History makers?

Under the new management team of Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars, Bradford City’s points haul of 27 from the last 12 games is consistent with promotion form. Over a 46 game season on a pro-rata basis it would yield in excess of 100 points and the uplift in performances has lifted the club from 22nd on 12th December to 11th. Whereas in December the talk had been of a possible relegation battle, now there is credible discussion about reaching the play-offs. Given that only five points and a game in hand separates BCAFC from Salford in 7th position it is entirely possible.

Historically, around 75 points has been sufficient to guarantee a play-off place and 85 to secure automatic promotion from the fourth tier under three points for a win. This season it seems far more open such that 70 and 80 points respectively may suffice. To reach the play-offs this season means that City would need at least 30 (and surely no more than 35) points from the remaining 18 games – hardly a massive stretch based on current form.

Parallels have been made with the 1983/84 and 1986/87 seasons when Bradford City lifted themselves from the bottom of the table (third and second tiers respectively). In 1983/84 for example, City finished 7th having been 23rd on 12th November, 1983 when they looked doomed with only eight points from 15 games. In 1986/87 there was a similar transformation. On 3rd January, 1987 the club was bottom of the table, three points adrift from safety – with 20 points from 22 games – yet finished the season in 10th place.

In neither 1983/84 or 1986/87 did the club mount a realistic promotion challenge, in the main due to the fact that the turnarounds came too late. In 1983/84 the side came within touching distance of promotion but by Easter in 1984 it was accepted that we had only an outside chance. In 1963/64 however City went from 22nd on 9th September, 1963 (when they had just six points from nine games based on three for a win) to finish 5th. The 1963/64 campaign was one of the most dramatic in the club’s history even though it did not end in success. Had the team (pictured above) not stumbled in its penultimate game that season it seems pretty certain that promotion from the fourth tier would have been achieved.

Back in 1963/64 the recovery had started much sooner and by the end of 1963 City were already in a midtable position (15th). Over the new year there was a similar period of peak form as now with 27 points from 12 games that lifted City to 6th by the end of February, 1964. Between 25th January and 18th April, 1964 there were only two defeats in a 17 game spell that yielded 41 points and which included five consecutive wins.

The fate of the club was determined by a 0-2 defeat at home to promotion rivals Workington on 22nd April, 1964 in the penultimate game of the season which attracted a bumper crowd of 17,974 to Valley Parade – a defeat that was attributed to nerves and big match pressure. The outcome of that game meant that the club’s hopes depended on other promotion rivals, Exeter City failing to get a point in their final match at Workington and City winning their game at York City.

A 0-0 draw at Borough Park rendered the result at Bootham Crescent academic and, given that the evening kick-off at York came after the finish of the Workington v Exeter match (which was played on the same day but in the afternoon), the City players went into their game in the knowledge that promotion had been denied. Of course, had City beaten Workington and then drawn at York it would have made their position unassailable and there could have been a party to remember in York that night. To add insult to injury, City suffered a second consecutive defeat for the first time in seven months and the season ended in disappointment.

The outcome of the 1963/64 season was cruel after the club’s revival under manager, Bob Brocklebank. To have come so close to promotion was a remarkable achievement, all the more so considering that Bradford City had finished 23rd in Division Four twelve months before.

The recent transformation at Valley Parade has drawn comparison with the 1983/84 season when there was a similar turnaround, in that case one inspired by the return of Bobby Campbell from Derby County. That campaign is best remembered for the record-breaking ten consecutive wins between 26th November, 1983 and 3rd February, 1984 and whilst the next ten games yielded only 16 points, the club was defeated just twice. Thereafter some of the momentum was lost with only five points in the last six games (which included consecutive defeats in the last two games) and the club’s cause was not helped by fixture congestion that required nine games to be played in a three week period between 21st April and 12th May, 1984. Exhaustion was therefore probably a factor for the drop in form. Nevertheless, had the transformation come sooner there is little doubt that the club would have challenged for promotion.

In 1986/87 the transformation in the second half of the season was less marked but nonetheless in the last ten games the team was defeated just once and won seven times. The significance of the 1983/84 and 1986/87 seasons however was that they provided a springboard to promotion challenges the following campaign. In 1984/85 for instance City finished as champions of the third tier and in 1987/88 finished fourth in the second tier, narrowly missing promotion through defeat in the play-offs. (By contrast, in 1964/65 City finished 19th in Division Four, explained primarily by the failure to replace Rodney Green – scorer of 29 goals during the 1963/64 campaign – who was sold in the 1964 close season to meet financial pressures.)

The graph below shows that after 28 games and 40 points we are narrowly tracking behind the 1963/64 and 1983/84 seasons when we had secured 43 points in each at this stage. By contrast we are well ahead of 1986/87 when we had only 28 points. (NB In the 1986/87 season there were only 42 games played in the old second division.)

In 1963/64 the club managed 12 wins and two draws from the final 18 games, equivalent to 38 points and to repeat that (which would give us a total of 78 points) would most certainly secure a play-off place this season, maybe even put us within touching distance of promotion. To put this into context, in the last twelve games the club has had eight wins and there have been three draws.

To sustain the current form would be truly remarkable but it is unrealistic to believe that there won’t be setbacks with the occasional surprise result in the next three months. We can expect more difficult games like the one last night against Leyton Orient with visitors coming to Valley Parade and adopting similar tactics. What counts in our favour is that we have a rejuvenated squad and you sense that some of the teams that were among the leaders in the first half of the season are beginning to tire. The congested fixture list is a potential risk but on the face of it the size of the squad allows for player rotation. The confidence and self-belief in the team is also another massive advantage. In other words, the prize is there for the taking.

The two seasons – 1963/64 and 1983/84 – are the only ones where the club has recovered in spectacular fashion from the foot of the division to within touching distance of promotion places. In those years there was no play-off at the end of the season which gives more chance that 2020/21 could yet be a promotion season. If we did achieve that goal, the mid-season transformation would be unprecedented and 2020/21 could rightly be described as history making. However, irrespective whether promotion is achieved or not there is already a strong platform upon which to build for next season.

POSTSCRIPT – The season 1961/62 was another where the club had a turnaround in the second half of the season. During the first 27 games of the season there were just seven wins and seven draws (28 points) but the last 19 games brought 15 wins and two draws with just two defeats (47 points). The club finished 5th, just outside the promotion places. Strictly speaking it managed 75 points under three for a win but of those, the three derived from games with Accrington Stanley were expunged arising from the club’s liquidation mid-season. I didn’t include the season in the analysis because strictly speaking the bulk of it was spent in midtable and there was only one weekend when the team came close to the re-election zone. For the record refer graphs below.

John Dewhirst

Thanks for visiting my blog, the content of which is mainly – although not exclusively – about Bradford City AFC. The menu above gives access to content published in the BCAFC matchday programme, features on local history as well as my reviews of sundry sports books that have local coverage.

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*** Details of my new book (2020) in collaboration with George Chilvers: Wool City Rivals – A History in Colour which tells the story of the rivalry of Bradford City and Bradford Park Avenue in the Football League, 1908-70. (Available only online from the link.)