On the eve of England’s World Cup clash with Italy in the jungle city of Manaus, Jason McKeown recalls the story of Bradford City splashing the cash on an Italian maverick which ultimately almost bankrupted the club.
No name was disclosed at first, but in early August of 2000, the Bradford City website ran a trailer revealing that the Bantams were on the verge of making “the most exciting signing in the club’s history”. Speculation reached fever pitch, as all manner of names were bandied about. This is it; Bradford City – who avoided relegation from the top flight on the final day of the previous season –had truly arrived as a Premier League club.
With our imaginations left to run wild, it was almost disappointing when the press soon got hold of the story and announced that “the most exciting signing in the club’s history” was set to be Italian striker Benito Carbone. The then 27-year-old’s talent was not in question, but his temperament and commitment certainly were. The former Inter Milan star had been bombed out of Sheffield Wednesday the previous October; spending the rest of the season at Aston Villa on a short-term deal where, despite impressing, talks to extend his time at Villa Park quickly ended due to his excessive wage demands – said to be £25,000 a week. Even before he had agreed to join Bradford City, it was clear this was a huge, huge gamble by Geoffrey Richmond.
The City chairman and newly-appointed manager, Chris Hutchings, flew out to Italy for talks with Carbone, which were said to have lasted for seven hours and at 4am broke down completely. By 9am Carbone was willing to consider a move to West Yorkshire again. Whether Richmond negotiated hard or simply threw money at Carbone to persuade him is unclear, but the deal ultimately agreed was certainly a lucrative one for the player.
For Carbone signed a four-year contract worth £40,000 a week (£59,000 in today’s money). What’s more, the club purchased Carbone a seven-bedroom, five-bathroom house in Leeds to live in. Carbone is easily the highest paid player in the club’s history (as record that you suspect will stand for many, many years) and, back then, became one of the highest paid players in the country. As Julian Rhodes would later groan, he was earning more than David Beckham at the time.
The national press reacted with incredulity – stating that a small club like Bradford City should not be paying so much on a single player. That they had ideas about their station. It would all end in tears quickly, they stated. The Guardian described it as “a move that smacked as much of desperation as ambition”. A year ago, when they were promoted to the top flight, Bradford City had not exactly been warmly welcomed as a Premier League team, but the heroic battle against relegation won the club many admirers and national acclaim. By throwing money at a troublesome foreigner, City were perceived to be abandoning the core principles behind their rise up the leagues.
The media’s negative mood and attitude towards the Bantams was not helped when Richmond invited regular supporters to the press conference that introduced Carbone as a City player. Attempts by national journalists (sat in the front few rows) to question Carbone’s loyalty were heckled by fans behind them. As the Mirror put it, Beni was “unveiled in front of 500 beer-swilling fans’ who had gate-crashed the club’s press conference”.
On Carbone’s part, he quickly gave assurances over his commitment to City. “The money is important but most important was that Bradford showed how much they wanted me. They have big ambitions and that is why I came here. This is a big chance for me.”
Richmond himself was gleeful about landing his man and even took an ill-advised swipe at the previous season’s football under the recently departed Paul Jewell. “We’ve moved forward in each of the past six seasons,” he said. “We want not just to survive but to establish ourselves in the Premiership. Last season we were boring Bradford but this season we’ll be entertaining Bradford and I hope we can make our mark.”
As for the eyebrow-raising contract agreed with Carbone, Richmond argued, “We’ve had to look at the total financial package. Benito was available on a Bosman free, so we have worked out the total cost of the deal over four years without a transfer fee,” before adding – in words that would come back to haunt the chairman and everyone connected with Bradford City, “We sit comfortably with the package we’ve negotiated.”
Understandably for a signing dubbed “the most exciting in history”, a great deal of hope was placed upon Carbone’s shoulders for Bradford City’s continuing progress. Yet there were hints right from the start that expectations were unrealistic.
Carbone was a truly gifted player. In his four previous years in England he had forged a reputation as a scorer of spectacular goals, and the speed of thought and deft balance saw him out-wit defenders and create opportunities for team mates. All of these qualities would be displayed during his time at Valley Parade, yet Richmond and Hutchings seemed to be under the impression they would be getting a goalscorer. Despite having only netted 35 goals in four seasons in England, the manager stated, “I think he’s a 20-goal striker. We’ve got a fantastic player who can score unbelievable goals. That has to be exciting.”
A goal on his full debut certainly raised those hopes, and for one night at least it seemed that the marriage of Bradford City and Benito Carbone was going to prove a roaring success. It was a Tuesday evening, Chelsea came to Valley Parade as one of the pre-season title favourites, only to be blown away by a home performance of genuine quality. Lee Sharpe crossed for Windass to head home the opener; and after a flurry of good chances came and went it was Carbone who sealed a mightily impressive scalp. He picked up the ball from deep, charged forward with purpose and unleashed a stunning low finish past Ed de Goey. Lift off; and here comes a top half Premier League finish.
Alas, it was the cruellest of false dawns. City never came close to replicating that night. It was the high water mark of an incredible few years under Richmond, which had seen them climb from the third tier to surviving in the Premier League. City were full of quality in their passing and attacking play, and Chelsea were blown away. “The huff and puff that just about kept Bradford in the Premiership last season has been replaced by a far superior style of football,” declared the Daily Telegraph. And there, pulling the strings and making it happen, was Carbone. This is what the future might have looked like, but it was all a mirage.
After referee Mark Hasley blew for full time, Bradford City’s 12 years of misery commenced.
In the immediate aftermath, City quickly fell into a pattern of losing and not particularly putting up much of a fight, especially on the road. A 6-0 thrashing at Old Trafford, to an understrength Manchester United side, illustrated the huge gulf in class between the very best and the Bantams. Carbone was reduced to over-ambitious pot shots from distance that night. The home crowd booed his every touch – a sign of what a good player he was considered even by Manchester United fans – but he didn’t have the right players around him. As Hutchings would later admit of Beni, “He would have to play in a good side to get the best out of him.”
The strengths and weaknesses of Carbone were summed up in the next match, a 1-1 home draw with Arsenal. The Italian was outstanding in the first half especially, leaving Lee Dixon flummoxed and – at one stage – lying on his arse as Carbone pulled out his full range of tricks. It was wonderful to watch. Yet during the closing stages of a tightly-fought match, Carbone spurned two gilt-edged opportunities to win it. 20 goals a season was never going to happen. He was a scorer of great goals, but not a great goalscorer.
As City slid into relegation trouble, panic ensued. Stan Collymore rocked up on big wages – prompting more media ridicule – and netted a stunning goal on his debut against Leeds, set up by Carbone. Hutchings was sacked a week later. By the time Jim Jefferies was appointed as his successor, City lay bottom of the league with just that solitary Chelsea victory to their name. Carbone had only netted three goals, two of them coming in the League Cup against bottom tier side Darlington.
Which is not to suggest Carbone was proving to be a poor signing – he was fantastic. We supporters instantly took him to our hearts, and revelled in the moments of magic that he provided. The two criticisms that had been levelled at Carbone by the media prior to his West Yorkshire arrival – that he was a lazy player, and a trouble maker – proved unfounded.
Carbone could match even Stuart McCall in his workrate. He gave everything on the pitch, and there was no doubting his commitment. In his autobiography, Dean Windass wrote of his strike partner, “He was spot on every day and did everything 100 per cent. Although he didn’t mix much, he was good around the training ground and didn’t act like a big-time Charlie.”
Nevertheless Jefferies quickly ruled that Carbone was a luxury player that the team could not afford, and at Christmas told Richmond that he needed to get rid of him, Collymore plus another big money summer signing, Dan Petrescu – and that he would no longer select any of them. Jefferies later said of Carbone, “He wasn’t the type of player Bradford City should have been signing. He was talented, but we didn’t have the players to accommodate him.”
Collymore and Petrescu quickly left, but only St. Mirren and Udinese showed an interest in Carbone. It led to a test of the Italian’s character and temperament; but he knuckled down in the reserves, didn’t complain about been left out and eventually convinced the manager that it was foolish to overlook his talents. That City went six games without even scoring a goal hastened Jefferies’ backtrack.
So Carbone returned by popular demand, and though results showed only a moderate improvement there was a big difference in the team’s performances. Carbone netted a couple of spectacular goals against Ipswich and Charlton, although he was also one of two City players to miss a penalty in the same half of football, as the Bantams went down 2-1 at Everton to confirm relegation with four games still to play. Nevertheless, even the national press had been impressed with Beni’s performances for City. The Telegraph wrote, “Bradford City may no longer belong in the Premiership but Benito Carbone, their flamboyant Italian striker, certainly does.”
It was assumed he would depart in the summer, yet the club announced Carbone was going nowhere and that they could continue to afford his wage packet in Division One (now Championship). It meant Jefferies couldn’t make any summer signings beyond Claus Jorgenson on a free transfer from Division Two (League One) Bournemouth, but no matter – Carbone was going to play in Division One for City, so surely an instant return to the top flight beckoned.
The beginning of the end
Just like a year earlier, the first home game of the season was a false dawn. Barnsley were demolished 4-0, with Carbone scoring a stunning overhead kick. This is going to be easy! The strong start was maintained until mid-September – including a 5-1 thrashing of Gillingham during which Carbone produced the finest individual performance I have ever seen – but then form fell away and once again Benito looked too much of a luxury item.
He was loaned to Premier League Derby in October, and that seemed to be the end of it all. Yet in fact, the drama was only truly beginning. Carbone did okay at Pride Park, whilst City continued to stutter a league below and Jefferies resigned, replaced by Nicky Law. In January Carbone’s loan period was over and he returned to Valley Parade – cue a bust up.
His first game back was Preston at home. Everyone assumed Carbone would be brought straight into the starting line up, yet just before kick off Law informed him that he was only on the bench – a defender, Andy Tod, was to play up front ahead of him. Carbone refused to be sub, and after a heated argument stormed out of Valley Parade two hours before kick off. City fined him the maximum two weeks they were allowed to, and conspiracy theories began over whether there had been a deliberate attempt to provoke Carbone into ill-discipline. Certainly, with the club’s heavy losses building up, the £80,000 saved through the two-week fine came in handy.
Carbone apologised to fans – “What I did was wrong … I love this club, the fans and the players and they love me. We are a big family unit … I would love to be captain of this club.” – and started the next game at Grimsby, where he netted the winner with a stunning free kick. That proved to be his final game for City, as he was loaned out to the Premier League again – this time to Middlesbrough – for the rest of the season.
Nevertheless, with City only halfway through Carbone’s four-year deal, that summer was pivotal. Richmond needed to offload his expensive signing, but negotiations with Middlesbrough over a permanent deal came to an end due to Carbone’s wage demands. And then, the Football League’s TV deal with ITV Digital collapsed. This double financial whammy left Richmond with no choice but to place City in administration, with debts topping £35 million.
Which is how Carbone left Bradford City as a hero. The administrators had attempted – illegally – to sack all but five players, including Carbone. The Professional Footballers Association fought back and the administrators were forced to honour all player contracts. Yet the crucial CVA deal that would determine if City continued as a club or became extinct hinged on whether Carbone would waiver the money he was due over the final two years of his contract – some £3 million – as there was no way the Bantams could afford to keep him. Carbone wrote this huge sum of money off and left the club.
In January 2013 Carbone reflected on this decision by saying, “I agreed to walk away, but it was some sacrifice. I don’t know if other players would have done that. I hadn’t earned anything like the amounts on offer in the Premier League today, and I had a young family. But when I thought about it, there was only one choice I could make.
“I couldn’t be the person who put Bradford City out of business.”
Richmond might have been relieved by Carbone’s gesture, but given he was about to be forced out of City himself he retains some bitterness towards the player. “We helped make a talented but under-achieving player into a multi-millionaire, a player who, in my opinion, gave back far less than we gave him.”
Carbone returned to Italy, where he played for Como and later Parma. He moved into management with Pavia, Varse and St. Christophe, and after resigning from the latter club in 2013 began to tout himself for jobs in England. He was interviewed for the Sheffield Wednesday vacancy last January but overlooked. At the end of this season, he made a surprise return to West Yorkshire with Leeds in the capacity of ‘special adviser’ as part of the new Massimo Cellino regime. Events at Elland Road currently have a circus-like feel, and it will be interesting to see how long Carbone remains at Leeds and in what role.
There is no doubt that Benito Carbone’s time at Bradford City was a bittersweet experience. When at the club, his presence was inspirational and enthralling. He was a tremendous player blessed with so much skill. A crafty number 10. The creative force. The playmaker. Carbone had a deft first touch and was capable of spraying the ball around the park with ease. As he received possession, you sub-consciously crept forward to the edge of your seat. Something special could be about to happen. Many of his goals were spectacular.
Carbone is undoubtedly the most talented, skilful footballer I have ever seen in claret and amber. I hero-worshipped the guy, always joined in the “Carbone, Carbone” chants that included motioning your arms back and forth in a ‘we-are-not-worthy’ gesture. And he seemed to enjoy playing for us. He gave everything on the field. The failings of the team were not his, the failing of Carbone was that too much was expected of him.
Which is where the bitter element comes in. He cost a fortune, and the ludicrously expensive contract he signed almost bankrupted City. Whatever money was chucked at Carbone should have been spent on the club’s infrastructure. On addressing the woefully outdated training facilities that meant Carbone and co were having to avoid dog dirt on a council-owned pitch, for example. In David Conn’s excellent book, ‘The Beautiful Game?’ he talked of the wastage of football summed by Carbone. “Whenever I thought about the areas of football – the grass roots, schools, community programmes – which could really do with some money, I used to think of Beni Carbone with his £40,000 a week and five bathrooms en suite.” Such words could equally be applied to Bradford City.
The upshot of the six weeks of madness was a seven-year fall from the Premier League to League Two, via two administrations – and Beni was the poster boy of those crazy six weeks. I’m grateful that I’ve seen Benito Carbone in a Bradford City shirt, but ultimately I wish it had never happened.