Sleeping giant stirs, 40 years after being pronounced dead
Bradford Park Avenue played First Division football, knocked Arsenal and Manchester City out of the FA Cup and produced Kevin Hector. Now they are a club reborn and ready for a return to the League
Sunday 28 March 2010
In one of Amjad Iqbal's appearances for Pakistan, a World Cup qualifier against Iraq, the clamour of the 34,000 crowd was so great that he could not hear his colleagues. A similar problem has yet to arise with Bradford Park Avenue, but they are working on it.
Park Avenue's past includes First Division football in the 1920s; FA Cup victories at Manchester City (8-2) and Arsenal after the Second World War, when they also took Manchester United to two replays, one drawing 83,000 spectators; launching the careers of Len Shackleton, Ron Greenwood and Kevin Hector; and the less auspicious chapter which saw them stripped of Football League status 40 years ago before folding four seasons later.
However, it is the future of the reborn club which excites Iqbal. A 5-1 win at FC United of Manchester in midweek underlined Avenue's credentials as UniBond League champions-elect and tomorrow they host Leeds-based Guiseley in the first of two "six-pointer" derbies in a week against their main rivals. If they emerge in credit, they could be two promotions away from a return to the League by the start of next season.
Bradford-born Iqbal, aka "Ammers", is also a chemistry lecturer. The college where the 29-year-old teaches is close to the site of the club's first home, Horton Park Avenue, which featured an Archibald Leitch stand and Craven Cottage-style "Doll's House". In 1944 it housed 32,800 for Blackpool's visit, making Avenue the only club to post a record attendance in wartime.
Although the numbers cheering the push for a place in the Blue Square League North have stayed in three figures, Iqbal insists Bradford could soon have two senior clubs again. "The aim is to get back to the League in the next few years," the defender said. "The board realise that if we get promoted they'll have to find more funding, but there's a timetable for it all, including a possible move from Horsfall Stadium to a new stadium in the Thornbury area."
Iqbal was captain of nearby Farsley Celtic when three promotions in four years catapulted them into the Blue Square Premier. Farsley were recently disbanded owing £750,000. "The football on the pitch moved too quickly for the club," he said. "They didn't plan to get so far so fast, but there's no danger of that here."
Their plans are overseen by Bob Blackburn, the millionaire businessman who bought control three years ago and is now chief executive. Having become interested through his Avenue-mad brother-in-law, he was "touched" when he read up on the club. "Park Avenue is a sleeping giant. It's my job, and the board's, to wake it," Blackburn said. "When I came I said I wanted to be in the League in five seasons. We've got one promotion, with another possible now. That's me counting my chickens, but I'm confident we can achieve it."
Why not get behind the existing League Two club, Bradford City? "I'm a guy who likes to start from grass roots but we'd like to have that rivalry again. I'd like us to be the superior side in the city in the next few years. There's every possibility it could happen. It's the dream of all Avenue fans who ended up supporting City, Leeds or Huddersfield [after the club closed in 1974]. I look on message boards and there's disgruntled City fans. If they came to watch us, it's good football at an affordable price and a nice, family atmosphere with no segregation."
These are heady times for several clubs, including Newport County and Halifax Town, who were resuscitated after being pronounced dead. Their inspiration, according to Blackburn, and Avenue's manager, John Deacey, are Accrington Stanley, who returned to the League 44 years after leaving.
"Accrington have done fantastically and we'd love to emulate them," said Deacey, who has transformed an underachieving side since being elevated from the No 2's job last autumn. His blueprint is a more gradual one should Avenue win the one automatic promotion spot. "You can get to the Conference too early," he said, recalling his time at Farsley as assistant manager. "You must have the structure of the club in place. If we're looking to the future, I'd stress that to the board. The fan base is around 500 now but that will grow. For the Conference North you need 700 and you can't go into the Conference with less than 1,000. Bradford City have been clever with their cheap season tickets, and we have to think about how we attract the younger generation."
One of the old guard from the 1950s, Kevin Hainsworth, is now an Avenue director. In 2007 he and eight other fans spent five days at Lord's helping remove 1,600 unwanted seats from the Tavern Stand which they then installed at Horsfall.
Television commentator John Helm is a devotee of similar vintage. The son of a City supporter, he became besotted with Avenue after noticing the original stadium's grandeur on being taken to watch Yorkshire play the Australians at the adjoining cricket ground in 1953. He saw triumphs, bigger crowds than City and then relentless decline after the club sold future England forward Hector cheaply to Derby, plummeted to the foot of the old Fourth Division and were voted out in 1970. Now vice-president, Helm "fought back tears" as he covered their expulsion for Radio Leeds. Yet when diehard green-and-whites re-formed the club in 1988, starting in the West Riding County Amateur League, his passion was rekindled. Iqbal maintains the present squad is "good enough to win the next league too".
But could Bradford Park Avenue really make it back to the League? "Oh yes," Helm said. "The joke is that we'll pass Bradford City on their way down."
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