Northern & Bulls, Odsal & Elsewhere

By Andrew Foster

Watching Bradford, for me, began with defeat and confusion. My uncle, who followed them home and away, took me along to the game against Wigan, at Valley Parade in April 1988. I took it as obvious that the city’s rugby club would play at the city’s football ground, and that it must be in the north of the city, otherwise why would they be called Northern?

My excuse was that I was seven (and a half). Now the club sits outside the city’s boundaries for the first time since 1863, and the befuddlement and misdeeds that led us there belong to people old enough to know better.

I loved watching Northern. In the early 90s we dodged relegation on points difference, then were denied the title on points difference in the space of three seasons. Peter Fox and his signings – Roy Powell, Deryck Fox, Dave Watson, Paul Dixon and Paul Newlove – transformed us from the worst side in the first division to, at times, the best. But there were already signs that things weren’t right for the club.

Our youth players never seemed to amount to much. Our crowds hovered around the 5k mark. Our near title-winning team dropped badly off the pace, losing to Leeds on four occasions inside five months, conceding 157 points to them along the way. Even before this, winning trophies or getting to Wembley seemed beyond us. Wigan knocked us out of the cup five years out of six between 1988 and 1993. And as much as I loved Odsal… on one occasion I came home from the game in tears, thinking my fingers were going to drop off, they were so cold.

Nonetheless, when I heard on the radio on the way to school that Northern were to become the Bulls, I was outraged. Outraged enough to write to the Telegraph and Argus, so you know it was serious. The club seemed determined to cock a snook at us – while other teams adopted traditional colours for the shortened Centenary season of 1995, we started wearing green, purple and yellow at home.

But then we were away at Leigh in the cup, and news drifted through that Wigan were losing at Salford. A favourable draw in the quarters led to a cathartic semi-final win over Leeds, the club’s first achievement of serious note since securing the title fifteen years previously. A glorious defeat at Wembley helped build the Bulls brand, and a revenge stuffing of Saints live on TV at a packed Odsal was followed by a stunning win with twelve men against Wigan seven days later. The title followed the next season – Northern were gone and the Bulls were here.

But Peter Deakin was soon gone too. The marketing man who believed the club and the game could be so much more had departed. Things started to creak. With the opportunity to make history by going the season unbeaten, we lost our final two games. The next season was a non-event, Shaun Edwards signing, departing, and then returning to chasten us twice with London Broncos.

Signing Henry Paul, then Lesley Vainikolo, and the emergence of the “Brad Pack” – Paul Deacon, Stuart Fielden, Jamie Peacock and Leon Pryce  – brought success back. Odsal looked great with 24k inside it for the first time in a generation… but for regular games it was showing its age. A deal was struck with Tesco’s and we decamped to Valley Parade for two years… only to return to a ground looking much like it did when we left. Stephen Byers called the scheme in for review, and Tesco’s withdrew their interest. St Helens had much better fortune with a very similar venture a few years later.

The Bulls won an unprecedented treble in 2003, and topped the attendance table too. But patchy results over the next two years saw the crowds start to drift away, when the hope was that they would grow further. The stay at Valley Parade had also seen crowds drop off, despite losing only two games there in two seasons. Bulls had taken on the lease, and the costs of operation for Odsal from Bradford council in return for a lump sum.

The team had what turned out to be a last true hurrah in 2005, with arguably the strongest 17 ever fielded by any Super League club taking the title back from Leeds. But that Grand Final was Peacock and Pryce’s last game for the club. Chairman Chris Caisley, Head Coach Brian Noble and Fielden all departed in the first half of 2006. A legal dispute with Leeds over the signing of Iestyn Harris dragged on.

All was not yet lost. Noble’s replacement, Steve McNamara had a plan – trust in youth. And time proved him right. At one point the Bulls had a hypothetical homegrown 17 that was capable of repeating the Treble: Sam, George and Tom Burgesses, Elliott Whitehead, John Bateman, James Bentley, Jake Trueman… an even richer crop than that which emerged at the turn of the Millennium. But by the time they should have been taking the field together, McNamara was long gone, and so were they.

The majority of Bulls fans were gladdened, thinking him not up to the task in hand. But it brought no significant uptick on the scoreboard, or through the turnstiles. The lease for Odsal was sold to the RFL and Bulls became tenants once again. It came as a shock but not a surprise when the club announced in March 2012 that they had to raise £500k from fans in a matter of days or face extinction.

The game rallied round, former players washed cars and auctioned off shirts and medals. The club was saved… till June, when it entered administration. Mick Potter continued as head coach unpaid and delivered an incredible backs to the wall win at Wigan. But this was one of several bright moments that while enjoyable at the time, only temporarily distracted from the descending gloom.

At one point, the Guardian reported that Caisley was to return as chairman, but instead Omar Khan ended up as the new owner. People speak positively about his intentions, but he was not to last long. Another administration led to a points deduction and relegation at the end of the 2014 season.

There could have been an immediate return under one of only three ever to win the Man of Steel as a Bradford player, Jimmy Lowes. But a missed Danny Addy penalty in the 2015 Million Pound Game was followed by a Wakefield try that resulted in the first consecutive season outside the top flight in the club’s history. An abject defeat at Featherstone that following year meant there would be a third… if there was a club to fulfil the fixtures.

By this point the owner was Marc Green, a Londoner and previous creditor of the club upon who League Express editor Martyn Sadler bizarrely bestowed his newspaper’s Man of the Year Award. Green had talked of his ambition to lead the Bulls out at Wembley, but instead of recreating 1949, 73 or 96, he instead turned the clock back to 1963. Bradford Bulls went into liquidation at the start of 2017.

Here was a chance at least for a fresh start. But under new owner Andrew Chalmers, the reborn club was placed in the championship with a points deduction and an inevitable further relegation. Promotion, albeit behind York, followed the next season, and an epic victory over Leeds in the cup gave hope a corner had turned. But the playoffs were missed again and Chalmers announced that the club would be leaving Odsal for Dewsbury, then bailed. A new ownership group consisting of “the family of Nigel Wood” and still-Dewsbury chairman Mark Sawyer took charge, with former Toronto Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez as acting chairman.

Now a stock car promoter is readying Odsal for the return of motorsports and the Bulls’ return seems inevitable too. But it will be to a ground not much different to that which I stood in as an eight year old. Nigel Wood clearly has questions to answer, about when his involvement with the club began, and how he justifies the decisions he took to first purchase the lease on Odsal and then award the club to Chalmers when he was RFL CEO. But at the time of writing, he has refused all media interviews, and the Bradford Telegraph and Argus and League Express newspapers, the only two media outlets who still profess any interest in the Bulls, have no appetite to press for them.

What I have seen since 1988 is that a Bradford rugby league club can be successful, beyond trophies – can attract consistent five figure gates, can provide a path for young Bradfordians (both boys and girls now) to achieve on the world stage, as the Whitehead of West Bowling and Bateman of Dudley Hill have done before them. But for those things to happen requires 21st century facilities in South Bradford, and a competent back office. I won’t hold my breath for either.

Andrew Foster is an education consultant, now living in London. He has written for League Express, Rugby League World, Forty20, and was the founder and editor of the RedAmberandBlack Bradford Bulls fansite. Follow him on Twitter – @andrewfoster101

Contributions to VINCIT are welcome. We are code agnostic and feature any sport or club with a Bradford heritage. Links from the drop down menu above including features on the history of rugby in Bradford. (A forthcoming feature on VINCIT will examine the history of the Birch Lane ground adopted by Bradford Northern before moving to Odsal in 1934.)

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