Bradford AFC, 1895-99

My feature published in the Bradford City AFC match day programme on 24 March, 2018 (vs Gillingham, League Division One).

In 1903, Manningham FC converted to association football because Northern Union competition was no longer viable and thus ended 23 years as a rugby club. A return to the (amateur) Rugby Union at Valley Parade was also considered but the case for soccer was too great. Bradford City AFC – the ‘AFC’ being a deliberate statement to avoid any ambiguity about the code of football – became the first in West Yorkshire to join the Football League. Within a few years it was joined by Leeds City (1905), Bradford Park Avenue (1908) and Huddersfield Town (1910). Later, in 1921 Halifax Town became a founder member of Division Three (North). It didn’t take long for association football to have become established in West Yorkshire, a scenario that had appeared highly unlikely only the previous decade.

The year 1895 is remembered for the split in English rugby and the launch of the Northern Union (forerunner of the Rugby League) that permitted the payment of so-called ‘broken time’ expenses to players. A related development was the launch of soccer clubs in Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield and Leeds in 1895 followed by Dewsbury the year later, promoted by the respective rugby clubs in those towns. In Bradford however it was the Park Avenue club rather than Manningham FC who became involved, co-opting the Buckstone Park side based at Apperley Bridge to establish a soccer section (pictured above in 1895/96).

Manningham FC was a founder member of the West Yorkshire FA in 1896 yet never formed its own section. The explanation for this was probably a lack of suitable players to recruit combined with practical concerns about groundsharing. Nevertheless Valley Parade hosted a semi-final of the Leeds Hospital Cup in 1896 and the final of the West Yorkshire FA Cup in 1897 although the first ever soccer game at the ground is understood to have been a ladies match on 7 May, 1895.

In March, 1894 Bradford FC had played an exhibition rugby match at Goodison Park in Liverpool which had opened two years before and the visit opened the eyes of club officials to the commercial potential of soccer. The Park Avenue leadership had been proud of the club’s status as the richest rugby club in England and its acclaimed sports ground but the new home of Everton set a higher standard altogether.

Faced with the uncertainty of the Northern Union, association football was identified in 1895 as a better commercial proposition than professional rugby. It was therefore something of an insurance policy and once the new breakaway competition became established there was a marked drop in enthusiasm for soccer at Park Avenue. That said, few rugbyites had much interest in soccer and Bradford FC members lobbied the management committee to withdraw financial support.

The Bradford side existed for no more than four seasons and in 1899 was disbanded, ironically at the stage when schoolboy soccer was becoming increasingly popular in Bradford. The Leeds, Huddersfield and Halifax teams were also wound-up around this time. The Bradford FC soccer section was latterly based at Birch Lane, home of Old Bowling CC which had an adjacent football field (also used by Bradford Northern between 1908-34). Other than winning the Leeds Hospital Cup in 1896 it had an undistinguished record. Nevertheless the decision to disband came to be regretted by the club’s guarantor, Harry Briggs who later championed conversion to soccer and the abandoning of rugby at Park Avenue in 1907.

Former members of the Park Avenue soccer section proved influential in the development of the game at a local level in Bradford and the formation of the Bradford & District FA in 1899. In 1901 leading members of the B&DFA were instrumental in the launch of a team at Greenfield, Dudley Hill that was intended to be the de facto representative of Bradford and which was called ‘Bradford City’. They later came to see the potential of Manningham FC’s conversion and hence the Bradford City name was adopted at Valley Parade.

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Thanks for visiting my blog. Apart from publishing my BCAFC programme articles I also upload occasional articles of historical interest. Scroll down for details about my books in the BANTAMSPAST History Revisited series which tell the history of sport in Bradford – and in particular football. The books seek to explain why things happened as they did instead of simply recording what occurred and readers may be surprised at the extent to which they contradict many of the myths and superficial narratives that have circulated previously.

Tweets @jpdewhirst

Links to other articles written by myself on the history of football and the origins of sport in Bradford HERE

On Saturday 19 May, 2018 I am giving a talk in the Bradford Local Studies Library on the origins of spectator sport in nineteenth century Bradford and the development of the city’s sporting culture and identity. This will cover principally cricket, rugby and football and include a Q&A session.

Further details tbc.

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