Part two of Width of a Post’s in-depth chat with Bradford City’s Head of Operations/Chief Executive David Baldwin (part one here)
By Jason McKeown
Although much has gone well for the club over the past 12 months, there has been the occasional bump on the road and even personal difficulties for David. In the summer he closed his Twitter account due to the personal abuse he was receiving from some supporters, and the strain it was putting on his family life.
David admitted, “My motivation for being on Twitter was to answer queries from people. But when you get personal abuse and are answering questions at quarter to one in the morning; I think if I had have carried on like that, I would have had a heart attack.
“My health was suffering quite badly; not in the sense of being offended by the things being said, but just the inability to switch off from it. My wife was really concerned about my health. You have to listen to your family.
“I realised that the Twitter bit had fulfilled its duty for helping people through the two Wembley finals. I still make myself available to reply to emails and ensure that everyone who does email me gets a response, often by ringing them back.”
I asked David about the Lenny City Gent mascot controversy, which he was reluctant to discuss; but he was more forthright on the BBC Radio Leeds fallout, with the local radio station no longer providing commentaries of matches due to failing to strike a new deal during the summer.
“In terms of the amount offered by Radio Leeds for the home and away commentary, year-on-year, compared to what we were getting last season, it was half price,” revealed David. “They wanted to pay less. The Pulse offered us a much improved contract on the basis of exclusivity – more than double what they paid the previous year. There is a big jump up in the revenue we receive. Their offer on its own is a better deal than when we had both Radio Leeds and the Pulse last year.
“Economically, I think it is my responsibility to take the best deal for the football club. Because every penny that comes into the club is essential to Phil Parkinson’s budget. Our revenue streams from our website have also increased, because there isn’t the BBC website articles to the same degree meaning more people are reading our articles. There is also Bantams Player for people who can’t get the Pulse, which brings revenue to the club.
“I didn’t want to compromise the value of our product, and I felt it was being devalued by Radio Leeds’ offer.”
A more recent supporter fallout has concerned the introduction of a priority card for away games, which caused more than a few message board stirrings. David felt it was vital to introduce some form of scheme, after the heavy demand for Burton away play off tickets last May which hopelessly outstripped supply.
“If you take the Burton game last season, there was a feeling that we had to do something,” said David. “In such situations, with a priority card, you wouldn’t have to sit out in the cold for 12 hours queuing for tickets, with the club having to employ staff to steward it.
“The away priority card is a layer of protection for travelling supporters. It’s not gone out to the general public. You have to be a season ticket or flexi-card holder to buy one, and everyone had the option to buy one. It got launched on all platforms at the same time: online, ticket office and phone. Setting up the scheme has come at cost in terms of system changes, so the £10 charge was about recuperating some of those costs.
“I’ve purposely not published the figures of how many priority cards have been sold, as it triggers speculation about what it all might mean. We will review it on a game-by-game basis. We will monitor it as an idea and decide later on in the season whether to continue it next year. I will discuss it with the Supporters Board and try and get a view on what fans think. If it goes on sale again, next year, they will again be available on a first come, first served basis.
“We genuinely do what we think is best for the majority, and we do listen. You will never please everybody, but I would like to think we facilitate positive things for the good of everyone.”
When I spoke to David last November, the Supporters Board was in its early stages. A year on David is delighted by how this unique idea is working. “I chaired it to start with and put the group together. It now has an independent chair and vice-chair who were voted in by the group. I’m challenged by them on certain aspects and have to explain why we do things.
“All in all it has been a success and I think it will continue to be. It is a fantastic sounding board for the club to get a broad view on everything we do. I might discuss something with Mark and Julian that seems very plausible. All of a sudden I have 23 other people to run it by, and you have a spectrum of views from which you can take a general consensus. We are prepared to make changes based on the feedback from the Supporters Board.
“Those 23 people have a greater empathy for what we have to deal with. They’ve seen it first hand, and it can be a bit of an eye-opener: how do you appease everybody?
“We have 23 people around the table who represent the fans. They give up their time to do what’s best for the club and supporters. I personally want to thank them for that, because I think it is fantastic, and I know that they recognise that there are many other people who would love to do what they get to do. They don’t see themselves as some hierarchy; they simply want to improve the football club.”
Then there is RIASA, which continues to quietly operate in the background, supporting the club by acting as its Development Squad. David discussed the youth and reserve set ups, “We have got no reserves this year. That has really helped the youth team in terms of not having youth players, who are underdeveloped, playing on a Saturday morning and then a reserve game during the week, to make up for the fact the reserve team doesn’t have enough senior reserve players.
“In terms of the Under 21s, at no cost to the club, we have already played an Under 21 Development game at Garforth against Notts County and played Walsall down at St. Georges Park. We can also use these games to look at trialists rather than just RIASA players. We play Middlesbrough next week, and there are a couple of trailists that have played for London clubs who are going to come and play in that game.
“Is there another Nahki Wells on the immediate horizon within RIASA? Potentially. There are some younger ones in the under 19s bracket that have got dual nationality. But what we don’t do is make a big song and dance about it. I would rather underestimate and over-deliver. I would rather see a player come onto the scene when they are right, rather than have a big fanfare.
“There is no cost to Bradford City. All the transport, the meals for players, paying for officials to ref the game are all funded by RIASA, with the benefit that Bradford City can tap into these players. There are also side benefits; for example there is a non-league player the club is looking at who was flagged up by a RIASA coach.”
The RIASA scheme has led to other players achieving professional careers in other countries, although Wells clearly remains the standout star. David – who did so much to get him to Valley Parade – is justifiably proud of the Bermudian’s progress and popularity amongst fans.
“Nahki has to be the most exciting player in years. We used to talk about Edinho the Brazilian, and now we have Nahki the Bermudian!”
The future of the club
With the national and international spotlight that fell on the club last season, rumours of investors wanting to take over the club have inevitably surfaced in recent months. David admits that there has been some interest, but nothing that has translated into serious proposals.
“We get lot of enquiries, which has probably being amplified more because of the cup run last year,” said David. “I must have done loads of sit down chats and provided information about the financial state of the club to a number of interested parties.
“The one thing I would say about the current owners – which I am personally really pleased about – is they will only do what is in the best interests of the club. If someone came along who was genuinely going to provide the club with the capability to compete at a higher level, they would step aside right away. But the reverse side of that is they are not going to have someone come along and asset strip it.
“I think that this is a fantastic position for the club to be in. We’ve got three owners (the Rhodeses and Mark Lawn) who see themselves as custodians of the club. And I applaud them for the investment and commitment they have made over the years.
“Plenty of people knock on the door, and the club is always for sale to the right person, to do the right thing with it. But it’s not for sale just to anybody. If anything was ever to happen, it would have to happen for the right reasons – for the advancement of the football club.”
Nevertheless, investment could play an increasingly important role in the structure of English football during the next few years. Over the weekend, pre-season promotion favourites Wolves climbed to the summit of League One – something that seemed inevitable during the summer, given their £20 million-plus parachute payments. With the new Premier League TV deal meaning the rich will become even richer, there is a danger of a major split between the haves and have-nots that City could fall narrowly on the wrong side of.
David reflected, “The Premier League has already moved away from the rest, and it is very hard for a Championship club to break into that. You could then see the danger of the Championship moving away from League One and League Two. The money you now get in the Championship is significantly higher than the bottom two divisions. At the minute there is a widening gap, but it’s not insurmountable. And so for us, the next couple of years are about endeavouring to get in the Championship.
“No one has a crystal ball, but getting there within that timeframe could be the difference between forever being a lower league club or being at least in a division that sits below the Premier League.
“All you can do is facilitate the best opportunities for your manager, to give him the best amount of tools to try and get out of the division you are in. And I think we are as well placed as anybody to be able to do that. Sooner rather than later ideally! But I believe that, if you make a forward step, you should build foundations to make sure that, when you make the next step, it doesn’t just crumble below you.”
David continued, “I think that it would be fantastic to get out of this division, but we also have to manage the expectation that, if we don’t, it’s not seen as a failure. The biggest success of last season was getting out of the division, not the cup run. The ambition this year is to endeavour to go for it and to get out of the division again. But, if we fail to do that it is not a failure. And you can be damn sure we wouldn’t give up on that aim next year.
“I think most fans are realistic that, if promotion isn’t achieved but we are fighting for it as late as possible at the end of the season, it would still be a success.”
For a club which has endured so much disappointment over the last decade, to have finally achieved progression last year must have be viewed as a validation of the strategies employed by the board. So is it a simple case of more of the same? “You don’t get complacent,” said David. “We constantly re-evaluate ourselves.
“Julian, Mark, Phil and I meet every Thursday, without fail, and have a long discussion about playing matters. We are constantly asking ‘what do we need to do to improve?’ And I think that it is key, in an environment of sport, that you are never satisfied with what you have. You build on the things you do well and look at the things where you know you could do a little bit better, whilst not biting off more than you can chew.
“We want to take forward steps, but it’s identifying what are realistic targets to make those forward steps. That’s constantly being re-evaluated every week. What can happen is you strive for something that realistically is completely unattainable, and you become deflated when you don’t achieve it. “
David concluded, “Always focus on what you can improve and never be satisfied with where you are. That is the mind-set of this football club.”