Football meets archaeology: Fans and archaeologists excavate ancient Bradford Park Avenue

By Ben Miller | 10 September 2015

Yorkshire ground first used in 1880 is revisited in nostalgic style by artists, archaeologists and fans

A photo of a man in a scarf holding a rattle at the former football ground of Bradford Park Avenue
Fans of Bradford Park Avenue look at memorabliia during the first ever excavation of a football goalmouth and post© Neville Gabie
In an age of spaceship stadiums and shiny seats, Park Avenue football ground - the former and spiritual home of Bradford Park Avenue, a football league team between 1908 and 1970, and Bradford rugby club, the 1884 Yorkshire Cup winners - is a true time capsule.

The football club was liquidated in 1974 before rising again in 1987 (they are currently in the Conference North, two divisions below the Football League, playing at the 3,500-capacity Horsfall Athletics Stadium.)

A photo of a group of men in colourful shirts walking through a forest at the former football ground of Bradford Park Avenue
The view of the goalmouth© Neville Gabie
But dusty reminders of the old ground remain, albeit increasingly crept upon by the surrounding forest.

“It’s an extraordinarily interesting Victorian sports complex which had cricket, football, bowling, rugby league,” says Neville Gabie, an artist who, alongside Jason Wood, a specialist in Roman history, carried out the first archaeological excavation of a goalmouth and goalpost at the ground in November 2013.

A photo of a group of men in colourful shirts walking through a forest at the former football ground of Bradford Park Avenue
Fans re-occupy the terraces at the old ground© Neville Gabie
“The football ground is gone and the stand is all torn down, but actually the terrace behind the goal, the old Horton Park terrace, apart from the fact that they’ve cut all the roof down and all the crash barriers bar one, is absolutely intact underneath the trees.

"It’s quite extraordinary. It’s a bit like a Mayan ruin.”

A photo of a fan of Bradford Park Avenue standing in a goalmouth posing
Organisers are hoping for more memorabilia as part of their Heritage Open Days event© Neville Gabie
Gabie was approached by the National Football Museum, where a modest exhibition of some of the work carried out, helped by the Bradford academics who found the “super-henge” at Stonehenge recently, will be held while the team bids for Heritage Lottery money. Their initial support has largely come from Arts Council England.

“I guess the idea behind what we wanted to do was not only to physically excavate the pitch but also to capture some of the memorabilia, the things associated with the club.

A photo of a group of men in colourful shirts walking through a forest at the former football ground of Bradford Park Avenue
© Neville Gabie
"There’s not been a chalk pitch marked out for 40-odd years, so there’s no chalk to see, but when we did the geophysical survey it picked up all the pitch markings absolutely perfectly. They just left a chemical trace in the ground.

"The thing is, it’s a disappeared club and there are a lot of people, obviously, who are sad about the loss of their club.

A photo of a group of men in colourful shirts walking through a forest at the former football ground of Bradford Park Avenue
© Neville Gabie
"Although their average age is getting on a bit, they’re absolutely passionate about it and they’ve all got stories and memorabilia, history associated with it.

“It’s been really interesting to open the space into the trees among all the terraces and find where they used to stand to watch some games.”

A photo of a man digging turf in a forest at the former football ground of Bradford Park Avenue
Excavating the post© Neville Gabie
Hundreds of supporters got in touch with the project, and organisers, who have even asked experts to study the plant species growing on the terrace, will be demonstrating geophysical mapping techniques and inviting fans to be filmed this weekend as part of Heritage Open Days.

“This Saturday I’m trying to see if I can get two or three hundred of them to come and fill the terrace in the trees to record a film of a minute’s applause,” says Gabie.

“Our funding is tiny, but the potential of the area is huge, really.”

  • Geophysics demonstrations take place at Horton Park Avenue, Bradford, from 11am-3pm on Friday and Saturday (September 11-12 2015). Filming takes place on Saturday, participants encouraged to arrive at 10.30am.


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Three museums to see sporting history in

Thirsk Museum, North Yorkshire
Memorabilia including a portrait of Thomas Lord, the founder of Lord's, presented by the MCC, as well as a copy of his only known surviving signature and a number of items connected with Yorkshire cricket and Yorkshire players. For non-cricket fans there are maps, drawings and photographs tracing the changes in Thirsk over the last 200 years, together with a fine collection of sticks and riding crops.

Nuneaton Library and Information Centre, Warwickshire
Local Sporting History, a small display of photographs and other ephemera relating to Nuneaton and the surrounding area, will take place for Heritage Open Days. September 10-13 2015.

Annan Museum, Dumfries
Women's association football was first played in Edinburgh in 1881. Although further matches were played in Scotland throughout the 1880s and 90s, it was during World War One that the women’s game was propelled into the public consciousness like never before. Current exhibition A Game for Girls? looks at the rise, fall and resurrection of Scottish women’s football. Until October 31 2015.
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The 'dig' has been a huge success and has given supporters the opportunity to revisit the old ground and bring along all kinds of memorabilia and share memories. As a Park Avenue fan who started following he club in the early 1960s, looking around the ground last week was akin to slipping back in time. All around were the ghosts of the past.
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