Two years ago Stuart McCall was debating whether Bradford City could offer James Hanson enough of a weekly wage to improve on his combined income from Guiseley and the Idle Co-op. Fifty years earlier Bradford City were saved from an identical dilemma when Bruce Stowell, who had initially signed as an amateur, turned professional. But Stowell was from another era.
When I was a lad, there were two certainties at Valley Parade – three, if you count the occasionally threatened prospect of Fourth Division football. One was that City would play in amber shirts with claret pinstripes, the sort you could see from the Kop, not the 2011 version. The other was that Bruce Stowell would always be in the team, usually wearing a number 4 shirt. Neither was quite as certain as a young fan might have liked, but Stowell saw me through my youth and left only when I was 21.
Bradford born and leaving school at 15, Stowell followed so many of his generation into the mills. He was still working there when he signed professional terms at the end of 1958 and he stayed in the mill until 1967. For the best part of a decade one of City’s most consistent performers played part-time and did a proper job the rest of the week. And, to borrow the old cliché, I bet he did come to games on the bus.
When Stowell won a regular first team place, he was a wing half. Only when Alf Ramsey’s wingless wonders won the World Cup did Stowell become a midfield player. He was maybe more of a defensive minded player than another number 4 who followed him, via the same brief and mistaken route as a Leeds United schoolboy. But Bruce had played for Bradford Boys and would become, to all intents and purposes, a one club man.
As soon as he became a full time professional, he was the obvious choice to captain the team. In his first two seasons as a full time player he hardly missed a game. At the end of the second season, 1968-9, City secured their first promotion for exactly forty years. The captain, still with the same hair cut that he had sported as a mill hand, led the way. However deep the Valley Parade mud became, Stowell covered every inch of the pitch game after game after game. He tackled, he passed and he cajoled the younger players in a team where the Bradford accent predominated. Ian Cooper, Bruce Bannister and Bobby Ham were all regulars in that promoted side and maybe we could forgive John Hall for being born just over the boundary in Bramley.
The record books will tell you that Stowell’s most significant game was played in October 1970. It was his 344th league game for City and it broke the club appearance record. There is a nice mathematical symmetry about that game. The new record holder was wearing his familiar shirt. The number three shirt that day was Ian Cooper’s and in the number two shirt it just had to be Ces Podd. Each in turn would hold that appearance record. Bruce went on to play 437 games in a variety of claret and amber strips, scoring 18 goals.
So much for the record books. But those of us who saw him play on 3rd January 1970 witnessed his finest hour. The match was in the third round of the F.A. Cup and the opponents were Tottenham Hotspur. Jimmy Greaves had whacked the ball against the post after four seconds. Pat Liney never even saw the rebound. The usual Valley Parade mud had iced over. The Southern Softies clearly didn’t fancy it. (OK, so not all of them were southerners. Out of interest, the starting eleven were: Jennings, Kinnear, Knowles, Mullery, England, Beal, Johnson, Greaves, Gilzean, Perryman, Morgan. Not a bad side, I suppose.) But the Bradford lads (with Denis Atkins at right back, five Bradford born players faced Spurs) were proper footballers, who played in all weathers for their team. One of those 18 career goals from Bruce Stowell secured a 2-2 draw against the super stars and cup specialists.
In 1972 he left Valley Parade and played just 16 games for Rotherham before emigrating to Australia. There he continued to play for another three seasons before embarking on a coaching career in Queensland and Malaysia.
Maybe Bruce Stowell really was just one of those players ‘from another era’. But maybe that
‘other era’ is not too distant after all. Bruce played in City teams that struggled to keep their League status. He knew how lucky he was to make a living out of the game. And he gave his all every week. Not quite a fully fledged hero, but Bruce Stowell and what he brought to the teams of my youth deserves to be fondly remembered and, by someone at least, to be imitated.