Continuing from part one, Julian Rhodes talks to WOAP editor Jason McKeown about the historic 2012/13 season, the future of Nahki Wells and the renting of Valley Parade.
WOAP: How important is the youth set up?
Our youth system is very successful. Not so much in getting players to play for the first team, but very successful in generating money to help us through the bad financial times and enhance the first team budget.
Since the year 2000 we have had 29 players come through our youth system to play for the club, but not many of them who left have done anything. I think that if they get through to our first team, we are never going to sell them for a lot of money because they have not been picked up along the way.
If you can generate serious amounts of money from a lad who is aged between 12 and 15, and use that to put it into the first team, as opposed to putting them in the first team when you’re in League Two, it works out better financially. How many League Two players ever move for big money?
Also, managers are reluctant to play youth players in the first team. So you look at this list of 29, and then the lads that we sold on at a young age – Fabian Delph, Tom Cleverley, Andre Wisdom, George Green, Danny Ward, Ben Gordon – who all generated us serious amounts of cash. I think that’s the policy we will keep going. You’ve got to maximise these deals and let these players go. Then you get sell ons and stuff.
WOAP: Phil Parkinson had a tough first season in charge. Was there ever any doubt in your mind about keeping him?
No there was never any doubt. I said to Phil when he joined the club – and I don’t want to be disrespectful to other people – I said to Phil “We have a terrible squad”. I didn’t pull any punches with him. I said “If you can keep us in the division this season, your job is done”.
I explained that we knew we would have to spend money to achieve that objective. We had a relatively low budget under Peter Jackson, but we were going to up it because we knew the George Green deal was in the pipeline. So don’t worry, Phil, we will fund the strengthening. We need to stay in the league.
Phil actually said a week later “I’m not sure if this squad is actually better than what you think”. Two weeks after he said “No you were right, we need to strengthen”.
I thought Phil got a lot of unfair criticism that season, because it was always going to be a really hard job. And when you actually look at what he did that first year – in our last 15 home games we only lost once. That’s not bad for a squad that was not great at the start of the season. I thought he did very well.
WOAP: 2012/13 was obviously a spectacular success. What was the Board’s strategy going into it?
It was a bit similar to the strategy of the 1998/99 season. We thought the league was there for the taking, let’s expand the budget and have a go. Phil had done well: let’s give him a decent budget and let’s have a go.
And it also does help when you know you have the Andre Wisdom contract. We were on big money every game he played for Liverpool. So we thought we could have a crack at promotion and it worked!
WOAP: Just how much has the cup run changed the club’s finances?
Perhaps not to the extent that people think. But what it did for the club, with the fans and everything, was fantastic.
We probably ended up – after you have paid the bonuses and everything – with the largest wage bill in League Two. You took out all the cup bonuses and it was still in the top three.
I think the income we took in from the cup was in the region of £2.5 million. But by the time that we had finished with all the wages and everything and the overspend on the original budget, which was substantial, the net result of everything was a profit of about £1.4 million.
We paid Mark his £1 million loan back straight away. And let’s be right, Mark probably thought that he would never see that money again. I was anxious to get it to him because I always said to him that the whole idea of if we ever had a cup run or sold a player for a fortune, that was how he was going to get his money back. So that’s why I was keen to repay him. That left us with £400k.
We also made a small profit on the shop and offices, which we sold through our holding company. So that’s gone back into this year’s budget. The net effect of all that is that, if we don’t have a cup run or we don’t sell a player, we’re probably a £1 million above what we can afford this year. But again, it’s something that we want to do because we want to have a good season. And we think that we have enough in the background that we can cover those debts if need be.
But a fact of life is that we might need to sell a first team asset if all else fails. You know, we did get knocked out of the first round of the Capital Cup. It’s all about balancing the books.
WOAP: Watching that cup run was thrilling for us fans and I’m sure you too. Were you sat watching the penalty shootout vs Arsenal or semi final against Villa with your supporter head on or your chairman financial hat?
Firstly I’m watching as a fan. They were fantastic games and I never thought we’d see nights like it. I have to say that I have never celebrated a goal like I did James Hanson’s at Aston Villa. When that went in I thought “My god, we’re going to a major cup final!”
But also it was nice to then start looking at your cash flows and your profit and loss and realise what it all means. And you think what a fantastic season. We get to a cup final, we cleared the biggest debt we had left which was Mark’s loan, we get rid of the shop and office building – which was the final drain on resources – and we go back to Wembley and get promotion. It doesn’t get much better than that!
The thing that got me last season was just how nice it was to see the smiles on people’s faces. Because it has been absolutely incredible how people have stuck with us. I know we do the cheap season tickets, but look at the crowds still. Wherever you go everyone always says “what fantastic support”. So to see the complete look of disbelief on thousands of faces was unbelievable.
I’ve got a mate who is a Leeds fan and he came along to the Burton play off game at home. He said he has never seen an atmosphere like it. And that was a game we lost.
I couldn’t believe how we’ve kept it going and how good the atmosphere was for the Carlisle game. I always felt that there were a number of things that, if we got back to League One, would be completely different to last time, because we are going back in the right direction. And for me, the atmosphere against Carlisle reaffirmed that. It was fantastic support.
WOAP: After the Swansea game and we’d dropped to mid-table, did you think promotion was beyond us?
I thought it was beyond us at that point. We drew the next few games and the result that seemingly killed it was Exeter away. I thought, after that, forget it. If someone had said at that time, “You’ll get into the play offs with a game to spare” we’d have rightly thought they were stupid.
But we went on a great run. We actually had a great run at the start of the season and a great run to end the season.
WOAP: Given all you have endured in 16 years with your money tied to the club, how did you feel when the final whistle was blown against Northampton at Wembley?
A massive relief. Because, going into that game at Wembley, the outcome of that game would determine whether we had a fantastic season or not. Because if we had have lost, we’d still have been playing Dagenham & Redbridge in League Two. So I was very nervous before the Northampton game. I wasn’t nervous at all for the Swansea game. I didn’t really think we’d win it. It was just fantastic to have got there.
To be 3-0 up against Northampton after half an hour, I still felt this was too good to be true and waited for it to go wrong! So I was just relived at the end. It was great for all supporters and particularly for the players, who were rewarded for all the hard work they’d put in over the season.
Was it the best season in the club’s history? Probably.
WOAP: Giving Parkinson a new deal was a no-brainer. You’ve worked with so many managers. What makes him different from the others?
I don’t think many people can argue with the appointment of Phil after last year, although I do think a lot of people unfairly criticised him the year before that.
I get on well with Phil. The thing I’ve always liked about Phil is that he is very receptive to other people’s ideas and comments. He is a very mature manager. Some football managers can take the attitude “What do you know?” I always think the best managers in any walk of life seek other people’s opinions and then decide what they are going to do.
It’s very easy to have a conversation with Phil. He works hard, he expects his staff to work hard and he expects his players to work hard. And I think that is the main thing about Phil which everyone has bought in to: the effort that his teams put in.
He’s always pushing it. He always wants to spend more and more. But in that respect he’s no different to any manager. He normally will justify it with a reason for doing it. He’s never happy unless he is squeezing every last pound out of us – it’s become a bit of a standing joke! But so be it, if we are being successful that is not a problem.
WOAP: What are your expectations for this season and beyond?
I don’t know. It’s still early days. I was a little bit surprised how expensive everything is – certainly a lot more expensive than last time we were in League One! The wages seemed to have spiralled substantially. So you don’t get as much for your money. We have had to spend quite a lot just keeping the squad that we had last year.
So I really don’t know. We do want to kick on and get into the Championship, but I’m not saying that will be this season. But we just need to keep the momentum going in the right direction. I do think that we are going to find it hard. I do think there is a bit of a jump up from League Two to League One. We’ve only got a small squad, but if we don’t get injuries we will go alright.
WOAP: The transfer window closes soon. Is there the potential for Nahki Wells to be sold?
We’ve knocked back a decent offer for Nahki. But other than that, no one has been knocking which I have to say has surprised me a bit. We don’t have to sell Nahki, we don’t want to sell him. So I think it is highly unlikely he will go. But every player has a price and if someone offered us silly money and he wanted to go, that’s life and you have to move on.
But we would have to have something lined up. We couldn’t afford for it to happen on transfer deadline day because we couldn’t replace him. But I don’t think he will go. Knowing Phil he will just want to add rather than sell anyone.
WOAP: Is there money to strengthen the team, either in this window or January?
I think the plan was to try and keep some back for January. But like I said, it’s all proven a bit more expensive than we thought. Let me put it this way: in League One you are allowed to spend 60% of your income on wages. If you spend anything above 55% you have to certify that you can afford it. We’re in that phase already.
If we had an FA Cup run or something, we could spend more. But you’ve always got that eye on next season, and sometimes, if you’re in mid-table, what’s the point of spending money now that could be better saved for next season? So in January it will depend where we are.
We always do seem to find the money for whatever we need to do. I don’t want to blow our own trumpet but I do think that we are a pretty well run football club.
WOAP: Finally on money matters, there is the unresolved situation with Mark Stewart’s fee. What is the latest on this?
We’re appealing it. You had to pay just to receive the explanation for FIFA’s decision, so we’ve had our legal team looking at it. And it’s going to go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. I don’t know how long it will take. We did go there once before and lost, when Crystal Palace signed David Hopkin and Matt Clarke from us.
WOAP: Season ticket sales have been excellent. You pioneered the cheap season ticket scheme in 2007. It must be something that you are really proud of…
Yes I am. And I want to continue it for as long as we possibly can. I know that prices have inched up a little over the years, but it’s still under £200 which is pretty good and that’s now for League One football. But I think the only way that these schemes work is if people take you up on it. Bradford fans have been so receptive to it.
Bradford is not a rich area. If you want people to come and watch the local sports team I think you have to do things like that. I think the whole thing has worked a treat.
I think the Flexi-card idea is also really good and I can see a lot of other clubs doing it as well. The Flexi-card was something we had to come up with because the numbers had got to the point where the normal sales and income had fallen to a level where it was no longer acceptable to carry it on. That’s boosted it again. So we will carry on.
WOAP: Does it annoy you that only a few clubs have tentatively tried such a wonderful idea?
I just don’t think that they did it very well. I think they copied it badly. The way that ours was marketed was important and we were lucky that the Telegraph & Argus was so great in supporting us with front cover articles. If it doesn’t work for other people I’m not bothered. I’m only really bothered what we do.
WOAP: A few years ago there were efforts to re-negotiate the rent with Gordon Gibb over Valley Parade. What is the future for City and the ground?
The biggest problem we had was the shop and office. That’s now gone. I personally don’t think the rent is bad when you actually look at this stadium. The rent is £380k a year. We more or less cover that from catering and stuff. I don’t think it’s that bad.
There was an idea raised about why we don’t get the rent structured so it is less in League Two, more in League One etc. Well, now we are in League One, and we are paying exactly what we were in rent when we were in League Two: £380k. And we’d be paying that if we were in the Championship or the Premiership.
I think it’s a decent rent and I think we’ve just got to get on with life. Pay the rent like we do and concentrate of moving upwards.
WOAP: How is the club run on a day-to-day basis?
Before Mark came I was running everything really. I now try to focus on the football side of things, which is the biggest part of the business. Mark is more on the commercial side of things nowadays, and David Baldwin does all the operational things. Pretty much everyone reports to David!
WOAP: And how do you and Mark get on? You seem like chalk and cheese!
We get on great. We’d get on better if he bought me out! But he won’t do it. He keeps asking me to buy him out!
We are chalk and cheese, but a lot of the best relationships are like that. When you’re different you look at things differently and you meet in the middle. We are very open with each other. I’ve got on well with him from day one and had very few disagreements. I think we do alright.
WOAP: Do you enjoy being joint-chairman of this club?
Yes. Definitely. I hated it for the first few years, it was terrible. I was drinking too much, not sleeping. We were always one day from disaster for so long.
So of course I enjoy it more now, as we don’t have that kind of pressure. There is still pressure and you want to do well for our supporters and for the city of Bradford. This is a big focal point of the city and it would be nice if we could do a good job for everybody. It’s all about keeping people smiling.
The one thing I never wanted was any kind of publicity. The joint chairmen thing works very well because Mark is the public face of the club.
WOAP: Finally, what are your favourite memories of Bradford City as a supporter?
Bobby Campbell scoring against Liverpool in the League Cup in 1980. I was a ball boy back in those days!
Two of my favourites have been 5-4 away wins. Preston away on 25 November 1992, on their plastic pitch. And then in October 2004 we beat Tranmere when Wethers scored.
One of my favourite games, which we touched on earlier, was that Stockport game (the 3-2 win in Peter Taylor’s last game in charge). Just because the atmosphere was fantastic and to come back and win from 2-1 down was fantastic. It sticks in my memory as the best, because I was seriously concerned we were going out of the league and that win turned it round.
The two trips to Wembley last season were special too, of course!
The interview over, Julian kindly continued chatting to me for another 45 minutes about Bradford City matters. It was the type of conversation that is carried out between regular supporters all over the region. Because first and foremost, that seems to be what Julian is: a regular supporter.
A regular supporter who was fortunate enough to be in a position to invest into the football club back in 1997 and finance the never-to-be-forgotten promotion to the Premiership. Geoffrey Richmond was hailed as one of the heroes behind it and rightly so, but it would not have been possible without the Rhodes’ family borrowing the money that financed the likes of Lee Mills, Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley.
Fast forward 14 years to City’s next promotion, and once again another person – Mark Lawn – is enjoying his moment of adulation, whilst Julian stays in the background. That is the way that Julian chooses to have it. After our interview I asked if he would mind me taking a photo of him to include in this article. He refused, before joking about how much he enjoys the fact there have barely been any photos taken of him over the last 10 years. “People still think I’m that 30-year-old!”
His reasons for declining a photo are revealing. He talks about how club chairmen nearly always ultimately depart in sad circumstances and then are rarely able to continue watching their football club. Julian is realistic enough to know that he might one day step down as chairman in less than happy circumstances, and if that day ever occurs he doesn’t want it mean he has to stop watching City. If no one knows what he looks like, that will be easier to accomplish. “I love walking around the ground and no one having a clue who I am” he smiles, before recalling his horror at being recognised by a City supporter outside Wembley last season.
In many ways this sums him up. There seems to be no ego about him or desire to share in the acclaim. Julian has done incredible things for this football club over the past 16 years – not least ensuring its ongoing existence – and though he often doesn’t get the credit he deserves, he doesn’t seem to mind or seek to address that. He is a down-to-earth, laid back type of person. Undoubtedly there is a steel about him that those who have worked with him will no doubt testify to, but he left me with the impression he would be a great person to work for and his revelation of ex-managers still wishing us and him well seems understandable.
Last season, Mark Lawn enjoyed a resurgence in popularity that being a successful club owner will provide. For some reason, there was little comment or praise about Julian. I don’t think that we supporters think any less of him (indeed many hold a higher opinion of him compared to Mark), but his chosen cloak of invisibility seems to leave his name absent from such discussions.
Yet the front row seat that Julian has held for the past 16 years makes him arguably the most influential person connected with the club over the past two decades – at least in a positive context. He helped to take us to the top flight, he cleared up the massive problems left over from Geoffrey Richmond’s six (or, as Julian claims, four) weeks of madness, he saved the club from oblivion, he pioneered the wonderful season ticket initiative, and he and Mark have finally helped the club bounce back from years of gloom.
Somewhere, you hope there’s a photo of Julian proudly holding the League Two play off final trophy and looking every bit a part of the success that he helped to deliver last season. But I bet such a photo will remain hidden under lock and key, destined never to be seen by anyone but his own family.
Just the way he likes it.