Picture courtesy of Bradford City FC
By Jason McKeown
David Baldwin used to be long retired, living a relaxing life in Spain. Yet whilst the West Yorkshire weather on the afternoon of Bradford City’s pre-season friendly with Blackburn Rovers would rival temperatures in Madrid or Marbella, for David there are no Sangrias by the beach to enjoy, and instead a meeting with Stephen Hawthorn-Emmott, the club’s Head of Marketing, inside one of the Valley Parade boxes, followed by a pile of paperwork to get through and a further meeting with a scout in half an hour’s time.
It is 2pm, and in the Valley Parade main stand outside, City fans are beginning to take their seats, but David is working up to the last minute, before he can take in the entertaining 0-0 draw – today’s task list including an interview for Width of a Post. The close season is a frantic and unrelenting period for the Bradford City Chief Executive – persuaded out of retirement by Mark Lawn in 2007 – who amongst the many plates to keep spinning has the small matter of helping Phil Parkinson to rebuild the squad.
During a summer of vast change in the playing staff, it is no small challenge. Two weeks before the big kick off, many of the holes have been filled but there still gaps to address. Those lazy retirement days must seem a lifetime ago.
The retained list
One of David’s initial summer duties included the negotiating of new deals for the out-of-contract players who Parkinson wanted to keep: namely Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, James Meredith and, initially at least, Jon McLaughlin. David explained how the process of offering new deals works.
“When you do an offer of re-engagement with a player, the player has one month from receiving the offer to make a decision,” stated David. “There are two conditions of the offer; firstly that it must be an improved offer or at least matching what they were earning. Secondly, we have to give them a month to decide on it. That is then their protection and, if they want, they can go and test the market to measure if it is a good deal for them.
“Rory McArdle was the first one back from holiday and we sat down with his agent to sort his deal quite quickly. Some amendments were made to the original offer, and he signed on those terms. Stephen Darby received his offer then went on holiday a couple of days later. So it was longer before he came back, but then he very quickly came into the building wanting to sign, which was good news.”
Yet whilst these two players re-signed relatively promptly, it proved to be less straightforward with James Meredith and Jon McLaughlin, who failed to sign the deals on offer before the 30-day deadline, meaning the club had the right to withdraw them. The bottom line being that the club have ultimately brought in replacements for these positions, with Meredith re-signing to take up what initially looks set to be a back-up role, and McLaughlin departing altogether.
Image by Mike Holdsworth
“Jon McLaughlin’s offer had elapsed, because I don’t think he was happy with the offer we had made,” revealed David. “And that’s when the positioning with him changed. With James Meredith it was the same scenario; he didn’t come back to us in time, although later decided that he wanted to be here.”
On McLaughlin, Baldwin admitted that the decision not to make a further contract offer was due to finances and the manager’s choice to bring in Jordan Pickford as his new number one. “You are balancing the economics of a playing budget with the positions that you need to fill,” he stated. “And the dilemma for the manager was, who is he going to hang his hat on to be his first choice goalkeeper? He’s looking at all the permutations.
“What you have to consider is that, if you can’t afford two first team goalkeepers, it becomes an expensive thing to have one of them sitting on the bench. Now if the manager was in a position where he was making Jon McLaughlin his first choice, then the offer to him would be a first choice offer.
“From Jon’s perspective, his expectation will be that he would receive an offer as a first choice. And understandably so, he was an ever present last year. But the manager picks the team. From a Board perspective it is simple economics of saying to the manager ‘you can’t afford both’. So he had to make a choice. We don’t tell him which choice to make, it was a decision he had to make balanced against making sure there is money set aside for other parts of the team.
“We can’t afford to have a keeper on a first choice budget sitting on the bench.”
And what of James Meredith? “We made James an offer; obviously he was weighing up his options, like anybody would. It probably didn’t help that James was over in Australia, but once the offer period had elapsed, we then targeted Alan Sheehan, who we had been discussing as well.
“Alan obviously comes with a good pedigree and was being chased by a number of clubs, including clubs who are favourites to go up this year. We kept it very much under the radar and brought him in, which was very much a disappointment to James. He felt that whatever options he was considering elsewhere, they hadn’t come to fruition as he had wanted them to, so we sat down and re-negotiated a different deal with him. I think we now have good competition for that position.”
Another ‘We Made History’ player to leave, despite the club keeping the door open, was Kyel Reid, who has signed a two-year deal with League One rivals Preston North End. David confirmed that City were not in a position to offer Kyel a new contract as they were still evaluating his recovery from long-term injury.
“With Kyel Reid we hadn’t made an offer at that stage, because we were assessing what his fitness situation would be. But in the meantime, his agent got him a good deal elsewhere. We wish him well. But Omar Daley didn’t come back quite the player he was, and we can’t afford to be in a position of paying wages if a player isn’t going to play.
“Other clubs might see it differently and will take that risk, but it wasn’t a decision that we could make at that particular time.”
Image by Kieran Wilkinson
Beyond the futures of last season’s playing squad, David has also worked with Phil Parkinson in bringing in new faces, and he highlighted midfield as the key area of change. “The ethos was that the midfield needed more running power and a bit more craft, to play a different way when needed,” David said.
“The positive is that, of the players we have brought in, they have got good pedigree. You look at Gary Liddle. I spoke to the Hartlepool Chief Executive about him, and they could not speak more highly of him. We spoke to Notts County about him, and they obviously desperately wanted to keep him, but I think he was ready for a new challenge. He’s a player’s player and a fan’s favourite.
“Then there is Matty Dolan. He was only on loan with us because we missed the January transfer deadline by three minutes, because Middlesbrough were trying to sort out the international transfer of a goalkeeper at the same time. Matty came in last season and found his feet at the club. It takes time to adjust, as he is only a young lad and has only just turned 21. What he has done is listened very intently to the instruction of the close season fitness programme set by Nick Allamby. We’ve spoken with him at length about the benefits of the sport science side of things that we offer, and he has taken it on board and come back in fantastic shape.
“You look at the midfield now as having three fresh new players in: Gary Liddle, Billy Knott and Matty Dolan, who are all good footballers. There’s a decent amount of athleticism in there, and there’s a good amount of craft too.
“Depending on formations, we also now have the typeset of a typical number 10 in Billy Clarke. He can play up front, and he can play on the wings. He’s played at a higher level. I think he is a good addition to the squad. But midfield is certainly the biggest fundamental change.”
In contrast, the defence from last season has been largely retained, with the addition of Sheehan at left back and the replacing of McLaughlin with Pickford. “The seventh-best defence in the league, and we have retained the entire back four,” smiled David. “And we’ve added another quality player to it. And we’ve added a real up-and-coming young talented goalkeeper.”
On Pickford, David was keen to highlight the young shot-stopper’s glowing reputation within the game. “The people that we talked to – people with decent reputations as goalkeeping coaches and managers – have said that we have got a real starlet there.
“The bottom line with Jordan Pickford is that he is highly rated as the next young talent coming through. Sunderland have given him a long-term contract, and Sunderland want to see him playing. This is a good stage for him to demonstrate to them how good he can be.
“Is he motivated to deliver? Of course he is. People say he is a loan keeper, so how committed will he be? Well – with the four-year contract he has signed at Sunderland – he is committed to making sure that, a year down the line, he is knocking on the door for their first team. I think that is the reality of it, and it means we get a good player along the way.”
Despite the six arrivals, there are still other new signings needed and time is running out. So how is recruitment progressing? David explained, “The end of the transfer window is probably a more important measure than the start of the season, because you can rush people in, not quite getting the people you wanted, and they end up sitting on the bench. And then a week later the person who you really wanted becomes available, and there is nothing you can do.
“As we stand at the minute, I would expect three or four (new signings). Three at the absolute minimum, possibly four, maybe even five depending on the deals.
“No one is rushing into a panic and we are monitoring the situation carefully, these players and their availability. And some things are just worth waiting for.”
One of the key considerations behind the new arrivals is the planned change of playing style this season, which was first mentioned by Julian Rhodes in May. I have been intrigued all summer about how this new direction was agreed and whether this decision has been placed upon Parkinson, similarly to how the West Ham board have laid out certain demands of Sam Allardyce. David confirmed that the new approach was in fact a joint decision between the Board and manager.
“It’s a collaborative decision. We discuss it as a collective group. You digest what went well last season, what didn’t go so well, what things we need to improve and how we can go about it. Now I would highlight the Peterborough home game. We saw a change of system, and it was effective. Although ironically, in the Peterborough away game, the system change that day wasn’t as effective!
“We can still drop to the core 4-4-2 if needed. But the difference now is we have got players who can play both that and the diamond formation. Ultimately the one thing that came out of these discussions is that more mobility and versatility is needed in League One. And so, with the new players, what we are seeing is that coming to fruition. And it’s something we want to supplement further.
“There will be times when we want to go for pacy wingers, so that’s why we are looking for pacy wingers.”
The budget cuts
An ongoing talking point all summer has been the news that the playing budget has been cut to the tune of £500k – a considerable sum of money, with last season’s wage bill rumoured to be just over £2 million. David stressed that he believes the revised budget is nevertheless competitive, and highlighted a wide-ranging focus on delivering greater efficiency in how the club operates, which includes the playing staff.
“There has been a lot of talk about the budget being hacked back by half a million. The bottom line is that, over the last few years, we have had players in the building that have not come in on cheap wages, and yet their game contribution to the team has been sporadic to say the least.
“I recently did an article in the T&A about efficiencies. This budget is not a hack-back, it is still a very strong budget. And as part of doing that, we are checking the efficiencies of each transfer so that we aren’t paying, for want of a better word, dead money.”
But does that mean there are going to be further outgoings? “Never say never. What’s very important is that we still need to add to this squad. If you have a player leave, you’ve either got to bring in a better player or you’ve got to be in a situation of being made an offer that is too good to turn down that can create funds to improve the team further.”
This leads us onto the future of James Hanson, who has been the subject of tabloid speculation about a £300k transfer offer from Millwall. David confirmed that no bid has been made for James or any player. “There have been no offers. As far as I am concerned, everyone who is here is here and staying, but the picture can always change.
“As far as we are concerned, James Hanson is a good asset to this football club. And we would not want to see him go. However, somebody might make an approach that is too good a deal for him and too good a deal for the club to turn down. That could happen tomorrow, or it could happen in two years’ time.
“From our point of view, we are conscious that we only have 17 professionals in the building. There is enough to start and on the bench, but we are conscious that we need more players to strengthen this team.”
Off the field matters
With ‘efficiency’ the phrase of the moment, I asked David for examples of where else this has occurred within the club. “We’re in a process of outsourcing to a third party the corporate side of the catering. The company has a good reputation out there in the market place. That arrangement starts on Friday. On a match day, what they will be managing are the Hendrie and McCall suites, Boardroom, 2013 Lounge, Bantams Bar and the boxes. They will also be running events on non-match days.
“It’s a better return for us without all the associated costs of managing it ourselves. I think they will drive the business on, and we – like with the shop – will be rewarded through greater turnover. We get a minimum guarantee and a percentage of sales on top of it, which is the way that the shop deal is structured.
“There is also the closing of the 1911 Club during the week. We haven’t closed it down, it just wasn’t running efficiently on a Monday – Friday basis, and however many people we get in there, versus the labour costs, it’s not going to generate enough income. And it can also detract from the service we offer on midweek match days, which is something we don’t want to do. Unfortunately there have been some redundancies as a result.
“The maintenance of the training ground has also been looked at, and the recruitment of the match day stewards. It’s all about counting the pennies, and no one has been immune to it.”
Another off-the-field developed this summer was the news that long-serving head of youth development, Peter Horne, had left the club. David was guarded over the reasons for this parting of ways but did reveal, “The facts are quite straightforward. Peter offered his resignation, and we accepted that resignation. There is nothing more than that. The reasons why people give their resignations I think it is private to them.
“From a transitional point of view, we have had natural progression of internal staff being promoted, with Alan Nevison taking over the academy. And I think that is testament to the quality of the people we have in the building.”
The season ahead
Over the previous two campaigns, the Board has set a playing budget higher than the club’s true break-even point, with variants that can be considered for making up the shortfall over the course of the season. David confirmed that the reduced playing budget has again been structured in this way, although added that the difference between the budget and break-even point is lower this time, making it easier to claw back.
“We have another speculative budget this year. The break-even point, and the level we set the manager – there is a difference between the two. You make those decisions based on calculated changes that could happen throughout the season, which I call extraordinary income. Extraordinary income includes cup runs, transfer fees of existing or youth players, add on fees in relation to players who have left who are playing – there are certain trigger points, such as when they play and when they score goals. The other aspect is sell on clauses from other players sold who are further down the line.
“You look at that combination, and our expectation is that we will claw back the overspend from this year to give ourselves, in 12 months’ time, a break-even budget. So we are not carrying debt into next year.”
Earlier in the conversation David had joked about the ongoing speculation over former youth player Tom Cleverley – with any transfer from Manchester United triggering revenue for City through a sell-on clause. “Those things that may exceed the break-even point, we will want to give them to the manager to give him an even more competitive playing budget, without undue risk,” confirmed David.
So with the new faces almost all added, and the new playing style showing promise during pre-season, it just leaves one big, so far unanswered question – what, exactly, are the expectations this season? David declined making any predictions, but concluded the interview his own thoughts.
“My personal view – and the proof will be in the pudding – is that it is a more adaptable and better football team this year compared to last year. I think we have more versatility. We are not reliant on one or two players to score the goals. We are not sitting on laurels as we are not finished yet with building the squad.
“It is a moving beast, but I’m cautiously optimistic that we have a better footballing team in place now. I’m conscious that we have gaps, but it would be nice to think that we could make improvements on last year.”