Aside from Bradford City’s glorious triumph in the 1911 FA Cup Final, I would give a personal view that the two seasons immediately prior & after the carnage of the Great War would be the ‘high water mark’ of Bradford football. Of course, Bradford City’s return to top flight football after a long period of over 70 years deserves mention & merit but it was a fleeting relationship of only two years.
The 1914-15 saw Bradford with two clubs in the countries top Division. Bradford City had established themselves as one of the countries leading clubs with the FA Cup victory a huge plus on their CV. They were known as a side difficult to beat, strong in defence but with players of flair able to play on the counter attack. Add to this, Bradford Park Avenue had achieved promotion in 1913-14 and more than established themselves in the higher division with a superb 9th place finish.
The oncoming conflict consumed everyone and despite playing the 1914-15 season to a conclusion, the Football League finally bowed to unyielding pressure and suspended its competition. Hundreds of players lost their best years to the War and even more tragically, hundreds lost their lives.
Football carried on the best it could with Regional Wartime Leagues providing a boost in morale for the war-weary population who had realised that the conflict wasn’t going to be over by Christmas but had developed into an attritional stalemate without a forseeable end. Some clubs tried to carry on but then decided to ‘shut down’ for the duration. The rest carried on with any available players they could get along with ‘guests’ from other clubs who were maybe stationed nearby supplemented by promising local players & youngsters.
At the end of the conflict, the League decreed that it would resume for the 1919-20 season. Despite the euphoria of final victory, four years of carnage had taken its toll on the whole population. Everyone carried a dark shadow around with memories of Family, friends or colleagues who were no longer with us. Football wise, both the Bradford clubs lost players to the War, fan favourites whose talents would never be seen again on the pitch. Park Avenue had lost their popular Centre Forward Jimmy Smith who fell late in 1918 shortly before he was due back in Bradford to be married and Donald Bell whose courage in the field of battle saw him awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour.
For the new season, Avenue showed admirable loyalty to the players who had reached their high point pre-WW1. The squad was mostly the same with the sadly missing Smith replaced by Scottish goalgetter David McLean signed from Sheffield Wednesday for a huge fee at the time of £2000.
The core of these players, the likes of Scattergood, Blackham, Howie, Little, Bauchop, Scott, Dickinson,Crozier & McCandless were added to by exciting wartime find Bob Turnbull who would win an England Cap whilst at Avenue. As reflected, a good solid season was had boosted by a mid-season ten game unbeaten run. A portent of what was to come saw a run at the end of five losses in the last eight games. Were the players running out of steam? Had they finally been found out at the highest class?
A far bigger mortal blow was the premature death of Avenue Chairman & major benefactor Harry Briggs in March 1920. Briggs had been the driving force behind the development of the Park Avenue ground and the rise to prominence of the Bradford Rugby Club to be one of the finest in the land. He had also noticed the progress of crosstown rivals Manningham FC after their change to Association football under the name of Bradford City. He saw the attendances at Valley Parade start to outstrip those at Park Avenue and decided he wanted his club to have a piece of the pie. He was behind the change to Soccer at Park Avenue and a couple of years later a significant figure in amalgamation talks between the two clubs to create one club to represent Bradford which was ultimately unsuccessful. Looking back from today & putting aside our partisan & parochial feelings of whether we are ‘City’ or ‘Avenue’ the amalgamation would possibly have created a much stronger club able to survive at the top level & generations of Bradfordians might have been spared decades of mediocrity & despair. As an aside, he was one of the first owners of a Rolls-Royce and it was said he was the person that introduced Mr Rolls to Mr Royce & was one of the early investors in their fledgling company.
The death of Harry Briggs must have ripped the heart out of the club. Not only was he the undisputed leader of the club but their major benefactor. Until the appearance of the Waddilove family on the Board, the club appeared rudderless for several years culminating in the double relegation of the early 20s.
Secretary-Manager Tom Maley had to try & maintain the clubs progress but the team was getting old, any replacements weren’t ready or indeed up to the standard required. The 1920-21 season would be Avenues last in the top flight of English football. A run of just 2 wins & 14 losses between September & January set them adrift at the foot of the table. Despite a fine return of 22 goals by David McLean, the team never managed an unbeaten run of more than three games all season and that was in the first month. No other player hit double figures and again due to events off the field, Maley relied on the old guard with none of the new signings making much of an impression. The season also saw the end of one of the original stalwarts as forward Tommy Little left the club after over 200 appearances & over 100 goals, the first Avenue player to achieve such a feat. He wasn’t replaced as Avenue floundered and finally succumbed to the inevitable relegation to Division 2.
That Bradford City remained in the top division & the rise to the very top of Huddersfield Town had begun left Avenue feeling knocked down the pecking order in Yorkshire football. With relegation brought the inevitable fall in attendances, coupled with the lack of financial clout from about left Avenue once again relying on the old guard, a year older, most of them now in their mid 30s. The new season began ominously with three defeats which soon brought back to Earth any hopes of an immediate return. Although the team never suffered any long winless runs, nevertheless, consistency was hard to achieve. An early season injury to main goal threat McLean meant he didn’t appear in the team until November his place taken on several occasions by his younger Brother George who would in the future become an Avenue legend in his own right but this season was before his time. The main goalscoring duties being shouldered by Jimmy Bauchop and even Goalkeeper Ernie Scattergood weighed in with 3 of his own from the penalty spot. Of the newcomers, only Bradford born Harold Peel made any lasting impression and Centre Half Gerald Fell was solid although he arrived too late in the season to stop the inevitable. One interesting debutant was a young man named Harold Taylor just starting a long career, his claim to fame was being a member of the victorious Bradford Boys team in 1916.
The team ended the season in the penultimate position to give the club an unwanted record of being the first club in League history to suffer consecutive relegations. Descent into the 3rd level finally meant the end for a few of the reliable older players who had served the club so well for many years. Only Scattergood & Howie remained for the new season although McCandless started the new campaign he didn’t last long. New blood like the younger McLean & Tom Brandon added new & much needed energy alongside the ever reliable Bob Turnbull & the emerging Harold Peel saw Avenue at last challenging at the top of the table although with only the Champions promoted it was an unforgiving league and Avenue were pipped to the title by Lancashire neighbours Nelson managed by former City defender & Oldham stalwart David Wilson. It was to the team from Seedhill’s finest hour as they came straight back down the year after.
As the Waddilove family took control of the club , finances improved and Avenue became a sold side as the changing of the guard continued both on & off the pitch although it wasn’t until 1927-28 that they finally returned to the 2nd level.
As with all clubs, the fall out of the Great War stopped the club in its tracks. What could the club have achieved but for the conflict & the untimely death of their main benefactor? A noble & loyal over reliance on the old players was in retrospect a backward step as was the failure to replace them with the quality needed. Avenue would never again reach the heights of their pre-war team and indeed with City’s relegation in 1921-22, it would be a long 77 years before Bradford would enjoy top class football again although in the 1930s, Avenue did have a couple of close shaves with a promotion race but an all too familiar trend of selling off the best talent had the effect of not quite getting the club over the line. 1919-22 was a sad & sobering end to the clubs Golden Age as a top team & it was a credit to those involved that the club could overcome such a calamity to become a very solid club much loved in the late 20s & 1930s respected throughout the league.
By Ian Hemmens Tweets: @IHemmens
Thanks to Bradford PA historian Tim Clapham for his input
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