Valley Parade: a history
August 31, 2017
Manningham Rugby Football Club were the original owners of Valley Parade, in fact they constructed the original stadium. When their ground was sold to facilitate the construction of a school the club required a new home and they consequently bought one-third of the Valley Parade site in Manningham taking a short-term lease out on the rest of the land in time to play there for the 1886–87 season. The new ground and the road it was built upon both adopted the name of the local area, Valley Parade, a name deriving from the steep hillside below Manningham.
The original ground comprised a relocated stand, a 2,000-capacity stepped enclosure, the playing area, an athletics track and fencing to limit the total capacity to 18,000. The ground was officially opened on 27 September 1886 for a game against Wakefield Trinity which was watched by a capacity crowd, but construction work meant most of Manningham’s early games were away fixtures.
Manningham RFC continued playing until 1903 when financial difficulties caused by relegation at the turn of the century prompted club officials to change codes from rugby to football. The first football game to be played at Valley Parade was a promotional fixture on 6 April 1903 between a side of West Yorkshire footballers and Sheffield United’s 1903 FA Cup winning side. The game had been organised to stimulate interest in the sport in Bradford and attracted 8,000 fans. The new football club, Bradford City, were elected to the Football League’s Division Two the following month. Bradford City’s first game at Valley Parade came on 5 September 1903 against Gainsborough Trinity drawing a crowd of 11,000. As a result of alterations first implemented in 1897 City players originally changed in a shed behind one end of the ground, and visiting teams used the old rugby club dressing rooms at the back of the nearby Belle Vue Hotel. However, after City’s 5–1 defeat by Manchester United on 10 February 1906, United player Bob Bonthron was attacked as he left the ground. As a result the FA closed the ground for 14 days, ordering City to switch its changing rooms to the nearby Artillery Barracks for the 1906-07 season. Several supporters faced criminal proceedings for the incident.
After Bradford City won the Division Two championship in 1907-08 the club hurried through a reconstruction programme of the ground to prepare for the club’s first season in Division One. Football architect Archibald Leitch was commissioned to design new terracing in the paddock—a standing area in front of the 5,300-seater main stand which was built in 1908—and build a Spion Kop at the north side of the ground and an 8,000-capacity stand at the Midland Road end opposite the main stand. Further work was performed to lower the railings, erect barriers, move the pitch and add extra turnstiles. The changing rooms were also moved, with a tunnel leading from the rooms underneath the Kop along the main stand side of the ground. The total project cost £9,958, and raised the capacity to 40,000. The improvements allowed Bradford City to set their record attendance of 39,146 on 11 March 1911 against Burnley during the club’s FA Cup winning run. It is the longest surviving attendance record at any league ground in the country.
The stadium had remained virtually unchanged since 1908, and did so until 1952, when the capacity of the ground was reduced after examinations of the foundations were ordered following the 1946 Burnden Park disaster. The investigation resulted in the closure of half the Midland Road stand. The stand’s steel frame was then sold to Berwick Rangers for £450 and a smaller replacement stand was built at Valley Parade in 1954. Six years later, the stand had to be demolished for a second time because of continuing foundation problems. It was another six years before all four stands at Valley Parade were able to be opened for the first time. To enable construction of a new stand on the Midland Road side of the ground, the club directors moved the pitch 3 yards (2.7 m) closer to the main stand. The new stand was then the narrowest stand in the league. Further improvements were made to the stand in 1969, ready for the club’s FA Cup tie with Tottenham on 3 January 1970, which ended in a 2–2 draw in front of 23,000 fans. The cost of the work forced the club to sell Valley Parade to Bradford Corporation for £35,000, but it was bought back by 1979 for the same price.
Valley Parade’s first floodlights cost £3,000 and were lamps mounted on telegraph poles running along each side of the ground. The floodlights were replaced in 1960 but when one fell over in 1962, an FA Cup game with Gateshead had to go ahead with only three pylons, prompting an FA inquiry.
On 11 May 1985, one of the worst sporting disasters occurred at Valley Parade. On 11 May 1985, a crowd of 11,076 attended Bradford City’s final game of the season against Lincoln City. The Bradford side had secured the Division Three title the week before and the league trophy was presented to City’s skipper Peter Jackson before the game. After 40 minutes of the game a small fire was noticed three rows from the back of the ground’s main stand. The flames became more visible within minutes, and police started to evacuate people in the stand less than six minutes later. Club chairman Stafford Heginbotham who was in the main stand, described the effect and his reaction to the disaster: “The fire just spread along the length of the stand in seconds. The smoke was choking. We couldn’t breathe. It was to be our day.” The game was stopped and the wooden roof caught fire. The fire spread the length of the stand , and timber and the roof began to fall onto the crowds. Black smoke enveloped the rear passageways, where fans were trying to escape. Ultimately, the fire killed 56 spectators, ranging from 11-year-old children to the 86-year-old former chairman of the club, Sam Firth. At least 265 further supporters were injured. The few existing narrow escape routes led to locked doors in some cases, and the only escape for most spectators was directly onto the pitch. The match was abandoned and never replayed, with the Football League ordering the scoreline at the time of abandonment to stand.
Sir Oliver Popplewell published his inquiry into the fire in 1986, which introduced new safety legislation for sports grounds across the country. Forensic scientist David Woolley believed the cause of the fire was from a discarded cigarette or match, which had dropped through gaps between the seating to a void below the stand where rubbish had built up. A number of police officers and 22 spectators were later awarded bravery awards for their deeds on the day.
The old wooden roof of the stand was due to be replaced the day after the Lincoln match, because it did not meet the safety regulations required for Division Two, where the team would be playing in the following season. Instead, it took until July 1986 for rebuilding work to begin. More than £3.5 million was raised for victims of the fire and their families through the Bradford Disaster Appeal Fund. Memorials have been erected at the ground and at Bradford City Hall, the latter of which was provided by Bradford’s twin town of Hamm in Germany. The disaster is also marked by an annual remembrance ceremony on 11 May at Bradford City Hall, and an annual Easter-weekend youth tournament, contested between Bradford, Lincoln and other teams from across Europe.
For the next season and the first five months of the following season Bradford City played home games at Leeds United’s Elland Road, Huddesrfield Town’s Leeds Road and Bradford Northern’s Odsal Stadium while Valley Parade was rebuilt. Huddersfield-based firm J Wimpenny carried out the £2.6 million work, which included funding from insurance pay-outs, Football League stadium grants, club funds and a £1.46 million Government loan obtained by two Bradford MPs. A new 5,000 all-seater main stand was built, longer than the structure which had burned down. The Kop was also covered for the first time and increased to a 7,000 capacity. Other minor work was carried out to the ground’s other two stands. On 14 December 1986, 582 days after the fire, The Hon Sir Oliver Popplewell, who had conducted the inquiry into the fire, opened the new stadium before an exhibition match against an England international XI. It was first used for a league game on Boxing Day when City lost 1–0 to Derby County.
The two stands which were not altered after the fire were both improved during the 1990s. The Bradford end of the ground was made a double-decker, all-seater stand with a new scoreboard in 1991. City’s promotion to Division One in 1996 enabled chairman Geoffrey Richmond to announce the construction of a 4,500 seater stand on the Midland Road side. It was first used for a Yorkshire derby against Sheffield United on Boxing Day 1996, before being officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 27 March 1997. Richmond continued his plans to redevelop the ground as City continued to rise through the league. The roof of the Kop, which was the largest safe-standing terrace in the country at the time was removed and the capacity reduced during City’s 1998-99 promotion season, to prepare for a summer £6.5 million rebuilding programme. The Kop was converted into a two-tier 7,500-seat capacity stand. An additional 2,300-seat capacity corner section was built, which filled in the corner between the main stand and Kop. When opened in December 2000 it took the capacity of Valley Parade to more than 20,000 for the first time since 1970. A suite of offices and a shop were added at the same time. Once the work was completed, a second tier was added to the main stand at the cost of £6.5 million. It was opened in 2001, increasing the main stand’s capacity to 11,000, and the ground’s capacity to 25,000.
Richmond also planned to increase the main stand’s capacity by a further 1,800 seats by building new changing rooms and office blocks, and add a second tier to the Midland Road stand, to increase the ground capacity to more than 35,000. However, the club went into administration in May 2002, and Richmond was replaced by new co-owners Julian Rhodes and Gordon Gibb. The following year, Valley Parade was sold to Gibb’s pension fund for £5 million, with the club’s offices, shop and car park sold to London-based Development Securities for an additional £2.5 million.
The ground has been renamed a number of times for sponsorship reasons and is currently named the Northern Commercials Stadium since July 2016 but is still commonly known throughout football as Valley Parade.
Bradford Park Avenue have played 29 games at Valley Parade, including a 2–0 friendly victory over Swiss side AC Lugano in 1962, and all their home fixtures in 1973-74, their last season before extinction. Bradford’s rugby league side Bradford Northern played a number of fixtures at Valley Parade between 1920 and 1937, as well as three games in the 1980s, and 1990s.Northern became Bradford Bulls with the advent of Super League and played two seasons at Valley Parade in 2001 and 2002 during redevelopment of their home ground at Odsal.