By Jason McKeown
The reaction from supporters in each camp, when the news was announced last month that Bradford City were in talks to buy the Bradford Bulls, was depressingly familiar. “How would unsuccessful Division Four owners help us?” cried some Bulls supporters. “Why should we divert funds to helping out an egg-chasing, minority sport team?” was the City retort. And Bradford’s two major sporting teams looked as divided as ever. Them and us. Us and them.
So the news last week that Bradford Bulls have being rescued by Omar Khan potentially marks an interesting development in the relationship between each club. Khan has, since early 2009, being a ‘Club Ambassador’ for the Bantams. According to what appears to be an out-of-date biography in the Fleetwood Town programme (the programme is a very rare purchase on my part, so I could be wrong), Khan’s goal at City is “to integrate more supporters from different backgrounds. Omar plans to work closely with local primary schools and Asian businesses – and he is confident of making an impact in an area that City have struggled to tap into over the years.”
It’s not clear if Khan will retain this role now that he has the Bulls to run, on top of his successful businesses outside of sport, but you would like to think that his time inside City’s boardroom will mean he remains a sympathiser rather than an enemy of the Bantams. It appears (and, whether fair or otherwise, in the past it hasn’t always seemed to be the case) City will now have a good friend on top of Odsal hill. Could we therefore see a more proactive relationship between the two clubs?
One might have speculated that Khan could be receptive to the Bulls moving from Odsal to Valley Parade – an idea raised by politician David Ward back in April – but, alas, he used his first interview since taking over the Super League outfit to talk about building “the Wembley of the North.” He told the T&A, “I want to create a sports arena. We have been talking about this for a long time but nothing has ever been done. This is our chance to achieve this and I will do this if this is the last thing I do.”
By Monday, the new “Wembley of the North” had been confirmed as the Bulls redeveloping Odsal, with Khan committed to funding some £6 million worth of improvements over the next three years, stating, “Our vision is for Odsal to become a proper sporting village, and I guarantee you, in the long-term, we will achieve it.”
Although Khan’s enthusiasm and grand talk is understandable, more pertinent to the local area must be the fact that the Bulls owe £1.5 million to various creditors and a lack of clarity over whether they will ever receive even a fraction of this. There is a speculation that the old Bulls will be liquidated and Khan’s new Bulls will not have to pay these long-standing debts. You’d hope that this will not prove to be the case – even throwing the Bulls out of the Super League would not be a sufficient punishment for the misery and hardship it would potentially cause the innocent creditors – especially as talk of spending £6 million doing up Odsal would be unbelievably crass.
And even if debts are settled, discussions about making Odsal the “Wembley of the North” will no doubt prompt a cynical sigh from older Bradfordians, who have endured decades of fanciful talk about developing Odsal into something far more impressive than the current hole in the ground. With the RFL earlier this year purchasing Odsal on behalf of the Bulls, there is probably little desire on the governing body’s part to spend money improving the ground. So it seems that – after so much support from the council over the years – they will have to take the next step largely themselves. The progressive Bradford Park Avenue, who four years ago unveiled plans to build their own 20,000-capcaity stadium, only to have their dreams squashed by losing the land last November, are apparently interested in moving to the developed Odsal.
Which raises the question of whether City might also be interested in getting involved. The Valley Parade rental problem remains, with the club tied to a 25-year lease they are not even halfway through. Breaking the lease can, apparently, legally be done at a considerable cost (20 months ago, the club claimed they could not afford to beak the lease without going into administration). Perhaps, in cold, hard terms, purchasing the lease and moving to another site could prove more profitable and viable, over this quarter of a century period. Especially as the club have no guarantees of being able to buy back Valley Parade, at a fair price, after the lease comes to an end.
For a club which continues to lose money year-on-year (for reasons beyond the Valley Parade rent, it must be said), the present rental arrangements must surely remain a pressing concern. City attempted to talk to the Gordon Gibb Pension Fund a year ago about renegotiating terms, and even call its bluff by threatening to move to Odsal. That Gibb was not willing to budge an inch – and in the end did not have to – has only strengthened his position further. Apparently the club tried to re-open talks about buying Valley Parade last season, but were quoted the same over-inflated figure – more than twice what Gibb bought the stadium for – and not a penny less. Another disappointing season on the pitch and, with the club committing to a high playing budget that it remains unclear if it can actually afford, we can predict with a fair accuracy that the constrains of paying Gibb £370k a year to play at Valley Parade would come back into the spotlight.
Because there is no doubt that the status quo is holding us back.
So if Khan, a friend of Bradford City, is serious about redeveloping Odsal for the Bulls (and hopefully not allowing his new club to turn their back on the local community by squirming out of its debt obligations), you have to wonder if the Bantams and Avenue might play a part in turning that vision into a reality. For the two professional clubs of the three, which have over the past year being hampered by their own money troubles and are struggling to return to anything resembling the glory days, some form of partnership could prove fruitful. Businessman Steve Parkin, who tried to buy both clubs a year ago, is surely not the only person to believe in the merits of coming together.
All of which is to speculate wildly without any substance. Talk to fill a rainy day, perhaps. But unless Khan’s Wembley of the North comment was a meaningless sound-bite, it might be something we have to contemplate and debate again sooner rather than later. Could we, a City community, contemplate giving up our own home? The heart says no. That Valley Parade is Bradford City and that Bradford City is Valley Parade. That City’s owners should be using their friendship with Kahn to try and persuade the Bulls to move in with them. A dab of paint here and there, and the removal of some of the front rows of seats to accommodate the fact Rugby League needs a wider pitch, and Valley Parade is fit for purpose for both clubs.
Ultimately, it probably comes back to that long-standing divide between City and the Bulls. Any talk of getting the Bulls to Valley Parade has always being extinguished by claims that Bulls fans won’t travel to that part of the city, and similarly a good number of City fans would refuse to watch City at Odsal. As someone who lives outside Bradford, I can’t pretend to understand this geographical divide and why one part of the city appears to have a grudge against the other, but I do think it’s time each club stopped suspiciously eyeing the other up as some sort of rival.
If we stay neighbours rather than joint tenants, so be it – and in an ideal world that is what every single one of us with a vested interested would probably choose. But that doesn’t mean we have to remain strangers and that there wouldn’t be ways of working more closely together. Discounted Bulls tickets for City season ticket holders and vice-versa? Shared state-of-the-art training facilities? Joint sponsorship opportunities?
There was much talk in Spring – as the Bulls went into administration and City were hovering nervously above the League Two relegation zone – that Bradford sport was at its lowest ebb. Perhaps that was true, but I can’t help but hope that the arrival of City’s ambassador to the Bulls and fact Julian Rhodes was in serious talks to but the Rugby League outfit might herald a change of attitude that – in either a small or major way – proves mutually beneficial. After all, we’re all Bradford here – aren’t we?