By Jason McKeown
The new Bradford West MP, George Galloway, is due to attend Bradford City’s fixture with Macclesfield Town on Saturday afternoon, after the club invited him along. The famous (or should than be infamous?) politician has already had plenty to say on the subject of the Bantams, and it seems unlikely he will pass up the opportunity of courting further publicity by not paying a visit to Valley Parade.
It’s two weeks ago since Galloway was quoted in the Daily Express about his plans to tap into his Middle East contacts, to seek out “sovereign wealth funds and Middle Eastern princes to pump investment into the club”. He has even attempted to take some sort of credit for his by-election victory inspiring City’s win at Northampton last Saturday. More revealing have been the comments to the T&A about how he plans to help the club and save the Bulls, while also demonstrating a reasonable grasp of the wider issues afflicting the City of Bradford itself.
Sadly for George, his utterances on Bantams matters show a clear lack of understanding about the club. And, if he is in attendance on Saturday to meet joint Chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes, he will no doubt soon learn more about the reasons why the football club “are in a bad situation” and why it has so far proven to be a tall order to attract further investment.
The first and most obvious lesson will stem from the stadium he sets foot into for the first time. There may no longer be a huge question mark surrounding City’s future occupation of their 109-year-old home, compared to 12 months ago when a move was threatened. But the difficult situation of having an unapproachable landlord requiring the club to pay a high sum of rent for Valley Parade is not going to prove attractive to an outside investor – nor is that landlord’s asking price to buy back the ground. Although the club’s purchase of the shop and office space from Prupim a year ago provides greater breathing space, rent is still £370,000 per year and annual running costs are said to be around £600,000.
So although five figure home crowds might look attractive to an investor when looking at potential, that City pay rent 30 times higher than Torquay United reputedly do may go some way towards explaining why the Gulls (average attendance 2,827) are near the top and City (10,457) near the bottom.
Any investor into City – especially someone with no emotional links to the club – is going to be looking to make a positive return on their money over time. Where is that going to come from with the Bantams? Whatever the rights and wrongs of the way Lawn and Rhodes spend the majority of the annual budget on players, you can’t argue that City managers are not well backed financially. Would a new investor achieve better success by throwing even more money at the team? And how and when would they get this money back and ultimately make a profit?
Increasing ticket prices is the only obvious answer, but would be a tough balancing act. Having endured five years of underachievement in League Two, we can safely assume that those of us who do renew for next season are committed to the club, rather than only going because it’s cheap. But there is no doubt that any sharp increases in season ticket prices over the next few years – even to bring them in line with other League Two clubs – would result in a fall in attendances. Is it better to have 9,500-10,500 paying low prices each game, or 6,000-7,000 paying more? Perhaps the latter from a financial point of view, but any new owner/investor looking to take this route will hardly find themselves popular.
Which leaves any investor who would be attracted to City in order to make money (and they would want to, otherwise why would they throw cash at a team they have no affection towards, who play in the bottom division?) needing to commit themselves to a huge outlay at the start (in order to get City to the Championship) with the prospect of not making it back, or a profit, for a few years. And as we know only too well, money is no guarantee of success. It would be a huge risk to invest into this football club to make a profit – take away the emotional attachment you have for City, would you consider it a sensible move?
So as much as his press comments spark intrigue, it would be far more worthwhile for Galloway the politician to act like a politician and help the club to address the fundamental issues. And if he lends an ear to Lawn and Rhodes this Saturday by attending the game, they might want to point out a few facts to him.
Like why the Bradford Council that he must now work with has over the last decade provided Bradford Bulls with a huge level of financial assistance – £1.2 million per year compensation to play at Valley Parade while they did Odsal up for them in 2001; £4.64 million over two years to move back; signing over the 150-year Odsal lease at a peppercorn rate of £1 per year, and paying for £660,000 to improve Odsal for them. The Bulls ended up selling the ground that was handed to them on a plate, due to the financial mess they had got into.
Meanwhile City have over the last few years asked time and time again for help from their council over the Valley Parade rent situation, and time and time again their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. “Why should the council help City?” – is a fair question that taxpayers who care little for the club are entitled to ask. But why should the council have propped up the Bulls? And, furthermore, why do other councils around the country do a great deal to help their football clubs?
When talking about the demise of the city of Bradford, Galloway said, “We want to pull ourselves up from that as quickly as possible and these two clubs (Bulls and City) are something I can influence.” He’s right that he can influence matters, but if he wants to make a difference he should be looking to clear his diary so he can visit Ripon and the Gordon Gibb pension fund. He should be asking Bradford council why they have not been prepared to help the club. He should be scratching his head to work out the puzzle of Valley Parade, which – for the last eight years since City went into administration – no one has being able to solve.
Bradford City needs political help, to reclaim its home.
Does it need mysterious Middle East investors who – at the time of writing – will never have heard of Bradford City? It’s a tough one, but I would side with no. City are not struggling financially for any major reason beyond the Valley Parade rent (which is now at least manageable, if deeply inconvenient). A load of money to buy players this summer might be welcomed, but past history suggests that it will not guarantee any success.
Which brings us closer to the crux of the issue on what City do need – direction and vision. It is unavoidable to criticise Lawn and Rhodes on this, because over the last five years this club has set the sole target of promotion, and over the last five years has only come reasonably close to achieving it once. We come to the end of this season having just about avoided relegation – exactly the same as a year ago.
The big question – and it is one to be debated this summer – is where do we go from here? Do Lawn and Rhodes have a plan? Do they know what’s lacking? At the moment there is a huge burden of expectation that Phil Parkinson can take the club forward, and I would agree that he can – but it’s also a lot of pressure on one person, and a poor start to next season will probably see him exit the club.
Do we once again throw a lot of money on signing new players and hope Parkinson can get it right, where Peter Taylor and Stuart McCall ultimately could not? Do we refocus efforts on the Development Squad and trust the longer-term route? Do we take a pragmatic direction, or idealistic? Can we get promoted next season, starting from this far-from-ideal position of ending the campaign in the bottom seven of the division?
City might benefit from outside investment, but what they would probably benefit more from is expertise. It is doubtful that a contact of Galloway can deliver the latter, and so Lawn and Rhodes might want to end this season by asking for the politician’s help in sorting out Valley Parade and requesting that Parkinson finds a replacement for Archie Christie to work alongside him.