1897/98 had been a bad season for the five West Yorkshire teams in the new Yorkshire League who occupied the bottom five positions. Lack of local interest was blamed for the subsequent demise of Halifax, while Leeds’s association section found itself unable to stand on its own feet and thus had to disband. The league was weakened further as Barnsley St Peters withdrew their reserve side when their seniors were elected to the Football League. And the two Sheffield clubs entered their reserve sides in the Midland League for 1898/99, so their Yorkshire League elevens were probably their third teams.
The three vacancies were filled by Wombwell Town, Sheffield FC and Dewsbury. Dewsbury & Savile C & FC had stayed loyal to Rugby Union in the Great Split of 1895, but had found little success. They thus abandoned rugby union in favour of association half way through season 1897/98, leaving their old ground at Crown Flatt for Savile Town. A new Northern Union club was formed at Crown Flatt.
Bradford C.A. & F.C. was struggling to breathe life into its own ailing association section and decided to relocate the side to a four acre site adjacent to Bowling Old Lane cricket ground on Birch Lane. Indeed it was suggested in the local press that the rugby section’s second fifteen would attract gates equally as good as the association side.
Birch Lane was a less attractive and less convenient location than Park Avenue which now benefitted from electric trams as well as trains to Horton Park station. Supporters would have to walk from the steam tram stop on Manchester Road, the eponymous railway halt being hardly worth the short train journey from Bradford Exchange.
Bradford opened their league season with a 4-2 defeat at Sheffield FC which was followed by their second foray into the FA Cup. Our struggling forbears entered the competition in the second qualifying round, drawing 2-2 at home to reigning Sheffield Association League champions Parkgate United. A contemporary report of the replay said: “The Bradford eleven replayed their English Cup-tie with Parkgate United on Wednesday, and lost a free-scoring game by 8 goals to 4 goals. The losers were at a great disadvantage on the sloping and slippery ground, which may be said to have lost them three simple goals. Duncan, Danby and Menzies were favourably criticised for their play on the Bradford side. Weak shooting as well as the disadvantage of the ground, had something to do with Bradford's defeat.” Bradford thus went out to a team from the Rotherham area for a second successive season. Parkgate lost 8-1 at Midland League Doncaster in the next round.
The weaker opposition in the Yorkshire League did not help Bradford’s playing fortunes and only served to reduce public interest in the round ball game. The Bradford side of late 1898 was so weak it could not even win friendlies, losing twice to the 1st York and Lancaster Regiment. In fact the side did not win a match until 17th December when they won 3-1 at eventual wooden spoonists Dewsbury.
Once again, Bradford ran an ‘A’ team in Division 2 North of the West Yorkshire League. The other competing teams were Keighley, Ossett, Renshaw Albion, Bowling, Menston, Beeston Hill Parish Church, Otley, Harrogate and Yeadon. The first Leeds United also took part, beating Bradford reserves 4-2 at Birch Lane on the 8th October, but withdrew during the season.
The Christmas/New Year period saw some improvement for Bradford’s first eleven with a home win against Sheffield FC and a West Yorkshire Cup win at Dewsbury lifting the gloom. However a disastrous fortnight followed with the club exiting both local cup competitions and losing 8-0 at Doncaster Rovers Reserves in the league. Three heavy defeats followed against the Reserves of Sheffield United (twice) and Wednesday.
In an attempt to boost gates, the club played some games at Park Avenue late in the season where they were defeated 6-4 by Mexborough in a midweek game in early April. Three days later, Bradford were back at Birch Lane gaining a welcome 2-1 win against Hunslet (match report).
But the club was by now struggling to raise a side and, according to Rob Grillo’s book, only 9 men travelled to Mexborough Reserves. A 1-0 defeat must have seemed like a moral victory. And David Menzies had to play in goal at home to Wombwell.
The season ended, quite surprisingly, with a return to Park Avenue and a 6-2 win at home to The Wednesday’s third string (match report).
The club finished the season just one place off the bottom for a second successive year.
The annual report of the Bradford club said the following:
“The Association section had not had a successful season, the support given at Bowling Old Lane to the section being anything but satisfactory. The team have played 32 matches, of which 6 were won, 22 lost and four drawn, and have scored 41 goals against their opponents 91. In view of the serious deficit on this section of the club, the Rugby Committee at a meeting held on April 18 decided to discontinue the Association section at the end of the season, it being felt that the club was not in a position to continue it.”
Thus ended Bradford’s first serious flirtation with the round ball game.
Despite the failure of soccer as a spectator sport, Bradford boasted over 30 amateur clubs and the Bradford & District FA was formed in March 1899. By the turn of the century, the West Riding textile district had become the largest conurbation in England without a Football League team. Desperate to extend their influence, an (allegedly) sponsored article in the Bradford Daily Telegraph in January 1903 said “We have authority to say that the FA will do all in its power to assist the club who will take the first step. Shall it be Bradford or Leeds?”
At the time Bradford boasted two rugby league sides – Bradford FC in the first division and struggling Manningham FC in the second, while Leeds had three. Manningham were the first to take up the challenge and, as Bradford City, were elected to the Second Division in May 1903 without ever having kicked a football.
Manningham’s decision was viewed as a progressive move and caused relatively little controversy. However when Bradford FC followed suit in 1907 and became Bradford (Park Avenue), the decision caused much more acrimony. From that day to this, our friends from Odsal have called Bradford’s conversion to soccer “the great betrayal”.
Avenue did offer to amalgamate with City in 1907 and play at Park Avenue but this was turned down by the claret and amber brigade. Avenue’s forebears thus went their own way and joined the Southern League! A year later they were in Division Two. The rest is history.
(The author would like to thank Rob Grillo, Graham Williams and Alan Arnold whose painstaking efforts made this article possible)