The absence of league football in season 1896/97 had left Bradford and the other West Yorkshire clubs in a state of limbo. In a bid to restore the association game’s flagging fortunes, the Sheffield and Hallamshire F.A. established the Yorkshire League for 1897/98. This brought the soccer sections of five West Yorkshire rugby league clubs into competition with the reserve sides of the Midland League clubs Barnsley St Peters, Doncaster Rovers and Mexborough and Sheffield’s two Football League giants.
Bradford were captained by Harold Collinson with I. Smith as vice captain and started the season with a glamorous curtain raiser against Bolton Wanderers. This Monday fixture was played before a “moderate assemblage of spectators”, the early kick off perhaps depleting the crowd. The first division giants sent a surprisingly strong team with the local press suggesting that only three changes had been made to the team defeated 2-1 at Everton in a league fixture just two days earlier. Miller gave the Lancastrians the lead in the fifth minute with Cassidy and Nichols making it 3-0 by half time.
The 3-0 defeat against Bolton was followed by a friendly against Accrington Stanley. The Stanleyites, as they were known, are not to be confused with Accrington FC, founder members of the Football League, who disappeared in 1896. Accrington Stanley were formed as Stanley Villa in 1891 and are a completely different club. The North-East Lancashire Combination side defeated an understrength Bradford by three goals to one.
Bradford faced a tough test in their first league encounter, a visit to Bramall Lane. At the time football was played on the same field as cricket, but presumably not on the square. This proved to be a baptism of fire as Sheffield United Reserve won 10-0. To this day, this remains a record defeat for Bradford FC and its successors (except perhaps the 1970s & 80s Sunday side whose full results are not known).
Bradford’s line-up in their next at Barnsley in early October was believed to be:
Harker (goal), Smith, Collinson (backs), Thorne, Jenkins, Healey (half
backs), Cockshott, David Menzies, Matthews, Garner, Duncan Menzies
However the local press normally published team selections before matches and not afterwards. Barnsley won 5-0.
No numbers were worn in those early days. Healey and Gates (who was not selected at Barnsley) represented West Yorkshire against Sheffield & Hallamshire FA later in the season, and an E. Wells from the club played for the same representative side against the East Riding at right half back.
Sheffield United and Barnsley St Peters had been in residence at Bramall Lane and Oakwell since 1889 and 1888 respectively while The Wednesday were still at Olive Grove. Bradford would also have visited Doncaster Rovers’ old Intake Ground.
Bradford entered the FA Cup for the very first time in 1897, but went out in the first qualifying round losing 3-1 at Kilnhurst, a mining village east of Rotherham. Bradford had led 1-0 at half time thanks to a Mathhews shot which was cannoned into the net off a home defender. Kilnhurst were members of the Sheffield Association League and lost to local rivals Mexborough in the next round. The Wasps disappeared at the end of the season, but a Kilnhurst Town FC re-appeared in 1907.
The Yorkshire League was of a much higher standard than the old West Yorkshire League with the five south Yorkshire reserve teams dominating the five West Yorkshire sides who all struggled. South Yorkshire had been a stronghold of the round ball game since the 1850’s and their sides included many professional players. Bradford’s withdrawal from the FA Amateur Cup after just one season suggests that the club may have started making modest payments to its players in order to compete. But the only points Bradford could muster in the first half of the season were from a 6-0 win against eventual wooden spoonists Huddersfield, a draw against Halifax and two draws against old rivals Hunslet.
The football sections were slowly losing the rights to play on the main rugby grounds. Hunslet and Leeds had lost the use of Parkside and Headingley by mid 1897 and now played at Low Road and Meanwood Road respectively. And Huddersfield had to play a number of games at Milnsbridge rather than Fartown. But Halifax and Bradford still had the use of Thrum Hall and Park Avenue.
With only 10 teams in the league, there were plenty of free dates for friendlies and morale was maintained with big wins against the likes of Hull Kingston Amateurs and the Black Watch. The club also played a friendly against N.L. Jackson’s XI, better known as the Corinthians, who were on an amazing 22-match Christmas and New Year tour. Bradford went down 6-1 but this was hardly surprising as the Corinthians had been unbeaten in their previous seven tour games (match report).
Bradford were also expected to do well in the two local cup competitions but lost in the semi-finals of both on neutral grounds. Leeds won 3-2 at Hunslet in the Leeds Workpeople’s Hospital Cup while Hunslet hammered the Park Avenue-ites 5-0 at Dewsbury in the West Yorkshire Cup.
Bradford also started a reserve team in 1897/98, which played in Division Two (North) of the reformed West Yorkshire League. Home games were played at a ground in Bankfoot.
First team league fixtures were few and far between over the midwinter months leaving the club with a bit of a fixture pile up. Eight games were played in last five weeks of the season. These went according to the form book with narrow victories at Huddersfield and Halifax, and six defeats against the south Yorkshire reserve sides, many heavy.
Bradford ended the season second from bottom with just nine points from eighteen games. And crowds had been very disappointing, seldom if ever rising above 2,000.
(The author would like to thank Rob Grillo, Graham Williams, Mike Green and Terry Frost whose painstaking efforts made this article possible)