Locations of League: Bradford

Our journey around the villages, towns and cities that have rugby league running through their veins reaches Bradford.

TALK about high and lows…

From world titles, league championships – including the game’s very first – and huge crowds to switches to football, liquidations, a descent into the third tier and even a move out of the borough, when it comes to rugby league, Bradford has experienced the lot.

The complex story of the sport in ‘Woolopolis’, the nickname which reflects the influence of the textile industry on the city’s growth, could undoubtedly fill a whole book.

But we’ll try to distil it into two pages telling what is essentially the tale of three clubs, although there have been a number of versions of each.

We’re talking Bradford FC/RFC/Park Avenue, Manningham/Bradford City and Bradford Northern/Bulls – and let’s start with the first.

Bradford FC were formed in 1863, becoming Bradford RFC three years later and playing on a variety of pitches until merging with the recently-formed Bradford, Cricket, Athletic and Football Club and setting up home at the newly-developed Park Avenue sporting complex to the South-West of the city centre.

Rugby was first played there in 1880, and as the ground, which also staged county cricket, grew, so did the crowds, with an estimated 20,000 watching Bradford take on city rivals Manningham in a Yorkshire Cup tie in 1884, when the former won the competition, defeating Hull in the final.

Manningham, to the North-West of the city centre, had been formed during the 1870s (there are different theories as to exactly which year), and like Bradford, were nomadic in their early days before building their own ground Valley Parade, which opened in 1886, a year after the club reached the Yorkshire Cup Final (they were beaten by Batley).

In 1895, both clubs were among the 22 founder members of the breakaway Northern Union, and Manningham, in particular, quickly made their mark by winning the first Northern Rugby League title, finishing a point above Halifax (Bradford were eleventh).

However the club then entered a decline, and in 1903, switched to football, became Bradford City, and with the round-ball authorities eager to gain a foothold in the city, were elected to the Football League before playing a match.

Bradford had become one of rugby league’s more powerful sides, winning three titles between 1899-1900 and 1903-04 and the Challenge Cup (at the expense of Salford) in 1905-06.

But finances were under strain, and seeing the way Bradford City had adapted to football, and the attendance-pulling power of that game, Bradford themselves made the switch in 1907.

And after a season playing in the Southern League as Bradford Park Avenue, they joined City – with whom a merger had been mooted but fell through – in the Football League for the 1908-09 season.

The move had been highly controversial though, becoming known locally as ‘The Great Betrayal’, and a disgruntled group of supporters who had wanted to stick with rugby league soon formed a club, Bradford Northern, to do just that.

It meant finding a new place to play, for 1907-08, Greenfield, a horse trotting and athletics arena to the South of the city centre which later hosted greyhound racing and speedway.

After a season (which had included a victorious fixture against the New Zealand tourists), Northern made the relatively short move to another rugby ground, Birch Lane.

While it was developed to a degree, the venue remained rudimentary (Valley Parade was hired for big games), and in 1934, the club again relocated a couple of miles.

This time it was to the much-bigger Odsal, a former quarry used for the disposal of waste, much of which was used to form the bankings in the natural bowl which at one time, was the largest ground in England outside Wembley.

Of course the stadium will always be known for accommodating an official crowd of 102,569 for the 1953-54 Challenge Cup final replay in which Warrington defeated Halifax, with some suggesting the actual gate was more than 120,000.

It was a world record for a rugby league match until 107,558 saw the 1999 Australian Grand Final at Sydney’s Olympic (now Accor) Stadium.

Regularly used for internationals and as a neutral venue for big matches until the 1980s, Odsal also hosted an 83,190 crowd for the 1959-60 Championship Final in which Wigan beat Wakefield Trinity.

Seven seasons before that, as spectators flocked to sporting events of all kinds as the country regained normality following the Second World War (during which Northern were high achievers), there were 69,429 present for the club’s Challenge Cup quarter-final home loss to eventual 1952-53 competition winners Huddersfield.

What a contrast to 1963-64, when amid major financial problems and a dramatic plunge in playing fortunes, attendances fell to three figures, with one of just 324 against Barrow, and Northern folded midway through the season.

In 1974, Bradford Park Avenue, who had been voted out of the Football League four years earlier, also went into liquidation (the current version of that club were established in 1988).

After a campaign spearheaded by former player Trevor Foster, Northern had been relaunched in time for the 1964-65 season, and went on to win successive titles in 1979-80 and 1980-81 under Peter Fox.

The arrival of Summer rugby in 1996 brought the change of name to Bradford Bulls, and how the club ran with the Super League concept, with a forward-thinking promotional policy and  on-pitch success bringing fans flocking to be part of the fun.

With Australian Matthew Elliot then former player Brian Noble at the helm, the Bulls claimed four titles, three Challenge Cups and three World Club Challenges between 1997 and 2006, two years of which they spent playing at Valley Parade while work at their own ground was ongoing.

Upgraded it might have been, but the sheer size of Odsal in terms of upkeep and the cost of potential redevelopment have in more recent times been among many problems for the Bulls, who after going into administration for the third time in late 2016, were liquidated in early 2017.

Yet another new version of the club ended up in League One for the 2018 season (top-flight status was lost in 2014), and while a Championship place was reclaimed at the first opportunity, rising maintenance costs led to a groundshare at Dewsbury Rams between August 2019 and May 2021. 

Now back at Odsal, the Bulls are working towards regaining a Super League berth under the IMG club-grading system.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 497 (June 2024)

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