The formation of Bradford Park Avenue FC in 1907 had left Bradford Rugby Club in limbo and without a home. They were not without support though and the club managed to reform itself. As ever it was not without a struggle as they tried to establish themselves among the sport’s elite.
Rebuilding as Bradford Northern-1907-1946
Despite being thrown out of Park Avenue by those who wished the club to play football, Bradford’s rugby team were not without support in the city. Indeed there was a great appetite for rugby league and this orphaned team were now Bradford’s sole representative in the northern union after the disbanding of Manningham RLFC to form Bradford City FC.
First they needed a home, which eventually became the Greenfield Sports stadium in Dudley Hill. The stadium was designed more for athletics and equestrian. It wasn’t ideal, but at least the club had some grass of which to play rugby on. The club also managed to set up their headquarters at the nearby Greenfield Hotel.
Their one season stay at Greenfield did produce some notable results, including a win over a touring New Zealand side. It also re-enforced the city’s appetite for rugby league and for it to become an integral part of the community. Their opening match against Huddersfield attracted 7,000 spectators, who had stayed loyal to them after moving from Park Avenue. Another big change was the inclusion of the word “Northern” in their name, which would stay with them right up until the dawn of the Super League era. The club finished in 12th that year, which given their recent upheaval off the field, was a respectable finish.
Come the 1908 season and Bradford were on the move again, this time to Birch Lane. This ground had been their first choice for a new home the previous season, but had been forced to pull out of the deal because of high rents placed by the ground’s owners, Bowling Old Lane Cricket Club. Having re-negotiated a reduced rent to a more affordable level, Bradford Northern had a permanent home and perhaps, a future.
Birch Lane in West Bowling was far from ideal either. Based in a notorious area of Bradford, with poor transport links (no M62/M606 back then) and only a 2,000 capacity meant that the club was far too big for its ground. The limitations of Birch Road with its low capacity meant lower matchday income and a downturn in Bradford Northern’s finances. On the field they were not faring too well either, finishing 23rd for three seasons on the trot and then second from bottom in 1914, before the outbreak of war.
Post-war the club fared no better and were often scraping the bottom of the Rugby Football League, finishing 23rd in both 1919-20 and 1920-21 seasons respectively and then bottom with just five points all season in the 1921-22 campaign. The club struggled on through the 1920s finishing no higher than 23rd throughout the decade. There were calls within the club to return to the Greenfield Stadium, where at least they could hold a bigger crowd and was located in a more accessible and welcoming area of Bradford. The limitations of Birch Road had taken their toll on the club and been exposed during a Challenge Cup 1st round match against Dewsbury which had attracted a crowd of 10,807 in February 1924. During the match the wooden fencing around the pitch gave way due to crushing. Although nobody was hurt it showed Birch Lane’s inadequacy as a rugby league venue. The capacity had been increased to 15,000 by the late Twenties and the stand covered over, but a permanent solution was needed for Bradford Northern to improve both on and off the field.
In the late 20s, due to the inadequacy of their home ground, Northern played some of their biggest matches at Valley Parade and negotiations were ongoing for a return to Greenfield. These broke down due to Northern’s now precarious finances.
Then, a solution to the problem was found. An old quarry, which had been used as a rubbish tip throughout the Victorian era at Odsal Top was ripe for redevelopment. It was owned by Bradford Council and they hollowed out the famous steep banking to create the then second largest sports stadium in the country after Wembley Stadium. The club signed a ten-year lease for the ground in 1933 and had the opportunity to finally create a home for themselves. A turf fund was set up to lay the pitch and other facilities, such as fencing and dressing rooms were paid for by the club, while a stand was paid for out of the RFL coffers.
On 1st September 1934, the big day had arrived for the grand opening of the Odsal Stadium. Relieved of Birch Road’s restrictions, Bradford could finally build up for the future. The first match at Odsal ended in a 31-16 defeat to Huddersfield in front of 20,000 people. In the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II the club’s fortunes improved steadily, finishing 12th in 1937-38 season, their highest inter-war position. Bradford Northern were in reasonable shape going into the tough war years, with their new ground and improving fortunes on the field. During the conflict, Odsal stadium clubhouse were used as an air raid shelter, while one of the dressing rooms was a map room used by the Allies.
On the pitch a reduced Rugby League Championship was won by Bradford Northern in the 1944-45 season, to go with a Challenge Cup win the previous season. Unlike football, Rugby continued during the war years and played a vital role on boosting morale on the home front. The club were on the up and the momentum built up during the war years would carry on after the conflict when Bradford Northern started challenging for honours something which they had not done since the very early days of Rugby League.
Post War Boom and Bust 1946-1963
What the Odsal faithful were yearning for was something they had not achieved since 1904- the Rugby Football League Title. They finished 4th in the league in the 1946-7 season, but were beaten 15-5 in the playoff final by Warrington. The only consolation that year was the Challenge Cup win over Leeds 8-4 in the final. Northern topped the league table and made it to the playoff final once again at the end of the 1951-52 campaign, but lost out, this time to Wigan 13-6. In 1954, a Challenge Cup replay between Halifax and Warrington attracted a then world record 102,569 fans to Odsal for a rugby match. Some say it was more like 120,000! This was only superceded in 1999 when Stadium Australia opened. Similarly in 1953, 69,429 people packed Odsal out to watch a Challenge Cup 3rd Round. Rugby League had reached the height of popularity in Bradford.
By the mid-50s the pinnacle of Rugby League had been reached, but the summit never conquered and this brief flicker of relative success could not be sustained. By the late 50s Bradford had sunk to pre-war levels of finishing 23rd, 20th and then a more respectable 10th in 1958-59. Trouble was also brewing.
Bradford Northern were never a rich club and despite some on-field success in the early 50s by 1963 the financial vultures were circling Odsal.
Declining attendances and poor performances in the early 60s, including the ignomany of finishing bottom of the league in the 1961-62 hardly helped. A restructuring of the league system saw the introduction of a second divsion with a 2 up 2 down relegation system. The last placed finish in the previous season meant that Northern started the 1962-3 campaign in the second tier. They finished bottom and a record low home attendance of just 324 against Barrow showed how far Bradford Northern had sunk. The end came for Bradford Northern #1 on 10th December 1963 when the club were forced to pull out of the league mid-season with their record expunged. After almost winning the title a decade earlier, Bradford suddenly no longer had a rugby team to call their own…
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