Welcome to my blog

Thanks for visiting! You’ll find content relating in the main to the history of Bradford City AFC and the not so glorious record of Bradford football as well as my recent contributions to the BCAFC match programme, most of which again with historical themes. You can also find my book reviews of football books and there is sundry content about Bradford history.

My photographs are currently not online, in the main because I haven’t had chance to upload. I get enquiries for copies of images posted to Twitter and I am happy to provide on the basis that my copyright is acknowledged and that a notional donation is made to the Bradford Burns Unit. (However a charge will be made to anyone seeking to use the images for commercial purposes.)

I am currently working on a history of the two Bradford clubs as rivals in the Football League which admittedly is taking longer than planned but it will eventually see the light of day.

Book Review: The History of Women’s Football

by Jean Williams, Pen & Sword (2021) £25.00

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Premier League there has been no shortage of books chronicling the extent of change in that period and indeed I have reviewed a number of such publications on this blog. The sport – or rather, the football industry – has been transformed across all areas but I would argue that the most revolutionary change has been that of the profile of women’s football.

My case is that whilst men’s professional football is radically different to the pre-Premier League era in terms of the supporting experience and the impact of television and commercialisation, the Premier League has essentially accelerated the rate of change of trends that were already in existence in 1992. By contrast the extent of transformation of women’s football in the past ten years alone makes it far less recognisable in its modern form compared to what preceded than is the case with the men’s game.

The level of commercial sponsorship in women’s football since the launch of the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) in 2010 attests to its potential and the discovery by brands of its influence. The story of how women’s football has been transformed since 1992 has yet to be told and it was this that I hoped to discover from my purchase of Jean Williams’ book, The History of Women’s Football.

The author provides a fascinating account of the recorded origins of women’s participation in local ‘folk’ football and the playing of association football in the nineteenth century. In late Victorian Britain, women faced two fundamental disadvantages in relation to playing the sport. The first was that the men’s game was by this time well-established with a monopoly of resources (ie playing fields / grounds) and organisational infrastructure (ie clubs and regulatory bodies to organise competitions). The second was that women had far less time to play sport and that they were discouraged from doing so. Accordingly this gave rise to distinct characteristics for women’s football.

On the one hand there were no league or cup competitions and on the other, there was no network of nascent women’s football clubs which was something of a chicken and egg situation. Instead, women’s football became marginalised and in the late nineteenth century relied upon the staging of exhibition games as the economic model of how a women’s club could establish itself. The first example of this was a series of nine games in 1881 between teams representing England and Scotland, one of which was played at Windhill in Shipley. The media coverage of the game at Windhill in June, 1881 was harsh and guilty of both trivialising and sexualising the fixture, a theme which Jean Williams identifies as having been a regular occurrence in historic reports of women’s football.

The concept of an entrepreneurial touring side that travelled the country to play exhibition games was not unique to women’s football – the example of the Barbarians in Rugby Union or the Corinthians in men’s football being prime examples – but it dictated the operation of the leading women’s sides from the British Ladies Football Club in 1895-96 to Dick, Kerr Ladies between 1917-65, Manchester Corinthians between 1949 and the late 1980s and then Harry Bett’s touring team, 1968-72. For organised women’s football to become established required a distinct economic model to ensure financial survival given inherent disadvantages in relation to men’s football and its monopoly control.

An interesting parallel is that of the Northern Union seeking to choke interest in association football in West Yorkshire in the 1890s. That soccer eventually eclipsed rugby as the leading code was derived from the strength of leadership that women’s football has lacked until quite recently. The victory of so-called ‘associationists’ was also achieved by a number of strategic decisions that positioned football as a distinct and modern game compared to the traditional rugby establishment. Indeed, the future success of women’s football might likewise be achieved by distancing itself from the men’s game.

During World War One women’s football secured a foothold and derived considerable goodwill by becoming associated with charitable giving. As I have written in connection with the origins of football in Bradford, the motive of charitable fund raising was a critical factor in giving a degree of legitimacy and respectability to the recreational activity of adult men playing football in the late nineteenth century [1]. By 1914, men’s professional football had fostered cynicism and was considered to have been corrupted by finance. Certainly in Bradford, women’s football was thereby able to present itself as a far more noble undertaking and as elsewhere in the country women’s factory teams came to prominence by playing games to raise money for the war effort.

Although numerous sides were disbanded at the end of the war, there was a revival in interest in women’s football from the end of 1920 with the formation of numerous sides of which Huddersfield Atalanta in November, 1920 was the first in West Yorkshire. It is notable that the Huddersfield club also competed at water polo and its emergence probably reflected growing demand from women for opportunities to participate in competitive sport, of which other examples included hockey and cricket.

The immediate post-war period was associated with radical changes in social attitudes and neither was men’s sport immune from new fashions. For example there was the revival of men’s rugby union which derived momentum from the enthusiasm of spectators to watch a sport considered to be unsullied by professionalism and with amateur ideals. Whilst Rugby Union never eclipsed association football, the evidence in Bradford is that at least during the 1920s it gained considerable traction [2].

Arguably women’s football similarly benefited from changing sentiments of spectators which may account for the then record 53,000 crowd at Goodison Park that attended a women’s football match between Dick, Kerr Ladies and St Helens on Boxing Day, 1920. Yet despite impressive attendances at high profile fixtures, mainstream media was patronising at best and continued to foster the impression of women’s football as a source of titillation and light entertainment rather than serious competition.

The reported frequency of high scoring games would suggest that there was no shortage of entertainment. On the other hand the same results raise doubt about the standard and strength in depth of the women’s game of that era. It is not unreasonable to ask whether spectators attended out of curiosity and whether women’s football was actually taken seriously by traditional male supporters. Or was it the case that women’s football attracted a new breed of spectator? The equally fundamental question is whether that interest could have been sustained.

Could women’s football really have been a challenge to the attraction of the traditional men’s game? Inevitably it is a debate that touches upon sensitive themes but nonetheless, ones that need to be addressed in a history of women’s football. As with the study of the origins of men’s football in the nineteenth century, when examining the emergence of women’s football in the early years it requires more than taking matches at face value.

From today’s perspective, the FA ban in December, 1921 was antediluvian and in the context of women having secured new freedoms the decision seems revanchist in its nature and against the tide of history. The charge is that it represented male misogyny and reflected the same prejudice expressed in newspaper reports. However, I believe that it is simplistic to overlook other issues at stake. For example, there is an argument that the Football Association had genuine concerns about women’s football with regards what it considered the integrity of association football.

From my research of events in Bradford, in 1907 the FA was expressing concern about ‘burlesque displays masquerading as football matches’ in respect of proposed charity games staged by pantomime actors at Valley Parade and I can only assume that similar attitudes prevailed at a national level. My suspicion is that women’s football was similarly regarded as a frivolous if not burlesque activity by those in positions of power. The other concern of the FA was in respect of allegations of financial misappropriation involving Dick, Kerr Ladies (the then leading women’s side in the country) who attracted the biggest gates. Similar accusations (that were unproven) were also targeted at the Hey’s Brewery team of Bradford but in the case of Dick, Kerr there does appear to have been more substance and which eventually resulted in the subsequent dismissal of the team manager by the firm.

In the annals of history, the Football Association is recorded as having justified the decision to ban women’s football on the basis that ‘the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’ which hardly provides a defence against contemporary charges of misogyny. In practice the FA probably found it easier to communicate its decision in this way than to elaborate on other matters, including for instance financial issues or the potential commercial threat of high profile women’s matches to the viability of third division (Football League) clubs.

In the wake of the ban I am not aware of concerted criticism of the FA decision. Locally, although there were reported protestations in the press from the owner of Hey’s Brewery and from the team captain, there does not appear to have been an outcry from the likes of politicians, educationalists or women’s groups. For instance, in the Bradford press the matter was given little coverage and Sam Holdsworth, editor of the Yorkshire Sports (who wrote as Nomad) considered the decision entirely sensible. Whether for reasons of misogyny or prejudice the impression is quite unambiguous that women’s football was derided and not taken seriously.

Given the extensive detail in her book about the development of women’s football prior to the FA ban, I am surprised that Jean Williams does not offer a more extensive account of the circumstances in 1921. Likewise, by failing to offer a more critical assessment of the actual playing standards or substantiating the level of participation in the game, I believe that the author falls into the trap of mythologising women’s football of that era.

The FA ban deprived women’s football the opportunity to showcase itself but notwithstanding, there seems little evidence to suggest otherwise that beyond a handful of leading sides, women’s football in England had limited strength and depth. For reasons given in my feature about the origins and early history of women’s football in Bradford [3] I am sceptical that – in Bradford at least – women’s football would have thrived even if the FA ban had not occurred. It would have been interesting for the author to have given her assessment of how women’s football in England might otherwise have developed without the ban. For example, is it realistic to believe that a national league structure could have been established and sustained much sooner?

Ironically, Williams mistakenly refers to the existence of a women’s football league in Bradford in 1920/21 as evidence of grass roots strength and popularity. The said competition was in fact a hockey league, a sport widely reported in Bradford as commanding female attention and boasting the highest levels of female participation. Popular as a school activity, adult women’s hockey clubs were based at local cricket grounds. The same venues hosted women’s cricket and such was the popularity that in 1932 it led to the launch of a local league competition.

By contrast, to my knowledge there is no record of there ever having been a women’s football league in Bradford and given the shortage of playing fields in the city at that time I am extremely doubtful that there could have been. It was precisely this lack of strength in depth and the absence of succession of future players that surely made it impossible for women’s football to sustain the early momentum at a local or national level, irrespective of the FA ban. The absence of financial support and leadership were other factors in this (although the futility of the task might explain seemingly half-hearted attempts at launching a women’s football association). Either way there was a failure to establish a competitive infrastructure for women’s football at national level and there is no reported evidence of local leagues elsewhere in the country.

Bradford offers a good case study about the early history of women’s football, for example with the record of the Hey’s Brewery and Lister’s Mill teams both of which were formed in spring, 1921 (although unfortunately neither are given much attention in the book). The Hey’s team in particular was notable as a frequent opponent of the Dick, Kerr side and boasted representing England in games in both Scotland and France. The fact that factory based sides came to prominence is not insignificant in that the support of an employer safeguarded the viability and underpinned the economic and operational model of a women’s side. The example of Hey’s also hints at the marketing prowess of the firm which would have derived considerable publicity from the sponsorship of a football team. Furthermore whereas in the men’s game in England it was virtually unheard of for a leading side to be known by the name of a commercial backer, it was fairly commonplace in women’s football. (I suspect this was another matter of concern to the FA, wary of overt commercial interference and a precedent for the men’s game.)

The Bradford & District FA had played an evangelical role at the beginning of the twentieth century to promote the cause of associationism at the expense of rugby yet there was never any support given to the encouragement of women’s football. The example of how ‘associationists’ promoted their sport in Bradford is insightful given that the same success factors – publicity in the press, development of a local league and promotion of school sport – would have provided the necessary fillip to women’s football from a near zero base. Notable however is that the two senior men’s clubs in Bradford – at Valley Parade and Park Avenue respectively – were not overtly hostile to women’s football in so far as prior to the FA ban both grounds hosted women’s football and in August, 1939, club dignitaries attended a high profile women’s football match at Odsal stadium between teams from Preston (ex Dick, Kerr) and Belgium.

The strength of The History of Women’s Football is found in the recorded interviews with pioneering women who played football in the pre-modern era and there is no doubting the commitment and enthusiasm that they individually invested in the sport. That they were not able to realise their potential by playing in a competitive league and receive media attention for their efforts was a genuine tragedy and it is important that they are now given recognition. Yet whilst the interviews are fascinating, it feels that the author has allowed the page count to be filled with personal anecdotes to the detriment of historic critique or even the context of league tables / results. Again it makes me question whether this serves only to mythologise the story of women’s football.

My memory of university sport was of the grading of different activities to merit the award of university colours and the ranking of ‘minor’ sports based on comparative standards, degrees of competition and participation as well as national / international benchmarks. Whilst subjective and emotive, inevitably the likes of rugby, football and cricket scored higher than say archery or lacrosse. In Bradford in the 1920s, I have little doubt that women’s hockey, cricket, cycling or tennis would have ranked far higher than women’s football.

It would be interesting to chart the rise in prominence of football compared to other women’s sports in the last century and the last thirty years in particular. For example I have yet to see any estimates of participation levels that would be insightful to provide context about women’s football, to examine its changing popularity and status relative to other sports. Such an exercise might also help to better understand the standard of, and degree of competition in, women’s football of the pre-modern era. All of this points to major knowledge gaps about the early history of women’s football and the need for local based research work that is currently lacking (including incontrovertible evidence of local women’s football leagues).

The launch of a Women’s Football Association in 1969 and the story of professional pioneers since 1972 is covered in depth. Ultimately, where this book fails is by not explaining how women’s football was transformed in the last couple or so decades and the steps on that journey. Of how a league and competitive infrastructure was established and the emergence of commercial sponsorship for women’s football. Only passing mention is given about the significant financial investment in English women’s football since the launch of WSL in 2010 which hints at the emergent economic power of the sport. Coverage of the co-existence of men’s and women’s football would have been welcome, of how existing Football League clubs have promoted women’s sides and the resources provided.

The big question over women’s football comes back to the economic model of how the sport can be made to pay. This also needs recognition that the circumstances of women’s teams associated with Premier League clubs is vastly different to those linked to Division Two sides and those outside the WSL. I would have also welcomed a comparison with women’s football in the USA, the strength of which is derived from school and college competition.

The History of Women’s Football is well-written yet it feels unbalanced. In terms of explaining how women’s football got to where it is now I found it lacking as well as prone to mythologising. The rather glaring error in respect of the Bradford & District Ladies Hockey League being mistaken for a women’s football league – and the suggestion by others that there are misstatements about what happened in Manchester – unfortunately raises questions about accuracy. In terms of discovering about the WSL and subsidiary, junior or developmental league competitions I am none the wiser. Additionally, to have discovered more about the origins and impact of established and pioneering clubs such as Doncaster Belles or Arsenal Ladies would have been welcome.

A more appropriate title for the book would give emphasis to the historic personalities of women’s football, the coverage of which cannot be faulted. However, I am not convinced that this work succeeds in explaining the extent of change in the modern era. In terms of content, it can hardly be described as a landmark history as its title might imply. Instead it points to gaps in the historical record that need to be filled.

By John Dewhirst

[1] Feature on the Bradford Charity Cup and the tradition of charitable fund raising by local football clubs (published on VINCIT April, 2017)

[2] The revival of Rugby Union in Bradford in the 1920s (published on VINCIT March, 2019)

[3] The origins of Women’s Football in Bradford (published on VINCIT October, 2018)

================================================

 You can read my other book reviews from here.

Book Review: 71/72 Football’s Greatest Season? by Daniel Abrahams

In the last six months there has been a number of new books looking back at what football was like before it became transformed by television and I have reviewed a couple of those previously. The latest by Daniel Abrahams takes us back to the 1971/72 season and he provides a well-written and engaging account of how the campaign unfolded with observations to highlight the changes of the past fifty years, in particular since the introduction of the Premier League in 1992.

Although his book covers key events in the Football League as well as in Scottish, European and international football, the focus is on the leading sides in England and the chase for league as well as cup glory. However the case for 1971/72 being football’s greatest season is based on more than nostalgia and he highlights the fact that the fight for the FL Championship was the closest in history, the last time when any team in the top half of the top division could conceivably have finished first. Likewise, the champions that season – Derby County – were the seventh different title winners in seven seasons. (Had Leeds defeated Wolves when they played shortly after the FA Cup Final they would have won the Double.)

Daniel Abrahams’ narrative is chronological and the reader is emersed in a thriller of unfolding twists and turns that were undoubtedly exciting. It was a season of drama and surprises yet there were no more than four live games on TV with reliance instead upon radio commentary as the means to follow the drama. As he writes, ‘TV enhanced the football as opposed to ruling it.’ The leading managers – the likes of Bill Shankly, Brian Clough, Don Revie and Malcolm Allison – were also household celebrities and in contrast with the modern game, the leading players were exclusively British and Irish and with the notable exception of Clyde Best at West Ham they were also white. European competition was secondary not just to the league but also the FA Cup and even the FL Cup. There was no shortage of domestic competitions, for example the Watney Cup (in which Halifax Town secured a famous victory over Manchester United at The Shay in front of 19,965) and the Home Internationals.

The 1971/72 season was likewise the first when I became interested in football and that probably had a lot to do with my class teacher who needed little persuasion to talk about the events narrated in this book. In fact it’s probably more pertinent to say that the only thing I remember about school at that time was learning about football and I still have my Soccer Stars sticker album and Bartholomews football map from that season. Collecting and swapping those stickers was a big part of school life and the album provided the necessary reference to watch Match of the Day on a Saturday night or Yorkshire TV’s Football Special on a Sunday afternoon.

I still have my Soccer Stars  album for the 1971/72 season, albeit only 90% complete and it was the likes of George Best and England’s World Cup heroes who were the elusive stickers, reflecting the imbalance of supply relative to the demand among collectors for the celebrity players. Included in the book are anecdotes about the football memorabilia and collectables released during the season and for those who remember them it is great nostalgia, for example the Esso coins of that season to commemorate the FA Cup Final centenary.

Esso coin commemorating FA Cup centenary and past winners.

Without exception, mainstream media coverage at that time was about Division One (the first division, that is) and mention of Bradford football in those days was virtually non-existent in other than the Telegraph & Argus – and even in Bradford’s own paper there were more column inches reporting Leeds United. It was left to the classified results and league tables to find anything about Bradford City and in that regard, 1971/72 could hardly be described as having been a classic season given that the Paraders finished bottom of Division Three.

It was a salutary lesson for me that Bradford was excluded from the glamour of English football and existed in a parallel but distant universe. There was at least a degree of consolation when Bradford City was featured in the centre spread of the Football League Review in April, 1972, a series of team photographs from all four divisions of the Football League and it is all that I can remember of my first visit to Valley Parade with my father. The only other highlight that season was for the club flag to be represented at the Centenary FA Cup Final at Wembley as former cup holders.

As for Bradford Park Avenue, that club was already virtually forgotten outside the district although playing in Division One in 1971/72 were Avenue alumni Kevin Hector (Derby County), Terry Dolan (Huddersfield Town), Kenny Hibbitt (Wolves) and Dave Lawson (Huddersfield Town). (In June, 1972 Lawson was transferred to Everton in a then record £85,000 fee for a British goalkeeper.)

Kicked out of the Football League in 1970 in place of Cambridge United, Bradford laboured in the Northern Premier League and finished the 1971/72 campaign in 18th position. The club had applied for re-election in June, 1971 and received just one vote, trailing other applicants including Hereford United (22), Wigan Athletic (14), Cambridge City, Telford United and Yeovil Town (2 apiece). It did no better the following year and at the AGM of the FL on 2nd June, 1972 managed a solitary vote falling well behind others in the election: Northampton Town, [49 votes, re-elected); Crewe Alexandra, (46, re-elected); Stockport United, (26, re-elected); Barrow and Hereford United, (22 apiece – Hereford elected on a revote) but the same as Cambridge City and Wimbledon although better than Wigan Athletic (0 votes).

Affairs at both Bradford clubs were dominated by the challenge to remain solvent. At  Park Avenue there were ongoing discussions to vacate the ground and its potential development as a sports centre. Options for the club included relocation to Odsal or potentially sharing a junior ground at Parry Lane (home of Bradford Rovers AFC) but the prospect of a move to Valley Parade was likely the least preferred. In the event, Bradford spent another campaign at Park Avenue and ended up as tenants in Manningham for the 1973/74 season which also proved to the club’s final prior to liquidation in May, 1974.

Unfortunately, Daniel Abrahams’ coverage of lower division clubs is superficial (albeit more extensive than that afforded to Scottish football) and his mention of Workington Town (as opposed to Workington FC – the former being a rugby league club) is unfortunate. Whilst he narrates the circumstances of Barrow losing FL membership at the end of the 1971/72 season – replaced by Hereford who had famously defeated Newcastle in the FA Cup in February, 1972 – his portrayal of English football fifty years ago would have benefited from more content about other unfashionable sides who struggled to exist in the shadow of the celebrities. (To be fair, such a task would have been difficult with the paucity of historic mainstream media coverage making research into the affairs of lower division clubs less straightforward.)

As to whether 1971/72 was English football’s greatest season is questionable. Undoubtedly there was plenty of excitement but in hindsight it seems more appropriate to describe it as the end of an era, an end of innocence before the game became subsumed in crises of terrace violence, loss of life and financial failures, ultimately to become dominated by commercialism and TV. As Daniel Abrahams has recorded, those themes were already present in 1971/72 (ominously with the immediate aftermath of the Ibrox Disaster) but I doubt that anyone could have predicted the extent of change by 2021/22. It is however poignant that fifty years later, Derby County – the League Champions in 1971/72 – now face potential liquidation given the extent of the club’s financial difficulties.

His book is a fascinating and thought-provoking read and I believe it is equally accessible to younger fans who did not live through the era. Inclusion of league tables and more photographs would have been welcome to complement the narrative but it’s a minor gripe and does not prevent my recommendation.

John Dewhirst

71/72 Football’s Greatest Season? by Daniel Abrahams is published by Pitch (2021), price £16.99

The Bradford City squad 1971/72 including the future test cricketer David Bairstow (far right, front) who made 10 appearances that season including 5 as substitute. Bradford (PA) also had a cricketer in its side that season – Geoff Kay of Bradford League club, Saltaire CC.

================================================

 You can read my other book reviews from here.

Details of my own most recent book, WOOL CITY RIVALS: A History in Colour (volume 7 in the Bantamspast History Revisited series) in collaboration with George Chilvers: Wool City Rivals: A History in Colour

Book Review – LOST: Football in the 1980s

by David Featherstone, ed Phil Brennan. Published by Victor Publishing (2021)

With around 350 colour photographs of Football League grounds from the mid-80s, this book provides a definitive record of a lost world and documents the extent to which football stadia have been transformed in the last four decades.

At the beginning of the 1982/83 season, David Featherstone undertook a photographic project to visit all 92 Football League grounds but set himself the condition that he would select fixtures so that he also saw each of the 92 clubs playing away. It took him nearly five seasons to complete and this publication showcases his photographs, many of which have never been previously published.

Other than the photographs in books by Simon Inglis, I am not aware of any other photographic record of football stadia of this era and for anyone who watched games in the 1980s it is a wonderful source of nostalgia.

Photographic collections of this kind are indeed very rare. Until maybe twenty years ago the standard of consumer cameras was relatively poor and few people would risk taking expensive ‘pro-quality’ equipment on a football terrace. Hence most surviving historic football photographs from the last century tend to be press images but with a focus on the pitch rather than the stands or the spectators.

In fact it was considered bizarre that anyone should want to take a photograph of something as mundane as a football ground. It has not been until the era of mobile phones with camera functionality that photography has become so commonplace and images so prevalent.

I recall taking photos of Valley Parade before a game in 1982 and being quizzed why I should want to make the effort. As a historical record I am glad that I did and it is my regret that I didn’t take more photographs of the old ground. Although I have other photos taken at away games in the 1980s, the quality left a lot to be desired given that I had neither the technical skills nor the kit. By contrast, his images confirm that David Featherstone had the eye of a talented photographer and for that matter he has subsequently worked as a professional in that field.

Dave Featherstone visited Valley Parade for the visit of Walsall on 22nd October, 1983 (a 0-0 draw attended by 2,474) and attended Bradford City’s visit to Bolton Wanderers on 27th March, 1984 by which time there had been a revival in form and the Bantams had lifted themselves from the bottom of the third division (the game was a 2-0 victory for City in front of 5,994). The photographs of VP feature the Kop (taken from the Bradford End), the offices on South Parade and the approach to the ground from Thorncliffe Road (taken roughly where the One in a Million school stands now. Other than the second image, the other two will be totally unrecognisable to anyone under 45/50 years old.

The terraces, the fences and the derelict stands are from a different world. The collection of images is also a reminder of how many clubs have moved into new grounds. Remember Fellows Park, The Goldstone Ground, Somerton Park, The Old Show Ground or Springfield Park? A reminder also of the old Plough Lane, one of the most inhospitable and horrible grounds that I have visited.

LOST: Football in the 1980s is a unique publication and deserves to sit alongside the volumes of Simon Inglis which is probably the best endorsement I can offer. Having been printed by Amazon, if I had a gripe it is that the title was deserving of better quality production for posterity and to do greater justice to the standard of the photographs. Nonetheless, with all-colour images the cover price of £17.99 represents good value and I know from experience that if it had been produced by a traditional printer there would have been a corresponding impact on cost.

John Dewhirst

You can find archive images of Valley Parade including those taken by myself from this link

================================================

 You can read my other book reviews from here.

Details of my own most recent book, WOOL CITY RIVALS: A History in Colour (volume 7 in the Bantamspast History Revisited series) in collaboration with George Chilvers: Wool City Rivals: A History in Colour

Book Review: The Weird & Wonderful World of Motherwell Football Collectables Comprising Old & Modern (vol 1)

by Matthew Johnstone, published by Curtis Sport (2021) £30

Available to buy via Motherwell FC website

By virtue of our shared colours I have always had a soft spot for Motherwell FC although the only time I have ever seen them was a pre-season friendly at Fir Park vs BCAFC many years ago. In truth I can’t pretend to know much about the club other than the fact that it is one of so many in the shadow of the Auld Firm.

There is definitely something about club memorabilia and collectables that provides a unique insight. Having spent an evening reading this book, my knowledge of Motherwell affairs has advanced in leaps and bounds.

I remember buying match programmes in the old shop at the back of the main stand on South Parade and getting a sense of the character of other clubs that was invariably confirmed when I visited for away fixtures. In my opinion surviving examples of club ephemera are as significant in narrating football history as biographies, memoirs or old newspaper features. In fact, in the absence of surviving club documents it tends to be only programmes or handbooks that have survived, ironic given that they were essentially ephemeral in nature. Yet surprisingly there have been few publications that have focused on memorabilia or artefacts, if only to provide a record for posterity and allow private collections to be shared among a wider audience. The reason I suspect is that the effort involved with scanning and artwork doesn’t make it a viable project for mainstream publishers.

Aside from my own book, A History of BCAFC in Objects (Bantamspast, 2014) I am aware only of a couple of others featuring Everton and Burnley that have attempted to narrate the history of a football club through surviving artefacts. Matthew Johnstone’s book does the job for Motherwell in style with impactful design. Published by Curtis Sport – who produce the BCAFC match programme – this is a welcome addition to my library of football books and one that I can recommend to anyone with an interest in football collectables.

Much the same as my own efforts, Matthew has included an extensive selection of football programmes and trade cards. In the former category it is fair to say that Motherwell has had more high profile fixtures than BCAFC in the modern era and there are examples from cup finals, European ties as well as the old Anglo-Scottish Tournament (although one that is notable by its absence is from the occasion that Motherwell visited Valley Parade for a friendly in 1970). The trade cards are generally similar to those featuring BCAFC and on more than one occasion I had a double take when looking at unfamiliar players wearing the familiar colours of claret and amber. Among the club publications in the book are examples of old handbooks that have been published annually by Motherwell FC from 1922, an achievement that has not been matched in Bradford.

There is extensive coverage of Subbuteo with many of the claret and amber examples also attributable to BCAFC (ie the celebrated #23). But what distinguishes the book is the inclusion of old football shirts and a detailed record of all the kits that have been worn by Motherwell. Included in this selection is the classic claret and amber yoke shirt worn by BCAFC in the 1911 FA Cup Final and famously adopted by MFC. However this was not the only example of the two C&A cousins wearing the same shirts – striped shirts in the inter-war period and the Patrick shirt of 1983/84 being the others.

The content of collectables also extends to scooters, claret & amber trainers and even the appearance of oxblood Docs with yellow laces. It contributes to making this book a unique but highly enjoyable read that is likely to appeal to more than Motherwell supporters.

Last month there was talk of possible new club owners at VP who said that they would generate revenue by leveraging interest in BCAFC collectables through NFTs. Whether that ever comes to pass for unfashionable clubs such as BCAFC and Motherwell is highly questionable. For now, if you can’t get tangible ownership via Ebay at least you can access club collectables on the bookshelf.

John Dewhirst

Postscript: My thanks to Alun Pedlar for advising of the following books on football club memorabilia:

Manchester United Collectibles by Iain McCartney (2018)

Relics of the Rams by Andy Ellis (2013)

Crystal Palace Fan Treasures by Gordon Law (2021)

================================================

 You can read my other book reviews from here.

Details of my own most recent book, WOOL CITY RIVALS: A History in Colour (volume 7 in the Bantamspast History Revisited series) in collaboration with George Chilvers: Wool City Rivals: A History in Colour

Fir Park, 1984

Bitcoin Bantams?

I’ve been asked by a number of people for my thoughts about the rumoured takeover of BCAFC (see link to Washington Post feature belowand read the comments at the bottom of the article, the majority of which ridicule the proposal). I suppose it was inevitable that when ownership passed from Stefan Rupp it would be unconventional and this is about as far off the scale as it could be.

I won’t pretend to be an expert about cryptocurrency but I am familiar with business finance and the full range of outcomes from instances of success on the one hand to situations of business failure and fraud on the other. The common denominator is that no commercial organisation can defy financial gravity indefinitely. At some stage it has to generate profit (or more importantly cash) and to fulfil the expectations and obligations to its stakeholders.

Football is no different and even basic 101 company finance still applies. Notwithstanding the casino culture that dominates the sport, loss-making clubs survive only because someone is prepared to fund them and/or waive debt repayments. Insolvency processes such as administration have allowed clubs to wipe the slate clean, clear down their liabilities and start afresh but it still destroys value. As in the case of BCAFC it also leads to the loss of assets. Of course, a club / company can recapitalise itself through generating future profits but it doesn’t always work out that way. The bit that ultimately keeps a club alive is the emotional attachment of supporters and a funder.

With regards to BCAFC we have a situation where the owner paid over the top in 2017 to buy the club and has had to increase his exposure to fund losses. It’s an open secret that he would be happy to step aside if he could recover his investment but the niggling issue is that the club is simply not worth his valuation.

Probably the best thing for the club is for Stefan Rupp to write-off a massive chunk of his investment and allow a new owner to breathe new life to the club. But aside from the fact that this demands charity from him in terms of writing-off £ millions it also means finding a suitable new owner. The said new owner will need to resign him/herself to the fact that the club doesn’t own its ground, pays an extortionate rent and needs considerable spending on the ground as well as training facilities. It’s not the prize investment that we might like to believe.

Accordingly BCAFC is hardly a glittering opportunity. All the talk of being a big club with big attendances overlooks the fact that (a) we don’t have the pedigree of clubs who haven’t spent the bulk of their modern history in the lower divisions and (b) this is Bradford and not the affluent SE of England. Hardly the recipe to attract big commercial sponsorship.

So where does that leave us?

The only people likely to buy the club from Stefan Rupp at his valuation are either (a) nuts; (b) laundering money or (c) a combination of the two. We have become a zombie club, the consequence of the last shit or bust episode and the fact that there has been under-investment for the past 20 years. Going forward we either continue the ongoing struggle, albeit one underpinned by sound finance and an ethical (albeit disinterested) owner, or take the risk of the white knuckle ride. Here cometh the latter.

If there is substance in the cryptocurrency offer – and that offer is accepted by our current owner – it amounts to shit or bust for BCAFC. Crypto is no more than another way to accumulate capital and potentially access more funds than conventional methods. That in itself is risky given that the value of crypto currency fluctuates in real terms. Hence whilst it could bring a massive war chest, as a means of funding it is incredibly volatile – endless riches or endless losses for those who hold crypto currencies.

The interesting bit is the promise to unlock new revenue streams through exploiting the BCAFC brand in new global markets. At this point I take a deep breath. The proposition that BCAFC / Bantams could be a global brand… seriously, we should be flattered. In all the time that I have followed the club – including that momentary tilt at Premier League glory – we failed to leverage our brand in Yorkshire, let alone the UK. But heh, the world is full of gullible people who might yet associate claret and amber with a mighty football club as opposed to Harry Potter. We can but hope. The likes of Sheffield United and Hull City don’t appear to have made much progress with their global brand ambitions but our prospective owners – who confess they know sweet bugger all about English soccer – might yet have the magic ingredient that has thus far been overlooked by others.

Who knows, armed with a massive crypto war chest BCAFC could attract a multitude of new talent to Valley Parade that will deliver success. Quite possibly. The ambitions at Notts County were never realised but maybe these yanks can do it differently.

What it boils down to is that these investors are looking for a club to secure a place at the casino table. They don’t care which club. They have no emotional connection to BCAFC and most likely know nothing about Bradford. But from afar we look a perfect investment choice. Just like Edin Rahic did they can see decent crowds, a ground with a reasonable capacity and see that we have a Premier League – ahem – ‘heritage’. Forget that we don’t own the assets and forget that we are based in Bradford, that’s unnecessary detail.

Essentially this is an investment by an Edin on steroids. It’s Premier League or bust. And the probability of success before they get bored and give up the ghost? What fate for BCAFC if the experiment doesn’t succeed? The resumption of derbies with Bradford Park Avenue in the Northern Premier League perhaps? Who is likely to rescue us next time?

There is the temptation to view any new owner as preferable to the incumbent but that doesn’t mean these candidate owners are capable of fulfilling their stated dreams and that there won’t be considerable collateral damage. The apparent sweetener is the promise of fan ownership but that doesn’t mean simply enfranchising the 15,000 who regularly attend games. Ownership will be extended to anyone who wants to partake in the crypto ride as consumers, investors or as a punt. Ownership will pass to people whose passion for BCAFC is likely to come and go on a whim. What voice for the spectators who consider themselves to be the real fans who actually attend games and invest a considerable emotional commitment? The example of Ebbsfleet United demonstrates how quickly enthusiasm for that club passed out of fashion. Would BCAFC really be any different?

It would be great if these guys have the credibility to deliver but on the face of it I am massively sceptical. It’s going to be interesting and arguably a final fling for a zombie football club but don’t be surprised if it goes badly wrong. Crypto currency, magic beans or pound coins, you cannot defy financial gravity.

Feature in the Washington Times that broke the story 16-Dec-21

Commentary from David Storey, English journalist: WAGMI United: The thought of Bradford City being bought by this clueless crypto crew fills me with horror – inews.co.uk 16-Dec-21

Some background here about NFTs and the individuals promoting them

John Dewhirst

Pissed off in Bradford

I won’t deny my disappointment with the outcome of the announcement by HM Government of its Integrated Rail Plan [1] in response to the earlier proposal for the Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme [2]. As far as Bradford was concerned it was the prospect of an East / West through-line connection to the mainline network that was encouraging, not simply to improve rail connectivity and the civic self-respect of a decent station but to provide a catalyst for urban regeneration.

The decision not to build a new station in Bradford on a new high-speed line between Liverpool and Leeds feels like yet another lost opportunity in the history of the district’s railways [3]. Previously there had been failed attempts to connect the city’s two rail stations at Forster Square and the Exchange to provide a North / South through line. Even at the beginning of this century there had been a tantalising dream of connecting Forster Square to the Interchange (successor to the Exchange) as an alternative to developing the Broadway shopping centre in between and had the will existed, in my view it would have been the best outcome for the city’s modern rail links.

There has been a lot of emotion on social media about the Government’s rejection of the Bradford proposals as well as about the IRP in general despite the fact that it makes a number of very valid points. The problem is that expectations have been raised to such a degree that disappointment was inevitable once schemes began to be watered down. The NPR team made a strong case in favour of a Bradford rail link and the Government document provides an equally robust outline of why that argument was rejected. Although it is academic (given that the decision has been made) I’d be interested to see  the response of NPR and Bradford Council in respect of the Bradford decision and compare the numbers / costings being quoted. The need for a regeneration strategy remains and if that is not going to come from a centrepiece rail station I’d also like to hear thoughts on what it could now be.

From a travelling perspective I try to use the railways whenever possible and I am pretty fortunate to live within walking distance of Shipley station for direct, electrified connections to London and Leeds. To that extent a new line through Bradford would not have made much difference, a point made in the IRP document which highlighted that 23% of residents in the Bradford district live in the Wharfedale and Airedale centres. Nonetheless, for journeys to Manchester (which I make on a less frequent basis) it could have been useful. The only caveat in respect of the latter destination would have been the ease of getting across to the new Bradford Adolphus St / St James station and for similar reasons I currently opt to travel west via Leeds and avoid the Interchange. The sad reality is that there are also many people who live in the Bradford district –  irrespective of being rail commuters – who have no affinity with the city,  rarely visit and probably wouldn’t even make the effort to do so.

On balance, even though I would have wanted to support the line, I don’t believe that the new station in Bradford would have made a massive impact on my journeys. Besides, in the last 18 months my train travel has dropped considerably through remote working. More telling is that, other than for commuting journeys to or via Leeds (or to/from Bradford FSqu), I can’t have made more than a handful of trips by rail within West Yorkshire during the last decade and hence I can’t see how the new line would have cut down on my car use (which for the record has always been a last resort if travel by two wheels, whether on pushbike or motorcycle, has not been an option).

Whilst Bradford has dismal rail connections the other critical issue is that it’s not easy to drive into or across. The city suffers the legacy of its Victorian footprint and the layout of the historical central township is much the same as that established by 1875, a product of physical geography and unbridled property speculation in what was then a boom town. In the 1880s Bradfordians complained about the difficulty of crossing town, to get from Manningham in the north to Horton in the southwest. I’m not sure it’s much easier now, for example with gridlock and mayhem on Cemetery Road and the inner ring road.

It probably takes as long to get from Allerton to say Wibsey as it does from Bradford Interchange to Leeds on a diesel multiple unit. For all the attention being given to the railways it seems that the difficulty of cross town travel is being overlooked and my suspicion is that the latter is a more pertinent concern to many low income workers in Bradford than the convenience or otherwise of getting to Leeds or Manchester. The anarchy on Bradford’s roads also makes many of them no-go areas which doesn’t help the situation.

I suspect that rail users in the south of the district similarly find Low Moor or New Pudsey to be more convenient than getting into and travelling from Bradford. Notwithstanding, there is no argument otherwise that connections from the centre of Bradford are abysmal and I know from past experience that lines out of the Interchange are painfully slow. The IRP goes some way to redress this through the planned electrification of the line from Bradford Interchange to Leeds via New Pudsey but does nothing to resolve the time taken to travel to destinations west from Bradford via Calderdale (ie to Manchester and Lancashire stations). Quite possibly one day there will be an Ebbsfleet terminal at Standedge with connecting shuttles to/from Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees.

As regards the Bradford-Leeds electrification proposals, this is a sensible measure and one that has been called for previously. The connectivity also enhances the possibility that Bradford’s surplus of residential flats could provide a solution to housing pressures in Leeds and the fact that electrification will happen sooner than later has to be acknowledged as positive.

On the face of it, the dismissal of the Manchester-Leeds connection via Bradford appears to have been on the basis of the expense of improving journey times and the claim that £18bn would have reduced the Manchester-Leeds journey time by just 4 minutes. Not only that, but the IRP argues the futility of a new line from Manchester via Bradford which would undermine the business case for investment in the existing line via Huddersfield. There are two points to be taken from this. The first is that the IRP is reinforcing the significance of Leeds as West Yorkshire’s rail hub in that improvements for Bradford commuters are based around promised shorter journey times to Leeds and thence to Manchester or London. The second is that the IRP fails to recognise the importance of the Bradford rail project to act as a catalyst for a regeneration programme in Bradford. In the absence of investment based around a rail hub it is vital that an alternative strategy is derived – admittedly easier said than done.

The IRP highlights that options for an underground station in Bradford, a station on the outskirts or one on the site of St James Market (ironically the original site of the historic Adolphus Street station) are all costly and far from ideal. In fact it’s difficult to argue otherwise and with it comes the recognition that Bradford is the victim of its geography, the legacy of prior decisions as well as of Leeds having become established as a regional transport centre and investment already concentrated on the existing Transpennine route via Huddersfield. All of these factors are expensive if not extremely difficult or impossible to overcome. Whilst local sentimentality might demand a Bradford centric solution to the design of a future rail system it’s not going to happen.

Ultimately Bradford’s problems stem from historic under-investment and the fact that the city’s rail connections were gradually dismantled from the 1950s such that by 1985 they were skeletal. Let’s not overlook the cynicism of British Rail management who spared no effort to run down services to/from Bradford and the fact that they were allowed to get away with it. Bradford’s own leadership subscribed to the belief that rail had had its day and the development of the Interchange in the early 1970s is testament to this with a basic rail terminal dwarfed by a bus station (albeit ironic that that has now been diminished in size). Had local rail routes been retained or not built over it might have provided the footprint of a Manchester style light rail Metrolink mass transit system – ie reviving connections at Great Horton, Clayton, Thornton or Denholme as well as Idle and Eccleshill. As for partisan politics, Bradford has been badly served long before now, not only by national politicians but also by its own leaders irrespective of party affiliation.

The IRP endorses the concept of a West Yorkshire Mass Transit Network based around Leeds and the development of a tram network. Ostensibly that will benefit Bradford’s connections with Leeds but I am doubtful whether it is likely to make any impact on travel times from Bradford to Halifax, Huddersfield or Wakefield for example. (Not everyone wants to go to Leeds after all.) The sting in the tail however is that the same tram network will be reliant in part upon the contribution of local taxpayers so expect plenty of controversy on that front in the future.

A final observation on the IRP from a parochial perspective is that for all the focus on speed and travel times it needs to address the perennial frustration of rail commuters in respect of train reliability, capacity and frequency or indeed, fares. For example my distinct impression is that connections to/from Bradford Forster Square on the Airedale line typically get the crappy stock and I have heard horror stories about breakdowns in and out of the Interchange. The concern of course is that the new high profile lines elsewhere will get the shiny new trains. Finally I am surprised that there has been no talk of the Skipton-Colne line being revived as an option which could have been helpful for Keighley and Airedale based commuters but that is another matter. 

It brings us back to that billion dollar question. What is to become of Bradford? If regeneration is not going to be driven by a new rail station then what is the plan? The new Odeon alone will be insufficient. In truth I’m not sure what the future holds for Bradford, a city that I remain committed to emotionally (as an eighth generation member of a family that can trace its roots to pre industrial Bradford in the early nineteenth century) and financially (as a home owner and ratepayer). I’m not intending to retire to the shires, opine on matters from afar and make the occasional visit to Bradford for a football match but to spend the rest of my time here.

Yet the reaction of my heart differs to that of my head and it is impossible to deny that in many respects Bradford is not so much a sink city as opposed to sunk. Having worked across the UK I can see for myself the extent to which the city has fallen behind in the last twenty years, not only in terms of wealth but in its outlook. You need only walk the streets of BD1 to see the depressed state of the place. Yet amidst the urban decay there are so many fine buildings and green spaces as my own photography attests. The Detroit of England?

Winning the city of culture award for 2025 now seems vital to safeguard the city and drive regeneration. Admittedly, setting aside the rose tinted spectacles, I question the genuine cultural credentials of Bradford to win the prize because in many respects it is a cultural desert. Nevertheless Bradford needs the award, if only to gain some confidence and to establish a new culture of positivity and pride in the district. Levelling up in Bradford has more to it than rail links – important as that may be – but it remains one hell of a challenge to which answers are still needed.

John Dewhirst

November, 2021

[1] Link here for the Dept of Transport Integrated Rail Plan document (November, 2021)

[2] Transport for the North Northern Powerhouse Rail proposals (June, 2021)

[3] On this blog, the story here of the saga for a cross-town rail line in Bradford

Thanks for visiting my blog. You will find content primarily about the history of football in Bradford as well as football book reviews and ad hoc features about the history of the city and from this link, about its railways. Refer to the menus above.

I am a keen photographer and you will find my photos of Bradford and other places / things of interest on my Twitter account @jpdewhirst

Remembrance Day reflections

Poppyremembrance

We remember.

Thursday, 11th November 2021 marks the 103rd anniversary of the end of World War One. It was a conflict that has a particular poignancy for Bradford City supporters with four serving and six former players of the club having lost their lives. The fatalities included Jimmy Speirs, team captain and scorer of the winning goal in the 1911 FA Cup Final replay as well as Bob Torrance, acclaimed as man of the match in the replay.

Whilst it is important to remember the sacrifice of the club’s players we should also recognise that the so-called Great War of 1914-18 impacted greatly on the football club. Indeed, what tends to be overlooked is that numerous supporters of the club were also among the war dead and injured. In turn the war touched upon the families of Bradfordians. In the aftermath of the war nothing was quite the same for either the city of Bradford or Bradford City. Aside from the personal tragedies, the city had lost its German community and the finances of Bradford City AFC were depleted to the extent that the club lost its first division status in 1922.

Historic links between sport and the military in Bradford

The war also redefined the links between the football club and the local military. When I undertook my research on the origins of football in Bradford, it became apparent that the historic ties between sport and the military in the district had long since been forgotten. This is ironic given the constant reminder provided by the traditional club colours of City and Avenue / Northern having been derived from military connections. My belief is that after the carnage of the Great War the military heritage tended to be overlooked, not necessarily for ideological reasons but because it was probably seen as outdated, if not irrelevant as people looked to the future.

The early history of Manningham FC – established in 1880 and the predecessor of Bradford City AFC in 1903 – had strong links with the citizen soldiers of Bradford. The generation of men involved with establishing ‘football’ clubs in Bradford during the second half of the 1870’s was typically connected with the Volunteer – or territorial – army units in the town and ‘athleticism’ in the widest sense was considered to be a form of military training by virtue of its health benefits.

The Volunteers had been established in 1859 to provide a home defence force to protect the UK from invasion and in Bradford the principal units were the 3rd Yorkshire (West Riding) Rifle Volunteer Corps and the 2nd Yorkshire (West Riding) Artillery Volunteers Corps.

One reason for the popularity of the Volunteers was that they provided recreational opportunities and in particular access to new sporting activities such as gymnastics and ‘football’ (which in Bradford meant rugby). There was even a dedicated side, Bradford Rifles FC established in 1875 which comprised of a high proportion of Bradford Caledonian FC players (one of the oldest clubs, established in 1873 and also the biggest), a number of whom subsequently became associated with Manningham FC in leadership roles.

This connection encouraged a natural sympathy towards the military but so too did the proximity of Valley Parade to Belle Vue barracks where the 3rd YWRRVC was based. Closer still were the artillery barracks adjacent to Cottingley Terrace just off Valley Parade. Both were used on various occasions for meetings as well as changing and training facilities by Manningham FC and the infant Bradford City club. (The story of the Bradford Rifles is told here on VINCIT)

The dominant political culture at Valley Parade and Park Avenue prior to World War One was unquestionably Conservatism and it was second nature for the two clubs and their membership to espouse patriotism. A good example of this was the decision to adopt claret and amber in 1884. This came at a time of patriotic fervour associated with the Sudan crisis and the excitement that Bradford men might actually go to war. Arguably it was the same enthusiasm thirty years later with spectators at Valley Parade being actively encouraged to enlist to fight on the western front.

The traditional sporting colours of Bradford were red, amber and black whose origin can be traced to the original Bradford Volunteers of the Napoleonic era. The colours of the local West Yorkshire regiment with whom the 3rd YWRRVC was affiliated were claret and amber.

The Valley Parade War Memorial

FullSizeRender

In addition to the 1911 FA Cup heroes Jimmy Speirs and Bob Torrance, the war dead included England internationals Evelyn Lintott and Jimmy Conlin, James Comrie, George Draycott, Ernest Goodwin, Gerald Kirk and Harry Potter. Unfortunately the status of Ernest Kenworthy who played two games for the club in 1906/07 was not established until after the erection of the memorial in the Valley Parade reception in 2015. (NB George Draycott, Ernest Goodwin, Harry Potter and Bob Torrance were serving players of BCAFC at the time of being killed in action.)

Subsequent to the war, Jimmy Speirs and others with a Valley Parade connection were remembered first and foremost as fallen soldiers among comrades in arms. So many men had been killed that there was a reluctance to differentiate former professional football players as deserving of unique attention and the players would have concurred with this treatment. Nowadays the fallen players are afforded particular prominence whereas prior generations tended to remember them among countless others who never returned. The distinct commemoration of footballers killed in action has thus been a more modern phenomenon.

City players at the Cenotaph, New Year’s Day 1921

A memorial to the war dead of Bradford City was not erected at Valley Parade until 2015 and this hangs in the Valley Parade reception. (The person who made this possible was supporter John Barker of Farsley who arranged its production.) The memorial was funded by a badge sale that I helped organise through Bantamspast and the proceeds also helped fund a stone memorial to the Bradford Pals at Serre near the Somme battlefield in France.

bantamspast Bfd Pals badges

Further detail of Bradford’s military history is told my book ROOM AT THE TOP, available from Waterstones and Salts Mill or direct from BANTAMSPAST HISTORY REVISITED BOOKS.

John Dewhirst

I have written widely about the history of sport in Bradford: Links to my features on the history of Bradford sport

Read about Jimmy Speirs and Bob Torrance (published in BCAFC programme 2017/18).

Read about Bradford City’s tour of Germany in 1914

—————————————————————————————————–

The drop down menu above provides links to features published in the BCAFC programme, book reviews and sundry articles about the history of Bradford and its sport.

If you are interested in local sporting history, visit the dedicated online journal VINCIT where you will find further background about the military heritage at Valley Parade.

Book Review: Before the Premier League

Before the Premier League: A History of the Football League’s Last Decades by Paul Whittle (self-published, 2021); 216 pages, RRP £9.99.

A lot has changed in the near thirty years since the Premier League was first established in February, 1992 and then launched at the start of the 1992/93 season. The subsequent blanket media coverage of the Premier League has served almost to remove the preceding era (‘Pre-PL’) from the public consciousness. For many younger fans the history of football began in that Year Zero and has made anything other than the Premier League irrelevant and barely worthy of attention.

Yet whilst there has been radical change – TV, stadia and the extent of commercialising being obvious examples not to mention foreign ownership of the kind at Manchester City or Newcastle United – much has remained the same. The Premier League ultimately accelerated trends that were already evident in the game, in particular serving to increase the extent of inequality between professional clubs in England & Wales as well as the power of the larger sides.

It is interesting, if not painful to reflect on what existed prior to 1992 and consider what might have happened had not the Frankenstein been conceived. Possibly the biggest surprise is that today there still exists a 92 club structure for senior professional football in England and Wales. Remember the predictions at the time of the Premier League’s introduction that the game was living on borrowed time?

I am no fan of the Premier League and the division of football wealth yet for all the criticisms, I suspect that had the revolution not occurred in 1992 the Football League would have imploded. And with the threat of a European Super League hanging over English football we might yet find sentimental attachment to the Premier League. With the benefit of hindsight there seems to have been an inevitability to the Premier League. Was it the least worst outcome for the Football League and its remaining clubs in 1992?

Nevertheless if it could said that the game was close to financial ruin in 1992, let’s not deceive ourselves that the game is healthier nowadays. What has changed since 1992 is that everything is being done on a superlative scale. Bigger clubs have become bigger in all that they do whether the wages or transfer fees that are paid, the level of football club debts, the amounts that clubs are sold for, the cost of admission and all the rest. In that sense the impact of the Premier League has been about financial multipliers.

The supporter experience has similarly been transformed, not least with the exponential rise in ticket prices to see the biggest clubs. The other headline change has been the modernisation of stadia and the final disappearance of stands and structures dating back to the Edwardian era. Whilst the improvements in spectator comfort and safety can hardly be faulted it has come at the expense of atmosphere. Back in the 1980s for example I don’t think that many people would have expected the German Bundesliga match day experience to have eclipsed that at many leading English stadia.

The thirty year anniversary of the Premier League is timely to remember what existed Pre-PL and the task is well served by Shipley-based author, Paul Whittle whose credentials are derived from his excellent blog at www.the1888letter.com. His project has been a brave venture, not simply because of the risks of self-publishing but the ambition of tackling a fairly complex and emotive subject.

Before the Premier League is a well-written publication and its success is derived from the combination of a concise overview of the trends in English football Pre-PL alongside a number of interviews with players and supporters familiar with the game either side of 1992. Paul Whittle thereby effectively narrates the changing experience of football.

What struck me from reading his book was the extent to which English football has lost much of its distinctive localism. It seems that in those olden days, different clubs and stadia were more defined by quaint characteristics and traditions underpinned by a strong local identity. Forgive my cynicism but it feels that the Premier League is becoming defined by brands and it won’t be too long before that extends to franchises. 

I have enjoyed Before the Premier League and can recommend it to others with an interest in the history of the game and of how things used to be in those long gone dark days. This book offers both nostalgia as well as a thought-provoking historical review. It can’t pretend to offer all the analysis and investigation about English football Pre-PL but it goes a long well to reminding us what it was like and encourages further debate. At £9.99 it is excellent value for money and I encourage people to support Paul for his endeavours.

When all is said and done, the Premier League has been about football finance and it would be fascinating to see comparative case studies of a sample of clubs to see the extent to which their finances have been transformed in the past thirty years. Has there really been progress for the better?

  • Copies can be purchased through Paul’s blog, The 1888 Letter which I can also recommend.

=====================================

 You can read my other book reviews from here.

Details of my own most recent book, WOOL CITY RIVALS: A History in Colour (volume 7 in the Bantamspast History Revisited series) in collaboration with George Chilvers: Wool City Rivals: A History in Colour

Book Review – sporting collectibles

An A to Z of Sporting Collectibles: Priceless Cigarettes Cards and Sought-After Sports Stickers: Priceless Cigarettes Cards and Sought-After Sports Stickers

by Carl Wilkes (Pitch Publishing, Durrington 2019) – £25

An A-to-Z of Football Collectibles: Priceless Cigarette Cards and Sought-After Soccer Stickers

by Carl Wilkes (Pitch Publishing, Durrington 2021) – £30

Carl Wilkes is generally recognised as a leading authority on sports cards and stickers and in particular those featuring British sports clubs and personalities. He was formerly editor of the Football Card Collector Magazine and has authored numerous articles in various newspapers, periodicals and books.

A quick glance at his website [https://www.footballsoccercards.com/] is sufficient to highlight the fact that there is considerable value in sporting collectibles with certain examples commanding big prices. Interest in old collectibles was boosted in the late 1990s by the internet and according to Carl there is currently a lot of interest in British items from buyers in America, Monaco and the Middle East which has kept values high. He makes the point quite forcibly that serious money is now chasing sports collectibles.

The Got Not Got series published by Pitch Publishing has played a big part in celebrating football club artefacts and ephemera and was the inspiration for my own book A History of Bradford City AFC in Objects (Bantamspast, History Revisited series 2014).

I have collected BCAFC memorabilia and ephemera for as long as I have supported the club and much of the pleasure of collecting the old cards and stickers derives from connecting with the club’s history. When such items were originally produced they were targeted at boys and were ephemeral by their very nature which means that only a small proportion of those originally produced still survives in mint condition.

Trade cards were included within comics, packets of tea, confectionery or indeed cigarette packets as a way of encouraging the purchase of the main (trade) product itself. That said, John Baines of Bradford recognised the commercial potential of selling sports cards – referred to by the American description of ‘trading cards’ – and the earliest football cards are believed to date from 1880 (the printer of which is thought to have been either Sharpes of Bradford or one of two Leeds firms). The phenomenon continues with such as the Pannini cards which continue to be sold. The production of collectibles came in response to a basic urge among many people to collect which appears to have been undiminished with time. Carl Wilkes refers to this as akin to the instinct of hunting.

It is unlikely however that John Baines ever imagined that his products might become traded for high prices or investments in their own right and yet a search of Ebay confirms that this is very much the case. Sadly, a collection of Bradford City or Park Avenue memorabilia is unlikely to provide a million dollar heirloom notwithstanding that certain individual items will command high auction outcomes. The big money tends to be focused on the fashionable, big clubs and their players (inevitably the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea) who also happen to have wealthy supporters. Likewise there is often a lot of value at stake for souvenirs commemorating landmark sporting events, one of the best examples of which being the 1966 World Cup.

Yet if a BCAFC collection is unlikely to yield big financial rewards the converse is that Valley Parade related artefacts are relatively affordable and hence accessible to supporters with an interest in club history. For example, cigarette cards featuring players from the celebrated FA Cup Final of 1911 are readily available on Ebay. The very fact that historically only a limited range of cards or stickers featuring Bradford City was produced also means that it is not difficult to collect most items, something unattainable for followers of Manchester United.

It struck me when writing A History of BCAFC in Objects that the memorabilia provides a story of the club from a different perspective, representing unique and random snapshots of the life of Bradford City and its supporters through the ages, some of which have been more significant than others. Collectibles evoke nostalgia as well as memories of past times, both public and private and sometimes they provide a better reminder of events than facts, figures or words. In other words there is more to collecting them than financial gain alone.

In his books Carl Wilkes provides a history of how trade cards and trading cards came about. In so doing he demonstrates how the popularity of sport became exploited for commercial benefit. Trade cards served to promote a product and were evidently effective given the persistence of trade card production to the modern era. Likewise John Baines created a business based on the sale of trading cards that featured mainly rugby, cricket and football personalities and these were originally designed for playing games or to be gambled in the hope of winning prizes. Baines cards incidentally nowadays sell for anything between £50-£500 apiece.

Carl’s first book provides an encyclopaedic reference of the principal producers of football cards and stickers, a fascinating business history of the different competitors in the market. The more recent sister publication published earlier this year covers a wide range of sports including amongst others rugby, snooker, cricket, tennis, boxing and equestrian as well as comparison to ‘soccer’ (revealing that his target readership is not exclusively British).

As far as Bradford is concerned, a disproportionate amount of surviving historic football cards relate to rugby as opposed to ‘soccer’ which reflects the sporting heritage of the district. (NB In West Yorkshire, football was the umbrella term used by the Victorians to describe both rugby and soccer.) Plenty examples of Baines cards featuring Manningham FC (based at Valley Parade) and Bradford FC (at Park Avenue) can be found on Ebay and it is notable that Baines cards are the principal surviving artefacts of both clubs. In fact it seems that Baines concentrated a lot of his attention on the local football and cricket sides of his home city. Hence Carl’s second book that features rugby provides insight to the pre-conversion heritage at both Valley Parade and Park Avenue.

Unfortunately there is only a limited number of City and Avenue examples in these books, a consequence of the fact that both were struggling lower division sides during the boom of trade cards in the inter-war period as well as in the 1960s and 1970s. Nonetheless it is fascinating to see the evolution in both design and form of football collectibles and most of the subject matter – ie famous players – will be familiar.

Carl features the rare cards that are valuable assets and provides tips to would be collectors about where to look and, crucially, what to pay. His advice on buying and selling is very detailed as well as candid. The caveat of course is that values go up as well as down.

The serious collector will benefit from these books as a reference of values and in the event that you come across a stash of old cards in the attic you’d be advised to check their values before throwing them in the bin. Items that might seem to have little value are quite possibly the target of collectors and capable of being sold for more than a few pence, complete albums in good condition being the case in point. However I believe that these books have wider appeal to football and sports lovers as a fabulous visual record of the history of collectibles. Both provide a fascinating read and are classics for the coffee table as books that can be dipped into. I recommend both without reservation.

=====================================

 You can read my other book reviews from here.

Details of my own most recent book, WOOL CITY RIVALS: A History in Colour (volume 7 in the Bantamspast History Revisited series) in collaboration with George Chilvers: Wool City Rivals: A History in Colour