Horton Park Avenue was home to Bradford for 66 of their 67 years. During that time it hosted matches in all four divisions of the Football League and, in 1909, an international between England and Ireland.
Bradford – the “Park Avenue” was used informally, to distinguish the club from Bradford City – joined the Football League in 1908, five years after City. They played in the First Division between 1914 and 1921, and then fell into Division 3 (North) before a promotion to the Second Division in 1928 which saw them remain at that level until 1950. That Division 3(N) title remained their solitary honour. In 1958 they missed the cut for the newly-formed national Third Division, and found themselves briefly in Division Four.
Their two major claims to fame arrived in the Forties. The first was the illustrious personage of Len Shackleton, who played for them in wartime football between 1940-46 – while also working in an aircraft factory – and scored 171 goals. A former Avenue youth player, Shackleton – or as the papers had it, the Clown Prince of Soccer – was sold to Newcastle for a record fee, later becoming a prolific First Division goalscorer for Sunderland.
Their second, curiously, was to be the opponents when Manchester United attracted their record attendance – a massive 82,771 for a 4th round Cup-tie in 1949. Equally curiously the game took place at Maine Road, as Old Trafford was still uninhabitable following wartime bomb damage. The game finished 1-1. The crowd for the replay was rather more modest.
Horton Park Avenue
Of the old-style grounds that combined football and cricket, Park Avenue was the most perfectly integrated. It opened in 1880 as home to the Bradford Cricket, Athletic and Football Club. To start with, the nascent Bradford team competed in local Yorkshire leagues. But it was in 1907 that things really took off. Spurned by the Football League, in a brave and somewhat bizarre move Bradford joined the scarcely less prestigious Southern League. Their desire to have a stadium befitting their new-found status led to an association with Edwardian England’s foremost football ground designer, the prolific Archibald Leitch. The rest, as they say, is history.
Park Avenue’s crowning glory was Leitch’s Main Stand. An impressive structure surmounted by no fewer than three ornate roof gables, it held 4000 seats on 16 rows and also featured a seating tier overlooking the cricket pitch to the rear. As you sat in it, to your right was a Fulham-esque cottage – the Dolls’ House – beyond the corner flag, and a substantial goal-end terrace, with the car park and the square building of the social club behind.
The small covered terrace opposite, squeezed between the touchline and the main road, was reminiscent of a similar cover that stood for many years on the Midland Road side of Valley Parade. Finally, to the left was the Horton Park End, accounting for 10,000 of the ground’s 34,000 capacity and finally roofed soon after the Second World War. Four floodlight pylons were added in 1961 and opened with a game against the Czechoslovakian national team.
Decline and fall
With the exception of an unusually poor 1949-50, Bradford did not generally trouble the foot of the League. All that changed, however, in the late Sixties. Having been relegated from Division 3 in 1963, performances declined. From 1966 onwards Avenue faced re-election four years on the trot, finishing rock bottom for the last three of them. Finally, in 1970, patience ran out. In that year’s ballot they polled only 17 votes. Non-League Cambridge got 31 and replaced them in Division 4.
The club’s shambolic off-field organisation during that last season was a major factor in their lack of credibility. Their new chairman, eccentric Glaswegian Herbert Metcalfe, sacked manager Laurie Brown and replaced him with one of his friends. The friend, Frank Tomlinson, knew little about football and rumour had it that Metcalfe – who knew even less – picked the team for him.
Bradford started again in the Northern Premier League, with a full-time squad but only average results. In October 1970 Metcalfe died while on a scouting mission in Glasgow. He had been bankrolling the club to the tune of £500 a week, and his death plunged them into crisis. They struggled on for a further two seasons at Park Avenue, but in 1973 mounting debts forced them to sell it to a property developer. They played out a final, miserable campaign groundsharing with City at Valley Parade before folding in April 1973.
Horton Park Avenue today
Park Avenue was not redeveloped. Instead it entered a slow decline, forming a sad backdrop to Yorkshire county cricket matches during the Seventies. The Main Stand, Dolls House and Horton Park End roof were demolished in 1980: by then, the pitch was covered in trees and rubble. In 1988 an indoor cricket centre was built over half the site. All that remains now are sections of the pitch and outer perimeter walls – and the brooding, tree covered hump of the Horton Park End, whose terraces survive beneath the undergrowth.
1 Dolls’ House from cricket pitch side 2 social club from car park. Picture: Keith Longbottom 3 Dolls’ House from open end 4 Avenue side 5 Park End…. 6 ….and in 1992. Picture: Alex White
This end of the ground briefly woke from its slumbers in 2013, when the National Football Museum and the Arts Council jointly funded an archaeological dig at the site. The project, which ran for three years, attracted widespread media interest and spawned an award-winning book – the crowdfunded (and now impossible to obtain) Breaking Ground: Art, Archaeology and Mythology by Jason Wood, Neville Gabie and Alan Ward. Among other things the dig uncovered the entrance steps, toilets, a goalpost, marbles (once hurled at an unfortunate Fourth Division goalkeeper) and a nappy pin. This last item recalled an incident in the 60’s when Bradford ‘keeper Chick Farr suffered an embarrassing elastic malfunction during a game and was ever afterwards bombarded with nappy pins by the crowd.
You can read an excellent account of the dig on Neville Gabie’s site:
Breaking Ground – Art Archaeology and Mythology A Project by Lead Artist Neville Gabie, working with Roman Archaeologist Jason Wood and Robert Nichols, Professor Chris Gaffney from Bradford University, with artists Alan Ward, Louise O’Reilly, Oliver Palmer and Giorgio Garippa, local historian David Pendleton and the numerous Bradford Park Avenue fans and club.
When we visited, nature was taking over again. The entrance steps at the Horton Park End corner are once more vanishing from sight, and the terraces are fading from view behind a screen of bushes.
The magic, however, remains. As archaeologist Robert Nichol puts it, “former grounds have a life long after the last football has been kicked.”