In 1863, an informal group composed largely of ex-Bramham College students started playing rugby in Bradford. Three years later these pioneers constituted themselves into a town club and Bradford FC was born. Over its early years the club played under a set of rules that have been described as a compromise between the then early forms of Association and what became Rugby Union rules. Standardisation did not come until after the formation of the Rugby Union in 1871. Generally clubs played fixtures according to the home team’s rules, or some compromise would be agreed.
Bradford issued its first official fixture list in 1872. The club played its first season at Great Horton Road, the home of Bradford Cricket Club which was formed in 1836. Yorkshire CCC also used the ground. However the football club soon had to move to a field in Laisteridge Lane because of damage to the cricket square. It then migrated to North Park Road, Manningham, then to Peel Park, and later to a ground in Girlington. In 1874/75 the side played on a field at Apperley Bridge.
The cricket club lost its ground in 1875 and went into a state of limbo. This lasted until 1879 when trustees bought the freehold of Park Avenue from Mr Francis Sharp Powell, M.P. for £4,000. An agreement was reached between the cricket and football clubs to form the Bradford Cricket, Athletic and Football Club.
Park Avenue’s eight acres were officially opened with a cricket match on 20th July 1880. This was actually played on the adjoining football field due to bad weather. By a strange twist of fate, the first rugby match on 25th September 1880 against Bradford Rangers was played on a section of the cricket field!
The first game at Park Avenue under association rules was an exhibition match between Blackburn Rovers and a Blackburn & District XI in 1882, the Bradford committee being interested in introducing the round ball code to the town (match report). However it would be another 13 years before soccer returned to the ground.
Across the town, the Manningham Football Club was established in 1880 and also played under Rugby Union rules. Manningham staged their earliest matches at a ground on Carlisle Road before moving to a new home at Valley Parade in 1886.
The mushrooming success of league competitions in soccer in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s put increasing pressure on Rugby Union administrators to follow suit. In 1892, the Yorkshire County Rugby Union finally took the initiative and formed the Yorkshire Senior Competition. Bradford and Manningham were founder members. The new competition was deemed a success as Bradford duly won the first title.
With high unemployment and long-running strikes, many players could not afford to play as amateurs and so were paid “under the counter”. This eventually led to the “great split” of 1895 when the Northern Unions broke free and turned professional. Northern Union eventually became Rugby League.
With Bradford and Manningham now in professional ranks, the flag of Rugby Union was kept flying by the Bradford Wanderers club. A series of amalgamations with smaller clubs including Bradford Rangers and Horton eventually led to the formation of Bradford RUFC playing at Lidget Green.
The hard-nosed businessmen who ran sport in the 1890’s had also noticed the success of the Association code in Lancashire and the Midlands. To test the water, the Bradford club formed an Association section. Rugby League and soccer were staged at Park Avenue on alternate Saturdays. The football team was formed by the wholesale recruitment of Buckstone Park FC from Apperley Bridge.
Avenue’s forbears played in the fledgling West Yorkshire League in 1895/96, finishing level on points with Hunslet at the top of the league. The championship play-off at Kirkstall was drawn 2-2 and so the title was shared. Bradford also won the Leeds Workpeople’s Hospital Cup beating Featherstone 4-1 in the replayed final. Interestingly, in the semi-final replay, Bradford had beaten Leeds 4-0 at Valley Parade. Bradford FC thus played a football match at Valley Parade seven years before Bradford City FC was formed!
Bradford entered the FA Amateur Cup for the one and only time in 1896/97. The Park Avenue men beat Derby Amateurs and Sheffield FC before succumbing to Hunslet. A season later, Bradford entered the more prestigious FA Cup, but lost 3-1 at Kilnhurst in the First Qualifying Round. In 1898, Bradford were exempted to the Second Qualifying Round, but lost 8-4 at Parkgate United after a 2-2 home draw.
Bradford entered the first Yorkshire League in 1897, after a season without league football. However the side struggled against the reserve teams of the South Yorkshire giants. Crowds were very poor and the team ended up playing games at the old Birch Lane ground. The first Park Avenue soccer club was quietly put to rest in 1899.
Bradford FC continued to do well at Rugby League while Manningham struggled. Meanwhile the football authorities were desperate to establish the round ball game in West Yorkshire. The Football League let it be known that an application from Bradford or Leeds would be looked upon very favourably. Manningham FC bit the bullet and applied for a place having never kicked a round ball in earnest. The claret and ambers changed their name to Bradford City and were duly elected to the second division in 1903.
Bradford FC thought that the city’s rugby followers would unite behind the Park Avenue club. For a while that was the case as Bradford won the first division championship in 1904 and the challenge cup in 1906. However both playing and financial fortunes declined alarmingly in 1906/07 when teams were reduced from 15 to 13-a-side by removing two forwards from the scrum.
A number of prominent members held informal discussions with the RFU and in March 1907 they agreed to reinstate Bradford provided all professional players were excluded from the club. The club’s Football Section voted to accept the offer at a meeting in April 1907 – after a recount. The first vote had seen a majority of one for Northern Union with Association coming in third.
However the financial clout behind the club lay with A.H. Briggs, a woollen manufacturer from Harrogate. The club’s solicitor declared the decision ultra vires as absolute powers were vested in the Finance and Property Committee. Within a month the announcement was made that the club would adopt Association.
Bradford started negotiations with Bradford City to form a merged club at Park Avenue. Bradford also applied for membership of the Football League. This was probably to strengthen our bargaining position as we had received no encouragement from the league authorities. Thankfully City’s membership threw out the proposals at their AGM on May 27th 1907.
Bradford faced a problem four days later when its Football League application was unsuccessful, finishing fifth in a poll topped by Fulham. This left the club in a very difficult position. Determined to prove its worthiness to the Football League, Bradford made the bold decision to apply for Fulham’s place in the Southern League, then the second strongest competition in the country. This was accepted on condition that Avenue guaranteed visiting clubs the costs of their long journeys to Yorkshire. The strategy was successful as, a year later, Avenue joined City in the Football League.
Meanwhile Rugby League supporters reorganised themselves rapidly after the so-called “great betrayal” and on 24th May 1907 reformed under the name of Bradford Rugby F.C. As a goodwill gesture, Avenue passed all its old playing kit, footballs and goal posts to the new club. Worried that no one would realise that Northern Union was still being played within the city, the club extended its name to Bradford Northern R.F.C. in September 1907. The club made a new home for itself at Greenfield Athletic ground, the home of the very first Bradford City FC in 1901 and later to become a dog and speedway track. Unhappy with facilities at Greenfield, Northern moved to Birch Lane in 1908.
Bradford FC officially added (Park Avenue) to its name when it changed to Association to differentiate itself from Bradford City. However, in its Football League days, the club was almost always referred to simply as Bradford. Thus the letters BFC and not BPA adorned the famous old double decker stand at Park Avenue. Despite the gulf in status, older Bantams supporters still get annoyed when the sections of the media abbreviate their name and miss out the “City”. They know that Bradford FC is alive and well at Horsfall Stadium.