The grim, slow death of rugby league’s finest stadium

Newsroom sports editor Steve Deane spent three years in Yorkshire reporting on one of the greatest rugby league teams of all time. Now that team has quit its city as its famous stadium crumbles to the ground.

Where will the white people go?

That might be a curious, racially-charged question to posit following the death of Bradford’s historic, iconic Odsal Stadium. But bear with me just a moment.

It is not a question that can stand without context. And that context comes, I hope, from a chat the writer had with former Bradford Bulls star winger Tevita Vaikona at a pre-season training camp in Portugal about a decade and half ago.

Bulls fans will fondly remember Vaikona – a massive, powerful, fast, skilful, if slightly naive wing in the club’s titanic, all-conquering turn-of-the-century team.

Vaikona, who hailed from a tiny island in the Kingdom of Tonga and found his way to Bradford after being scouted by Hull on a Junior Kiwis tour - and then shopped to the club’s Yorkshire rivals for a healthy profit - was somewhat bemused both by the professional athlete experience (he dreamed of being a church pastor) and Yorkshire’s demographics.

At the time he signed for Hull, he’d played just a handful of rugby league matches and, he confessed, didn’t fully know the rules of the game. He’d certainly had no idea about the notion of transfers; that one club could simply sell him on to another.

Fair to say, he found the experience a touch baffling.

That feeling continued, he said, when he ran out onto Odsal to make his debut for the Bulls.

Odsal is – or rather was – one of world sport’s most, um, interesting venues. Located on a hilltop where most structures would be tempted to perch, Odsal is instead burrowed. It’s hard to describe to those who haven’t witnessed its uniqueness in person; perhaps the closest one can get is to suggest picturing a middling-sized quarry that someone, for some reason, spotted and said: ‘We should turn that big hole into a footy stadium’.

That man was Ernest Call MBE, Bradford City Council’s director of cleansing - a genius who tipped 140,000 cartloads of household crap into the quarry to form the embankments of what would become Britain’s second largest stadium behind Wembley.

When the stadium was packed – as it often was throughout its sometimes glorious 86 history - the amphitheatre-like effect was incredible, transporting spectators to a place well beyond the physical confines of a venue that was, if we’re honest, never quite able to shake off its origins as a dump.

It was from the middle of an undersized grass rectangle that sloped up in the corners to merge with the disused speedway track at this mystical, wonderful wasteland that Vaikona peered into the stands and thought to himself: ‘Where did all the white people come from?’

Having been lodged in an inner-city locale populated by citizens who almost exclusively found their origins in sub-continental Asia, the only white people Vaikona had seen in the city prior to that point were his new team-mates.

Once a thriving mill town that served as a shining cog in Britain’s booming textile industry, Bradford’s demographics began to change in the 1950s, when mill (northern speak for factory) owners began recruiting migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Punjab and Bangladesh to mitigate a post-war labour shortage.

By the time Vaikona arrived in the city, large tracts of it housed predominantly Asian communities.

At risk of vastly over-simplifying a complex issue, it’s probably fair to suggest that the level of racial integration in the city has not historically been high – a fact somewhat underscored by Vaikona’s ponderings on debut at Odsal. And the odd riot.

If a lack of assimilation in the city itself was an issue, on the pitch, for the mighty Bulls, it most certainly wasn’t. A team that blended the best players from England and New Zealand and an occasional Aussie gem, emerged as a global powerhouse.

Tevita Vaikona (left) and Robbie Paul pose in then changing sheds at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium after winning the 2003 Challenge Cup. Photo: Getty Images 

Having fully embraced the switch to summer footy and rebranded from Bradford Northern under the guidance of chairman Chris Caisley, a local lawyer, the Bulls embarked on a period of sustained success that would net four Super League titles, two Challenge Cups and three World Club Challenge victories over their champion NRL counterparts.

Their case for being considered consistently the best rugby league club on the planet was a strong one.

Odsal was a fortress.

Crowds that seldom dropped below the high teens, and often tipped 20,000, filled the rickety stand and thronged on an embankment that had once housed a world record crowd of 102,569 for a cup tie between Halifax and Warrington.

Corporate lounges located in a purpose-built facility that looked like it had got lost on its way to a modern stadium did steady business, while on the field a Bulls team - powered by the likes of Jamie Peacock, Stuart Fielden, Joe Vagana, Lesley Vainakolo, Shontayne Hape and the Paul brothers, Robbie and Henry - laid waste to all before them.

For eight years, everything was cups and gravy. But Bradford’s success, ultimately, proved to be built on sand as much as a reclaimed garbage dump.

Caisley, doubtless sensing that the club needed to keep pushing forward to avoid falling off its precarious perch, tabled a bold vision for transforming Odsal into a grand sporting village, sprawling over vacant nearby land and incorporating state-of-the-art indoor and outdoor multi-sport training facilities.

It was a great concept – one currently being enjoyed by the folks of nearby Sheffield, where it would ultimately be built after failing to receive the necessary backing in Bradford.

With his vision stymied, Caisley bowed out, and the Bulls entered a period of steady decline featuring all the usual ingredients of a sports franchise in deep distress: declining player quality, relegation, insolvency, rescue campaigns and predatory buyouts.

That cycle came to its nadir earlier this month, when the current ownership, headed by former NZRL chief executive Andrew Chalmers, followed through on a pledge to quit Odsal and instead play home matches in nearby Dewsbury – at a venue with a maximum capacity of just 5,100.

Odsal had simply become too costly, the financial obligations associated with its use hanging like a millstone around the club’s neck, while its terraces crumbled to the point where large tracts had to be condemned.

If ever there is symbol of the game’s grim struggle, the Bulls playing at Dewsbury while the tumbleweed blows across Odsal must surely be it.

Odsal Stadium's terraces existed in a land that time forgot. Photo: Getty Images.

There is talk of a new stadium on a new site that will one day allow the Bulls to return ‘home’. However such talk is cheap and, when stadia building is concerned, tends to pre-date the breaking of ground in spans of time measured in decades.

Which is where this story segues from England’s north to New Zealand’s south.

As Odsal was gasping its last breath, the process of carting away the corpse of Christchurch’s long dead Lancaster Park was at last gathering pace; the grim tidings from Bradford lurching onto the writer’s social media feeds interspersed with vision depicting the demolition of the truly unfortunate Deans stand.

If Odsal’s demise was a case of reclaimed land slowly reverting to its natural state, the death of the Deans stand was the opposite. A magnificent towering structure that added the final touch of a decades-long upgrade to an historic site, the 13,500-seat Deans stand lived just 13 months before falling victim to the city’s February 2011 earthquake.

Almost aptly, it was the James Dean of grandstands, dying young and leaving a good looking corpse.

Lancaster Park lies broken and abandoned. Photo: Getty Images

Joined as they are in death, Odsal and Lancaster Park shared many synergies while alive.

For starters, both were fog prone; Odsal less catastrophically so because the pea soup would tend to hover at ground level – well above the pitch.

Both were multi-use venues capable of holding vast crowds at international events - Odsal once pulled a crowd of 47,000 to a speedway ‘test match’, while Lancaster Park hosted similar numbers for rugby tests.

Bradfordians hoping a stadium build will serve as a catalyst for the return and rebirth of the Bulls will want to avert their gaze from the proceedings in Christchurch. More than seven years have passed since the city’s premier sports stadium was condemned. A replacement facility is still at the conceptual stage, at least four years away from being a reality.

The city’s peerless Super Rugby franchise remains home to some of the world’s finest rugby players, but they now showcase their talents in front of dwindling crowds at, as fate would have it, a hastily upgraded rugby league ground.

Bradford and Christchurch’s deceased stadia have one final thing in common: like Odsal, Lancaster Park tended to be a popular haunt of mainly white people – no surprise, given, according to the latest data, 83.9 percent of the city’s population are of European origin.

And Christchurch, as it happens, is where Tevita Vaikona began his sporting odyssey, signing up to play rugby league for a bit of fun while studying agriculture at Lincoln University, only to be spotted and recruited to play for the Canterbury Country Cardinals Lion Red Cup team.

The demographics of rugby league in New Zealand being what they are, Vaikona might well have pondered to himself where all Canterbury’s white people had gone as he charged around on the fields in Papanui, Halswell and Hornby.

Perhaps they migrate north for the winter, to the sunny climbs of Yorkshire?

Perhaps they’ll turn up in Dewsbury. To watch a team with no fit home. Playing at a home away from home, as the bulldozers move in to demolish one of rugby league’s last remaining gems.

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