Just 11 years ago, Bradford Bulls were crowned World Champions as they beat Australian NRL grand final winners Wests Tigers 30 points to 10. Wind the clock forward to 2017 and the Bulls are bottom of the Championship, confirmed of relegation to League One and having been forced into administration three times in five years. How the mighty have fallen.
In the Super League era, the Bradford club are one of the most-decorated teams in the game. With four Super League titles, two Challenge Cups, three League Leaders’ Shields, and, most impressively, three World Club Challenge titles, since the inauguration of the summer game in 1996, the Bulls have been a force to be reckoned with over the years. But, this is in the past; the future looks bleak for the once great club.
— Ewan Miller (@EwanJM) January 3, 2017
As early as August, the West Yorkshire outfit were destined for relegation from the Championship and, with just three fixtures left, they remain eight points adrift of Oldham in seventh. From the beginning of the season, however, the Bulls were placed in an almost-impossible situation from which to escape. A minus-12 points deduction would inhibit any team, particularly one which had to rebuild from nothing.
The Rugby Football League (RFL) had actually cancelled Bradford Bulls’ membership of the organisation in November 2016, throwing the whole future of the club into serious doubt. After a disappointing season where they finished outside the positions for the Middle 8s Qualifiers to get back into Super League, the Bulls were subsequently put into administration for the third time in the same month. Yet worse was still to come; with no backer found to be ‘suitable’, the Bulls went into liquidation in January 2017.
This added insult to injury after a season in which the playing team had been kept full-time to try to ensure a place back in Super League – where most of the rugby league fraternity felt they belonged. Even more painful was the fact that just the year before, in 2015, Bradford were within touching distance of the top division as they narrowly succumbed to a 24-16 defeat to Wakefield Trinity in the first ever “million-pound game”.
Different owners, same leadership?
After the Bulls went into a painful liquidation in January 2017 the RFL invited bids to form a new club based in Bradford which would replace the Bulls in the 2017 Championship but would start with a depressing 12-point penalty deduction. The RFL issued a set of criteria for anyone wishing to bid for the new club and four were submitted to the governing body. The new owner was publicly announced on 17 January as Andrew Chalmers, the former chairman of the New Zealand Rugby League. Although the Bulls’ fans seemingly had a new club, the main question on their lips was would this regime be any different from the ones who had caused their beloved club so much turmoil in the past?
Bradford now scrambled to put together a team for the start of the Championship season in February. But, with a 12-point penalty hanging over their heads – double what was given to them in Super League in 2014 for the first time they went into administration – the Bradford club seemed destined to fail. Geoff Toovey’s appointment as head coach was a seemingly positive start, however, an excruciating five-month delay in getting his visa sorted, meant he would not take up the reins until June. By this time, the Bulls were already on a slippery slope, still in minus figures in the table.
To be able to put a squad together in a month was a miracle, and the difficulty in doing so was epitomised as Bradford fell to a Hull KR hammering of 54-24, on the opening day of the 2017 season. And with an exceptionally young squad – 18-year-old Reiss Butterworth and 19-year old Brandan Wilkinson just two examples – nobody expected the Bulls to escape their predicament.
It is a real shame that the Bulls were punished before they even took to the field. With no points deduction, the nine wins under their belt this season thus far, would mean they would be fifth in the Championship Shield table, just four points behind fourth-placed Dewsbury Rams. And, with three wins from their last four, they could well have had the momentum to secure their place in the Championship for 2018. From this, a proper rebuilding phase could have taken place.
But, the punishment for the Bulls’ fans goes on; they still have their merry band of dedicated followers that follow them home and away. Yet even their home is not really their home anymore: the RFL purchased the lease on the famous Odsal Stadium (now called the Provident Stadium) in 2012. And, even worse for the club, the once-packed stadium on match days remains almost graveyard-like.
A heartland of Rugby League
Ten years ago the weekend just gone, the Bulls hosted their fierce neighbours, Leeds Rhinos, with a crowd of over 18,000. Last weekend, the Bulls hosted Batley Bulldogs in front of 2,609 spectators. The decline of the club, from the very top to the very core is such a sad sight to see. Rugby League needs a strong Bradford; the only trouble is this seems, at the moment, just an idealistic hope. Let’s hope the historic club can transform itself off and on the field to make it back as one of the elites of the British game.