Super League: From champions to relegation in nine years for Bradford Bulls
By James Pearson @SportsPeo
Last Updated: 21/07/14 4:36pm
Bradford Bulls and Super League had been a beautiful partnership with three Grand Final victories (2001, 2003 & 2005) to their name, but from 2015 the fallen giants will no longer grace the top flight.
When rugby league moved to the summer era Bradford grasped the bull by the proverbial horns, for want of a better analogy. Their name was changed from Northern to Bulls and Australian Brian Smith took control of first-team affairs.
Although it was St Helens who ended Wigan’s dominance as champions in 1996 the Odsal club were on the brink of something special - despite a thrilling Challenge Cup final defeat to Saints where Robbie Paul bagged a treble.
A year later, under the guidance of Smith’s former assistant Matthew Elliot, the club took Super League by storm. They opened the campaign with 20 straight wins and finished top of the pile with success over Sheffield Eagles, the final season before the playoffs and Grand Final were introduced.
The club were now the best-supported team in Super League and they maintained that mantle in 1998 despite a disappointing fifth-place finish.
Record season-ticket sales followed in 1999 following the big-name capture of Henry Paul from Wigan, a move that united the Paul brothers for the first time at a professional level.
An incredible 24,020 fans watched the Bulls defeat arch rivals Leeds Rhinos 19-18 in the final game of the regular season. Bradford narrowly missed out on Grand Final success, going down 8-6 to St Helens.
However, league and cup glory would follow. Bradford toppled reigning Challenge Cup holders Leeds at Murrayfield in Edinburgh in 2000 with a 24-18 success. They repeated the feat in 2003 in Cardiff with a 22-20 success over the Rhinos - the match in which a young Kevin Sinfield opted against converting a late penalty that would have squared the contest.
Former Bradford player Brian Noble was appointed head coach in 2001 and despite the sceptics the Bulls' bandwagon kept rolling onwards and upwards.
After being the Old Trafford bridesmaids in 1999 they lifted the trophy at the Theatre of Dreams two years later with an emphatic 37-6 triumph over the Wigan Warriors. Michael Withers was the Harry Sunderland Trophy winner courtesy of a hat-trick of tries.
Along with toppling the Rhinos at the Millennium Stadium in 2003 they clinched the double by beating Wigan once again at Old Trafford. This time Noble’s men ran out 25-12 winners, Stuart Reardon, Shontayne Hape and James Lowes all crossing the whitewash for the Bulls.
Bradford’s final Super League title in their golden era came in 2005 and with a man like Jamie Peacock in the side it was no surprise that Leeds slipped to a 15-6 loss.
Noble had a star-studded squad at his disposal with the likes of Leon Pryce, Hape, Lesley Vainikolo, Iestyn Harris, Stuart Fielden, Paul Deacon and on-loan Adrian Morley on show.
The capture of Harris would prove a costly one, however. The Wales international was allowed to leave Leeds to sign for Cardiff Blues on the proviso he would re-join the club if he returned to rugby league.
The Bulls announced his signature and years later it was revealed they settled on a £550,000 fee for the former Warrington youngster.
They were able to raise a significant amount of funds from the sale of Fielden to Wigan for £450,000, but the heart of their frontline was gone as Peacock left to join rivals Leeds.
Nine years after their Grand Final success in 2005 the club would be out of Super League, especially as for the majority of that period the licensing scheme was introduced whereby clubs would only be kicked out if they failed to meet a certain criteria.
Filling the criteria would not be a problem. The club were well supported and had a strong tradition of being able to produce home-grown players seemingly at will.
Future England coach Steve McNamara was unable to maintain the levels of success as predecessor Noble and while Mick Potter performed miracles under the circumstances, their results continued to falter.
Eyebrows were raised in January 2012 when the Bulls sold the lease on Odsal to the Rugby Football League for an undisclosed sum in which they would then become tenants at their famous ground.
The RFL hailed the announcement as 'excellent news', although it was the first major sign that all was not well at Bradford.
However, the cash was not enough. In March Bradford announced it was struggling financially and needed £1million to stay afloat. 20,821 were in attendance to see the Bulls beat Leeds on Good Friday, but it was not enough.
The fallen giants went into administration in June, although it appeared they were out of the woods in August when administrator Brendan Guilfoyle confirmed he had sold Bradford Bulls Holdings Limited to OK Bulls Limited, a consortium led by local businessman Omar Khan.
Khan and former sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe were introduced to supporters ahead of their game against Hull FC on September 1, but that was the highlight of the night as the Black and Whites romped home with a 70-6 victory, a defeat that remains their record home defeat in Super League.
The Khan and Sutcliffe partnership failed to bring about a change of fortune on or off the pitch. Administration followed once again and despite being taken over by Marc Green in March, a six-point deduction for entertain administration and distinct lack of quality on the field prevented the club from being able to finish outside of the bottom two.
After a season of struggle their fate was finally confirmed following Sunday’s 56-28 defeat to Huddersfield Giants, a team which has prospered in recent seasons while the Bulls’ have slumped into the Kingstone Press Championship. A High Court appeal could yet offer hope, but it looks unlikely they will avoid being in the second tier for the first time since 1974.