Bottom of the League: 1948/49 remembered


Extended version of the feature published in the match day programme: Bradford City v Gillingham, 22 April, 2019

Thank you to David Wilkins for sharing his copy of a Bradford City programme from October, 1948 featuring the game with Darlington, a 0-2 defeat. The contrast with match day magazines of today is significant, both in terms of quality and content. It is a flimsy publication, has no photos, comprises just eight pages and is printed on cheap paper. Yet when it was introduced that month it was a big step forward, the first time that colours had been used in the club’s programme design (and the same style of cover remained in use at Valley Parade until the end of 1956).

The cover was introduced in the same month to herald a fresh start and as illustrated, signalled a return to the famous yoke shirt design, better known from the victorious 1911 FA Cup campaign.

darlo 30-oct-48

The cheap and cheerful publication was typical of football programmes just after the war when paper was not only expensive but in short supply. During the course of the next decade there were improvements in the standard of programmes at many other clubs. However it reflected the financial constraints and lack of imagination at Valley Parade that things didn’t really change until the mid-1960s when Stafford Heginbotham took control.

The Bradford City programme mirrored the state of the club and the doldrums of the immediate post-war period. What happened seventy years ago, in the 1948/49 season had a big part in defining the era and by finishing bottom of Division Three (North), the club’s ambitions were completely reset. No longer could City pretend to a big club in exile. The evidence was now plain to see, that it was instead a lower division side and a struggling one at that.

The 1948/49 season was the third since the resumption of peacetime football and there were hopes that the club might challenge at the top of Division Three (North) to return to the second division for the first time since relegation in 1937. Indeed, there was genuine enthusiasm and optimism about the club’s prospects under new manager David Steele and people were prepared to believe that the 14th place finish in 1947/48 had been an anomaly. No-one could have expected that City would struggle to the extent that they did and it had been thought that the club could get away without strengthening the squad.

By the end of October 1948, City were already at the bottom of the table and prior to successive victories over Oldham Athletic (away and then home) over the Christmas period, the team had managed only a solitary win in the first 18 games. It was a run of form comparable to 1926/27, a dismal season in which City had been relegated from Division Two with only 7 wins from 42 games. In December, 1948 there was a revival of newspaper talk about merger with Bradford Park Avenue.

You could be forgiven thinking that history repeats itself at Valley Parade. Indeed, the disappointment of this season has been witnessed on all too many occasions previously. There have been countless crises before and on each occasion the club has relied on its supporters to get itself back up. The circumstances of 2019 are no different to 1949 or any other time in any other decade of the club’s history going back to its origins as Manningham FC in 1880.

Seventy years ago the lack of finance was the root cause of the club’s problems. The fact that Valley Parade is built on a steep hillside has always posed a particular challenge and a costly one at that. The expense of Valley Parade has thus always been an additional burden for the club.

During the 1948 close season – in the aftermath of the Burnden Park disaster that had occurred in March, 1946 – the Midland Road stand was inspected by Bradford Corporation (as the licensing authority) and declared unsafe with its capacity restricted to two thousand. Additionally the club faced costs of £7,000 to make the stand safe. The construction of the stand in 1908 had pioneered the use of ferro-concrete and probably paid a price for experimentation in so far as the structure was found wanting forty years later. Additionally the stand was prone to storm damage due to its exposure and maintenance work had been minimal after World War One. However, given the circumstances of what happened at Bolton where 33 supporters were killed in a stampede on a banked terrace, it would not have been difficult to envisage potential safety risks on the Midland Road side where there were steep exit stairways. In 1946 the chairman, Robert Sharp had been quoted to the effect that the club was considering installation of a loudspeaker system to assist public safety. Needless to say, Bradford Corporation considered this to be inadequate in isolation.

In October, 1948 Councillor Rose assumed the role of chairman at Bradford City and David Steele was appointed as manager. To signal the fresh start there was a change of programme cover design at the end of that month and in January, 1949 the yoke shirt famously worn in the 1911 FA Cup Final was reintroduced. It was reported in the programme for the game with New Brighton on 11th December, 1948 that ‘at the (recent) directors’ meeting we met a few businessmen who are interested in the club and are prepared to get together to form a working committee for the City Supporters’ and Shareholders’ Association’. Thus came the revival of the Bradford City Shareholders’ and Supporters’ Association and in the following two decades it was the efforts of the BCSSA that kept the club afloat.

The BCSSA introduced a number of initiatives and fund raising events to assist the club. The bantam identity was restored, later featuring on the club shirts and in a flag that flew from the Burlington Terrace offices in the north-west corner of the ground. The revival of the yoke shirt was similarly intended as a totem of good fortune, to raise spirits. The BCSSA did not succeed in transforming the club overnight but it was successful in raising morale among supporters and restoring hope. If there are lessons for these times it is that there was a focus on the small things and City’s recovery was eventually derived from the aggregate benefit of numerous marginal changes. A traditional strip that dated back to 1909; a revival of a popular identity; improved communications and the rebuilding of trust with the club among them.

1909 BDV silk

Was it not for a second half recovery, with 7 victories in 21 games the outcome in 1948/49 would have been much worse. Nevertheless, with only 10 wins in total there was little surprise that the Paraders finished bottom of Division Three (North), five points adrift of Accrington Stanley in 20th position who avoided the ignominy of having to apply for re-election.

Not surprisingly the gates at Valley Parade were impacted and although the average League attendance of 10,447 in 1948/49 was higher than in the previous two seasons, it was well down on pre-war levels. In fact, the gates could reasonably have been expected to be much higher given the boom in attendances nationally and it is notable that the average was not that much greater than at other northern clubs in the third tier. It was evidence that Bradfordians had begun to turn their back on the club and City faced competition for interest from a resurgent Bradford Northern whilst Bradford Park Avenue were placed in the division above. That average was also distorted by the 27,083 who had attended the game with leaders, Hull City at Valley Parade in February, 1949 when City had managed a rare win. It was reported that many people were locked-out of the ground which was full to capacity. For safety reasons people were not allowed to use the rear portion of the Midland Road stand which was fenced off (refer images below). Demolition began at the end of November, 1951 and was completed the following spring.

1949-02-19 at VP v Hull

The Hull result was the highlight of the season and interest in the fixture was occasioned by the presence of the former Sunderland and England international striker, Raich Carter who had been appointed player-manager of the Tigers the previous summer. Carter had had a big impact on Hull City and attendances at Boothferry Park, something that didn’t go unnoticed in Bradford where a similar appointment was envisaged as a magical solution to the Paraders‘ woes. Sadly, Bradford City remained in Division Three (North) until the launch of a national third division (as now) in 1958 and never climbed back to the second division until 1985.

John Dewhirst

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