Ten years ago this summer, the very future of Bradford City Football Club was in serious doubt in a manner that a generation of us had never experienced before. Plunged into administration, with debts of around £36 million, for a time it seemed as though there was no way in which the Bantams could pull through and continue.
One decade on, Width of a Post has put together a short series of articles revisiting this troubled – and extraordinary – period in our history. As our good neighbours Bradford Bulls are also in similar trouble, it’s also very topical to reflect.
To kick off, Jason McKeown looks back on what exactly happened.
It has now become a regular news saga, repeated on a two or three occasions per season. A football club has fallen on hard times, is forced to bring in the administrators because it cannot repay its debts, and at some stage it seems odds on they will have to close. Inevitably, agreements are reached at the eleventh hour and the club survives. Wait for the next club to implode and the next episode, with the only guarantee there will be another one.
But back in 2002, when Bradford City filed to go into administration, it was unprecedented. Of course, football clubs in the past went through hard times and had to roll out the collection buckets – the Bantams themselves almost went under as recently as 1983 – but ‘Administration’ was not a term in your regular football fan’s vocabulary. So unheard of was this scenario, that the day that administrators were called into Valley Parade it was one of the main stories on the BBC national news.
The reasons why it had come to this have been well documented, but are still worth a revisit. ‘Six weeks of madness’ was the immortal soundbite that chairman Geoffrey Richmond used to describe where it had all gone wrong. He was talking about two summers before, when the Bantams – having successfully survived relegation from the Premier League with that unforgettable victory over Liverpool – got carried away and spent money recklessly. New players rocked up and the adding of a second tier to the Main Stand seemed at the time to be a huge statement of intent. But City were effectively signing their own life sentence, which is still weighing us down today.
You could understand much of the thinking. Richmond had done a remarkable job lifting the Bantams from third tier underachievers, with gates of 3-4,000, into a member of the Premiership elite. Much of this had been due to Richmond’s forward-thinking vision. Famously in 1994, he announced plans to build a new Midland Road stand prior to a home game – the attendance for which would have comfortably fitted inside the stand’s proposed capacity. In 1998 with City seemingly doing okay in Division One, he sacked Chris Kamara and successfully raised the bar.
Richmond was driven, Richmond was ambitious, and – until 2000 – Richmond was always right.
Perhaps it was a case of wanting too much too soon. With Valley Parade regularly selling out during the first season in the Premier League – and being filled to near capacity on many occasions in Division One before that – the plan to increase the stadium’s size by adding the second tier to the Main Stand was a logical one. Similarly, after narrowly avoiding relegation in 2000 with a relatively low points total of 36, the squad clearly needed strengthening to avoid another close call.
But the spending Richmond sanctioned was too high, and carried out too extravagantly, for the club to cope with something going wrong. New signings Benito Carbone, Dan Petrescu, Ashley Ward and David Hopkin looked good on paper and certainly prompted great excitement, but they could not deliver the improvement demanded or even match the results of the previous season, and City were in trouble very quickly. Even Richmond’s regular trick of sacking the manager (Chris Hutchings) could not rectify matters. It was too late.
City went down easily, and remained lumbered with many of those hefty contracts which seemed such a good idea at the time. And a mortgage to repay on the Main Stand extension, which dwindling crowds meant was proving completely unnecessary. Players were shipped out at sizeable losses, but the likes of Carbone and Ward could not be moved on. For those two alone City were paying £58k a week. A huge financial burden.
Then came the ITV Digital fiasco. The new TV contract for Football League coverage – which came into effect the season that the Bantams dropped back into Division One – perhaps offered false hope that City’s debts could be managed. But the TV channel overpaid for a product which did not bring in the necessary subscribers or advertising revenue to make it viable. In the summer of 2002, ITV Digital went bust while still owing clubs money. It left a huge financial black hole that City were sucked into.
Speaking at the recent Skipton and Craven Bantams Supporters Club meeting, former BBC Radio Leeds head of sport Derm Tanner revealed how he had got wind that City were in deep trouble, a day before the official announcement. “No club had gone into administration before, this was a completely new area, we didn’t even know what administration was,” he explained. “We got a tip off from the financial unit at the BBC that Bradford were showing all the signs of going into administration. I rang Geoffrey Richmond and I initially got denials. But once we got past the usual bluster, we got to the business of ‘Well yes, there is a slight problem. But if you say anything, I will have to kill you!’”
The disclosure of the mess that City had fallen into was truly shocking. Rather than signing players outright, Richmond had used a financing company to borrow £12 million to purchase players like David Wetherall (£7 million was still owed to this company). The Main Stand mortgage stood at over £7 million; player contracts were huge and had to be honoured or settled. City owed Carbone – on £40,000 a week and with the club having purchased him a seven bedroom house (with five bathrooms) – £3.5 million. Ward was due £1.2 million for the remainder of his contract and Wetherall £734k. The Bantams were £4.5 million overdrawn at the bank, and owed the Inland Revenue close to £1 million.
The club did not have barely any assets of their own. The floodlights, furniture, equipment – even the paint on the wall, apparently – was rented rather than owned. Much of the money and profit made by City had fallen into the pockets of shareholders, by way of sizeable dividends payments over the previous two years. The Rhodes family and Richmond were the chief beneficiaries of these payments: the Rhodeses would pay it all back, and then some, over the following years.
Hundreds of smaller creditors were owed money as well; most shamefully of all, the St. John’s Ambulance charity – which did so much to help the club during its darkest hour on 11th May 1985 – was owed almost £6,000. The CVA document sent to all creditors was a horrifying list of badly managed debts and a statement of terrible excess. The bonanza of the Premier League could have set City up for years to come (witness Blackpool and the way they went about things in 2010/11), but instead it was fluttered away woefully, with barely anything concrete left to show for it.
The excellent David Conn wrote a chapter on the situation in his superb 2004 book The Beautiful Game? where he eloquently describes the wastefulness of football in general, during the Premier League era. “Whenever I thought of areas of football – the grass roots, schools, community programmes – which really could do with some money, I used to think of Beni Carbone and his £40,000 a week and five bathrooms en suite.”
What followed was an uncertain summer of dread and fear, with the level of debt and size of money needed to save the club beyond what we supporters could rustle up from collection buckets. We were helpless, as every twist and turn was played out publically and the bad news kept pilling in. On the night before the vital CVA meeting – where creditors would vote on whether to accept a deal to receive a portion of the money they were owed and write off the rest – the players (who at one stage the administrators tried to sack) went on strike and refused to play in a friendly at Hull City.
The 3-0 loss on Humberside looked set to be our final ever match. This was 12 months before the pioneering AFC Wimbledon were formed, and the idea of Bradford City starting up again at the very bottom was not the attractive consideration it might seem if something bad happened again. We were facing the end of our beloved club, forever.
Eventually, a CVA agreement was reached by the administrators, Kroll Buchler Phillips, where City would pay 17.5p of every £1 they owed to creditors, meaning the club could go on. It was helped greatly by Carbone agreeing to waive 80% of the money he was still owed. His commendable performances on the pitch were not enough on their own to make Carbone a hero, but at least he departed with our gratitude for making sure the club could continue.
When the news broke that Bradford City could continue to exist, it was a moment to celebrate for us supporters after so much stress. It really seemed as though City were going to go under, and each of us had to contemplate the very real possibility of losing something so important to us. Our way of life.
Gordon Gibb, the Flamingo Land owner, emerged as a saviour by investing his money; and he and Julian Rhodes took City out of administration with Richmond exiting the door because he did not have the funds – or the support of fans – to continue. Six years of magnificent management of the club by Richmond, forever blotted by six weeks of madness. To this day, opinion is mixed over whether we can ever call him a hero and whether the good times were worth the painful legacy.
And it has been quite a legacy. Because although that summer City managed to get over an almighty hurdle and continue to operate as a Football League outfit, the £3 million they still had to pay by August 2005 was too much to find as the club operated on reduced revenue in Division One. For the Rhodes family in particular, the headaches were just beginning.
Next time, Width of a Post looks back on the attempted sacking of 19 Bradford City players during administration one, and why Ronnie Moore is never welcome at Valley Parade.