By Jason McKeown
On consecutive days last week, the Telegraph & Argus published Bradford City stories about footballers named Andrew definitely or potentially signing up for next season. As statements of ambition and the strategy for next season go, it was a huge and potentially defining moment of the close season. We now have a strong idea of the Board’s thinking for next season, and it’s difficult to avoid feeling excited.
Andrew Davies has definitely signed from Stoke, when most of us felt there was no chance of him dropping four divisions for a permanent contract and taking a hefty pay cut. Then Andy Gray – he of two years fine service for the Bantams between 2002-2004 – was confirmed to be in talks. Forget either of these players’ previous associations with the club, they would be fantastic signings for any League Two side. Gray may not end up returning to West Yorkshire, but targeting his signature is an indication of the calibre – and type – of player that City are looking to recruit.
Despite much talk from the two Chairmen a week ago regarding the playing budget being in the hands of the season ticket take up, it seems the club are going to “go for it” next season regarding the budget. On Tuesday Julian Rhodes was quoted in the T&A saying that, “The budget will be decent, though it won’t be as much as this last season. We can’t afford that but I’d be very surprised if it was not top seven or eight.” But by Friday he was stating, “The budget will be a bit higher than what we were talking about but we want to get promotion.” It would be fascinating to have been privy to conversations that took place within the four walls of the office shared by the two Chairmen at Valley Parade last week.
An all out assault on promotion is certainly a huge contrast to the talk of long-term building which emanated a year ago. And, for the time being, it seems that those of us who argue the merits of building the club in a more patient, sustainable manner have lost the argument. The club goes into next season stating there is “no excuses” for a lack of promotion challenge, suggesting a fascinating campaign. We are firmly within a new era of short-termism.
In Parky the Board trusts
The apparent decision to hand Phil Parkinson a higher budget than planned represents a huge declaration of faith in the City manager by the Joint Chairmen. Both have gone on record multiple times since Parkinson’s appointment last September to praise his professionalism and management ability, and they clearly believe he can succeed where the three other managers appointed since the drop to League Two have failed in securing a promotion.
Parkinson’s links in football are clearly strong. He was scouting for Arsenal when he was out of the game for eight months following his sacking by Charlton, he has managed some relatively big names in the lower leagues of English football and the original signing of Davies last September from Stoke showed the quality of his contacts within the game.
The likes of Davies and Gray are indications that he is targeting proven players who should settle in quickly, rather than requiring time to adapt to their surroundings or be seen as needing to be developed over the course of a season. There may not be much thinking – if any – beyond what happens after May 2013, but Parkinson is being equipped with the tools to build for the here and now.
Remembering McCall and Taylor
Of course, we have been here before – and negative fears are difficult to dismiss when considering the possibility of repeating past mistakes. In 2008/09, Stuart McCall was handed a £1.9 million playing budget to deliver promotion, but a dreadful collapse in form during the final third of the season meant City didn’t even make the play offs. In 2010/11, Peter Taylor had £1.5 million with the same objective of instant promotion, but the club could not live up to the tag of promotion favourites and languished in the bottom half of the table.
On both occasions, playing squads were built on costs that could only be maintained or built upon if City achieved promotion, and the players targeted ones who could deliver instant results. But when these expensive players failed to justify their high wages it led to anxious clear outs and cut backs. A boom and bust approach, which has proven painful at times.
The idea of revisiting this high spend, short-term strategy and hoping for third time lucky clearly has appeal to the Chairmen when they take into consideration their strong faith in Parkinson. But at one time they must have held similar confidence in McCall and Taylor, only to be disappointed. It might be argued that Parkinson has proved to be a better judge of player, but at the time the likes of Paul McLaren, Michael Boulding and Tommy Doherty were viewed as exciting arrivals and no one would have expected them to fail. Indeed when they did, wisdom reigned that signing ageing experienced footballers was a mistake, because they lacked the hunger. Let’s just hope Gray and others do not fall into this category.
Hopefully the level of investment made to the team this summer will be rewarded in the shape of huge celebrations next May, but we’ve seen the consequences of the failure of this approach twice now (the summers of 2009 and 2011 were hugely difficult for the club) and you have to hope this is being considered too.
How is next season going to be funded?
The mood of City supporters on Twitter and message boards suggest the news of Davies and Gray is going to trigger a certain boost to season ticket sales. However, it looks like the final total will still be short of overall target (especially when many fans are buying the 50/50 Flexicard, which gives the club less money initially), and the Chairmen appear set to make up the shortfall and fund this promotion push.
In March 2009, Lawn loaned the club a considerable sum of money at a rate of interest 9% above the Bank of England Base Rate (ie 9.5%). In April 2011, the club was short of money to pay the players wages’ and somewhere around this – Width of a Post heard – borrowed money from a director to cover a short-term cash flow problem (the director was paid back in full straight away). Both of these events came at the end of seasons where the club had pushed the boat out but failed to achieve promotion, which caused some problems and led to playing squad cut backs. A year ago, we were even talking about moving to Odsal because we couldn’t afford to keep playing at Valley Parade.
As a supporter I have no reason to believe Lawn and Rhodes are acting in any way other than the best interests of the club. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question the finances. For example, if season ticket revenue falls short of plan are the pair going to loan the club more money to make up the shortfall (again with a rate of interest)? Do they expect a shortfall to be made up for by the club’s profits over the season (ie matchday ticket sales, catering etc)? Or are they handing over additional money themselves, which they only expect to get back if it leads to success and a climb up the leagues? In Julian’s own words, last Tuesday the club could not afford a higher budget. Something has changed.
The amount of money that the pair have provided City over the years is considerable. We should continually to be thankful for that, because there’s every indication that no one else would be prepared to fund the club in their absence. However, City’s annual accounts have shown a loss for the 2007/08, 2008/09 and 2010/11 seasons, with only 2009/10 (aided by a windfall from Fabian Delph’s transfer from Leeds to Aston Villa) delivering an overall profit. It suggests that City have been living beyond their means. It might be something we can afford to keep doing for a time, but surely not forever.
Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride
Next season looks very exciting right now. Better players are set to arrive, and Parkinson provides us with confidence that he can fashion a promotion winning side to finally deliver some overdue success. The idea of looking upwards rather than downwards, of winning more often than we lose – is of course very appealing. We have over the past two seasons gone into April feeling very nervous about the future of the club, it would be great to enter April 2013 feeling anxious for very different reasons.
The other side of the coin is that the cost of another failure could prove considerable. Certainly Parkinson is unlikely to keep his job if results are not forthcoming, and there might have to be yet another summer clearout. You have to question how many times we can keep taking this approach if it fails again.
Personally, I was hoping for at least a top half finish next season and to feel we were moving forwards, but to others that won’t be good enough anymore. We have to take two very quick steps forward in the progress of the club. Half measures will not do. The bar is to be lifted. We sit back in August hoping that, for a change, the manager and players can measure up to it.