The story of Bradford City’s ‘other’ major cup victory – the Division Three Challenge Cup

When you think of Bradford City and cup final victories, you most probably think of one thing: Jimmy Speirs, the FA Cup and 1911 – but it isn’t the only time the Paraders have lifted a cup high above their heads.

1939 would prove to be a year which changed the world forever, following the outbreak of World War Two. It was the last year regular league football would be contested until after the war, and things didn’t get back to some form of regularity until 1946-47.

Bradford City were also going through an interesting period in the club’s history in 1939. Three years earlier, the club had been relegated to Division Three (North); and they actually wouldn’t return to the second tier for 48 years. Manager Dick Ray eventually left in 1938 after City finished disappointingly in mid-table in their first season in Division Three (North), and the board of directors turned to Carlisle manager Fred Westgarth, who decided to resign from his post at Brunton Park to take the City job. It was an inspired move from all parties.

Westgarth wasted no time in reshuffling an underperforming Paraders squad in time for the 1938-39 season. Goalkeeper James McCloy, a stalwart in Scotland with St Mirren, forward Jimmy Smailes and defender Ernest Beardshaw were among six players who made their debut on the opening day of the season: a thumping 6-2 win against Darlington. That was a hint for the success which would follow that season.

In the league, City finished 3rd, much-improved on the previous season’s 14th-placed finish. They were still some way behind eventual champions Barnsley and were knocked out of the FA Cup in the first round at Chester: but there was still another prize to aim for.

In 1933, the Football League introduced another tournament for teams in the bottom tier: the Third Division Challenge Cup. Both the north and south divisions were given their own cup, and City entered for the first time in 1937-38, doing well in the process: getting all the way to the final, before losing to back-to-back champions Southport.

George Hinsley, one of the stars of City’s pre-WW2 sides.

However, Westgarth’s new-look, free-scoring Paraders – they netted 89 goals in 42 league games in 1938-39 – were clearly capable of going one step further this time around. It was an underwhelming start, however; it took a replay, and a Jack Deakin goal, to see off Rotherham in the first round – in front of a crowd of just 1,124 (City’s average was around three or four times that for league games in the run-up to World War Two).

From there though, the shackles came off. Deakin and George Hinsley both scored twice in a 6-0 demolition of Hull City in the next round, before Hartlepool United were beaten 5-2 at Valley Parade in the semi-final, Deakin this time scoring a hat-trick, with Hinsley netting twice.

City’s second successive final in the Challenge Cup produced a meeting with Accrington Stanley at Valley Parade. The two meetings between the sides in the league had been split by a single goal on each occasion: but Westgarth’s Paraders played Stanley off the field in the final – with Hinsley and Smailes among the scorers in a 3-0 win on May 1st, 1939, in front of a crowd of 3,117. Almost 28 years to the day since City’s first major cup triumph, another trophy had worked its way back to Valley Parade – and this time, it had been won on home soil to boot.

But that, unfortunately, is where the story ends. Many clubs can rightfully question how their clubs would have evolved in the following years had Britain not declared war on September 3rd, 1939: and Bradford City are one of them. Westgarth had built an exciting, free-scoring footballing side in a matter of just months, and unfortunately, by the time the war had ended in 1945, that team had been almost entirely broken up. Promotion, you suspect, would have been an inevitability at some stage under Westgarth – but even he left his position as manager midway through the war to join Hartlepool, where he would experience further success.

League football was suspended during World War Two, with an alternative competition, based on region, rather than ability, put in place by the Football League. That featured an enormous number of guest players who were normally stationed locally – as evidenced by the fact that one such player, James Isaac, was the third-highest appearance-maker for Bradford City during the war. Players like Goerge Murphy, Ernest Beardshaw and Jimmy Smailes, who could – and arguably should – be remembered as legends, had their best years in a Bradford City shirt robbed by the war.

But there will always be that triumph of 1938-39. Yes, it certainly won’t stick in the memory as firmly as the unforgettable FA Cup victory of 1911: but as City’s second – and most recent – cup competition victory, it is surely well worthy of a place in the minds of all supporters, irrespective of their age.

The team that won the 1938-39 Division Three (North) Challenge Cup Final (with heritage numbers):

City 3-0 Accrington
Goals: Hastie, Hinsley, Smailes

#356: James McCloy
#319: George Murphy
#305: Charles McDermott
#357: Peter Molloy
#354: Ernest Beardshaw
#232: Charles Moore
#337: Alfred Whittingham
#364: George Hinsley
#336: Jack Deakin
#363: Alexander Hastie
#358: James Smailes

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