Why this city is big enough for both of us - Bradford Park Avenue on the rise under former Bradford City star

'˜BRADFORD'S Bouncing Back.' So claimed a bold marketing campaign during the Eighties designed to both raise spirits within a city down on its luck and also attract visitors.

Mark Bower, left, and the Bradford Park Avenue bench celebrate their teams equaliser against Darlington at the Horsfall Stadium. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

For a time the slogan was everywhere only for the initial bounce to soon peter out as the country turned elsewhere in its search for a city on the up.

Three decades on and no one can surely claim Bradford City are bouncing anywhere but backwards.

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A toxic fallout between owners and supporters, allied with some shocking results since the turn of the year, have left the Bantams rock-bottom of League One.

Bradford (Park Avenue) fans bang the drum for their side following their first goal in last nights National League North 2-2 draw at Horsfall Stadium (Picture: Bruce Rollinson).

Mark Bower spent a dozen years as a player at Valley Parade so feels the pain of the club’s dramatic slide as keenly as any fan.

But as City continue to struggle he is busy bringing a smile to the faces of supporters on the other side of his home city.

Park Avenue, despite an average attendance that is bettered by all but two of their peers in National League North, are riding high with last night’s hugely entertaining 2-2 draw with Darlington leaving Bower’s men in the play-off places.

“There is a real sense of optimism surrounding the club,” said 38-year-old Bower to The Yorkshire Post. “Growing up in Bradford I know the potential that exists here and there are some great people working so hard to take the club forward.”

Avenue 'Arry, mascot at Bradford (Park Avenue) (Picture: Bruce Rollinson).

Bradford (Park Avenue) – the brackets were reintroduced last summer as a nod to the past along with the reintroduction of the old club crest – re-formed in 1988, 14 years after the old club had gone under.

It has been a slow, but steady rise, since those early days flitting between the West Riding County Amateur, Central Midlands and North West Counties leagues.

But a new regime, led by financial backer Gareth Roberts, at a club now registered as a community benefit is fiercely ambitious.

Bower is certainly doing his bit. Appointed a little over two years ago when Avenue propped up the table with just three points from 11 games, the former defender steered the club to safety.

Seventh place and a crack at the play-offs followed last term, while this time around Bower’s men are impressing in a division featuring a trio of full-time clubs in York City, Kidderminster and Southport.

“The league is much more evenly matched this season,” he said. “I would say there are as many as 16 teams who have their eyes on the play-off positions.

“There is no standout team either unlike last year when Salford City and Harrogate Town were both full-time and had big budgets.

“It is much more of an even playing field. The standard is good and there are some big names.”

Avenue’s lofty position is made all the more impressive by last season’s top scorer Adam Bowes having been sold to Spennymoor last summer.

Bower used the funds to bring in eight new signings and his squad, on last night’s showing against another club who have risen from the ashes of a former League outfit, looks much more balanced.

The Bradford manager spent a season with the old Darlington. “A grim year and not how I wanted to end my Football League career,” he recalls about a 2009-10 campaign that ended with the Quakers relegated to the Conference amid ruinous debts.

Last night’s contest was anything but grim in front of 625 hardly souls who braved a bitterly cold night, up slightly on the crowd who had watched Bower’s side inflict a first defeat of the season on leaders Chorley at Horsfall on Saturday.

Darlington raced into a two-goal lead inside 17 minutes, Jordan Nicholson netting twice from the edge of the area.

Oli Johnson, once of Norwich City, pulled one back for the hosts with a close-range header before Nicky Clee levelled six minutes before the break with an arrowed drive from the edge of the area.

Avenue goalkeeper Steven Drench then saved a Steven Thompson penalty to ensure honours ended even.

Away from the pitch plans are afoot to improve the atmosphere at a venue where a running track stands between the supporters and the action.

“A perimeter fence will be installed right next to the pitch in the next couple of months,” added Bower.

“That will allow fans to be almost able to sniff the grass. This is especially the case with kids. We want to bring in more youngsters and they don’t want to watch from the other side of a running track.”

Attracting the next generation of fans will be key to realising the club’s ambitions. Thanks to one of the most evocative names in football and a rich history that included 62 years in the League, Park Avenue retain a fondness in the hearts of fans from a certain vintage, but the make-up of last night’s crowd, boosted by around 150 from the North East, suggests more can be done.

“Bradford is such a big city and there is a huge appetite for football,” added Bower. “Look at City. When I was there in League One the average crowd was 7,000, but then a couple of years ago they had 18,000 season ticket holders.

“There is a big potential to increase the fan base here. I look at our opponents last Saturday. Chorley had crowds similar to us a few years ago, but now get 1,000 plus every week.”