Concluding our short series reflecting on the 10th anniversary of Bradford City going into administration for the first time, Jason McKeown looks back at the role of chairman Geoffrey Richmond and the mixed legacy he left behind.
March 2002, and the always iconic City Gent fanzine has just published a new edition featuring not one, but two front covers on either side. Both include the same layout and collage of images featuring Geoffrey Richmond, but the wording on one side is full of positivity while the other criticises the Bantams chairman. It was a fascinating way in which to portray a split of the mood amongst supporters at the time – and, as legacy of Richmond, it remains somehow fitting to this day.
To love Richmond, or to hate him? To be forever thankful for the incredible things he did, or permanently curse him for the mess he left behind? To rank him as a hero, or as a villain? Ask two different City supporters, and you’ll doubtlessly receive two very different answers to these questions.
As Richmond faced up to hostile criticism from fans that March (for the first time in his chairmanship of the club) the seeds of destruction had – in hindsight – already been sown. The “six weeks of madness” were 18 months earlier, even if the financial problems were still largely hidden from the Bradford public. The issues of the day were about how quickly Richmond was getting through managers and the lack of any notable spending on players since relegation from the Premier League had become an inevitability 12 months earlier. Six years of going forwards as a club, we were now going backwards. It was no wonder, at the time, however, that the queue of people willing to defend Richmond was still very long.
Yet it was all going to come crashing down and – a decade ago this summer – Richmond was to exit the club. It’s fair to say he left a rather large mess, that is still not fully cleaned up. And this, more than anything else, continues to stain how we remember him. Had City got through Administration 1 a decade ago and become stable as a club – even getting back to the Premier League, perhaps – the scars would largely have healed and he might even be that hero.
Instead the legacy is not just his mistakes – but a legacy where those mistakes overshadow his achievements to such a degree that some of us wish that even the good times had never occurred.
The general consensus was that Richmond got it all wrong in the summer of 2000, with that high level of spending on the likes of Benito Carbone and Dan Petrescu, and the building of a second tier to the Main Stand (some of the seats of which have probably not been used since Stuart McCall invited his Rangers mates down for a testimonial 10 years ago). Yet there is probably a greater overlap, and some of his much-vaunted ambition was also his downfall. After all, the list of creditors in 2002 included a football financing company that Richmond had used to purchase David Wetherall back in 1999. Six weeks of madness probably scratches the surface.
The drive to sign players of Carbone’s ilk was not some new fad either. You could argue that Richmond had a taste for exotic signings back in 1997, when the introduction of the Bosman ruling led to him charging around Europe with Chris Kamara in search of glamorous foreign stars. Then in the early stages of City’s first Premiership season, he and Paul Jewell recruited French striker Bruno Rodriguez despite, allegedly, no one at the club having seen him play. Bruno did not last more than a couple of anonymous outings.
In February of 2000, City’s survival hopes began to fade with some poor results, and Richmond pressured Jewell into signing Stan Collymore and Jorge Cadete. The latter successfully arrived, but made the same dismal impact as Bruno – with Jewell not keen on the player, but feeling forced into using him. In Terry Yorath’s autobiography, the then-City coach revealed that Richmond ordered Jewell to start Cadete against Manchester United.
When a manager is being railroaded into signing players he does not want, and receiving forceful pointers on his team selection, it is never going to have a happy ending. Jewell would later admit that he should have been stronger towards his boss, but he at least dug his heels in enough to ultimately do things his way, and successfully kept City up.
It is perhaps what happened next which really saw Richmond sign City’s life sentence of financial woes. A few days after survival, he and Jewell went for lunch, where the manager presented a list of summer transfer targets that Richmond snorted at and felt were not good enough. The owner, as it happened, had his own list to show the manager. Jewell felt he could not carry on and departed the club. There was suddenly no one to say no to Richmond.
So in came Carbone, on higher wages than what Manchester United were paying David Beckham at the time. Along came Petrescu, and David Hopkin, and Ashley Ward. Chris Hutchings was the manager – a tried and trusted internal recruit path for Richmond – but whether he was calling the shots is highly questionable. Whatever, it didn’t work out and City slumped into the relegation zone. Collymore did belatedly arrive as one last throw at the dice, but his high wages were a gamble too.
In the end, City had to ship out players at an alarming rate, writing off huge sums of investment in the process. Perhaps if Carbone and Ward had attracted suitable buyers at this time as well, it could have been different. But the level of debt was unmanageable on Football League revenues, particularly when the television deal with ITV Digital collapsed. Call in the administrations.
But it was worse than simple financial mis-management by Richmond. While the club’s debts built up, Richmond and his fellow directors – the Rhodes family – had been rewarding themselves in the shape of sizeable dividend payments. City had attempted to attract new investment, and Richmond argued that paying high dividends would entice others. The dividend sums, to us regular supporters, seemed eye-wateringly high. Between April 1999 and August 2000, the families had been paid a total of £8.1 million in dividends. In October of the 2000/01 season – where the financial storm clouds were brewing – Richmond awarded himself a £250,000 consultancy fee.
When the administrators were called in, the Rhodes family paid back all the dividend payments received – and plenty more – to help save the club from bankruptcy, but Richmond would not and could not help. He could not invest a single penny into the new ownership of the club, yet initially attempted to stay on as chairman.
The reasons for his lack of financial support would become evident in time – a huge unpaid tax bill from a previous business needing settling, which would ultimately force him to file for bankruptcy. But it remains a bone of contention to many that Richmond was paying himself a significant proportion of the club’s profits (in fact the dividends turned small profits into overall losses). He did not take a wage when in charge, which might justify some of the payments, but surely not to the extent he was rewarding himself.
That is the negative side of Richmond’s time at the club, and it is impossible to recall the man without such painful memories flooding back. Yet equally it would be wrong to ignore all of the good he did for Bradford City, and the unforgettable memories that his vision and leadership provided us along the way.
Famously when taking over in 1994, he promised that City would be in the Premier League within five years. He was laughed at, yet as an outsider he saw the potential of the City of Bradford to sustain a much more successful club than the third tier mid-table outfit of the early 90s, and set about implementing a plan of making that happen.
Richmond gave us Hull, Blackpool, Notts County, Everton, QPR, Wolves and Liverpool – and so many other great moments along the way. He built a fantastic stadium and made watching the club an affordable past time for the local population – a stance which was rewarded with crowds five times what they had been. When we look back over our lives at the greatest moments we experienced, occasions like Wolves will instantly pop up alongside births and weddings. No matter the pain that has been afflicted upon us since, Richmond gave us days that we will cherish forever.
Ultimately his strength and vision was also his downfall. He was absolutely right that the City of Bradford could house a football club far better supported and far more successful than the one he bought. But he equally couldn’t see our limitations, and sought to take us to a level that is simply beyond us. At least not at the pace he was working to.
Hero or villain? I’m split. Both. Neither. In-between. I just don’t know. He didn’t mean for this mess to happen, but he should have known better than to let it occur under his watch.