We’re pleased to welcome John Dewhirst, the Bradford City historian and co-founder of that venerable fanzine institution The City Gent to BTLM. Here he writes about the start of a love affair with the Bantams that has spanned five decades and how his fascination for collecting memorabilia and charting every aspect of the club’s history has developed into a burgeoning publishing enterprise bring City’s past to life.
I saw my first football match in 1972 when my dad took me to Valley Parade on Easter Monday, 1972. The 0-2 defeat to Wrexham virtually condemned Bradford City to relegation from Division Three. It was hardly the most auspicious outcome and yet somehow I was smitten. At that time Bradford football was something of a joke. For as long as most people could remember the city’s two clubs – City and Avenue – had struggled and teetered close to insolvency. Most kids of my age opted for the easier option and aligned themselves with Leeds, Burnley, either of the Manchester clubs and even Huddersfield Town.
For whatever reason, I was smitten. By pure chance the Football League Review included in the programme for that game featured a colour photograph of Bradford City which was an omen. Magazines such as Shoot! or Goal for example had a staple diet of Division One teams and a photograph of my home side was almost unheard of. The City Gent character on the front cover of the same programme had its own appeal. The rest as they say is history.
In the 1970s – and probably not until the mid 1980s – it was rare for lower division clubs to be featured in the media. Having decided that Bradford City was to be my club I struggled to discover much about them other than the fact that the FA Cup had been won in 1911. There was literally very little other than in the local paper. The club programme had limited content, handbooks had been few and far between and a history of the club had not been written since 1927. There was virtually nothing to be found.
In 1984 I was a co-founder of The City Gent fanzine. The title was a no-brainer. It began as a supporters’ club magazine and quite literally it was second only to the Bradford Telegraph & Argus for written coverage about Bradford City. The City Gent proved an instant success with appeal to exiles around the country and an alternative to the match day programme for a half-time read. The editorial content evolved from club tittle tattle and the exchange of opinion to articles that explored the club’s history. Very soon the magazine began to attract contributions from people who had old scrapbooks in the loft or interesting tales of the olden days. Slowly but surely the gaps in the club’s history began to be filled.
In the late 1980s came the Breedon ‘Complete Record’ series and the success of the books surely demonstrated that there was a strong demand from supporters to understand the historical legacies of their clubs, both big and small. In 1988 came two books about Bradford City. The first was the Breedon edition, heavy on statistics but relatively light on narrative and ‘Of Boars and Bantams’ by Don Gillan to which I contributed artefacts from my collection of football programmes and cigarette cards. Both books were sell-out successes and help to encourage further interest in the club’s history.
In the wake of Euro ’96 and the emergence of ebay, there seemed to be a glut of old football memorabilia being bought and sold. As a collector, I remember it as a time when it was possible to fill gaps in my collection with relative ease and with it came a better understanding of the club’s history. The possession of old artefacts felt like a means of accessing the past.
The last twenty years has seen the transformation of the football industry – or should I say the ‘football experience’ – and with it the explosion of faux memorabilia. The best example of this is surely the emergence of fixture badges, that is cheap Chinese manufactured metal badges commemorating individual fixtures. I simply cannot understand the phenomenon. The sheer glut of such consumables has made younger generations even less interested in historical memorabilia which I find sad. It feels almost as if future supporters will lose the link with a club’s history.
The other development has been the sheer explosion of media content about football. Of course it remains dominated by the big clubs but what is remarkable in contrast to when I was a lad is the coverage of lower division and even non-league clubs. Again there is saturation. Yet whilst there is material about football history, in truth much of it is of poor quality. If sporting myths were originally given credence by the fact that the source of football history was either journalists or by word of mouth, it feels that nowadays the internet propagates and even multiplies historic inaccuracies. If I contrast the current experience with that of say, the 1970s it seems that despite the multiplicity of content and its complexity, there is little depth. Take for example the glossy, thick matchday magazines. Is the content really any better than that of forty years’ ago? I have begun to wonder whether football heritage now seems to count for less and that the pre-Premier League era is somehow discounted as meaningless. Maybe I am just getting old and miserable!
Having accumulated considerable memorabilia and relics relating to Bradford City I decided a few years ago to compile an illustrated history of the club in objects – A HISTORY OF BRADFORD CITY IN OBJECTS. This was published in 2014 and the formula proved to be well-received – described by Hunter Davies as ‘The best illustrated history of any club I have ever read’. I believe that it proved my claim that old artefacts can tell the history of a football club. The book was the first in a new series published by BANTAMSPAST – the identity of the former club museum which in 2012 gave way to self-publishing due to the closure of the displays. The series seeks to tell the history of the club from the genesis of sport in Bradford to the present day.
The second volume, REINVENTING BRADFORD CITY by Jason McKeown tells the story of the last thirty years since the Bradford fire. A ROOM AT THE TOP and A LIFE AT THE TOP – both by myself – tell the story of the origins of sport in Bradford, from cricket at the beginning of the nineteenth century to athletics, rowing, cycling, gymnastics and football in the 1860s, the spread of rugby, joining the Northern Union in 1895 through to abandoning rugby at the beginning of the last century. What many will be surprised about is that the former Bradford FC at Park Avenue was supposedly the richest sports club in England in 1890. The story of Bradford football is one of pioneering sports capitalism that contradicts any talk of sportsmanship in Victorian England. Subsequent volumes will include a collection of interviews with club personalities by Jason McKeown and finally, an illustrated history of Bradford City and Bradford Park Avenue by myself.
Anyone interested in finding out more can visit http://www.johndewhirst.wordpress.com
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em: glorious1911@ paraders.co.uk
You can buy the titles direct by mail order, £20 incl p&p from Bantamspast PO Box 307 Shipley BD18 9BT