Avenue of memories flood back for man at the Helm

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HIS is a voice familiar to millions and he has a job that has taken him around the globe covering football.

In a broadcasting career spanning more than four decades, John Helm’s glamorous assignments have included eight World Cups, five European Championships and more than 20 European Cup finals.

Tomorrow, however, the respected commentator would not want to be anywhere else but Doncaster’s Keepmoat Stadium as his beloved Bradford Park Avenue make a welcome return to the FA Cup first round.

“I’ve always supported Avenue,” says the 70-year-old when talking to the Yorkshire Post about the club he first watched in 1953.

“My Dad was a Bradford City fan and my first live game was at Valley Parade against York. But then the following week, I went to Park Avenue with some friends and they beat Accrington Stanley 4-0. I got home that night and told my Dad that I was now a Park Avenue fan and I have been ever since.”

Committing his allegiances to the then Division Three (North) club means Helm has shared in the various trials and tribulations that Avenue have endured for the best part of 60 years.

For a substantial chunk of those near six decades, the club was defunct as relegation from the Football League in 1970 was followed by Avenue, by now playing across the city at Valley Parade, being wound up four years later.

A Sunday League side then maintained an Avenue presence in Bradford but it was not until 1988 that a club with genuine ambitions to revive one of football’s more evocative names came along.

Almost a quarter of a century on, Bradford are happily ensconced back in their home city at the Horsfall Stadium after a nomadic spell as tenants of Bramley and Batley rugby league clubs.

On the field, things are also progressing well with John Deacey’s side having settled well in Conference North after winning promotion in May.

To long-standing fans such as Helm, who for the past 15 years has been the club’s vice-president, this phoenix-like rise from the ashes is long overdue.

“I’ll never forget the day we failed to be re-elected and went out of the Football League,” he says of the 1970 vote that saw Avenue poll just 17 votes and be replaced by Cambridge United.

“I was working for BBC Radio Leeds at the time and had to interview (former manager) Laurie Brown, chairman Herbert Metcalfe and also George Sutcliffe of the supporters’ club after the vote had come through.

“It was awful and I was literally in tears as I did my broadcast. This was long before the days of automatic promotion and relegation, and clubs rarely failed to be re-elected.

“We’d applied for re-election in each of the previous three seasons but what did for us in 1970 was how the club had been run. We’d become something of a joke with constant chopping and changing. For a time, the chairman was also picking the team.”

Helm continued to support Park Avenue as they limped on for another four years in the Northern Premier League.

The final 12 months of that period were played out across the city at Valley Parade after Park Avenue, the club’s home since being formed in 1907, had been sold to a property company for around £100,000 to clear debts.

As attendances fell even further, however, it was soon apparent that things could not continue and the end came in the summer of 1974. Just 698 fans had watched Avenue’s final home game against Great Harwood, an ignominious end for a club who had once played in front of an 82,771 crowd at Maine Road against Manchester United in the FA Cup.

Helm recalls: “I carried on going in the Northern Premier but the club was slowly dying. It was such a shame, as I have so many happy memories. For instance, the night in 1961 when Czechoslovakia, who a just a year later were competing in the World Cup final, came to Park Avenue to provide the opposition for our first game under floodlights was magical.

“As was the FA Cup tie against Workington when we came back from 3-1 down with five minutes to go to win 4-3.

“My first actual memory of Bradford Park Avenue came, bizarrely, at the cinema. It was in the days of Pathe News. I was only a little boy and couldn’t believe that the news we were watching about Bradford Park Avenue beating the mighty Arsenal away in the FA Cup could be true. But it was.”

For a club to go from that 1-0 win at Highbury in January, 1948 – achieved when Avenue were a mid-table Second Division club – to the ignominy of extinction a little over 25 years later was heart-breaking for supporters.

So, too, was the sight of their beloved home, which stood adjacent to the cricket pitch that Yorkshire’s cricketers continued to play on until 1996, gradually falling into disrepair.

“That was one of the saddest parts of all,” says Helm, who as a keen cricket fan had watched countless Yorkshire games down the years, including one particularly memorable day spent spectating the touring Australians in the early Fifties.

“Watching the old ground get into such a terrible state was soul-destroying. The pitch became covered in trees and the terraces overgrown.”

The Leeds-based property company who bought Park Avenue in 1973 sold it on at a profit to Bradford Council the following year. However, despite various grandiose schemes being unveiled over the following years, no building work took place.

By the start of the Eighties, the main stand, a quite remarkable structure with three pedimented gables that also boasted a small balcony to the rear overlooking the cricket pitch, had become unsafe. It soon fell to the demolition ball, as did the small adjoining corner pavilion known as the Doll’s House (think Fulham’s Craven Cottage).

In 1988, any hopes of football ever returning to Little Horton were ended when an indoor cricket school was built on one half of the football pitch.

Helm says: “I blame the Council for not preserving what was one of Bradford’s delights and allowing it to gradually fall apart. To have neither a football team nor Yorkshire playing cricket there any more is a crying shame for the city.

“Seeing the main stand get knocked down was very sad. I did ask the demolition people if I could have the centrepiece gable to preserve it but, sadly, I never got it.

“I have been back three or four times over the years to do pieces for television. Half of the old pitch is still there.

“It feels really eerie as soon as you walk through the back door of the sports centre. You can still stand on an old patch of the terracing. To stand there, even now, and think that greats such as Tom Finney and Stanley Matthews played at this ground sends a chill down the spine.”

Avenue returned to Bradford in 1994 when they moved into Horsfall, which had originally been built in the Thirties as an athletics stadium.

It was at their current home that the club last faced Football League opposition in a competitive fixture. Bristol City were the team in question as an all-ticket crowd of 2,045 saw the Division Two side triumph 5-2 in an FA Cup first round tie in November, 2003.

Helm, due to the work commitments that continue to take him around the world with much of last month having been spent commentating for FIFA in Azerbaijan, was unable to attend.

He said: “I was commentating on Liverpool v Manchester United on the Sunday of the Bristol City game so I arranged for a friend to keep me up-to-date by text messages, as obviously I couldn’t answer the phone while live on air.

“The first one arrived inside 60 seconds to tell me Andy Hayward had put us 1-0 up. By the tenth minute, I’d had another three to tell me the score was now 2-2. I could hardly concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing at 
Anfield.

“Thankfully, I’ve been able to make sure I can be at Doncaster for this year’s first-round tie. It should be a special day.”

richard.sutcliffe@ypn.co.uk