What would new money do to the fabric and culture of Bradford City?

Image by Mike Holdsworth

Image by Mike Holdsworth

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.

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Categories: Opinion

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21 replies

  1. Great piece Jason & very thought provoking. If Paladini does arrive, he should start with a clean slate with everyone. Lets be fair, i’m sure even the likes of Comrade Abramovich still have plenty of skeletons hidden in the cupboard, and before we get xenophobic, Uncle Ken Bates could split opinion like no other. Let him be judged by his actions & if he does indeed buy back Valley Parade for the club that is a big step forward and a statement of intent. Lets hang on & see how things pan out before rushing to praise or condemn the man. Top article though.

  2. Great article and the decision for Lawn & Rhodes is a massive one! We need investment but what will it cost us in the long run. And Neil warnock? Oh my, I’m not sure I could cope with that, I can’t stand him.

  3. You must be crazy. Our soul is up for sale to a known imbecile. This is the end if it goes through; he loves City so much,he bid for brum and millwall first.not interested in his motives as they are clear to see. Your. Article provides a point of view, but I don’t. Think it is realistic.

  4. Totally agree with you Chris. This would be madness for City and certainly a backwards step for our long-term (next 10 years plus) future. Please, Mark and Julian – NO.

  5. I don’t want City’s soul to be sold to the devil, thank you.

  6. Very well put Anne.

    I’m just going through the news reports and social media.

    It seems that the overwhelming majority of fans (at this early stage) do not want anything to do with this chap and hope (pray?) that Mark and Julian do not sell to him.

    My view is that I would like us to carry on building on what we’ve achieved over the last few years than have a quick fix ‘sugar daddy’ coming in waving his cheque book.

    With Mark and Julian at the helm you always know that they have the best interests of the club at heart and that City is in safe hands and in the black. It is partly because of this and that they are also fans, I feel, that we all have a special bond with our beloved Bradford and long may that continue.

    I would rather have slow and steady progress with Mark and Julian than the fleeting ‘success’ of the Richmond years which almost left us without a club.

    Interesting days ahead indeed.

    Onwards to Sheff Utd on Saturday where we can put last night behind us.

  7. Money talks, lawn has put no cash in for ages, since he paid himself back the million from the capital one cup run. Julian wants out as well. It a question of when, and also Carbone as manager

  8. I agree with the general consensus that we don’t want to sell out. Sell our soul. Etc. what I like about the article though is that it tries to take an objective view without swiftly jumping to conclusions.

    In addition we should all spare a thought for lawn and Rhodes. It can’t be easy doing the job those guys have done for such a sustained period. Regardless of how much they love the club. It must be very taxing on the mind and the soul and of course the pocket at times. The guys live and breath City. And every year is a struggle. Setting these budgets and sticking to them and having all the “what if” scenarios going on. With the cup money now. The club from a cash perspective is probably in the best position it’s been in since the two guys started working together. We probably always knew deep down hat a major change like this would come. Maybe in ownership and maybe in managerial terms. I too am sad because I genuinely feel so proud of this club the reason I’m proud is because of the players. The manager. His coaching and fitness team. The chairmen. All the staff and even David Baldwin. As the article says. We’ve all done it the hard way to get to this point. And we should all be immensely proud. The fans too have been a Major influence in this clubs progression. But alas. Maybe the time to look at a slightly different approach (keeping as many of our clubs fundamental principles in place as possible) has now come.
    Final point. I believe all championship clubs get about 8-15m gbp per annum from TV rights. That’s a huge jump and if we had got promotion this season maybe we wouldn’t need any other external investment? I’m not in any way suggesting the team have failed. I guess I’m saying maybe we didn’t realize until now just how badly we needed promotion this season

    • I think it’s a minimum of about £4.5m under current deal including Premier League’s bribe/solidarity payment. May go up by £2-3m under new deal though. Problem is all clubs get that so no huge advantage.

      Current players will want more money and new players will expect more so hard to compete. Selling more season tickets at higher prices would help but Huddersfield have similar crowds to us and lose £6 million a year. The Championship is messed up!

  9. By absolute fluke, during the last 15 years, Bradford City have been managed, in my opinion, by two of the best English Managers of that era – Paul Jewell and Phil Parkinson.

    We managed to lose the former through a meddling chairmen and I can see the latter being forced out within 6 months if Paladini arrives. Whilst if we stay in league 1 losing Phil might be inevitable if a bigger club came in for him at least he’ll be leaving for the right reasons – and not being forced out after the first run of bad results for not being ‘Paladini’s man’.

    We’re putting everything that’s been built over the last 4 / 5 years at risk. Players and managers will come and go but if this period of bantam progressivism is to be maintained we need evolution, not revolution.

    I have so much sympathy for the current chairman, I really wouldnt want to be in their shoes. I just hope they make theright decision.

  10. The key is the money does not come from him. We will get into the invidious position that we do not really know who owns our club. We have had a amiable chancer before (GR). Much as you dislike the TBs Hoyle is a local man with the footy club at heart. That’s where we ant to be not with a guy who wants a vanity project and opaque ownership. At the moment it feels like OUR club at it needs to stay that way.

    • Absolutely!
      Spot on.

      Fans need to have 51% control to avoid the salubrious opaque owners from destroying a community organisation like a local football club. If he had a real connection to club or area then fair-do’s.

      I don’t want “the money” to come from Remortgaging ourselves and losing out down line.

  11. I agree with all of the sentiments expressed above.

    Jason – as usual – does a fantastic job of inviting us to pause and approach all of the issues in a more balanced way than we might tend to as fans.

    And whilst the idea of having an effervescent Italian in the Chairman’s suite, waving his arms at every decision and turning us into the new Bayern, is momentarily appealing because of the sheer enjoyment it might bring, I just don’t want success that way. After all, why the rush?

    The slow, steady, year-on-year improvement that we have enjoyed since Parky and his team took charge has been unbelievably rewarding, in part because it came on the back of such an awful decade, and in part also because it has been borne out a genuine understanding of the football club.

    Parky is on record as saying that watching his first game, he realised instantly that we fans love a battler and will cheer a fair but thumping challenge (just like Liddle’s on Tuesday) as loudly as any wonder strike.

    That bond that now exists throughout the club should be cherished and protected, as should the match atmosphere which has gone from being described as a ‘library’ by Windass to thousands of City fans cheering several ‘fake’ goals on Tuesday night, just for the sheer fun of it!

    And lest we forget #piegate

    Such on and off field victories are very hard won and very easily lost, so I hope that any change to our club – players, staff, chairmen, values – builds on the current culture and doesn’t undermine it. Sensible investment to support and improve the current strategy, fine. Anything else seems to be a risk.

    And so again, why the rush for success?

    To my mind, there is no simply time-limit on promotion if you improve each year and expect your football club to exist forever.

    The only time-limit might occur if you clearly start to go backwards over a long-period (such as the lost decade), or expect that your club actually might not exist forever (such as the two administrations).

    And what lies at the heart of both of those awful spells for us? Financial mismanagement in pursuit of quicker success. So thank you for the interest, but we’re doing just fine as we are thanks!

  12. Brilliant article Jason. The connection between fans->players->manager->club has been as good a I can recall. We have something special happening here. However, do sit tight and continue to see the chasm between the Championship and league one grow. Or do we ask the current chairman, hand on heart do you have the resources and desire to enable us to bridge that gap? I cant fault the current chairmen for their efforts in keeping the club going and I will listen to their judgement on whether they feel the new suitor is fit to carry City to the next level. If the answer is no then I’ll stick with what we have rather than twist and jeopardy the sanctity of our beloved club.

  13. I try hard not to be too cynical, but this whole situation is making me very nervous.
    Maybe the years of being a City fan has lowered my expectations but there’s more to football than fast progress up the leagues. Look what happened last time.

  14. Year on Year improvement – but how long can it last? As outlined in the article, we depend on cup runs to keep us in the black, but what happens if we get knocked out in the first round next year? As shown in the last two games, we’ve got a very thin squad. Routis fills in at centre back and gets sent off. Bristol City turn up with confidence, and we lose 6-0. We’re putting juniors on the bench not to give them match experience, but because we don’t have any other option.

    Next season we all know we need to bolster the squad, but can we gamble on cup runs again to bolster the coffers? Simple fact is – and again underlining what has been commented, is that our chairman love the club, but they don’t have enough money to progress the club. Cash injections may have been put in, but that has generally been done to get us out of the shit.

    This guy may be a bit debonair, but I like the cut of his jib (Gibb?) and if he can come in, bankroll us, pay off the ground and connect with the fans, then I’m in. Julian staying on to make sure he doesn’t go completely radio rental is a sound idea, and one that makes sense.

    It’s exciting times for sure, and I hope something comes off.

    • He does not have any money of his own. Are you happy to incur significant liabilities to people you know nothing off and that may have to be repaid?

      • How do you know that? But in any case, it’s no different from the current board. They put money in (and I doubt it’s their own money – but money they have got from their other ventures), and they take money out. Gordon Gibb – takes money from the ground which we don’t own.

        It’s very rare these days, the same way that 80% of the population live in a house with a mortgage, that people have liquid cash to invest. Same way that Bradford City don’t have any real liquid cash, and have to sell key or promising youth players, or gamble on cup revenue in order to survive.

        If he puts money in, he’ll want a return on his investment, and the only real way he can do that is by owning the ground and creating a team that will get us up the league into the Premiership. Win Win for all involved.

  15. Build success on solid foundations or on sand?

    Just look at how much in debt so many clubs are riddled with despite huge payments after relegation from the Premier League.

    The bubble will burst at some point in the future and professional football in England will have to adopt a different approach to the current “we need success quick” one. So many clubs have lost their identity and soul.

  16. Great article and some excellent thoughtful comments on the mooted take over which seems to have divided opinion.

    I don’t know what to think.
    Half of me wants to cling to the bond the club has formed between club and fans, the workmanlike evolutionary progress and true claret and amber chairman. I want the club to run as far away as possible from this wheeling and dealing, well connected, ambitious opportunist. It’s scary.
    The other half of me is excited about his potential arrival; buying out the Gibb pension fund, dreaming of a charge up the football ladder with expensive, flamboyant and skillful players.

    Its clear that Rhodes and Lawn don’t have the resources to mount a sustained ascent up the football pyramid. Yes I believe, with 4 or 5 good signings (which I think, thanks to the magic of the cup, we have, as a one-off, the resources for), we have a very decent shot of the Championship next year. But what happens if we miss? Likely Parkinson would leave for bigger and better things and then where are we? How strong is the bond if we had another Peter Taylor on limited resources?

    This season has been one of the best for the sheer unpredictability of it. We’ve veered from the sublime to the ridiculous. The heights of scoring four at Stamford Bridge to shipping 6 in at Valley Parade. Banter with the BBC, the pie song, defeating our evil neighbours, losing to Yeovil, the sea of colour against Reading and Sunderland.

    Its been a Hollywood blockbuster of a season that has had everything. In many ways, after missing out on the play-offs a proposed divisive takeover by a mad Italian is the perfect ending. Whatever happens I can’t wait for next season

  17. Agree with Paul here on not knowing what to think. Though, when I look back at the end of my life, on the forty or fifty years of supporting City, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to think: ‘I think we consolidated well in League One for those last 25 years, didn’t we?’ and no-one, probably including me, will remember Parkinson or the Rhodes/Lawn partnership.

    Though, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that, basically, in the grand scheme of things, football doesn’t actually matter, so bring on the excitement! 🙂

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