By background the author is a Bradford City supporter and I have written / collaborated in a number of books on the history of the club, the most recent A History of Bradford City in Objects which was quite literally that. In 1984 I was co-founder of The City Gent fanzine. By background I am a self-employed accountant and my specialism undertaking financial due diligence, business reviews and providing turnaround support gives me a particular interest in the way that a football club functions as a commercial entity. Fair to say, the sporting history of Bradford provides rich pickings to analyse the dynamics of under-performance and failure.
A fascination of mine is the rivalry between the two Bradford clubs – City and Park Avenue – who were fellow members of the Football League between 1908 and 1970. However, it is impossible to explain the bitter relationship between the two without understanding their rugby heritage. When I embarked upon my ‘Wool City Rivals’ project it soon became apparent that coverage of the predecessor rugby organisations at Valley Parade and Park Avenue could not be confined to a brief introductory chapter. In fact, the rugby ‘chapter’ turned out to be 410,000 words that have just been published as two, 320 page illustrated publications. In terms of classification, the books are in the Charles Korr / Tony Arnold school of sports history although I cannot pretend that they are academic publications.
By my own confession I am not a rugby enthusiast and have minimal understanding of the rules of either oval ball code. My knowledge of rugby history was previously minimal. Yet if ignorance was a disadvantage I would also argue that it proved to be a benefit. For a start I had the luxury of examining the rugby game without any existing code prejudice. It also occurred to me that when people have looked at the nineteenth century origins of ‘football’ it has tended to be from a code specific perspective. I know myself that in Bradford, little attention has been paid by soccer followers to the era preceding 1903 when rugby was abandoned at Valley Parade and few Rugby League historians appear to bother with events prior to 1893 or 1895. In my own circumstances I had no alternative than to examine all three senior football codes given that both Bradford clubs not only had a Northern Union pedigree but Rugby Union origins.
Having self-published I confess a personal interest in the promotion of my books and encouraging mail orders to help empty my garage of copies. However, I believe that the example of what happened in Bradford in the nineteenth century has wider interest to anyone who is interested in the study of Victorian sport. For a start, I believe that this may be the first business history to have been published about not just one, but two Victorian rugby clubs.
A lot of existing writing about Rugby League history has essentially been of a top-down nature and there is a compelling need for detailed local studies to compare and contrast experiences across the country. The example of Bradford is particularly relevant because the town club, Bradford FC was reputedly the wealthiest in England in 1890 and played a major role in the transformation of a game based on the supply of enthusiasts to one based on the demand (or otherwise) of spectators. The Bradford clubs were at the forefront of rugby capitalism and the contradictions that led to the breakaway competition in 1895. Yet by the beginning of that decade, Association football had already established the economic momentum that would see it overtake rugby and become established as the national game.
I was struck by the excesses of football capitalism that existed within the rugby world even before 1895. In many ways it feels that the Victorian era has more in common with the unbridled excesses of the last 25 years than any other. The difference was that profit-making was made respectable by being linked to charity fund raising. Within Yorkshire rugby, an ongoing theme was the self-interest of the largest clubs whose economic needs differed to those of the small fry. The bitterness of smaller clubs in relation to the larger neighbours is striking and within the Bradford district for example, it has been overlooked that the junior clubs only joined the Northern Union belatedly as well as reluctantly in a futile attempt to survive.
Bradford FC and Manningham FC provide an interesting examination of the drive for solvency that ultimately led them to abandon rugby and establish soccer franchises in the city. The circumstances of their conversion reveal the efforts of the Football League to expand its competition as well as the rivalry with the Southern League and the internecine soccer politics of the Edwardian period.
Aside from the financial dynamics, I believe that there are at least four other niche themes revealed in the study of Bradford rugby and which may be of interest to the work of other sports historians:
- In Bradford, the influence of urban geography was paramount not only in determining where clubs played – and with it the basis of rivalry, but it also dictated which games could be played. In many respects it was an accident that Bradford became a rugby centre. It was the prominence of the town’s senior club, Bradford FC that encouraged other sides to join the Rugby Union and when Bradford FC won the Yorkshire Cup competition in 1884, the enthusiasm for rugby in the town was wholescale and critical mass was achieved. Crucially however, the shortage of playing areas meant that there was little scope for a rival code to become established and so soccer was crowded out for the remainder of the century.
- The development of rugby in Bradford was parallel to the urbanisation and industrial growth of the town and sport played a vital role in defining a Bradford identity and reinforcing local patriotism. It provided a form of self-respect and its value was recognised by politicians and civic leaders for the fact that it could unite the people of the town and provide a common purpose. Cricket and later rugby had an important contribution in developing the self-image of Victorian Bradford yet whilst the influence of religion and immigration has previously been recognised, that of sport has been almost entirely overlooked. I believe that the experience of the nineteenth century contrasts with that in the twentieth when sporting failure in the district arguably undermined the self-confidence and identity of Bradford and made it made more challenging to cope with de-industrialisation.
- The military heritage of the two Bradford clubs is betrayed by their traditional colours, derived from military identities. The extent to which Bradford rugby derived momentum from the Volunteer movement in the 1870s is quite astounding. The links between rugby football and the (territorial or volunteer) army continued through the later decades of the nineteenth century with the link finally broken by World War One. The sense is that the clubs deliberately distanced themselves from the connection after the war, more than likely in revulsion at the carnage of conflict. It is a theme I believe deserving of wider examination and comparison in other towns.
- The constitutional structure of rugby clubs as ‘one member, one vote’ member organisations played a big part in dictating the direction of the game. Both Bradford FC and Manningham FC were debilitated in terms of decision-making and member politics as well as capital raising. This is a dimension that seems to have had minimal attention in the literature yet the choice of rugby or soccer or both was a sensitive issue at both Valley Parade and Park Avenue. The manner in which soccer was introduced against the will of rugby members in 1903 and 1907 respectively is a case study in organisational decision-making and sports club democracy worthy of a political thriller.
Article © John Dewhirst
My two books – Room at the Top and Life at the Top – cover the period from the beginning of the nineteenth century and the origins of cricket in Bradford through to 1908. The final stage of my project – Wool City Rivals – will cover the twentieth century rivalry of the two Bradford Football League clubs but will also consider their co-existence with other mass-spectator sports in the city including rugby league, rugby union, cricket and speedway. Full details can be found at www.johndewhirst.wordpress.com and tweets #roomatthetop #lifeatthetop I would be very keen to make contact with other sports historians and happy to discuss my findings.