The first game of soccer in Bradford

The article was published in the BCAFC programme v Fleetwood on 26th September, 2017

In relation to clubs in other parts of the country – West Yorkshire aside – Bradford City, formed as recently as 1903 is a decidedly modern club lacking the nineteenth century pedigree of those as diverse as Blackburn Rovers, Notts County, Reading, Southampton, Sheffield United or Walsall. When it came to soccer, Bradford was left behind in terms of what was happening elsewhere and West Yorkshire remained a rugby stronghold until the beginning of the twentieth century.
My research has identified that the first competitive rugby match to have been played by a Bradford team (in this case, Bradford FC) was in February, 1867. Manningham FC (predecessor to Bradford City AFC) was established in 1880, the same year that Park Avenue was opened.

Blackburn exhibition game advert Bfd Obs 16-Sep-82

The first soccer match in the town was an exhibition game at Park Avenue between representatives of Blackburn Rovers and Blackburn District on 16 September, 1882. It proved enormously significant to the direction in which sport developed in Bradford that this game seemingly made little impact on public opinion.

In March, 1882 the FA Cup semi-final between Sheffield Wednesday and Blackburn Rovers had been staged at Fartown, Huddersfield (a rugby ground) and with the fixture in Bradford six months later it is evidence of a deliberate attempt to promote soccer in West Yorkshire at the time.

The game of association football was a curtain raiser to the new rugby season (with the first rugby fixture taking place a fortnight later) and it provided an opportunity to gauge public reaction to soccer in Bradford. There was a good chance that the code could have been introduced alongside rugby at Park Avenue as an alternative option for the public. The event can thus be identified as a decisive moment in the history of ‘football’ (a term applied to both rugby and association rules) in the district.

Blackburn Rovers won the match, 5-1 but what is bizarre is that accounts of the game were contradictory about its success. A number of newspapers reported the disinterest of the Bradford crowd, others the enthusiasm of spectators.

The only explanation to reconcile the alternative versions is that there was a deliberate attempt at misinformation or false news, evidence that certain people sought to eliminate the possibility of association football gaining a foothold in the area. Indeed, it was a criticism during the course of the next twenty years that the rugby establishment in West Yorkshire sought to suffocate, if not control, the emergence of association football.

By 1884 there was no commercial reason to justify a switch from rugby to association football in Bradford with rugby well-established, attracting unprecedented crowds and Bradford FC winners of the Yorkshire Cup. By 1890 Bradford FC would be one of the richest sports clubs in England. The Football Association did not stage another semi-final in West Yorkshire (although in 1897 there were rumours about Park Avenue or Headingley being utilised). It is a tantalising thought that if history had taken a different course Bradford FC could have been a founder member of the Football League in 1888 and one of the leading soccer clubs in the country. Manningham FC might then have become the town’s principal rugby club and Bradford City AFC might never have been.

John Dewhirst
John has written widely about the history of sport in Bradford: Articles by John Dewhirst on the history of Bradford sport

Elsewhere on this blog you can find his programme articles from earlier games this season and last.

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Details here about the new bantamspast History Revisited book by Jason McKeown and other volumes in the same series: BANTAMSPAST HISTORY REVISITED BOOKS

The 6th volume in the series, LATE TO THE GAME  features the origins of soccer in Bradford

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Discover more about Bradford football history at www.bradfordsporthistory.com

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