Bradford City AFC, 1903-2023: What would the founders say?

An alternative history of BCAFC with embedded links to other features on VINCIT that provide further information.

On 25th May, 1903 a delegation comprising Messrs James Whyte, Arnold Foxcroft, John Brunt and John Fattorini attended the Annual General Meeting of the Football League to make the case for ‘Bradford City AFC’ to be elected to the Football League. In the ballot of existing clubs, Bradford City was elected to membership in place of Doncaster Rovers. The voting was as follows: Bradford City 30; Stockport County 20; Burnley 19; Doncaster Rovers 14; Crewe Alexandra 7; West Hartlepool 7; Southport Central 4; and Wellington 1.

That evening, with the exception of John Brunt who remained in London they returned to Bradford to report the successful outcome at the Belle Vue Hotel at a meeting chaired by Alfred Ayrton and attended by the Manningham FC committee, prominent supporters and old rugby players numbering around 160 in total. The formation was to be achieved by Manningham FC abandoning rugby at Valley Parade and switching to association football. Elected to the Football League without ever having played a game of soccer and prior to the formal agreement of the Manningham FC members to abandon rugby (which was not confirmed until five days later), it was a remarkable birth all the more so for the fact that the nascent Bradford City AFC had virtually no assets let alone any players.

The delegates were all senior members of the Bradford & District Football Association which had been formed in 1899 to promote soccer in what was a rugby stronghold. Behind the scenes, committee members of Manningham FC had been actively involved in the Bradford City project led by the club president, Alfred Ayrton and included former (rugby) players Ike Newton and Harry Jowett as well as businessman, Arthur Lancaster and John Nunn, a local sporting celebrity.

The club’s founders had high expectations and the fact that Bradford City AFC won the FA Cup just eight years later surely validated their original convictions. Imagine then that the leading personalities from 1903 could reconvene in the old club rooms at the Belle Vue Hotel opposite Valley Parade to reflect on the fate of Bradford City AFC and ask how it was that 120 years later, the club found itself in the basement division?

When it began

There was no shortage of self-belief in Bradford at the turn of the twentieth century. It was a city with a strong can-do mentality and pluck, where people boasted of a ‘work hard, play hard’ culture. To outsiders, successful Bradford businessmen and dignitaries were often considered arrogant and self-confident to a degree that bordered on expressions of entitlement. Bradfordians were also known as stubborn. Bradford was, after all, a place where considerable fortunes had been made and a town that had grown out of nothing from a population of just 13,264 in 1801 to 145,830 in 1871. The grand Victorian architecture in the centre of Bradford was not just a reflection of the wealth of the district but also a statement that this was a place to be reckoned with. And when city status was finally granted in 1897, Bradford was given recognition of its importance and significance as a major trading centre.

In the final quarter of the nineteenth century Bradford had already established for itself a reputation for sporting excellence and endeavour. The pioneering sports journalist, Alfred Pullin oft wrote about the strong sports culture in Bradford and the extent of grass roots participation in activities as diverse as rugby, cricket, athletics or cycling. In particular Bradford was known as a rugby stronghold from the exploits of its two senior clubs, Bradford FC and Manningham FC. (Bradford’s rugby heritage) Prior to the split in English rugby in 1895, Bradford FC at Park Avenue had established a reputation as one of the strongest clubs in Great Britain and in 1890 the club had even been talked of as the richest football club in England.

Manningham FC and Bradford FC had been fierce rivals with distinct personalities. The two had more in common than their supporters might care to admit but Manningham FC had always seen itself as the underdog whereas Bradford FC had defined itself as the senior club in the town, accused of a ‘high and mighty’ outlook. Their respective grounds were the basis of their identities: Park Avenue was the grand cathedral of sport in Bradford whereas Valley Parade was the functional, no frills chapel but it was physical geography as opposed to religion or politics that tended to define allegiance. (Background about the City / Avenue rivalry) The underdog mentality was inherited by the new Bradford City AFC which saw itself fighting against the odds and it was fitting that in 1908 a bantam had been proposed as the club identity by Toni Fattorini on account of it being known as a small fighting bird that was not afraid to tackle much bigger rivals.

The growth of association football and the launch of the Football League in 1888 had bypassed Bradford which was an area where rugby dominated. In 1895 both Manningham FC and Bradford FC had become founder members of the new Northern Union (that later became known as the Rugby League) and in fact Manningham FC were inaugural champions of the new competition. By 1903 however, the Northern Union was no longer as popular and Manningham FC was struggling in its second division. Conversion to association football provided Manningham FC with the opportunity to avoid financial collapse and to become Bradford’s sole representative in a prestigious national competition. In turn the leadership of the Football League was anxious to have a member based in the existing rugby stronghold of West Yorkshire.

The launch of Bradford City AFC was thus an opportunist measure to both safeguard the future of Manningham FC as an institution and to launch professional (association) football in Bradford. On the part of the founders and the Football League Management Committee, the focus was on Manningham abandoning rugby and gaining election to the Football League. There was no business plan as such for what happened once this was achieved and nor was there a wealthy industrialist or benefactor ready to bankroll the new venture. Instead, it was assumed that when the new club was launched things would somehow take care of themselves. The issue of finance was almost incidental and something to worry about later. It was taken for granted that the catchment of the Bradford district would guarantee the club’s viability.

For the Valley Parade committee, conversion to association football in 1903 had as much to do with representing Bradford at a senior level in the sport as it was about being a pioneering West Yorkshire soccer club and encouraging local interest in the round ball game. The latter was a cause that the new club embraced with an almost messianic zeal and the founders would likely recall the effort invested in those early years through exhibition games and links with the Bradford & District FA. The founders would look upon the club’s current community initiatives and football camps as a natural successor to their original efforts. However, at no stage was women’s football a consideration for the founders. Mindful that this is now a big theme for the future of the sport, the extent to which Bradford City has helped promote local women’s football in the modern era would be topical for discussion.  (The origins of women’s football in Bradford)

Formative early years

Looking back, the outcome of the merger referendum in 1907 dictated the course of football history in Bradford. This had been to decide whether Bradford City should remain independent at Valley Parade or move across to Park Avenue and combine resources with Bradford FC.

By voting against merger, the City membership had secured the independence of the club and its Valley Parade home but had also denied themselves the use of the city’s premier stadium – Park Avenue – and the largesse of the Park Avenue benefactor, Harry Briggs. Yet whilst the City committee was broadly united at being unimpressed about how Briggs dominated the affairs of the Bradford Cricket, Athletic & Football Club, in 1907 they differed between themselves in terms of whether joining forces with Briggs was a risk worth taking. It was indeed a divisive issue that had threatened the unity of Bradford City and its supporters. However, by going alone the club committed itself to the financial burden of developing Valley Parade, investment in new players as well as losing monopoly status in Bradford as a consequence of Briggs launching his own club at Park Avenue in direct competition.

The club had never found itself a rich benefactor like Harry Briggs and became reliant instead upon a combination of share capital, borrowings and making a profit to remain solvent. It was a precarious existence as the founders had discovered for themselves and they would observe that the club had remained under-capitalised throughout. In 1906 the club came close to insolvency and had required Alfred Ayrton to keep it afloat with a temporary loan. The founders would likely highlight that until Stefan Rupp invested in Bradford City in 2016 there had never been a single individual who had committed his personal wealth to the affairs of the club. Indeed, there had been a similar story at Park Avenue after the death of Briggs in 1920 where a replacement benefactor had never come forth. The founders would note that other than Briggs, no other wealthy Bradfordian had been prepared to dig deep and give his financial backing to the cause of professional football in the city.

Historically, Manningham FC which had been founded in 1880 prided itself that it was not beholden to a single individual as was the case across the city at Park Avenue. The club had also been averse to debt and as a consequence its financial security had been dependent upon the combination of annual member subscriptions and gate receipts. The consequence was that Manningham FC had never had the luxury of a buffer fund that could be relied upon in times of difficulty or to fund major projects such as ground development.

With hindsight the founders would agree that in 1903 there had been a degree of naivety that Bradford City AFC could be managed in much the same way as Manningham FC, not only in terms of its finances but with team selection determined by committee (In 1903 for example the team selection committee comprised John Brunt, John Fattorini, Arnold Foxcroft, James Whyte and Alfred Ayrton). Manningham FC had been a members’ club with members paying an annual subscription and one vote per member to elect the composition of a leadership committee.    

Rivalry with the Bradford club at Park Avenue had always been a factor for the partisan Manningham supporters who lived in constant fear of being overshadowed. It seems unlikely that a Manningham FC committee meeting at Valley Parade had passed without consideration of what was happening across the city in Little Horton. That insecurity had been renewed when it became known that Harry Briggs was looking to abandon rugby for association football but it continued for the best part of another seventy years. It could even be said that ascendancy over Bradford became the benchmark of success and a distraction. Newton and Nunn in particular would celebrate the fact that Bradford City AFC had remained at Valley Parade and they would be satisfied that the successor of Manningham FC had finally vanquished the Park Avenue rivals even if it was a pyrrhic triumph.

With the passage of time the founders might share a joke about heated meetings of the membership and the club politics of Manningham FC; about the disagreements between committee members and the struggle to keep the club afloat before rugby was finally abandoned. They would likely comment about things having remained pretty much unchanged during the first few years of the life of Bradford City AFC and how it continued to be difficult to make executive decisions.

A legacy of the rugby tradition in the district was the absence of established feeder clubs. In its formative years the club was therefore wholly reliant upon transfers in the absence of home-grown players which had financial implications. This was exemplified famously by the fact that the team that won the FA Cup in 1911 comprised eight Scotsmen, one Irishmen and two Englishmen from Nottingham.

No-one could claim that it had been easy after the launch of Bradford City in 1903 and during the first four years there had been major disagreements between the founders as to how the club should be run. Inevitably, frustrations at the limited progress made in its first few seasons as well as the state of Valley Parade had come back to the contentious issue of money. Newspaper reports of club meetings were a reminder of how finance had dominated meetings of the leadership committee. Alfred Ayrton, the man who had been called upon to rescue Manningham FC in 1899 at a time of financial difficulty, made no secret of his frustration about Bradford City’s financial affairs.

Opponents of merger had claimed that by issuing shares in the club it would be possible to derive financial stability. However, when this had been attempted in 1908 the outcome had proved a considerable disappointment that failed to raise sufficient capital and of the targeted £7,000 only £3,814 had been secured. Observers at the time contended that the merger debate had undermined the share issue. The fact that respected City personalities such as Alfred Ayrton and Tom Paton had argued during the course of the contentious merger debate that Bradford could not afford two football clubs and that merger was the best option could hardly have been interpreted as encouragement for people to buy shares. On his part Ayrton had always been sceptical that a share issue would be successful and so it proved.

Another factor that may have influenced attitudes about the purchase of shares had been the high incidence of financial failure among rugby clubs in West Yorkshire at the turn of the century which was hardly inducive to encourage potential investors to dabble in football capitalism. Indeed, the failure of such clubs had been accompanied by pitiful reports of inadequate financial control. (The story here of junior rugby clubs in the Bradford district.) In 1906 something similar was being written about the way things were managed at Valley Parade and as a consequence the press coverage of Bradford City’s affairs would have made people wary about investing.

Other than City supporters themselves, it was clear that in 1908 insufficient people had been convinced of the business case to invest in the club. The founders could reasonably ask if this outlook ever changed at Valley Parade and whether subsequent regimes had themselves been more successful at promoting share ownership. They would be told of the efforts of the Bradford City Shareholders and Supporters Association established in 1921 with the objective of encouraging new investment in the club and learn of its limited success other than to encourage supporters themselves to increase their commitment. In 1999 Geoffrey Richmond had planned an issue of shares to raise between £10-15m to help fund team strengthening. That plan was aborted shortly after the club secured promotion to the Premier League with stock market analysts quoted to the effect that the image of Bradford was ‘not sexy enough’ to attract interest. The founders would note how the club had remained reliant upon the fundraising of supporters themselves to remain solvent and avoid collapse when it faced recurring financial crises.

The golden era, 1908-15

The share issue was accompanied by the incorporation of the club as a limited company in 1908 and thereafter Bradford City began to be managed in a much different way to that previously. With the redevelopment of Valley Parade, at last the club had the self-respect of a decent stadium even if the pitch would continue to be known for its poor drainage. By 1908 the amount that had been spent on the ground was around £15,000 (c£15m in today’s money) and the bulk of this had had to be funded out of operating receipts, a not insignificant commitment. (The development of Valley Parade, 1886-1908)

By 1908, of the original founders only Lancaster, Newton and Nunn remained involved in a leadership position at Valley Parade which demonstrated the continuing influence of senior figures from the days of Manningham FC, long after rugby had been abandoned at Valley Parade.  The merger debate was divisive but the outcome had been determined by a two to one majority and the founders would agree that it had allowed a line to be drawn. Crucially there was also the assurance from the club’s landlord, the Midland Railway that the Valley Parade site could continue to be used for football.

The certainty provided by the merger decision helped to establish a momentum that resulted in Division Two championship success in 1907/08 and further self-belief came the season after when the club was able to consolidate its place in Division One. Parallels might be drawn with the experience in 1997 or 2000 when the club similarly avoided relegation on the last day of the season having been promoted the previous year. The same positivity came from promotions in 1929, 1969, 1977, 1982 or even 2013 and in 1985 for instance there was a tangible spirit of solidarity among players and supporters alike that fed into a sense of purpose, not dissimilar to that of the golden era.

Undoubtedly the success of 1911 built upon the club’s momentum but what helped to sustain it were the changes behind the scenes at Valley Parade. For a start the club had become more professional in its affairs and one man in particular, Peter O’Rourke played a big part in this as Secretary-Manager who was engaged in a full-time role and even lived adjacent to the ground on Burlington Terrace. And notably, O’Rourke was given responsibility alone for team selection. It was no coincidence that as the longest-serving manager in the club’s history (1905-21 and 1928-30) he was also the most successful and in this regard the founders would note that in the history of the club only five others (David Menzies, 1921-26; Jack Peart, 1930-35; Peter Jackson, 1955-61; Trevor Cherry, 1982-87; and Phil Parkinson, 2011-16) have served as managers for more than four years in peacetime with the average tenure of the others in the post-war period being around 18 months. Was it also a coincidence that longer serving managers such as Trevor Cherry and Phil Parkinson could boast having achieved more in their tenures at Valley Parade?

Even O’Rourke had not been successful at first but the club had stood by him. His eventual success came from building a team around a strong defence and demanding a hard work rate from his players. He was clearly an excellent motivator but was also not averse to wheeler-dealing in the transfer market, prepared to make unsentimental decisions such as the sale of FA Cup goal scorer Jimmy Speirs to Leeds City in 1912. Yet O’Rourke did not have the luxury of a big transfer pot and was forced to recoup his expenditure from player sales. His ability to source new talent ultimately came from the assistance of Tom Paton (The forgotten man of Glorious 1911, Thomas Paton).

Tom Paton’s contribution to Bradford City was immeasurable and the founders would likely highlight that he has been the forgotten man of ‘Glorious 1911’ when City won the FA Cup. The share issue had contributed towards the redevelopment of Valley Parade but was insufficient to provide a war chest for player signings and that is precisely why Paton was so important to the club. His network in Scottish football allowed City to overcome its disadvantages of (i) not being able to compete head-on with larger clubs to sign established players; (ii) the club’s lack of youth development; and (iii) the absence of local feeder clubs in West Yorkshire. Had it not been for him and Peter O’Rourke it is questionable whether the club could ever have transformed itself after 1907 and enjoyed its golden era. Never was the combination of O’Rourke and Paton repeated at Valley Parade although ironically their reunion in 1928 was a big part of the Division Three (North) championship success in 1928/29.

Tom Paton’s connection with Bradford City was by chance and arose from his original employment in the city where he eventually launched his own accountancy practice. The founders might reminisce about the network of successful businessmen who had been eager to get involved with Bradford City AFC, particularly after its promotion to Division One when the club had been fashionable and enjoyed social cachet. All of this reinforced the self-belief of the club and a sense of destiny. The highpoint was the prestige and respectability that came from victory in 1911 with the club serving as a proud ambassador for the city. If Bradford FC had been known as the town’s club, it was Bradford City who inherited the status of the civic side as the naming of the club as ‘City’ had intended. By contrast, Bradford (Park Avenue) would come to be regarded as the plaything of Harry Briggs and the club remained in the shadow of Bradford City. The help and support provided to the club by its network of friends was invaluable – even if it stopped short of overt funding – and it would be recalled that many of those connections had been reinforced through freemasonry contacts.

When things started to go wrong

Long before the original founders had all died Bradford City AFC had fallen far from the top. For the club to be in the fourth tier in 2023 is therefore hardly anything new. In their hearts the founders would be disappointed at the discovery that the club remains in the wilderness but would they be surprised?

Membership of the top tier had originally been lost in 1922 and by 1927 the Paraders (as the club tended to be referred to in the press) found themselves in Division Three (North). The collapse mirrored that of Bradford (Park Avenue) who had been relegated from Division One in 1921 and then from Division Two in 1922. The 1920s proved to be a difficult decade for the district and local business leaders were more pre-occupied with the survival of their own enterprises than either gifting money or guaranteeing the borrowings of two failing football clubs.

Notwithstanding a successful championship season in 1928/29 that had rekindled memories of the golden era before World War One, City managed only eight seasons in the second division before returning once more to the basement tier in 1937. And the low point had come in 1949 when Bradford City finished bottom of Division Three (North), the ultimate indignity only 27 years after being a top-flight side.

Long before the modern era Bradford City had discovered that escaping from the lower divisions was particularly difficult. Even in the 1920s the club was sensitive to the growing inequalities between clubs at either end of the football pyramid. In the last hundred years that gulf has grown exponentially to make talk of competition between equals nonsensical.

The founders might dwell on the managerial failings that led to relegation in 1926/27 and then ten years later in 1936/37. In both cases the club was managed by men respected in the football world of that time and both had been considered credible appointments: Colin Veitch (August, 1926 – January, 1927) had been a celebrity player at Newcastle United before World War One and had played against City in the 1911 FA Cup Final whilst Dick Ray (April, 1935 – February, 1938) had a good managerial record with both Doncaster and then Leeds. In neither case were they able to reverse a downward slide and both would point to financial restrictions placed upon them, in particular Veitch whose tenure was at a time when the club was in acute difficulty that had required a radical restructuring of its debts in the 1927 close season. The fact that the club had come so close to insolvency in that year – which would have had considerable personal consequences for the directors and guarantors – had a major psychological impact on those in charge at Valley Parade who became distinctly risk averse. When Dick Ray took over from Jack Peart at Valley Parade he inherited a demoralised club and narrowly avoided relegation at the end of the 1934/35 season. He attempted to rebuild the team through reliance on a combination of juniors and recruits from his former club but financial pressures dictated that he was forced to sell most of his promising players and it was a measure of their talent that they made names for themselves elsewhere.

Arguably the outbreak of war in 1939 had scuppered any prospect of building a side capable of challenging for promotion from Division Three (North). Thus the club had found itself trapped in the third tier where it remained until the restructuring of the Football League in 1958 and the formation of new national third and fourth divisions. City did not escape from the lower divisions until 1985 but in the 27 seasons prior to that, all but 10 were spent in the fourth division basement.

It would be disingenuous for the founders to claim that they were not familiar with the accident of history because the declaration of war in 1914 had similarly impacted the club. For instance, during that close season the club had spent heavily in new signings and the outbreak of hostilities would significantly undermine the opportunity to recoup that investment. As in 1946, by the time that peacetime football recommenced in 1919, Bradford City AFC was heavily indebted and unable to afford the extent of team rebuilding that was necessary.

Life at the bottom

Had they been alive, the founders would have probably recognised similarities at Valley Parade at the time of the club’s 50th anniversary in 1953 with the early years of the club’s existence. Essentially Bradford City AFC was impoverished and operated from week to week at the mercy of game cancellations or a poor cup draw and the bonus of player sales. The lack of financial stability conspired against longer-term planning, transfer payments or overdue expenditure on ground improvements. In the case of Valley Parade, the Midland Stand built in 1908 that had been designed by the famous architect Archibald Leitch had been condemned and because the club could not afford its immediate demolition it was taken down in stages between 1949-52. Additionally, the Main Stand on South Parade had persistent problems with a leaking roof.

Not surprisingly, ambitions were revised and the measure of success was to finish above Bradford (Park Avenue) in the league. Until the involvement of Stafford Heginbotham at Valley Parade in 1965 the pre-occupation of the directors was essentially the survival of the club rather than advancement. (Feature on VINCIT about the doldrums of the 1950s .)

Whilst the club had enjoyed a reboot in 1907 which led to an era of success why had something similar never come about in subsequent decades and why had it taken 48 years (ie 1937-85) to escape the lower divisions? The answer once more was about finance. With each succeeding decade, the proposition of investing in Bradford football generally, let alone Bradford City had been increasingly unattractive. And with each decade the inequalities and gulf between the resources of Bradford City and much bigger clubs had widened.

Bradford (Park Avenue) had lost its place in Division Two in 1950 and twenty years later had failed to gain re-election to the Football League which marked the end of the Harry Briggs folly. (The final demise of Bradford (Park Avenue)) In 1973 the club had vacated Park Avenue to share at Valley Parade, a phenomenon that might have surprised the founders as previously unthinkable. After the death of Briggs in March, 1920 his club had struggled to remain solvent and by 1953 there was again talk of Bradford’s collapse. In 1974 Bradford (Park Avenue) had finally been liquidated. The nadir for Bradford football had come in the 1960s when both sides were in the basement division and their financial record was toxic. If in the late nineteenth century Bradford had been known as a centre of sporting excellence, the opposite had become the case by the 1960s with all three of the city’s professional football clubs – Bradford City, Bradford (PA) and Bradford Northern – basket cases in extreme financial difficulty. (The story of Bradford City’s struggles in Division Four in the 1960s)

In the early years Bradford City had been supported by people across West Yorkshire as the pioneering club in the area. In later years the club became vulnerable to the same phenomenon in reverse as competing attractions emerged elsewhere. For example, the rise of a successful side in Leeds under Don Revie in the 1960s attracted support from people in Bradford, much the same as the emergence of Huddersfield Town as a leading side in the inter-war period had impacted on attendances at Valley Parade and Park Avenue.

Bradford City was also vulnerable to competing attractions within the district. For instance, different clubs in Bradford came in and out of fashion: the ascendancy of Bradford Rugby (Union) in the 1920s; the attraction of Bradford Northern at Odsal in the late 1930s and immediately after the war as well as the ascendancy of Avenue on the back of FA Cup excitement in the late 1940s. Once lost it became extremely difficult to entice back former customers and the Bradford public proved footloose with a considerable proportion of floating supporters who followed each club in turn.

The appointment at Valley Parade in 1965 of a new chairman, Stafford Heginbotham brought charismatic leadership to the club and promotion in 1969 for the first time in forty years but his turnaround was ultimately undone by lack of financial resources. Thus in 1972 Bradford City AFC found itself back in Division Four. The lesson, as in pre-war years when there had been the flicker of a revival was that success could not be built on sand and that it needed deeper resources.

Even if the club could call upon the goodwill of successful Bradford entrepreneurs there was a limit as to how many were prepared to risk their personal assets and at what level. With successive generations the substance of local businessmen capable and willing to guarantee the club’s debts gradually diminished. Gradually it became both unfashionable and financially risky to be involved with Bradford City. Those joining the board did so for all the right emotional reasons but few if any had the surplus funds or for that matter the wherewithal and nous to make a difference. It meant that financial survival at Valley Parade continued to be about selling players, the benefit of a cup run or cutting corners.

The cost of Valley Parade

The physical geography of Bradford has always made it difficult to find a location for a stadium that was accessible. After the fire disaster in 1985 the directors struggled to identify a credible alternative site and the same would be the case nowadays. Even in 1907 when the Bradford City leadership considered relocation, the best that they could come up with was the Clock House Estate (now occupied by Bradford Grammar School). The advantage of Valley Parade in 1886 when Manningham FC had needed to find a new ground was that it was a vacant site in proximity to the centre of town and with good rail links but it was far from ideal. Occupation of a stadium built into a hillside had significant financial implications for Manningham FC and its successor, Bradford City AFC because not only was Valley Parade more difficult and costly to develop and maintain than comparable flat sites, it also posed unique drainage issues. For just about every succeeding regime at Bradford City AFC, Valley Parade has been an expensive problem. By the 1920s for example the ground was already starting to look tired and the club faced the expense of rectifying the lack of upkeep during the war. By the 1950s the club had to deal with replacement of the Midland Road stand and it was not until the current stand was built in 1996 that the matter was properly resolved. Accordingly, the founders would recognise the financial burden posed by the Valley Parade site and sympathise with their successors in charge of the club.

Running the club on the cheap was not only at the expense of longer term planning because in 1985 it could be attributed as a cumulative factor behind the fire disaster at Valley Parade. The founders recalled the challenge of providing covered accommodation at Valley Parade and that it was not until January 1904 that the original wooden grandstand on the South Parade side of the ground had been covered. Because the club lacked security of tenure and did not own the Valley Parade site the dilemma was that it could not erect a permanent structure. Hence in 1907 the criteria was that any new stand should be of a transferable nature as a contingency measure in case the club was forced to relocate. During the 1907 close season the existing stand was extended along the full length of the pitch and completed in time for the fixture with West Bromwich Albion in November, 1907. It was that stand which burnt down in 1985.

The Main Stand structure had provided a quick solution to the need for additional covered accommodation at Valley Parade and it was claimed that it had a capacity of 12,000 of which 5,000 were seated but the minimal facilities and lack of dressing rooms hardly made it worthy of being described as a grandstand. The founders would likely acknowledge that even by contemporary standards in 1907 it was considered basic and protest that the predominant use of wood was a cheaper (and transportable) option compared to concrete. It was nonetheless a potential fire trap and there were at least two documented instances of fires in the main stand prior to 1985 as told on the blog of the author. The irony is that the stand had always been considered a temporary structure, constructed as cheaply and quickly as possible with the intention of eventual replacement by a cantilever stand. In fact plans had been prepared to develop a cantilever stand on South Parade but were finally abandoned in 1921 when it was clear that it could not be afforded.

The founders would therefore be surprised by the scale of the current stadium and not unreasonably, they would question how it had been paid for. The answer to that is quite simple because in practice, much of the cost of Valley Parade was suffered by creditors in the insolvency of 2002 because they were never paid in full. Furthermore, the extent of the current rental payments is such that they effectively incorporate a contribution to the development value of the stadium from that time. Whilst the club has incurred a significant rental burden since 2004, in all probability it would have had to pay much more if it had paid all that was due instead of relying upon an insolvency process to write-off a good chunk of its liabilities. If you then go back to 1986, the club benefited from the dissolution of the West Yorkshire County authority which helped fund the rebuilding of the ground. In other words, for all the wrong reasons Bradford City AFC has ended up with a stadium far bigger than it could have self-funded and for that matter, far bigger than it ever needed. The founders would be dazzled by such alchemy.

(Of course the founders would have known nothing about Odsal but it would have provided an interesting interlude for them to hear of the plans that had been made in the last ninety years and of why they never came to fruition. They would likely remark on the continuing ‘Valley Parade sentiment’ that made City fans resistant to any suggestion of the club relocating, much the same as the strength of feeling in 1907.)

What then of the modern era?

The demise of Bradford (Park Avenue) removed an erstwhile competitor and mention of this would undoubtedly have brought a chuckle among certain of the founders. Nevertheless, it had taken time before Bradford City reaped the advantage of having the city to itself and a generation before the old enmity was forgotten. (Read here about following BCAFC in the 1980s and 1990s.) The redevelopment of Valley Parade in 1986 played a big part in the club defining a new era and, as had been the case after the original redevelopment of Valley Parade was completed in 1908, Bradford City AFC derived considerable self-respect from having a modern ground and which this time could accommodate families. The new stadium thus played a big part in the reinvention of the club.

The failure to gain promotion to Division One in 1988 was another milestone for the club, not dissimilar to the situation in 1932/33 when the failure to strengthen the team at the beginning of 1933 when it was at the top of Division Two was considered to have cost promotion. In both cases, relegation back to Division Three in 1990 and 1937 respectively had followed the ‘nearly seasons’. For the bubble to have subsequently deflated so easily raises obvious questions about strength in depth at Valley Parade in both eras.

Was it a lack of ambition or a lack of substance that held the club back in those times? In the decisive moment why had it not been possible to invest to make promotion more likely? Was it the case that the directors didn’t want the expense of promotion to a higher level? Not surprisingly in 1933 the directors faced considerable criticism from supporters which translated into lower gates at Valley Parade. Across at Park Avenue, Bradford was similarly derided as a ‘selling club’ at the end of the following decade. All of this fed into a detachment of the Bradford public and a decline in support at both clubs. Likewise, in 1988 there was considerable ill-feeling and disappointment at what could have been and it was not until 1996 that Bradford City won back the public.

It then brings us to the club’s achievement in finally managing a return to the top-flight in 1999. From the historical perspective the founders would have considered it a vindication of their original faith that a Bradford side could play at the highest level of English football. The symbolism of Bradford having previously celebrated its centenary as a city in 1997 would not have been lost on a generation of men with strong civic loyalty and patriotism. No doubt they would tell us of the potential benefit that could accrue from the 2025 City of Culture award and its encouragement of Bradford identity. As commented above, they would have recognised the momentum that had come from the Play-Off Final success in 1996, culminating in promotion in 1999 and the self-belief that came from winning that end of season game against Liverpool in May, 2000. All of this had historic parallel with what had happened ninety years before.

Richmond’s impact on the club through the changes he introduced to its organisation with his full-time supervision was not dissimilar to the impact made by Peter O’Rourke when he was appointed in 1905. To some extent the leadership combination of Richmond and Jewell matched the partnership of Paton and O’Rourke although the obvious difference was that in his case there were almost no limitations on Richmond’s authority. The failing was as much the fact that Richmond resorted to an ‘all or bust’ gamble to keep Bradford City in the top-flight, as the fact that Richmond was allowed full freedom to act according to his discretion (not to forget that he relied upon borrowings which he could not hope to repay).

The founders would certainly not have condoned Richmond’s actions or his financial management. However, they would have understood why Richmond took such a desperate measure as to bet the future of the club on the success of his signings during that so-called summer of madness. Whilst that desperation was born of greed to partake in the riches of the Premier League, it was also a reflection of the weakness of the club trying to play catch-up with the big boys after so many decades in the wilderness. Although gambling on expensive transfers is part and parcel of life in the Premier League, the key difference is that established clubs are better able to absorb losses when the transfers don’t work out. Bradford City had no option other than to gamble in some form during the 2000 close season although plainly the club couldn’t afford Richmond’s chosen gamble to fail. In the end it resulted in formal insolvency and the sale and leaseback of the ground which has provided the backdrop to the past twenty odd years.

The long view

We can dissect he minutiae of events since 2001 at our leisure. Taking the long view however, the founders would recognise similarities with the experience after 1922 when Bradford City lost its place in the sun and fell into oblivion as it struggled to escape the bottom reaches of the Football League. Need anyone be reminded that it is now 27 years since the club has been promoted out of the third tier and 19 since it last competed in the second division?

Manningham FC had come to prominence in cup competition and so too, Bradford City AFC is best known for having won the FA Cup in 1911. The founders might comment that it has been in cup competition as opposed to the league that Bradford City has continued to have most success. They might ask whether there is any significance in this, for example suggesting that the club has been more adept at motivating players for individual games than building a squad strong enough to sustain a promotion challenge. They would identify the ‘History Makers’ campaign in 2013 as following in the tradition of ‘Glorious 1911’. Similarly, they would see the continuity of celebrated giant-killings through the club’s history from defeat of first division Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1906 to that of then Premier League champions, Chelsea in 2015. The club’s self-identity as underdogs – plucky bantams – came into its own in cup competition against ‘bigger’ clubs. Even in the bleakest years, the fact that Bradford City had won the FA Cup could not be taken away and provided the club with respectability.

Adopting a longer historical perspective the founders might reflect that had Bradford FC opted to play soccer at Park Avenue much sooner – and joined the Football League in 1888 – there is every reason to believe that the city of Bradford could have established a leading side. As a wealthy club with monopoly Bradford representation in the Football League there is every chance that it would have become a major force, at least on a par with the likes of Blackburn Rovers or Wolverhampton Wanderers. Of course, the fact that the Park Avenue club had been dismissive of soccer was considered Manningham’s opportunity in 1903 but it left the question whether a single Bradford club based at Park Avenue would have been more successful. Had that been the case maybe Manningham FC would have continued as a rugby club at Valley Parade.

Undoubtedly the founders would dwell on the implications of the outcome of the 1907 merger debate. Of how Bradford City ultimately lost the monopoly advantage of having the city to itself when the new Bradford (Park Avenue) was elected to the Football League in 1908 and of how its potential support was further fragmented by the launch of a new successor rugby club, Bradford Northern in 1907. The topic would have rekindled heated arguments of the past, of those who wanted to remain at Valley Parade at all cost and those who had been sympathetic to combining resources for the good of one team. Partisan sentiments aside, the financial consequences of going it alone were there to be seen, of how Bradford City AFC had been unable to derive the full benefit of the Bradford district, its population and business base and of how City and Avenue divided loyalties. However, it would not go unnoticed to the founders that the recent demise of the Bradford Bulls, successor club to Bradford Northern now gave Bradford City an unprecedented position of no meaningful competition within the city.

Having brought the founders back together it is unlikely that their conversations would be confined to football. For sure they would share observations about the state of contemporary Bradford and contrasts with the city that they knew. They would likely ask with regards the future of Bradford City the pertinent question asked by successive boards of directors: where are the wealthy men of Bradford and those of substance willing and able to help bankroll the club? The founders would not fail to notice that it had been outsiders as opposed to Bradfordians – Stafford Heginbotham, Geoffrey Richmond and Stefan Rupp – who have made an impact on the club in their respective ways. All of which would lead to the question of where is the wealth of Bradford?

The founders would note that in the 1970s and 1980s, Ken Morrison – likely the richest local businessman of his era – had resisted the invitation to be parted with his riches despite persistent calls from City supporters. The founders could be forgiven the observation that deprived of sporting success, the people of Bradford had been denied a potential feelgood factor and a boost to local pride or what they might refer to as civic patriotism (and they might remark that that could have been a factor in the struggle to arrest economic decline in the city).

What of the founders?

By the end of the club’s third season in 1906 there was considerable frustration among the Bradford City membership as to the lack of progress being made. Whilst the club had established itself in a midtable position there was little prospect of gaining promotion. The members demanded team strengthening but this ranked alongside the need to develop Valley Parade which inevitably led to the question of how it could all be financed and by whom. It wasn’t helped that the club was badly run and an investigation into the finances had discovered that not only was there inadequate control over money but the club was also insolvent. It was clear that the club could no longer muddle through and that radical changes were needed; the two emergent solutions were either merger with Bradford FC at Park Avenue or for Bradford City AFC to attempt a share issue.

Among the founders there were essentially three camps: (i) those who had been involved with the Bradford & District FA, best described as association enthusiasts; (ii) those with a partisan Manningham FC heritage, fiercely independent and protective of their Valley Parade connection and wanting to remain at the ground at any cost; and (iii) people with a business background who had been introduced by Alfred Ayrton to help guide the club’s affairs. Of the original delegates to the Football League AGM, John Blunt, Arnold Foxcroft and James Whyte were all firmly in the first group. They became disenchanted with how the club operated and what they considered to be intractable differences of opinion including the lingering and obdurate partisan sentiment towards Park Avenue. By March, 1907 each had severed their connection with Bradford City as committee members and in fact Blunt and Whyte transferred their allegiance to Park Avenue where Blunt became a director of the new Bradford (Park Avenue) club. Alfred Ayrton had similarly stood aside in 1906, in so doing expressing concerns about the future prospects of Bradford City and not disguising his support for potential merger.

Of those remaining in charge – the ‘Valley Parade camp’ – the old Manningham FC loyalists such as Ike Newton and John Nunn were prominent. They were joined by other former Manningham rugby players such as William Fawcett and Rob Pocock as well as the former Manningham committee member James Freeman, a leading Bradford lawyer. Nunn would later be responsible for project managing the redevelopment of Valley Parade between 1907-08 and the former terrace at the Burlington Terrace end of the ground was known as Nunn’s Kop in his honour.

Newton and Nunn in particular would both celebrate the fact that Bradford City AFC had remained at Valley Parade. They would note how the club’s supporters had continued to resist the notion of merger or relocation to Park Avenue when the suggestion had arisen in succeeding decades. And in the final event they would be satisfied that the successor of Manningham FC had finally vanquished the Park Avenue rivals.

Putting differences aside, the founders would all agree that things had not turned out as they had hoped in 1903 but at least the club had survived and had had its moments of excitement and glory. There was much that had changed and yet so much was the same. Whilst the founders were long dead and long forgotten they would recognise the pain of our most recent disappointment. They would likely joke that coping with regular setbacks had always been part and parcel of following Bradford City AFC.

Happy 120th Anniversary!

by John Dewhirst

John’s blog can be found from this link. He tweets @jpdewhirst

Also by John on VINCIT: Taking the long view of Bradford football

The author is currently working on two volumes in the Bantamspast History Revisited series which will tell the history of the Bradford City / Park Avenue rivalry between 1908-39 and 1939-74 respectively. News of these books will be announced shortly.

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