holders and finalists on several occasions. What is clear, however, that the club was not yet regarded by all as part of the established order.
The newspaper was forced to remark, however, on the ‘extraordinary enthusiasm of the Bradford crowd’, claiming that claret and amber favours outnumbered those of the holders by twenty to one, ‘The great human ring…was ablaze with red and gold.’ The writer had perhaps not done his homework either.
The replayed final, at Old Trafford on Wednesday 26 th April aroused considerable interest too. Given that the match was much closer to home, there were special trains and other methods of travel again put on for the occasion. However, reports confirm that many of those who attended were from other parts of the region. Brighouse station was awash with fans boarding the 11.33 and 1.13 specials to Manchester, many of those doing so sporting the claret and amber of City. Not all will have made it into the ground however, with 66,000 inside, thousands were left outside when the gates were locked due to the ground capacity having been met.
Two day excursions and three half-day excursions were laid on at Halifax railway station, all said to be well patronised, and again by those bearing the colours of the City club. The trains had begun their journeys at Bradford, but extra carriages were put on at either Halifax or Sowerby Bridge en-route, with even the luggage vans full of standing passengers. A hundred or so spectators were left on the platform at Halifax when attempting to board the overcrowded 11.52, although they had only a few minutes to wait for the arrival of the next ‘special’, when they were told ‘Packed in the rear. Try to get in at front.’
Efforts to form a Halifax town team were already in full swing, and the occasion will only have added impetus and interest to proceedings. Ironically, a meeting of the ground committee of the Halifax & District Football Association regarding the purchase of the Sandhall ground was held the same evening, with plans in place to form a town team. In the meantime, without their own team, Calderdale’s football fans were clearly out for a City win.
Of course there was no bigger celebration of the cup final victory than in Bradford itself, and this too was reported widely around the nation. There was no doubting that the club had done the West Riding proud. The Yorkshire Evening Post report the following day waxed lyrical over the evening’s celebrations. In their story headlined ‘Bedlam in Bradford’ the story reported, ‘ Whew! What a night! There is a headache today in the mere recollection of those cheering, surging crowds, intoxicated with the joy of conquest, which thronged the principal streets of Bradford last night to do honour to their gallant football eleven, and to celebrate the great victory they had won. Was there a man in Bradford last night who didn’t turn out and raise his voice with the rest, nay, was there a woman or a child who did not witness the home-coming of the team with the famous English Cup?
‘The whole population was out: hot with excitement, delirious almost with joy, and with sheer wonder of the renown which was theirs. There could not have been a more impressive scene, a more whole-hearted and boisterous enthusiasm no matter what the cause. Truly, he who scoreth the goal was for one night at least ‘greater than he who taketh a city’. If Bradford had taken a whole nation of cities the reception accorded the warriors, one imagines, must have paled before the mighty burst of that great wave of pent up joy, which was like thunder in its volume and like sweetest music in its meaning, which greeted Captain Spiers and his men when they reached home with the English Cup, strenuously won. It was a night such as few, who were privileged to share in the orgie of it all, will ever forget.’
Charles Crump, the senior vice-president of the Football Association said, while presenting the cup to the victors, ‘I consider it a very wonderful thing that the West Riding of Yorkshire, where Association Football was scarcely known ten years ago, should for two years in succession have at team in the final tie – a great testimony to the determination of the Yorkshire people.’ He was actually half-right. Barnsley (founded in 1887) had lost the previous years’ final to Newcastle, but for footballing purposes was in the Sheffield & Hallamshire boundaries, and Association football was certainly much more than a decade old in the town. Bradford was a different matter, and it was testament to those who had made it happen.
Among the crowds that thronged around Bradford’s Exchange railway station, having spent much of the afternoon hanging around the various newspaper offices waiting for the latest information, were women wearing claret and amber tulips, as well as dozens with their concertinas, Jews’ Harps, Tommy talkers, rattles, big drums and little drums, mouth organs and tin whistles, with the Idle and Thackley Brass Band meanwhile doing their best to match the cacophony of sound. This was civic pride at its best, and it would not have been lost on those just down the road in Leeds who read the Evening Post in their thousands.
While reports into the relative merits of each team’s performance in the replay vary, the same Sporting Life saw it one way, ‘The strength of the winners was their determination and doggedness. The weakness of Newcastle United was their exceptional cleverness. The latter may appear paradoxical, but it is the literal truth. In the opening exchanges the Cupholders were – to use a well-understood phrase – streets ahead of their opponents in all the subtleties and finer points of the game. The Bradford players were in earnest, very much in earnest, and it was apparent that they had made up their minds to spoil the work of their opponents by dash and grit, and to a large extent they succeeded. And yet, while giving the fullest credit to the winners for the manner in which they defended when Newcastle were using all the tricks in their extensive repertoire, the losers did as much towards defeating themselves as Bradford did to achieve a sensational success.’
Rival newspaper, The Sportsman, provided a more positive outlook. Notwithstanding the fact that the replay was a much improved match in all respects, and with a positive outcome at last, reporting that ‘ it wasn’t that Newcastle United played much below their form … but simply because Bradford City put more life into their work, and declined to be kept upon the defensive so persistently.’
The following weekend, cinemas all over the region showed footage from the final ties, where the general public could make up their own minds. Few sports fans in the whole of the north of England could have missed the news of West Yorkshire’s first FA Cup win.
As sweet as victory was, it was recognised that this was a home-grown squad. With the sport still in its relative infancy in the district, it could hardly have been expected that a team of first class Bradfordians, or even Yorkshiremen, could at that stage have been raised. The team that comprised mainly of Scotsmen had enabled the West Riding strike a shot in the direction of the country’s leading teams, but sustaining such success – the club finished 5 th in the league that season – would have been dependent on local talent. What is clear however, is that the decision of Manningham Football Club to abandon the Northern Union less than a decade earlier had proved a resounding success. By the time war had broken out three years later, cross-city rivals at Park Avenue, who had followed Manningham’s lead by abandoning Northern Union in the Great Betrayal had not only joined City in the First Division, but actually finished above them in the 1914/15 season, while Leeds City and Huddersfield Town had established themselves in the Second Division, both with aspirations of matching the success achieved by the Bradford pioneers.
The fall from grace of both Bradford teams following the Great War is covered in vast detail in other publications, as are the changing fortunes of both Leeds (United) and Huddersfield clubs. Industrial decline affected Bradford more than most, and within a few years that head start in the Association game would count for nothing.
Rob Grillo [@RobGrillo] 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.
VINCIT provides an accessible go-to reference about all aspects of Bradford sport history and is neither code nor club specific. We encourage you to explore the site through the menu above.
Future planned articles on VINCIT will feature former BCAFC manager Jimmy Wheeler, the original development of Park Avenue in 1879-80; the history of sports journalism in Bradford; the politics of Odsal Stadium; the history of Bradford sports grounds and the history of crowd violence in Bradford.
Contributions and feedback are welcome.