The Bradford football club that became a beacon of hope

Fifteen years after the Bradford riots, Sarah Freeman finds out how one the city's football clubs emerged from the chaos to become a symbol of community cohesion.

AFC Campion stalwart Delroy Dacres. Picture Bruce Rollinson

Campion AFC is about as far removed from the luxury of a Premiership club as it is possible to be.

Tucked on a side street in the Manningham area of Bradford, the single stand, which runs halfway along one side of the pitch, doesn’t have seats and the roof is a corrugated iron sheet. There’s no grand trophy room, although the walls of the bar upstairs, which has views out across the pitch, is lined with photographs of players past and present.

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At Campion, which takes its name from a nearby school, everyone from the groundsman to the lady who serves the tea at halftime is a volunteer. Money is always tight, but the various notices warning players not to warm up on the goal line or bang their football boots on the side of the building suggest that what the club lacks in finance it makes up for in pride.

The hours they put in were rewarded at the end of last season with promotion to the Northern Counties East League Division One. For the players that means turning semi-professional and a bit more money. For everyone else involved in the club, which 15 years ago was at heart of the riots which for a while overshadowed this corner of Yorkshire, it’s proof of what can be achieved with a lot of hard work and a large helping of community spirit.

Its fortunes are closely tied to Bradford as a whole and with a mix of Asian, Afro-Caribbean and European players the club is also a symbol of community cohesion which was so nearly destroyed in July 2001.

“Tension had been building for a while, but in the few days before the riots happened we were confident that whatever potential there was for trouble had been averted,” says Delroy Dacres, former Campion player and now club board member. “I was up here that first night and I didn’t realise how bad things were until I tried to go home. You couldn’t drive through Bradford, you had to drive round it.

“Everyone saw the damage which had been caused on the news, but seeing it for real was something else. It was hard to believe how much had been destroyed. It looked worse than the Toxteth riots of the 1980s. Everyone was in a state of shock.”

There were some high profile casualties of the riots, which saw Asian and white youths clash on the city’s streets. The Lister Park BMW dealership was burnt to the ground, the Manningham Labour Club was firebombed and countless shops looted.

There were 297 arrests in total; 187 people were charged with the offence of riot, 45 with violent disorder and 200 jail sentences totalling 604 years would be later handed down.

Campion AFC, which had been started in 1960s , quickly decided that they had a part to play in the healing process and just a month after the riots organised a football tournament.

“We even asked the police to field a team, but understandably they declined,” says Delroy. “Emotions were still quite raw. We have always operated on the philosophy that no matter what the colour of your skin is, if you can kick a ball well you can be in the team and after the riots it seemed more important than ever to show that there were places where everyone could get along.”

In recognition at least in part of their reaction to the riots, Campion later won funding for a new club house. It’s opening in 2006 was marked with the Manningham World Cup which saw teams from the Caribbean, Africa and Europe compete. The England side, predictably didn’t make it to the final which was contested by Jamaica and Palestine.

“You don’t get that kind of draw in the World Cup do you?,” says Delroy, who says that back in the day he was a pretty nippy striker until a knee injury brought a premature end to his football carer. “Jamaica won, but for once it really didn’t matter who won, it was about us all coming together.”

Delroy went onto be manager of the side, stepping down in 2013 to allow some younger legs to take over. Since he played his first match, dozens of players have come and gone, but the philosophy of AFC Campion has remained the same.

The club has always reflected the make-up of the wider city and a little while ago recruited its first Eastern European players.

“As a mill town, Bradford has attracted workers from around the world and until the riots it had gained a deserved reputation as a city which had not only welcomed a variety of cultures, but had really benefitted from that diversity,” says former player Mark Palfreeman. “It was a melting pot, but no one realised that it was in danger of exploding.

“I was playing for the cricket team that day and the first I knew about what had happened was when I switched the television on when I got home. It was almost impossible to think that this was my city. The football club has always been a key focal point for Manningham and it did really come into its own after the riots. It showed people that there was another way.”

Like many of those who have played for the club, Mark remains closely involved some years after having hung up his boots and promotion was the icing on the cake. Their first fixture on August 6 will see them travel to East Yorkshire and an away match with Westella and Willerby and later there will be trips to Selby, Dronfield and Grimsby.

“Work is about to start on the floodlights which will be good for the club, but aside from that we are pretty much as we were,” says Delroy, whose parents arrived in Bradford from Jamaica in the 1950s. “There will be a lot of time spent on the bus, one club is 85 miles away. I don’t think we drove that in one month last season.

“If there is a downside to winning promotion is that the club has had to look further afield for players to ensure that it has the best chance of doing well. Before this year all the players pretty much lived and worked in Bradford, but going forward that’s just not going to be possible.

“However, since we won promotion there has been an awful lot of interest in what’s happening down here and I do hope it will bring some old boys back to the club. We could do with stand packed for home games.”

AFC Campion’s recent success has been mirrored in Bradford’s more general resurgence. Towards the end of last year, the Broadway shopping centre finally replaced the hole in the ground which had become a stark symbol of the impact of recession, City Park has replaced another blot on the landscape and while things aren’t perfect they are a whole lot better than they used to be.

“This is my part of Bradford,” says Delroy. “I grew up on these streets and its’ where I still call home. This club has also been a huge part of my life and it’s great to see it move onto a new chapter. Who knows what will happen next season, but if you asked me for a prediction, I reckon we’ll finish in the top six.”