By Jason McKeown
Gianni Paladini has not yet said a word in public about his interest in purchasing half, or all, of Bradford City. Or completed the due diligence. Or come close to finalising a deal. But still, news of his potential involvement at Valley Parade hasn’t stopped anyone of a claret and amber persuasion from casting early judgements. From contemplating in their head about if the Italian’s arrival would be a good or a bad thing.
The lure of serious investment – and that is what Paladini would appear to offer – is hardly something to instantly dismiss. Ever since Nahki Wells was sold to Huddersfield Town to cover a playing budget deficit, 18 months ago, doubts have been expressed over the financial capability of Bradford City. About whether the joint chairmen, Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn, can finance the club onto the next level.
From 2012, the majority of the revenue generated by the Bantams has occurred from the astonishing cup heroics of Phil Parkinson’s men. The considerable progress from the bottom rig of League Two, to this season’s play off push, has resulted from calculated overspends that have been recouped through on-the-field success. As a strategy it has had its critics, but the results are there for all to see.
Nevertheless, there is a very clear and growing gulf between the bottom two divisions and the top two. The financial rewards of the Championship mean that those who are fortunate enough to be in it are becoming stronger and stronger. City have been on the wrong side of this dividing line since relegation in 2004 and each year this stays the same weakens them. They could easily return to the second tier under the current set-up, but it would be a big ask to compete as we are. Not without further investment.
Of course the Championship is unlikely to be the limit of Paladini’s ambitions. Having spent the best part of a year attempting to buy Birmingham City, the Italian has evidently noted the potential that exists at Bradford City. The huge fanbase, the large catchment area, the excellent stadium facilities. The fact that during his last involvement with the club – as Benito Carbone’s agent – the Bantams were part of the Premier League.
The legend goes that, as part of the transfer negotiations that brought Carbone to Valley Parade, he and Paladini spent seven hours with Geoffrey Richmond, hearing from the-then chairman about his vision for the future. They bought into it then, and Paladini might still believe that City can be as great as Richmond claimed. And that he can be the man to realise it.
Paladini will probably feel that it won’t take much to get City into the Championship, and that he can then fund a Premier League push. Buying into Bradford City is a high, high risk investment for anyone who – ultimately – will be looking for a handsome return. But with £60 million the current rate simply to finish bottom of the Premier League, a restoration of City in the top flight would lead to a mightily big pay day. One that would justify a big outlay to get there.
Suddenly the outlook and ambition of Bradford City changes.
Yet if all of this was to come to pass – if, indeed, Paladini is to become the owner or co-owner of this club in a matter of weeks – the fabric of what we are about – and our values – would be set for change and compromise. We might not know much about Paladini’s strategy were he to take charge, but three words offer major clues: Queens Park Rangers.
It was at QPR that Paladini’s reputation grew from a powerful agent inside of football to an owner in the public spotlight. He came on board in 2003, at one stage was forced at gun point to resign. He returned to the fold, worked alongside some of the richest men in the world. Helped to hire and fire manager after manager. And just as they prepared to climb into the promised land of the Premier League, there was all that messiness over Alejandro Faurlin’s registration that almost resulted in a points’ deduction and no promotion.
In his excellent book The Gaffer, Neil Warnock – one of those many managers employed at QPR over this period – speaks warmly of Paladini. “A dapper, gregarious Italian with a loquacious tongue who was always on the phone. Gianni always seemed to have a different job title at QPR but whatever was on his office door he had basically the day-to-day football business at Loftus Road for years.”
Warnock later added, “Gianni often got criticised, but he made life at QPR so enjoyable for me and I will always be grateful. I found him a wonderful man and I’ll always class him as a friend.”
(I know, I know – I suddenly fancy putting a fiver on who the next Bradford City manager might be too.)
The point is that Gianni was central to this era of QPR’s progress, where they nicknamed themselves “The Boutique Club” – and from the outside it looked like madness. The club seemed to become a toy for a group of rich people. They were evidently impatient for success, threw money at the problems and expected instant results. They began to charge their own supporters a fortune to attend games and to purchase season tickets. They succeeded eventually in making the Premier League – but it seemed in spite of, rather than because of, their ability.
Which is the polar opposite to the last few years at Valley Parade. City’s painful decline from the Premier League taught everyone many harsh lessons, chiefly the importance of stability. About keeping faith with a manager and letting them control everything.
Parkinson’s predecessor, Peter Jackson, clearly didn’t appreciate the presence of the late Archie Christie as director of football/chief executive – a role Paladini would probably undertake at City in all but job title. Parkinson initially tolerated Christie but assumed full control of footballing matters when the Scot departed. He has been in a privileged and – compared to the top two divisions of English football – rare position of having full freedom to manage and no interference.
Paladini is from a very different culture. At QPR, there is evidence that the owners’ texted managers during the game demanding certain substitutions were made. Warnock’s book makes it clear he did not have full say on the transfers. His predecessors in the job were sacked at the first sign of trouble. Parkinson has achieved a lot at Valley Parade, but has faced bumps along the road where people questioned him. He would not have survived in the dugout for so long under a different type of owner.
Yet the fruits of stability, and of the manager having total control, are there for all to see at Valley Parade. Sure, recent form is shocking and the failed play off push sees some fingers rightly pointed at Parkinson. But what a stunning job he has performed at Valley Parade, by any measure.
If Paladini does come in, we can realistically assume Parkinson will be handed an inflated transfer budget this summer. All of this sounds great, but may seem him forced to forgo his principles of prioritising character in the players he recruits. Because suddenly City won’t be signing players from Crawley or Notts County, they’ll be shopping higher up and trying to persuade players to drop down a level to play at Valley Parade.
The next level of big characters that Parkinson so loves aren’t necessarily going to want to play for Bradford City. Suddenly the motivating factor is money, but it doesn’t always lead to the right players taking up such opportunities. Just ask one of Paladini’s most famous clients from his agent days: Benito Carbone.
In Roy Keane’s second autobiography he astutely reflected on a painful lesson he learned as manager: never sign a player who doesn’t see playing for your club as a step up, or who thinks they are doing you a favour. This is an important principle. And when you think of every successful Phil Parkinson signing, and their reasons for originally coming to Valley Parade, it reinforces the point that Keane makes.
And of course, spending big will also lead to raised expectations. Suddenly it’s not about hoping for a play off push, but assuming automatic promotion is on. And if that doesn’t immediately happen, who would be in the firing line? Suddenly Parkinson, with a year to go on his contract, looks vulnerable. He wouldn’t be Paladini’s man. He would be very sackable. He would be under pressure from day one. I wonder what Neil might be up to this autumn?
All of which isn’t enough of a reason to tell Paladini where to go. The club is bigger than anyone, even Phil Parkinson. But it is to speculate – in a fair manner, I think – over how the culture at City might change.
If there was a moment of heart that I took home from Tuesday night’s mauling, it was when – at 2-0 down just before half time – Gary Liddle flew into a challenge, won the ball, and the crowd roared. We have a certain way of doing things at Valley Parade. We have our values. We have developed an amazing spirit in the stands and on the pitch – a mutual appreciation that everyone feeds into and grows from.
Everything we have achieved, we have earned through hard work, effort and dedication. Moving away from that and effectively buying success: it might work better, and we might enjoy the ride – but somehow it also feels like we’d also be selling a little bit of our soul.
Would Paladini keep cheap season tickets, or ramp up the prices like at QPR? Would the newly acquired supporters, enticed by the club’s heroics and accessibility, suddenly be dissuaded? If people were to start to be priced out of Valley Parade, would the atmosphere suffer? At the end of the day Paladini will want a return on his investment, and matchday revenue is the most obvious source in the immediate term.
All of this must weigh carefully on Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes’ minds. They have always said they would only sell to the right person. They have presented themselves as custodians of the club, whose priority is to pass it onto the right people. Rhodes told me that when he leaves as chairman, he still wants to come to Valley Parade for games. It is very obvious that Lawn feels the same way.
Which means they have a responsibility to pass the club on – now or eventually – to the right people. They cannot just sell to anyone, and certainly not to someone who won’t have the club’s best interests at heart. They need to know that Paladini would be in it for the right reasons, and for the long haul.
They need to reflect on David Moores. A good Liverpool chairman, who sold the club to the Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks. It turned out to be a dreadful move, and it tainted Moores’ Anfield legacy. At Blackburn Rovers – following the sale of the club to the Venkys – former chairman John Williams faced similar criticism.
Ultimately, as supporters we can only trust in Lawn and Rhodes’ judgement. We don’t have access to the conversations that have and will take place between the co-chairman and Paladini. We don’t know Paladini’s plans and his financial commitments. We don’t know his intentions for the future.
Lawn and Rhodes will do, and must do. If the ownership of the club is to change hands, they must make sure that the person who takes on their baton will deliver progress in a stable and sustainable way. English football continues to be littered with terrible, terrible examples of owners getting it horribly wrong. If Rhodes is to stay on, as has been suggested, there would be a much greater level of confidence that a sensible co-owner is still on board. One who gets the fabric of this club.
Lawn and Rhodes have often been shielded from criticism because they are Bradford City supporters. They will never have a more important opportunity to prove that they really are.