Bradford’s lack of football success – at all levels of the game – 

could well be down to its historical roots.

Many football fans will have memories of Bradford City’s short spell in the Premier League, and of their successful and not so successful campaigns in the second tier. The club was close to a return in May 2017 but alas Millwall stood in the way, but now faces demotion to the fourth tier following a short period of astoundingly poor chairmanship.

Initially, Bradford City AFC’s election to the Football League in 1903, without having played a competitive match, proved successful. Promotion to the top tier was attained in 1908, followed by what has remained their only FA Cup win in 1911 in a replay against Newcastle United at Old Trafford.


But whether City fans like myself like to admit it or not, Bradford City AFC has traditionally been a third or fourth tier club, having spent the majority of its 116 year existence at that level. Once the Football League became a truly national competition (after absorbing the top division of the Southern League almost in entirety in 1920) then the club  – as well as Park Avenue – quickly fell from grace.

Could this be due to the way the clubs were founded in the first place, and a lasting legacy of the strength of the rugby game in the region at that time?

Most Football League teams had tradition by the time they joined football’s elite. They were founded as offshoots of existing cricket clubs, or by local places of worship eager to increase their congregations, or by fellows who had learnt the game at public schools. They rose to the top of the pile in their districts, with a pool of players from which they had the means to pick from, and eventually the finance to import from far flung places like Scotland. Around them grew a strong grassroots structure that maintained that pool of players.

Bradford did it the other way round. Rugby was king long after it had lost out to the round ball game in other parts of the country. The strength of the Yorkshire Rugby Union was the key to this, going against the national body by ceding to its stronger members  – which included the likes of Bradford, Manningham, Leeds, Huddersfield and Halifax  – organising its own knock-out competition (T’Owd Tin Pot) and then recognising the inevitability of a league structure that would further local competition. This meant that local villages, workplaces, and indeed whole towns already enjoyed a competitive rivalry, one which was missing from the purely amateur rugby code in other parts of the country.


Association football therefore found it harder to become established, particularly in the West Riding.

Bradford Cricket, Athletic and Football club at Park Avenue was the first try it’s hand a founding a worthy city club. The club always played second fiddle to the rugby team, had far less finance available to it, and achieved little success – particularly against the reserve teams of South Yorkshire based teams like Sheffield United and The Wednesday, and was generally poorly supported by the Bradford public. After being exiled to Birch Lane in the Bowling area of the city, a ground far less accessible to the sporting public, in 1898, the club disbanded soon after, many of its players becoming dispersed among other local clubs.

Furthermore, in the early 1900s the West Riding FA found that attempts to organise a strong county league withered. It was argued that the professional Northern union clubs, who, in the 1890s experimented with the round ball game, and had the strongest teams were smothering ‘socker’ by not fielding sides in the attempted West Yorkshire/Yorkshire leagues. Manningham Football Club was one of those in the firing line, although it did make its Valley parade enclosure available for local finals, and also allowed Girlington AFC to use their ground for their home games in the Bradford & District League in the 1901-02 season. Without a good county league then there was no chance of the non-league game existing at a high level. Lack of success in the FA Amateur Cup was proof of this, and Bradford based teams very rarely made it beyond the regional qualifying rounds of this competition.

There were attempts by the Bradford FA, formed in 1899, to form a professional city team based around Girlington AFC (who played at Valley Parade) and the amateur Bradford City AFC (who played at Greenfield), but this fell through in 1902, leading to the surprise disintegration of both clubs.

When Manningham Football Club turned its back on the Northern Union (Rugby League) game and was admitted to the Football League as Bradford City, it turned on its head the traditional means of attaining FL status.

Park Avenue’s second, and this more successful attempt to introduce professional soccer was a mirror image of that at Valley Parade. An existing, professional rugby team was embraced by the authorities with open arms. Had a second Football League team evolved from a successful non-league team then the venture may ultimately have proved more successful in the long run.


Bradford’s ‘top down’ approach’, with two Football League clubs, with very little in the way of successful non-league teams ensured that a strong pool of local players was not going to materialise. While Bradford’s amateur leagues thrived, there was no successful non-league club in the city until after the Second World War (save for a Bradford Schoolboys’ English Cup success in 1916).


Bradford’s economic woes as the textile industry shrank can in no way be discounted, but it is worth considering Bradford football’s roots, because the ‘top down’ approach adopted by the formation of Bradford City and Park Avenue clubs from existing professional rugby clubs is clearly less efficient, or as sustainable as the traditional ‘bottom up’ approach. It was perhaps inevitable then that Bradford was unable to Football League teams, and the demise of one of them was bound to happen.

Leeds of course endured a similar checkered start to the growth of association football, but of course had the advantage of only one professional football team whereby finances could be consolidated, and growing and more prosperous population in general, and a club in Leeds City AFC that was founded from the ashes of the West Riding’s only successful ‘socker’ team prior to 1900.

Had the Bradford system proved sustainable, with only one Football League team, then that club could have easily established itself as a leading light in the game, with a firm base from which to garner support, finance and players. Its early history and development seems to have proved itself a millstone around the neck of professional soccer in the city, and possibly one which has prevented the club from ever catching up in terms of resources.

This early history of Bradford football, and of the sport of soccer in the West Riding in general, is covered in LATE TO THE GAME, published in May by and the sixth volume of the HISTORY REVISITED SERIES.

Article © Rob Grillo