Back to the Future

Bradford shieldThis season marks the fiftieth anniversary of Bradford Park Avenue’s last in the Football League. The club had joined the League in 1908, five years after Bradford City and renewed a rivalry that had previously been contested as a rugby club against Manningham FC. It was a bitter relationship and the final demise of the Bradford club – known by its fans and the press as Bradford and with particular sensitivity about the ‘Park Avenue’ suffix being applied in brackets [1] – involved a rancorous relationship with the Valley Parade based rivals. In the end only one club of the two was likely to survive. The Bradford club was liquidated in 1974 after playing a final season ground-sharing in BD8. The former Park Avenue stadium was abandoned in 1973 and demolished shortly after with little trace that it was once a football ground.

In 1988 there was a revival of Bradford Park Avenue, a phenomenon that enjoyed considerable support and goodwill among younger generations of City fans for whom the traditional rivalry was an anachronism. Since then the club has reached the sixth tier of English football albeit without ever seriously challenging to regain Football League status. Nevertheless, on a couple of occasions in the noughties it seemed that the Avenue might be elevated to be the senior side in the district by virtue of financial implosion at Valley Parade.

The potential of the Horsfall based Bradford Park Avenue has ultimately been constrained by the ageing of its support base and those with an emotional attachment from having followed the club prior to 1974. Quite simply it has previously failed to encourage sufficient new fans to lift crowds. The facilities at Horsfall combined with the enticement of cheap tickets and a higher standard of football at Valley Parade has represented a collective obstacle to progress. This has been despite the fact that in recent years the team has punched above its weight.

In 2014 the club was rescued by Texas billionaire Gareth Roberts, brought up in Holmewood in a household that was, to say the least impoverished. The owner’s vision however has never been to do a Salford, rather promote Horsfall as a community sporting hub. With all the happenings at Valley Parade, developments at Horsfall have to a large degree gone unnoticed yet they are very significant for the future of football and sporting activity in Bradford. What is planned at Horsfall is also revolutionary in the wider context of British football and financial commitments being made elsewhere by wealthy owners. In this case it is underpinned by deliberate as opposed to accidental philanthropy. (Arguably Stefan Rupp sits in the latter category by having made good the losses at Valley Parade incurred during the last couple of years.)

The investment in new facilities is intended for wider community benefit to create a lasting legacy and further detail about what this involves is the subject of a feature by Jason McKeown to be published on Friday 26th July, 2019 on The Width of the Post website. This will represent a not insignificant investment in sporting assets for the district and it is conceivable that the same training facilities might one day be utilised by Bradford Bulls and/or Bradford City.

What is equally notable is that the Bradford Park Avenue project seeks to embrace the original historic sporting heritage of Bradford and is defined by ideals that have a lot in common with the Victorian origins of organised sport in the district.


Revival of red-amber-black: the traditional Bradford sporting colours

bpa 1928-29In the same way that tradition is being revived at Valley Parade with the restoration of stripes, at Horsfall the original red, amber and black sporting colours of Bradford are once more being adopted (image left from 1928). Those colours were associated with Bradford Cricket Club and my research during the course of writing ROOM AT THE TOP suggests that they were formally adopted in around 1844 having previously been associated with the Bradford Volunteers of the Napoleonic era. The colours became the de facto Bradford identity, subsequently adopted by Bradford FC, achieving prominence in Rugby Union and latterly Northern Union rugby competition. In 1907 the colours were adopted by the newly formed association football club at Park Avenue as well as the new Bradford Northern club.

Pepys Its a goal game 1950Bradford Park Avenue retained red, amber and black although there were spells when green and white was worn (1911-24 and 1956-67). From 1988 when the club was revived, until this season the Bradford Park Avenue home shirt has been green and white.

The new Bradford shirt designs have a strong historical flavour with the red, amber and black bands consistent with the traditional shirt worn in the heyday of Victorian rugby as well as by Bradford Park Avenue prior to 1956. Whilst the new third shirt which is predominantly white with red, amber and black bands and is more recently associated with Bradford Northern and Bradford Bulls, it was worn at Park Avenue through to the 1950s and is a design originally worn by Bradford FC as a Rugby Union club prior to 1895.img_20190425_0749323217599045373721342.jpg

Additionally there has been a reworking of the club’s traditional crest, the coat of arms of the city of Bradford that were originally granted at the end of 1907 and retained until 1974 when the new Bradford Metropolitan District authority succeeded the former Bradford Corporation. When Bradford Park Avenue was reformed in 1988 the crest was revived in its original form. A new version has been introduced which is a digital reworking of the original and consistent with its dimensions. Full detail about the Bradford crest and boar’s head identity can be found elsewhere on this blog. [2]


Back to the Future

The homage to history is more than simply kit design or a new club crest. What in my opinion makes this such a distinctive project is that it is deliberately looking back to the future and deriving inspiration from the past to encourage and promote a local identity. On my part I have long argued that Bradford’s problem is less to do with image and more to do with identity and I am delighted that the Horsfall initiative recognises the importance and potential of sport to foster a sense of belonging. [3]

The term ‘topophilia’ is credited to WH Auden who used it in his 1948 introduction to a book of poetry by John Betjeman. According to Wikipedia ‘it refers to a strong sense of place, which often becomes mixed with the sense of cultural identity among certain people and a love of certain aspects of such a place.’ Our Victorian forebears would have recognised the meaning when they talked about ‘civic patriotism’. And in Bradford, sport came to be considered as an expression of topophilia / local patriotism, contributing to sentiments of identity and belonging. The Victorians also recognised the value of athletic activity as a means of social uplift. How quaintly old-fashioned and yet remarkably relevant to today…

The history of Bradford sport and the story of its origins in the nineteenth century has been neglected and badly served by historians who have failed to recognise its contribution defining a local identity. What the Victorians themselves described as ‘civic patriotism‘.

In the mid-nineteenth century, in the midst of the industrial revolution, Bradford was a divided city both in terms of ethnic composition as well as politics, but sport provided a unifying force that strengthened feelings of a common identity.

‘Athleticism’ was also considered a vital factor in boosting the health of the population, principally for military preparedness but also for the general wellbeing of individuals and the good of society. Through its links with charity, sport came to be identified as a force for good.

Notwithstanding that Bradford later became associated with sports capitalism there was a strong local ethos of sport – or ‘athleticism’ as it was known – for its own sake. Sport assumed a spiritual dimension, embraced by religious zealots who promoted muscular Christianity as well as secular individuals who identified it as a form of constructive recreation. The lesson of history that has long since been forgotten is that sport could be harnessed to promote change.

Bradford prided itself that ‘Labor Omnia Vincit’ was not an idle motto and that it was a guiding principle. Bradfordians were known for their pluck – a competitive, determined frame of mind – but it was not confined to industrial or civic activity. Sport provided further affirmation of the Bradford character and sporting success was considered the prize of a work hard, play hard outlook.

Such was the emotional, time and financial investment in sport by local people (from a multitude of social backgrounds) that its importance to the development of the cultural life of Victorian Bradford cannot be understated. Yet the significance of sporting activity has been overlooked by countless writers whose focus has been the social and political history of Bradford [4].

The history of what happened in Victorian Bradford is relevant in demonstrating how sport impacted on society as well as being shaped by it. This year marks the 140th anniversary of a vision to establish a new permanent home for the then homeless and dormant Bradford Cricket Club, a project that also incorporated developing an enclosure to host other forms of athletic activity including (rugby) football.

Current developments at Horsfall similarly represent a radical sporting vision for the district. It is revolutionary for the fact that it is not a public-funded, council initiative but one driven on a bottom-up basis, financed privately not-for-profit. In some ways it is also about going back to the future with parallels to what happened in Bradford, 140 years ago. Indeed, there has been nothing like it since then. And just as in 1879, we have a divided city and one which could benefit enormously from encouragement of sporting activity and healthy living.

In 1879 the original vision for Park Avenue had been to create a town club that championed athleticism in its widest sense although it was also intended to bring sporting success to Bradford. The construction of the sporting enclosure which opened in 1880 was funded by subscriptions and backed by leading dignitaries in the town (a cross-section of all political backgrounds) who recognised the social value of athleticism. Bradford FC was one of the sections of that club and ultimately it came to dominate affairs such that the original vision was later abandoned and paid only lip service. Ironically Park Avenue also became a divisive issue for football followers and the destructive, bitter rivalry between the Bradford and Manningham clubs.

The crucial difference in 2019 however is that there is no imperative to promote a single club and the Horsfall initiative is not about catapulting Bradford Park Avenue into the Football League. Instead this is about the promotion of sport through the provision of facilities and the encouragement of a Bradford sporting identity. The development of Horsfall is intended to complement the efforts of Bradford City AFC, not to challenge them. It represents a vision to improve lives through sport and for sporting activity to help make a positive contribution to society. It is the philanthropic contribution of a Bradfordian exile, Gareth Roberts wanting to give back to his home city.

Bradford has for so long been associated with sporting failure which makes it all the more exciting that this initiative is happening in our city and to be that of Bradford. The other lesson of history, again long forgotten, is that in the nineteenth century Bradford became known as a centre of sporting enthusiasm and excellence. To go back to the future will be no bad thing.



The Bradford Park Avenue initiative is accompanied by a social media campaign with a couple of distinctive hashtags, #onebradford and #properbradford and these seek to emphasise a shared sense of purpose and identity with the other Bradford clubs. The latter makes an implicit claim of Bradford Park Avenue being the authentic Bradford club with local roots.

jdewhirst woolcityrivals colourised image1937.jpg

Pictured above the two Bradford sides pose ahead of their Division Two derby fixture at Park Avenue on the opening day of the 1936/37 season. The two clubs struggled at the foot of the division that season but it was City who were relegated to Division Three (North). Avenue won the game in August, 1936 as well as the return at Valley Parade the following February. (Image colourised by George Chilvers.)

My understanding is that the boar’s head may also be adopted as part of the club’s marketing. However, its revival is intended as a shared identity rather than being appropriated. Again, this follows the example of our Victorian forebears who similarly embraced Bradford iconography as a proud display of identity, shared among all its sports clubs.

BPA v BCAFC 23-Jul-19

Pictured above the City and Avenue teams on the occasion of the pre-season friendly at Horsfall on 23rd July, 2019

The Park Avenue and Valley Parade clubs always had a hard core of partisan supporters with no love for their rivals. Historically however there was a high proportion of floating support in the district and shared goodwill. By the 1960s, support for City and Avenue had become far more polarised and the two were increasingly reliant on their partisan followers. Needless to say, the final chapter in the history of the Wool City rivalry was incredibly bitter but that should not have to define the future relationship between the clubs. Indeed, the opportunity exists to learn from history and to develop a constructive relationship for the wider benefit of Bradford.20190425_081515-1975297445-1556177868351

I am first and foremost a City fan but when it comes to sport my instinctive shout is ‘C’mon Bratfud’ irrespective of the club or for that matter the code. I can only express my enthusiasm and support for this ambitious initiative to succeed. I genuinely hope that it gets the full support not only of Bradfordians, but of each and every sports club in the district at every level – including BCAFC – as well as Bradford Council.

How good it feels that there is an uplift in spirits at Valley Parade and Odsal accompanied by such an innovative and ambitious project at Horsfall. For the first time in ages there is the making of positive sporting headlines in Bradford.

John Dewhirst

The author is currently working on an illustrated history of the Bradford City / Park Avenue rivalry which is planned to be published as two separate volumes in the BANTAMSPAST History Revisited series and follow his earlier books about the origin of sport in Bradford and the rivalry of Bradford FC and Manningham FC as rugby clubs.

[1] The saga of the brackets: What’s in a name? Semantics about Bradford City and Park Avenue – a feature published on this blog in 2017.

[2] The boar’s head Bradford identity – a feature published on this blog in 2017.

[3] The historical significance of sport in the Bradford identity – a feature written by myself, published on VINCIT in 2017.

[4] Remarkably, even an author who boasts that he is one of the ‘leading historians of sport and leisure in the north of England’ failed to grasp how athleticism contributed to the cultural spirit of Bradford. The review of his book (published in 2018) can be found elsewhere on this blog.

Oct 1937 BCAFC v BPA.jpg

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