The year is 1964 and the second largest sports venue in the UK stood hauntingly empty. Bradford’s rugby dream was now dead after withdrawing from competitive rugby league mid-season because of a series of financial problems and low attendances. Would the people of the city care about the demise of their rugby club and if so, who could save Bradford Northern from being another forgotten name in English Rugby League? Any new team needed to catch up with their established rivals and adapt to the modern era of Superleague quicker than most.
The Second Resurrection 1964-1995
Ever since the formation of Bradford FC way back in 1863 there had always been an appetite for rugby league in the city. In Odsal they had the largest rugby league venue in the country and as had proven, the support to cheer on a successful team on the pitch. The old Northern’s downfall had been largely down to a failing team on the pitch which had been a victim of restructuring in the sport and had left them in the doldrums of the second division and deprived of facing their fiercest rivals, who would at least draw a crowd. This, along with other problems had lead to the low attendances and a financial meltdown which resulted in the demise of the club.
Two ex-players, Joe Phillips and Trevor Foster played a key role in the swift reformation of Bradford Northern RLFC. The former was a journeyman Kiwi, who had starred for Northern in the side that reached two playoff finals in the post war years. Foster had a longer history at the club. He made his debut for Northern back in 1938 and amassed 432 appearances, scoring 130 tries in the process. Until his death aged 90 in 2005, Foster had enjoyed a 67 year association with the club. Ironically in 1964 he was actually a coach at rivals Leeds, when he helped reform Northern!
The new team were successfully reinstated into Rugby League, starting in the now single division at the start of the 1964-5 season and finished 17th out of 30 teams. They cemented their arrival by winning the Yorkshire Cup the following season and reaching the first stages of the 16-team playoffs, after a 7th placed finish.
Over the next few seasons, Northern would consistently finish in the top 16 and reach the knockout stages, without troubling the final, before petering out at the end of the decade to finish a lowly 27th in 1970-71. This marked the first season where Yorkshire and Lancashire clubs competed for the same title and were not awarded separate ones for each county.
Then in 1972-73, Northern were challenging for honours with a Challenge Cup final appearence at Wembley, but lost 33-14 to Featherstone Rovers. This proved that the club was back among the elite and the dark days of a decade earlier were well and truly forgotten.
The next season saw the league format change once again with an abandonment of the playoff system, with the team which finishes top of the league winning the title automatically, as in football. The two division format, with a four team promotion and relegation system meant a large trapdoor in which to fall.
Bradford in the mid-70s were a comfortable, mid-table team, which never challenged for the title, but were never in danger of relegation. They steadily coasted along until a breakthrough in the 1977-78 season when they finished second, six points behind champions, Widnes. Northern were an improving force and the historians were beginning to check the date since any incarnation of the club had won a league title. That year was 1904, back when the club were unsure about whether they wanted to even play rugby!
The team of 1979-80 included a young hooker called Brian Noble. By day he patrolled the streets as a policeman, but on a weekend would become the fulcrum of the most successful Northern teams to date. Keith Mumby, a long-serving fullback, whose career spanned twenty years with Bradford from ’73-’93, amassed 588 appearances along the way. Another was “The Black Pearl” himself, Ellery Hanley, a promising young winger signed straight from college. He scored a try on his debut against the Rochdale Hornets and became an important part of the championship winning side.
The season 1979-80 will be forever remembered by older Bradford fans as the year when finally the waiting was over. After watching just about every other local rival win the rugby league championship, it was now Northern’s turn in the limelight. They followed up their league success by bringing home the John Player Trophy with a 6-0 win over Leeds.
They successfully defended their title in 1980-81, finishing two points above Warrington, putting the new Bradford Northern at the very top of the English game.
As the 1980s continued, Bradford slowly relinquished their grip on their crown. This was the era which belonged to the two Hull clubs, who would for a time engage in their own inter-city battle for trophies.
Northern slipped further down the table as the decade wore on and another period of league mediocrity followed. The sale of Ellery Hanley for £80,000 to an emerging Wigan didn’t help in 1985 either. In 1987-88, however Northern were one of three teams to finish only four points off the top of the table to Widnes in an exciting end to the season.
During this season an old enemy had returned to Odsal- finances. The sale of Hanley, a then world record, had only papered over the cracks which were beginning to emerge in the club’s coffers. The club took drastic action by transfer-listing all the players in a bid to raise some desperately needed cash. The “rubber man,” Phil Ford was sold to Leeds amongst others. Luckily on this occasion, Bradford had the infrastructure and playing assets in place to stave off these financial difficulties. They also won the Yorkshire cup in 1990 which helped.
For the first half of the 1990s, Bradford Northern, like every other team could only watch as Wigan went on to completely dominate the sport, sweeping the board of league titles and domestic trophies. They did manage two Regal Trophy final appearences, succumbing to Warrington and the mighty Wigan in 1991 and ’93 respectively. As Wigan’s dominance continued, something in rugby needed to change in order for other clubs like Northern to compete. The answer was just around the corner.
Bradford in the Super League Era
The year 1995 was a season of change for all the traditional rugby league clubs of England. The final, 101st season of winter rugby was squeezed in between August 1995 and January 1996. Bradford finished 7th, nobody could stop Wigan (again), which hardly mattered. Change was on the way.
The whole image, look and feel of the game was overhauled by the broadcasting riches of Sky Sports. Gone were the muddy pitches, the freezing cold grounds and darkness. In its place, warm sunny evenings, shiny new stadia and cheerleaders. Another new fangled idea, which came from across the pond, was to change the name of the club for marketing reasons. Some of the more traditional clubs, such as Hull, Wigan and St Helens were slow to embrace this, some never have, but Bradford were one of the the first to ditch their old name, Bradford Northern to become “The Bradford Bulls.” Ditching the word “Northern,” was in some part to get rid of the regional element to its name. No longer confined to the industrial north, the whole super league concept was about an expansion of the game to both the continent and the South of England.
Marketing and branding were now as much part of a modern, super league rugby club as scrums and play the balls. The Bradford Bulls took on this brave new world by the horns and won. Aussie coach, Matthew Elliott came in to manage the team and oversee the emergence of the Bradford Bulls as a force in Rugby League once more.
In the inaugural season of super league, Bradford finished in third behind Wigan and St Helens. Momentum was gathering. Then, in 1997, the Bradford Bulls won Super league II, finishing seven points above nearest challengers, The London Broncos. Hot summers evenings in Bradford had never felt so good!
A slump to 5th in ’98 was a mere blip, as the Bulls came roaring back the next year to the super league finals, but lost 8-6 to St Helens in a closely fought grand final. The new century, another trophy, this time The Challenge Cup and a nail-biting 24-18 win over the Leeds Rhinos. Bull mania had well and truly gripped the city.
In 2001, their favorite son, Brian Noble took the reigns and lead Bradford through the most successful period in its history. The Paul brothers, Robbie and Henry became household names, along with Tevita Vaikona, Jamie Peacock and Leon Pryce. These formed the nucleus of this all-conquering team, which had finally broken the Lancashire dominance of Wigan and St Helens.
As Odsal was re-developed, the Bulls briefly moved across the city to Valley Parade. This did not stop them as they stampeded their way to become the best rugby league team in the world. In a record-breaking 2001 season they thrashed Wigan 37-6 in the Grand Final to claim their fourth title in modern times. In a record-breaking season, goal kicker Henry Paul broke the record for the most number of consecutive goal kicks (35) and the highest number of points in a season.
On the 1st February 2002, Bradford Bulls were crowned world champions after they beat Aussie champions, the Newcastle Knights 41-26. It seemed that out of all the major Rugby League clubs in the heartlands of the north, the super league era had benefited Bradford the most.
The year 2003 was another highly successful campaign for the Bulls as they became the first club ever to win both the league title and the Challenge cup in the same season. Their cup run was smattered with high scoring as they battered their way to another cup final, where they ground out a thrilling 22-20 win over Leeds Rhinos and then turned over Wigan 25-12 in the Grand Final. The Bulls rolled on to win another World Club Championship with a 22-4 win over the Penrith Panthers.
In 2004, another grand final appearance resulted in the Rhinos gaining their revenge on the Bulls, turning them over, 16-8. The 2004 super league campaign was dominated by “The Volcano,” Lesley Vainikolo, who smashed his way to a try scoring record of 36 in 25 appearance that year, including five hat-tricks.
The following year and another grand final win, this time against old rivals, Leeds, 15-6, as the West Yorkshire clubs dominated rugby league throughout the mid noughties.
After all the club’s struggles; deserted in 1907, gone bust in 1963, with many average seasons along the way, this long suffering club were now at the pinnacle of the sport. The big problem is when you reach the top of something, the only way is down…
The seeds of change were blowing. The 2005 grand final marked the end of talisman, Robbie Paul’s Bradford career as he sought a fresh challenge at the Huddersfield Giants. Then, in 2006, out of the blue, coach Brian Noble crossed the Pennines to revive a struggling Wigan. Star player, Stuart Fielden following suit at the end of the season, once Bradford had been knocked out in the semi finals by Hull.
The dynasty was breaking up and so was their status. Towards the end of the decade, Bradford were reaching the playoffs easily enough, but not troubling the final as the Leeds Rhinos emerged as the most dominant force in the game.
In 2009, Bradford finished outside of the playoffs for the first time since the creation of Super League, followed by similar positions in 2010 and 2011. The club also relinquished their ownership of Odsal stadium to the RFL, who became their landlords. Something was not quite right.
Then in June 2012, a shock announcement was made. The Bradford Bulls were to enter administration with debts of around £600,000. They had just ten days to find a new buyer or face being wound up by HMRC.
Talks were ongoing with prospective buyers of the famous old club. After staving off the courts for another two months, the club was sold to the curry king, Omar Khan in August 2012. The club was saved, but had six points docked in the league for entering administration. His company OK Bulls Ltd took control of the club for one year, until he resigned from the board due to ill health. The club was taken on by businessman, Marc Green and then local businessman, Mark Moore, as they struggled to keep the Bulls afloat. Point penalties in the league finally took their toll and the former three times World and four times Superleague champions faced the ignominy of relegation to the Championship.
That day came on July 24th 2014 after a 52-26 defeat against the Huddersfield Giants. They now found themselves out of the competition which had reinvigorated the club and made rugby league for a time the most popular sport in Bradford. It also marked a dramatic fall from grace for the three times World Club championship winners.
Currently, Eddie n Stevo, the cheerleading girls and matches against traditional local rivals have left Odsal, as the Bulls continue to stay afloat and compete in the Championship. This once great club is now, sadly a shadow of it former self and while the financial boat has been steadied, it may be a while before we see them making a return to Superleague. Given the history of this great club, though, it has survived and thrived under similar setbacks in both 1907 and 1963. The Bradford Bulls will need to draw upon this spirit once again if it is to fight back to where it truly belongs.