Continuing our series looking back on when Bradford City fell into administration 10 years ago this summer, Jason McKeown reflects on the failed attempts to sack 19 players and the legacy for football.
Imagine if it happened in your job. All the directors of your company got together with their competitors’ directors and agreed a mass administration; which would enable them to make all their staff redundant, and then re-hire them on significantly lower wages.
That was the proposal put to a meeting of Football League chairman on 3 May, 2002. Insolvency accountant David Buchler was invited to carry out a presentation suggesting a temporary suspension of the football creditors rule, so every club could jointly file for administration and make every footballer redundant, in order to wipe out debts and start again. The majority of Chairmen present at the meeting angrily tore into the plan and it was quickly shelved, though one man at least – with a lot on his mind – was in favour.
Geoffrey Richmond was weeks away from placing City into administration, and this controversial proposal was a last desperate option to cushion that blow. After all, if every Football League club had joined the Bantams in going into administration that summer, his face and reputation might have been preserved. But instead Richmond was going to have to do it alone, and in doing so would test the rules and regulations around football clubs in a manner which still raises arguments and court cases today.
For a few weeks after filing for administration, there was another shock announcement from Valley Parade. 19 players had been sacked, along with 40 non-playing staff that included all of the people who worked at the two club shops in Wakefield and Dewsbury. But while the latter group had no comeback and had to accept their fate, the administrators were to find that you simply can’t sack footballers to get out of your obligations. A bitter fight was just beginning.
I remember vividly the day I heard we had sacked 19 players. It was such an unheard of move, that you couldn’t help but feel desperately sorry for each and every one of them – and disgusted at City. We were talking about some of the club’s greatest ever players. Modern day heroes of Gary Walsh, Stuart McCall, Jamie Lawrence, Wayne Jacobs, Gareth Whalley and David Wetherall. Others may have been less distinguished, but still put in solid service: Benito Carbone, Peter Atherton, Andy Myers, Eion Jess, Gary Locke, Gunnar Halle and Robert Mollenaar. Others had been at the club a few months, but were supposed to have a key role in our future: Danny Cadamarteri, Juanjo, Claus Jorgenson, Andy Tod. Even the less likable Aidan Davidson and Ashley Ward didn’t deserve this. Many of the players found out they had been sacked while on holiday, after hearing they should check the club’s website.
Just four first team players were to be kept on: Mark Bower, Tom Kearney, Michael Standing and Lewis Emanuel. It was true to say that at the time there were huge worries about whether the football club could survive, which meant concerns about the strength of the squad for next season were very much secondary. But the club was effectively looking at having to start all over again on the pitch, and this was hardly an attractive prospect.
The administrators who made the sacking decision, Kroll Buchler Phillips (the same company the aforementioned David Buchler worked for), were quick to justify this drastic action. “Reducing the playing squad in this manner will save the club approximately £20,000 a day, which during the close season is vital in our efforts to save the club,” revealed Mike Moore. At its height, the Bantams’ wage bill was said to be 115% of turnover. To put that into perspective, for every £1 City brought in through ticket sales, sponsorship, merchandise and TV money etc, they were paying £1.15 out in player wages. So we were losing money, before you then factor in all the other costs and bills which are part and parcel of any football club.
But Kroll’s actions were not going to be as straightforward to follow through as they might have hoped. The football creditors rule had not been suspended in the way proposed by David Buchler in that bizarre meeting, which meant Bradford City were still obligated to pay every penny they owed to the footballers they were attempting to sack. Stung into action, the players’ trade union, the Professional Footballers Association (PFA, who a year earlier had looked to strike after a dispute over TV appearance money, the demands and actions of which Richmond had been a vocal opponent of) fought the administrators over this move. While this battle raged on, City’s sacked players were advised to sit tight.
Which is where the controversy really grew. Buchler’s wacky scheme for all Football League clubs to do joint administration included an agreement not to poach each other’s footballers; but without it there was nothing to stop other clubs approaching City’s 19 players and signing them on the cheap. Rotherham’s Ronnie Moore was one such person, and attempted to sign David Wetherall and Andy Myers. They rejected his overtures and opted to wait and see if their Valley Parade contracts would be honoured.
When Moore found out what they were earning at City – vastly more than what he could offer them to join the Millers – he hit the roof. Very publically, he labelled the Bantams “a disgrace” and called for them to be kicked out of the Football League. Such comments, to us City fans, were ill timed and hurtful. As supporters we had been the innocent victims in this whole sorry saga – the man we trusted to run the club had clearly let us down badly. To demand that the club be kicked out of the Football League – effectively killing it – was upsetting to hear. A decade on, Moore is still widely disliked at Valley Parade.
Yet you can understand his point of view. In the 2001/02 season before administration occurred, City had finished 15th and Rotherham had avoided relegation on goal difference, finishing 21st and six points behind the Bantams. They had achieved survival on much smaller gates than City, with a far lower wage bill. Rotherham had lived within their means, it appeared, and only just succeeded. One of their rivals had finished above them by spending money they could not afford, and were not trying to get out of their responsibilities. City had gained an unfair advantage over their Rotherham.
That September, Rotherham came to Valley Parade for a league match during which Moore was roundly booed by City fans. He had softened his views slightly, but maintained his principles. “I admit I said that the former Bradford City chairman was a disgrace if he had been allowed to get away with folding the club and getting rid of the players,” he said after a 4-2 defeat for Rotherham “What happened at Bradford was not good for football, though no-one wants to see them go out of business.” Ironically the Millers would themselves go into administration two years later, for similar reasons, and Moore was sacked.
In the end, Kroll was to find that it could not side-step the football creditors rule, as City were warned they would not be allowed to continue in the Football League. The players had to either be paid what they were owed, in full, or have their contracts honoured. The PFA even did its bit to help the club, handing it £2.6 million through a new hardship fund they had launched. This money was important in the process of ensuring a CVA agreement could be reached between City and its creditors.
The players, still not getting their wages, reported back for pre-season training – with the exception of Lawrence, who initially refused to come back but did a couple of days later, Jess, who joined Notts Forest and Carbone, who signed for Italian side Como. The remainder of the latter’s four year contract would cost City £3.5 million to fulfil, so a deal was struck that meant the Italian received around £750k of this. The contracts of Ward and Wetherall would remain headaches that would rumble on into administration two. Had Wetherall not been so injury prone over this period, he would clearly have been moved on.
So a victory for the players (though they went without pay for four months), and a legacy that still causes arguments in football to this day. While every club who has gone into administration since has had to obey this rule and ensure that players receive the money their contact entitles them to, non-football creditors continue to lose money and be forced to settle for measly settlements. This includes HMRC, who have probably lost millions that we tax payers were owed because of their lower ranking in the creditors’ queue.
Deeply unhappy with this state of affairs, HMRC seemingly launched a policy of voting against any CVA agreement proposed by a football club, which has caused many CVAs to fall through and more problems for the club involved. Most famously round these parts, Leeds United were docked 15 points by the Football League because they began the 2007/08 season without a CVA agreement, after HMRC blocked one.
Last May, HMRC attempted to get the football creditors rule revoked through the High Court. They lost the case, but are still fighting to make it unlawful. A spokesman said, “Our view remains that the football creditor rule is unfair to all other unsecured creditors who are forced to make do with much smaller returns – if anything – on monies owed to them by football clubs which enter administration.”
They are right, but so to was Ronnie Moore with his argument that what City were attempting to do was morally wrong. In such a competitive industry of league tables and promotion/relegation, no club should be allowed to get away with throwing money at players which they cannot afford, getting the results boost from those better players and then sacking them. Yet it looks awful – especially to outsiders – that when a club hits the buffers, has to start making non-playing staff redundant and fails to pay money it owes to small businesses and charities within its own community, that high-earning players still get every penny they are entitled to.
A decade on from City challenging that rule – not for the benefit of tax payers or local community, it must be said – football still struggles with the morality of administration. Points deductions are now enforced: some say these are unfair, others argue they are not tough enough. But before it gets to this, the lesson should be clear to everyone running a football club – if you’re going to pay a striker £18k a week to take eight months to score a league goal, that contract is unbreakable no matter how badly they let you down.
Next time (early next week), Width of a Post looks at how Administration One changed the relationship we supporters have with our players.