The early history of the Bradford Bulls was beset with doubts about which code the club should actually play. After adopting Rugby initially, their heads were turned due to changes in the laws of the game, which would ultimately end up with the club sinking into oblivion before it had even really begun.
The Formation of Bradford FC and The Great Divide
The first incarnation of a rugby team in Bradford came as far back as 1863 when a local dye mill owner, Oates Ingham helped set up a team for his factory workers. The rules in those days were based on those written down by the pupils of Rugby School in 1845 and another, revised set in 1862, which allowed handling of the ball and passing with hands. In Industrial Bradford, the rules were slightly different.. A player could catch the ball but if he dared to run with it, would be kicked until he dropped it!
The unruliness and lawlessness of mob football, played before the Victorian Times needed to be cleaned up with a clear set of rules for the game. This form of the game among the working classes was discouraged by employers due to injuries incurred during these often violent matches. Working hours were increased to allow less time for these games to be played. In the public schools, however, things were a little different. The pupils were given time to play sport and were left to develop their own rules for rugby or football matches. The big debate among the leafy lawns of places such as Rugby school and Eton was what to do about handling the ball and “hacking,” or tackling an opposing player.
Soon, a great divide emerged, some in favour of players being able to handle the ball and tackle the opposition, while others did not want these elements of to be part of the game at all. Those who did wrote the Rugby Rules of 1845 and those who didn’t created the Cambridge Rules in 1848. These were updated in 1862 and ’63 respectively. At this time, the football association was formed and the rest is history. On the rugby side of things the rules were quite familiar to us now.
The object of the game was to kick the ball over the opponent’s goal crossbar, which was stationed 10ft high on the 18ft high goalposts. Players could either “drop” a goal by kicking it between the posts during the course of play or after a “touchdown” (try), which generated an attempt to score a goal between the posts (nowadays a conversion). These rules differed depending on which public school you were at. Some like Harrow and Eton, outlawed handling the ball, hacking or “fouling” an opponent and changed the goalposts (quite literally) to eventually forming the game of Association football which we know today. Of course, it is worth a mention that the rules set out by Sheffield FC helped shape the modern round-ball game too, its spread across the country and eventually the world.
The question was in Bradford, was which sport did they really want to play?
When football and rugby went their separate ways in 1863, it was the same year in which Ingham formed Bradford FC. They lent more towards the rules of football as codified by Rugby school, which allowed handling the ball and tackling an opponent by collaring or tripping. There were still some who preferred the round ball game and the rules of association football would never be far from the rugby club as we shall see.
There were no competitive leagues in those days and so over the next couple of decades, Bradford FC took on local opposition. They played at several venues around the city, including Apperley Bridge, before settling on a new sports ground which had opened at Horton Park Avenue in 1880. This new multi-sports venue also served the city’s cricket team.
In 1877 Bradford FC entered the inaugral Yorkshire Cup, which had been reluctantly set up by the Rugby Football Union in London. They managed to win it in 1884, providing them with the first piece of silverware for the club.
The game of association football was never far from the door and the future of the Rugby team looked increasingly uncertain. An exhibition match took place at Horton Park Avenue between Blackburn Rovers and a Blackburn District XI. Across the city a rival rugby club in Manningham was created, who played at the newly built Valley Parade. Then there was the subject of professionalism. Football had given in to the demands of the Northern clubs who wished to pay their players in 1885, albeit with a salary cap. The RFU on the other hand outlawed professionalism and imposed sanctions on those who broke the rules. This resulted of course in the famous meeting at the George Hotel in Huddersfield of 1895, which led to a split from the RFU and the formation of the Northern Football Union. Bradford were one of the breakaway clubs, along with their city rivals, Manningham.
Bradford FC competed in the inaugural Northern Union season of 1895 and managed to win their first title in 1904, along with the Challenge Cup the season after. But something was not quite right…
The “Great Betrayal” of 1907
In 1895, Bradford FC took the unusual decision to play both the codes of Rugby and football. The businessmen who ran Bradford FC had noted the success of the Football League, which had been formed in 1888 and wished to bring football to the city. Therefore, the unusual step was taken for a newly formed football team made up of players from Buckstone FC in Apperley Bridge and the rugby team to operate side by side. Their home matches were played on alternate Saturdays. This unusual arrangement continued until 1899 when the football team was disbanded due to poor attendances and a greater preference for rugby.
Across the city in Manningham, their rugby club, who had won the inaugral Northern Union Championship in 1895 had made a dramatic decision. They chose to disband their rugby team and form a football club instead, due to financial difficulties in 1903 and some persuasion from the FA. Bradford City FC was born. Over at Horton Park there were some within the club who wished to follow the same path.
In 1906 the rules of rugby for the northern union clubs changed. A team was reduced from 15 to a 13 man game, with the deduction of two forwards from the front line of the scrum. Other changes included the introduction of a type of “play the ball” after each tackle and a scrum when the ball was kicked out of play on the “full.” Bradford did not take to these changes very easily and their fortunes soon suffered because of it, finishing 18th in the league. Annoyed by the new rulings, Bradford applied to re-join the RFU and break away from their northern counterparts, but this hit a brick wall when the association accepted their offer on the condition that they became an amateur club.
This gave further credence to the forces within Bradford FC who wanted to see them play football rather than rugby. One influential member of the board was Harrogate woolen magnate, AH Briggs, who was firmly in the football camp. It was his financial and legal clout which managed to persuade the majority to vote for Bradford FC to turn to the round ball game. The rugby faction were sent packing and the new football club became known as Bradford Park Avenue FC, who would eventually join City in the football league. Meanwhile Bradford Rugby League Club had no home, no league to play in. Rugby was on the verge of disappearing from Bradford altogether..