Yes, indeed – yet another occasional series, this one celebrating the clubs that we have loved and lost. Nowadays, relegation from the Football League is far from the end. As Carlisle United and Doncaster Rovers have demonstrated, it can even be the jolt that a complacent lower division club needs to spring back into life. Prior to the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation, however, it was more often than not a death sentence. Before 1987, the Football League had a system of re-election at the end of each season. The bottom four clubs in Division Four had to be voted back into the club, alongside any non-league clubs that wished to be considered for admittance. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a somewhat arbitrary process. Hartlepool United, for example, had to apply for re-election on a staggering eleven occasions, but were successful each time. Some clubs, however, were less fortunate – Gateshead applied just three times before being kicked out in 1960, without even having finished bottom of Division Four the previous season. As often as not, the clubs that were voted out ended up out of business. The notion of a football club, however – it’s spirit and soul – are somewhat more difficult to get rid of, and many of those that passed on have since re-formed and are playing somewhere further down the pyramid.
It might seem surprising that the city of Bradford had two Football League clubs Bradford City and Bradford (Park Avenue). Cities twice the size, such as Leeds and Newcastle, only support one league club. How this came about was a quirk of the development of football in the city, and had long term ramifications in the world of rugby league, too. The Bradford Football Club was formed in 1863, splitting with the other northern clubs to join the Northern Rugby Football Union in 1895 (subsequent rule changes would make rugby union and rugby league appreciably different games, but the initial split came about over a dispute over payments – the union clubs wanted to remain amateur, whilst the rugby league clubs wanted to turn professional). The club adopted the name Park Avenue (after their stadium) to distinguish themselves from Bradford City and the new Bradford Northern Rugby Football Club. In 1907, they decided to switch codes from rugby to football, and applied to join the Football League, but were rejected. As a stop gap, they joined the Southern League (strange times indeed – the Southern League was the only league outside of the Football League that professional clubs could play in at the time, so BPA had little choice), where they stayed for three years before finally joining the Football League the following year.
One of the most distinctive things about Bradford Park Avenue was their Park Avenue stadium. Designed by the celebrated architect Archibald Leitch, it held 37,000 people in its prime, and was notable for a small pavilion in one corner called the “Doll’s House”, and a vast stand (as can be seen at the top of this article) with three gables built into the roof of it. It was, in its heyday, a considerably better stadium that Bradford City’s Valley Parade. There was some talk of a merger between the two clubs when Park Avenue joined the League, but nothing ever came of it, and City’s FA Cup win in 1911 (which turned out to be their only major trophy win) but the idea to bed for good.
On the pitch, Park Avenue were initially very successful. They were promoted to Division One in 1913 and finished in ninth position in their first season there. Football, however, was disrupted by the outbreak of the First World War, and Park Avenue never recovered from the forced break, and were relegated twice in successive seasons, in 1921 and 1922. Promoted back to the Second Division in 1928, though, they would hold their place in English football’s second highest division for over two decades for being relegated back in 1950. In the immediate period after the Second World War, they earned themselves a reputation as a tricky team to draw in the FA Cup. In 1946, the made the FA Cup quarter-finals, in 1948 they beat Arsenal 1-0 at Highbury and in 1949 they held Manchester United to two draws before falling after a second replay. Their first brush with re-election came in 1956, and they were placed into the Fourth Division in 1958 when the Football League reorganised itself into four divisions. Their final promotion would come in 1961, but they were relegated again in 1963.
Their decline after this is not easily explained. Throughout the rest of the 1960s, they became an almost permanent fixture near the bottom of the Division Four table, finishing in bottom place in 1968, 1969 and 1970. Their luck ran out in the summer of 1970, when they were voted out of the League and replaced by Cambridge United. The club limped on in the Northern Premier League, but massive debts forced them to sell Park Avenue and move in to share City’s Valley Parade in 1973, and they folded the following year. The clubs debts at the time of its death were recorded as £57,652 – £5,000 less that had caused the death of Accrington Stanley twelve years earlier. It was a tiny amount for the club to go bust over, but they had no assets following the sale of Park Avenue, and the death of their chairman and benefactor Herbert Metcalfe in 1971 had left them without their biggest source of income. Park Avenue stadium fell into disrepair – everything bar the terracing had been demolished by the early 1980s – but remained unused to the extent that the Park Avenue Sunday League team played a match there in 1987.
The club reformed immediately as a Sunday League club, and transferred over to senior football in 1988, moving swiftly through the amateur leagues into the North West Counties League, and playing their home matches at Bramley and Batley Rugby League Football grounds. In 1995, and by now playing, as they do now, at the Horsfall Athletics Stadium in Bradford, they were promoted to the Unibond League, and in the big non-league reorganisation of 2004 won a play-off match to take a place in the newly-formed Conference North. They were relegated in their first season back, and again in 2006. Last season, however, they finished amongst the play-off places in the Unibond One, and will start this season alongside FC United of Manchester as the favourites for promotion. After thirty-seven years away from the bright lights of the Football League, Park Avenue don’t look like making a swift return there any time soon. It is, however, a testament to the dedication of their small band of supporters that thirty-three years after their original club gave up the ghost, there is still a team bearing such a proud name at the bottom of the football pyramid.
Six Of The Best – Former Bradford Park Avenue Players
Craig Bellamy – The tattooed, neck-free West Ham “star” was picked out by Norwich City after a few matches at Park Avenue had earned him an successful trial at Bradford City.
Paddy Kenny – The Sheffield United goalkeeper started his career at Bradford, before going on to Whitby Town and Bury, before being signed by Sheffield United.
Neil Redfearn – Redfearn has made 790 Football League Appearances (the fifth most of any player), and played his 1000th competitive match for Bradford against Solihull Borough in the FA Trophy in 2006. He also managed them briefly, and is now the manager of another former Football League club, Northwich Victoria.
Ron Greenwood – The former England and West Ham United manager made 49 appearances for Bradford between 1945 and 1949, before moving on to Brentford. In 1955, he won a League Championship medal for Chelsea.
Kevin Hector – Hector was Bradford’s regular top scorer in the mid-1960s, before transferring to Derby County in 1966. He went on to play nearly 500 games for Derby, and won two League Championship medals for them, in 1972 and 1975.
Len Shackleton – The legendary Sunderland striker scored 166 goals before being transferred to Newcastle United in 1946 for £13,000. Two years later, his transfer to Wearside for £20,500 was a British record at the time. He went on to score 101 goals in 348 games for Sunderland, before retiring through injury in 1957.