Bradford Bulls leave Odsal with a win on an emotional afternoon

THE banner unfurled above the players’ tunnel at Odsal Stadium read: “Where you play, we follow.”

Given what long-suffering Bradford Bulls have gone through this last decade, you know that is true; the hardcore support will certainly traipse to Dewsbury Rams or wherever they end up in 2020 and beyond.

As of now, though, there will be no more games at Odsal; 85 years to the day after the club played their first fixture at what would become such an iconic ground, yesterday they played their last.

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That said, there was plenty among the 7,531 crowd who still did not believe it even after each and every one was invited onto the turf afterwards for a rather sizeable group farewell photograph.

Bradford supporters gather on the pitch after the last game to be played at Odsal Stadium. (Picture: Alex Whitehead/ supporters gather on the pitch after the last game to be played at Odsal Stadium. (Picture: Alex Whitehead/
Bradford supporters gather on the pitch after the last game to be played at Odsal Stadium. (Picture: Alex Whitehead/

“Last game? We’ll be back here in February. That’s just how this mad club goes,” muttered one such fan.

Bulls owner Andrew Chalmers blamed the costs of rates, rent and maintenance at the ground for his decision to leave their traditional home and move to 16 miles to Dewsbury next season.

It is hard to work out what the long-term plans for the club – currently in special measures and unable to sign new players –are.

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Short-term, it involves handing over the stadium keys to their landlords – the Rugby Football League – at some point today.

Bradford's Rhys Evans  scorer of the last try at OdsalBradford's Rhys Evans  scorer of the last try at Odsal
Bradford's Rhys Evans scorer of the last try at Odsal

For now, then, concerned fans of the fallen three-times World Club champions are simply left with memories.

Of course, there are the famous ones – Michael Withers’ drop-goal to beat Leeds Rhinos in front of a record Super League crowd of 24,020 in 1999, for instance – but so many supporters yesterday will have spent time reflecting on the simple pleasures of their fortnightly routine. Standing on the same part of the terrace, having a beer in the same spot, booing the referee one last time.

Although they entered to a loss against Huddersfield in 1935, fittingly they departed here with a win, Bradford securing a third straight victory although not enough to keep alive faint hopes of making the Championship play-offs.

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It was a tight and, at times, feisty affair against a Sheffield Eagles side who had won at Wembley the week before.

Rhys Evans touches down.Rhys Evans touches down.
Rhys Evans touches down.

But once Ethan Ryan’s well-fashioned try put Bradford 22-10 ahead on the hour mark and the Eagles’ Joel Farrell was sin-binned as tempers frayed shortly afterwards, it was only going to end one way. Full-back Brandon Pickersgill crossed while the visitors were down to 12 men before Rhys Evans added the last of their six tries at the death, instantly becoming the answer to a quiz question of years to come: who scored the last-ever try at Odsal?

It is nothing new to arrive in the vicinity of Odsal in balmy weather only to enter the actual ground in distinctly different conditions.

For as long as it has been hosting matches, it has been said it has its very own microclimate.

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Fittingly, it was the same yesterday, bright sunshine and 20 degrees, swapped in an instant for dark clouds, drizzle and an obvious drop in temperature. Still, the sun returned by the end as the terrace gates were opened to allow fans to descend onto the ‘hallowed turf’ for that picture and the chance to say their farewells to the club’s players whose last game of the season is at Rochdale Hornets next Sunday.

Bradford fans with a banner at Odsal.Bradford fans with a banner at Odsal.
Bradford fans with a banner at Odsal.

The shirts dotted around aren’t as familiar: ‘25 Farrell’, ‘17 Peltier’ and ‘26 Oakes’ are spotted but not in the numbers where once there was ‘5 Vainikolo’, ‘4 Hape’ or ‘7 Deacon’ in the halcyon days when this club rode high at the top of Super League.

It is sad to think how far the Bulls have fallen since that brilliant trio helped them earn the last of their Grand Final wins in 2005; three administrations, two relegations and liquidation does not quite do it justice.

It is a cautionary tale to all, though, and a reminder of just how fickle the business of sport can be. Beforehand, past players had completed a lap of the pitch, including Leon Pryce and Rob Parker, part of the famous treble-winning side of 2003. Among them was ‘Sir’ Keith Mumby who played almost 600 games for the club as well as former Great Britain scrum-half Deryck Fox.

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The former, in particular, must have never thought this day would come.

Bradford Bulls: Pickersgill; Ryan, Webster, Oakes, Hitchcox; Keyes, Lilley; Green, Hallas, Crossley, Storton, C Farrell, Minchella. Substitutes: Wood, Evans, Wildie, Peltier.

Sheffield Eagles: Makelim; Millar, Hellewell, Gudzek, Blackmore; Walker, Thackeray; Dixon, Burns, Broadbent, Esslemont, J Farrell, Brown. Substitutes: Meadows, Thornton, Yere, Taylor.

Referee: Billy Pearson (Wakefield).