Zeitspiel: BCAFC

I was invited to write a feature about Bradford City for Zeitspiel magazine. Independently published, it is the equivalent of When Saturday Comes in the UK but with a lot more content although less regular. It is an impressive publication with a great variety of features and excellent design (which is fine if you speak German). https://zeitspiel-magazin.jimdosite.com/

The following is the English translation of my contribution published in the current issue (#30 May, 2023).

A place at the top table. The trials of Bradford City AFC

Bradford in Yorkshire, northern England is a city of the industrial revolution and the rapid expansion of the textile trade in the nineteenth century. The rate of growth of the city was staggering – from a population of 13,264 in 1801 to 145,830 in 1871 – and the surviving Victorian architecture bears witness to its historic wealth. (It should be mentioned that immigrants from Germany played a big part in the development of the city and its cultural life.)

Over-reliance upon the textile trade ultimately dictated the economic fate of Bradford which is nowadays better known as a depressed city with barely disguised poverty. For good reason Bradford has been compared to Detroit (although the circumstances of industrial decline is not uncommon in northern England and Scotland as the examples of Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow attest).

The sporting record in Bradford has inevitably been shaped by the economic fortunes of the city and the loss of wealth although sadly, that is where comparison with the experience in Liverpool tends to differ. Whereas Liverpool and Everton grace the Premier League, Bradford’s surviving representative in the English Football League – Bradford City AFC – suffers the glamour of the basement division, League Division Two.

Rewind to 1999-2001 and you would have found BCAFC in the English Premier League. Yet of the subsequent 22 seasons, all but three have been contested in the lower divisions. The only notable achievement in the current century was to have been losing finalists in the Football League Cup at Wembley, defeated 0-5 by Swansea City ten years ago. (An achievement that was nonetheless notable for the fact that BCAFC became the first ever basement club to have played in a major Wembley cup final.)

1999-01 Premier League

2001-04 second tier

2004-07 third tier

2007-13 fourth tier (League Division Two)

2013-19 third tier (League Division One)

2019-23 fourth tier (League Division Two)

However, life at the wrong end of the Football League has not been unique to this century, and in fact 68 of City’s 109 peacetime seasons in the League have been spent outside the top two divisions of English football. For example, when the club was promoted to the second division in 1985 it was the first time since 1937 that it had played at this level. And when the club was promoted to the Premier League in 1999 it was the first time since 1922 that Bradford City had competed in the top division.

Ultimately you have to go back into the long and distant past for evidence of when Bradford City AFC could rightfully say that it was a ‘big club’. And to be fair, immediately before World War One BCAFC was recognised as one of the leading sides in the country, known for its FA Cup success in 1911. The rise of BCAFC had indeed been swift. Elected to the Football League in 1903, by 1908 the club had secured promotion to Division One.

The early success of the club was consistent with the city’s reputation in the late nineteenth century as a centre of sporting excellence. In 1893 for instance, Bradford FC at Park Avenue was known as the wealthiest football club in England. The significance however was that Bradford’s reputation was based around rugby football. Crucially, the popularity of rugby in Bradford crowded out the development of association football in the district and hence the city did not get its first Football League club until 15 years after the origins of the competition. Arguably this delay handicapped BCAFC in that it could not rely upon established local networks or feeder clubs and throughout its history the club has faced competition from rugby. Had Bradford FC opted to play soccer and join the Football League in 1888 there is every reason to believe that the city of Bradford could have had a leading side with financial clout.

Bradford City AFC was formed in 1903 as a result of Manningham FC abandoning rugby and converting to association football. Local rivals, Bradford FC followed in 1907 and were elected to the Football League in 1908. Known as Bradford (Park Avenue), by 1914 they had joined City in Division One. Manningham and Bradford had been fierce rivals and with the rejection of merger in 1907 that competition was renewed as soccer clubs. Hence BCAFC was denied the monopoly advantage of having the city to itself and its potential support was further fragmented by the launch of a new successor rugby club, Bradford Northern in 1907.

Bradford was relegated from Division One in 1921 and Bradford City in 1922. By this time the economy of Bradford was in difficulty and both clubs struggled to attract financial backing such that in 1927 Bradford and City were third division rivals. The fall from the top was compounded by financial weakness and thereafter Bradford football was defined by the struggle of its two clubs to stay afloat. Thus, whilst Bradford and City had both enjoyed a moment in the sun, they were never able to consolidate themselves at that level.

BCAFC ultimately benefited from the demise of Bradford (Park Avenue) who lost League membership in 1970 but the club remained handicapped by financial weakness. The fire tragedy in 1985 when 56 people lost their lives at Valley Parade came to symbolise the impoverishment of Bradford City. A decrepit stadium that had not been modernised since it was originally developed in 1908 spoke of the club’s failings and under-investment.

The resurgence of BCAFC in the late 1990s that culminated in promotion to the Premier League was driven by a combination of astute leadership (or what might also be described as opportunism) and the injection of new money. The revival of the club encouraged new supporters and attendances averaging fifteen thousand were virtually unprecedented by modern standards.

Having defied gravity by avoiding relegation in 2000 the club gambled heavily on team strengthening in that close season. Whilst gambling on expensive transfers is part and parcel of life in the Premier League, the key difference is that established clubs are better able to absorb losses when the transfers don’t work out. Needless to say, what happened during the club’s second, final season in the Premier League was that the new signings could not prevent relegation. Like the desperate gambler in the casino, the club lost the shirt on its back and faced financial ruin.

The consequence of two ruinous bouts of insolvency meant that the club lost its assets and became burdened not only with a commitment to repay its creditors, but also the obligation of significant rental payments and the upkeep of its 25,000 capacity rebuilt Valley Parade stadium. In the absence of new investment, the club relied upon player sales and cup campaigns to remain solvent. On the field the club benefited from the stability provided by the five-year reign of manager, Phil Parkinson between 2011-16.

Ironically in 2016 the sale of Bradford City to a pair of German investors led by Stefan Rupp was viewed as an opportunity to break the cycle and realise the club’s potential. Nevertheless, new ownership proved anything but the magic ingredient. Rupp delegated operational control to his partner, Edin Rahic which proved disastrous in terms of undermining the enthusiasm and morale of all involved with the club. Remarkably attendances proved resilient, helped by the fact that ticket prices are heavily subsidised to make them affordable in what is a predominantly low-wage local economy.

Rupp inherited a club where lack of funds had forced it to be run on the cheap. He could not be faulted for his financial commitment and his attempt to make good past economies, for instance to upgrade training facilities and back-office infrastructure. However, no amount of investment in the club could compensate for the instability that came from as many as 11 different managerial appointments (including three caretakers) between 2016-22. Sackings became the default option, for example in the dark month of February in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2022.

New-found stability has come from the appointment of former Welsh international and Premier League manager, Mark Hughes in the last year. That instant transformation has not occurred has meant that he has not been immune from criticism. There tends to be a polarity between fans. Younger fans on the one hand point to the club as a former member of the Premier League. On the other, older supporters tend to be mindful that the glory of the Premier League was very much the exception as opposed to the rule of City’s modern history.

The club has the benefit of strong financial control but cannot afford to defy financial gravity and the fact that it does not own its stadium limits the financial options. Bradford City remains the victim of its history having lost its place at the high table a hundred years ago and suffered the cost of trying to regain it at the turn of this century.

Yorkshire clubs have invariably suffered from the counter attraction of Leeds United, a club universally disliked by others in the county. Bradford City can take encouragement from having a strong support base that makes it the highest supported side in the fourth tier. On paper at least the club is of a size that makes Championship (second tier) football a realistic ambition. Defeat in the third-tier play-off final in 2017 proved painful and remains the high-water mark since 2004.

The immediate challenge remains to escape the basement division and the last four seasons have been a challenging experience. In the opinion of the writer, if promotion is not secured this season the foundations are being laid that will finally allow us to escape and to push for a return to the second tier.