Division Three (North)

My feature published in the Bradford City AFC programme on 12th April, 2018 (v Shrewsbury Town, League One)

Sixty years ago, the 1957/58 season was the last in which the third division was regionalised between north / south. Since 1958 English football has been structured on a four tier basis with the introduction of a fourth division.

The rationale for the regional structure had been to minimise travel and maximise spectator interest through derbies. In 1920 Division Three had been formed from 22 southern clubs (including Grimsby Town) and in 1921 this became Division Three (South) with a further 20 clubs forming Division Three (North), increased to 22 in 1923. From 1950 each section comprised 24 clubs but with only a solitary promotion place for each section the third tier was difficult to escape from. Not surprisingly the format was relatively sterile and lacked the excitement of promotion/relegation or a variety of opposition. Consider for example that in the third division this season, one third of all clubs will be either promoted or relegated with additional interest derived from the play-offs.

Division Three (North) had been formed in 1921 and existed for 30 peace time seasons. Of those, Bradford City were members for 16 and Bradford Park Avenue for 14: City between 1927-29, 1937-39 and 1946-58; Avenue 1922-28 and 1950-58. Bradford City were champions of D3N in 1928/29, emulating the achievement of rivals Avenue the previous season. In fact City were promoted in record fashion, scoring 128 goals but post-war the club’s highest finish was 3rd in 1957/58. In 1948/49 the club finished bottom and was forced to seek re-election from the Football League.

After the relegation of Bradford Park Avenue in 1950, Bradford football supporters became pre-occupied with the rivalry of City / Avenue. The prime interest was which club could finish higher, an honour that was shared equally during the eight seasons albeit with City much the stronger after 1955.

Of the current Football League clubs, Crewe Alexandra and Rochdale were members of Division Three (North) throughout its entire existence between 1921-58. Of those sides competing in League One this season, seven including today’s visitors, Shrewsbury Town spent time in D3N. The others are Bury, Doncaster Rovers, Oldham Athletic, Rotherham United and Scunthorpe United. The Shrews were elected to the Football League as members of the northern section in 1950 but were switched to the south in 1951, one of only four clubs to play in both sections (the others being Coventry City, Mansfield Town and Port Vale).

Of the regionalised sections, the northern was considered the weaker of the two and this was demonstrated after the restructuring in 1958. Clubs finishing in the top half of the two regional divisions joined the new Division Three in 1958/59 but within five years the new Division Three comprised principally southern clubs. In fact City were relegated from Division Three in 1961 after only three seasons.

Of the 16 clubs who were ever-present members of the northern section after the war (ie from 1946-58), as many as 13 subsequently lost their Football League membership: Accrington Stanley, Barrow, Carlisle United, Chester, Darlington, Gateshead, Halifax Town, Hartlepools United, Southport, Stockport County, Tranmere Rovers, Wrexham, York City. And of those only Carlisle United and the reformed Accrington club have regained League status. New Brighton (members 1923 to 1951) and Workington who took their place (1951-58) are other forgotten sides who were members of Division Three (North). Additionally Mansfield Town (1932-37 & 1947-58) and Grimsby Town (1921-26 1951-56) are former D3N clubs to have spent time outside the Football League.

Four post-war members of the northern section reached the Premier League – Barnsley, Bradford City, Derby County and Hull City – in addition to two pre-war members, Stoke City and Wolverhampton Wanderers. However contrast that with Division Three (South) alumni (pre-war and post-war) of whom as many as 19 have competed in the Premier League since 1992: Bournemouth; Brighton & Hove Albion; Cardiff City; Charlton Athletic; Coventry City; Crystal Palace; Fulham; Ipswich Town; Leicester City; Norwich City; Nottingham Forest; Portsmouth; QPR; Reading; Southampton; Stoke City; Swansea City; Swindon Town; and Watford.

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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.

JD Sporting Heritage of Bradford 19-May-18

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