Monday, 13 June 2011

A New Dawn ?

I had been watching Bradford Northern since I was a toddler. Although in those early years playing on the ash banks surrounding the pitch and in the tram that served as a scoreboard were more important than what happened on the field. Over the years, after I realised that what was happening on the field was interesting and exciting, Northern had struggled. In the early 1960s Odsal Stadium was largely empty on match days. I remember getting excited at the thought of a 1,000 spectators being present. It didn’t happen very often! Northern obviously still had ambitions to be successful again, but it seemed that the people running the club didn’t really have the necessary resources to make that happen.

The 1961/62 Season for Northern had been particularly depressing. Week after week I went along to watch, hoping for the best, but results were very poor. The season was probably going to turn out to be Northern’s worst for thirty years. There had been two wins and a draw. In September 1961 Castleford were beaten by 8-0 at home. We then had to wait until February 1962 for a 3-0 win over Dewsbury and the 10 all draw with Keighley. So it came to Saturday 28th April 1962, Northern were due to face Batley at Odsal. The Batley game was the first of three home games that had to be played in the following seven days to complete the season.

The long season had moved towards its conclusion with Northern at the bottom of the League and with no prospect of an improved position, even with the three matches to go. Liverpool City were next to the bottom but had twelve points and so, even if Northern won their last three games, they couldn’t move from bottom place. The Rugby Football League decided that the following year the competition would have two divisions, perhaps to help strugglers like Northern win a few more games.

I am sure the club and its long suffering supporters were resigned to three more defeats Batley had beaten Northern at Mount Pleasant in the previous December. Hull KR, who we were to play in the second game, were in the top half of the League and had reached the Challenge Cup Semi Final. While Barrow, who had not had a brilliant season had never the less managed 14 wins and were in mid table. Northern’s three remaining games were crammed into a seven day period at the end of April and beginning of May, a test of stamina and endurance as well as skill.

I decided I would go to all three games and as the eternal optimist, a requirement of a Northern supporter in those days, I hoped there might be a win in one of them. Two months from the end of the season Northern recruited a former Workington Town player called Jock McAvoy to coach and play for the team. However, to date he hadn’t really turned the club’s fortunes round. I assume that everybody at Odsal was looking forward to the end of the season and probably regarded the last three games as an ordeal to be endured before they could have a rest and hope for better things next season.

Surprisingly, the game against Batley was a victory by 18 points to 11. Jock McAvoy played at loose forward scored two tries and inspired the win. The crowd of 738 must have been made up of die hard enthusiasts who at least got the reward for their attendance with Northern recording a rare success. There were 16 less spectators at Odsal on the following Monday evening expecting to see a big victory by Hull KR. What a surprise we got! With McAvoy again at loose forward Northern beat the Robins by 9 points to 3.

On the Friday evening 4th May the game against Barrow was going to bring the curtain down on the season. The two wins, or perhaps the early summer weather, brought an extra 120 fans to Odsal to give a gate of 842 for what we expected was the night the bubble burst. After 79 minutes it appeared that was exactly what was going to happen. Barrow had been the better team and had scored four tries to Northern’s one but had only managed to kick one goal. Northern were still in the game because of the four penalties kicked by Goeli Abed, the club’s South African centre. On the terraces we all knew there was very little time left when a speculative up and under from Northern full back Bill Seddon landed over the try line. The ball was immediately pounced on by prop forward Don Hatfield for the try that levelled the scores at 14 points all. That prompted a pitch invasion from the nearly hysterical Northern supporters who all sensed a remarkable treble. The referee had to clear the spectators from the pitch before Abed could step up to convert the try and win the game.

The scenes afterwards were reminiscent of a famous cup victory and everyone there went home happy, apart from perhaps the club Directors. They had promised the players a special bonus if they managed to achieve the remarkable treble. I am sure that after the club’s dismal season the Directors assumed this was a promise they wouldn’t have to keep. The season ended with great optimism on the terraces with, I am sure, many of the supporters thinking that Jock McAvoy was the new Odsal ‘messiah’. Then in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus on 7th June 1962, a little over a month after the final league game, there was a shock headline that said ‘ Jock McAvoy quits Odsal’.

Apparently, for the two months he was at Bradford McAvoy was an unpaid coach. He only received expenses and players pay when he played in a game. He said that he had taken the job on an unpaid basis with a view to getting an official appointment. Unfortunately, no official position was offered by the club. Perhaps the Directors decided McAvoy was too expensive to keep if it meant they had to pay winning money more often. Whatever the reason the following year Northern returned to their usual losing ways and finished the season at the bottom of the league again. Two wins and a draw in the newly formed second division was all they could manage.

That week in 1962 wasn’t the ‘New Dawn’ but it was certainly memorable. Those three victories and the name Jock McAvoy have lived in my memory for nearly fifty years.

This article appeared in Rugby League Journal in 2009 (issue 28)

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