By Jason McKeown
No one would have felt more disappointed by Bradford City’s play off defeat than Julian Rhodes. Having all but finalised a deal to sell the club to the German businessmen – Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp – Julian, his father professor David and Mark Lawn went into the play offs knowing that these were their last games at the helm.
And for Julian, who took full charge of the club in 2002, when it was in the second tier, and who also originally invested into the Bantams when it was a second tier outfit in 1997, promotion would have proven to be a romantic, symmetrical ending. It would have meant he’d have left with the club competing in the same league that he found it in.
It wasn’t to be. Millwall didn’t read the script, leaving City with the task of picking themselves up and going again next season. In that respect, the news of the takeover can act as a boost to flagging morale, offering the possibility of greater playing resources and a stronger football club. That is providing the new owners have the financial capability, the expertise and the vision to take the club forwards.
Little is known of the new owners. Rahic owns a recruitment company in Munich. Rupp’s background is in manufacturing (he is a graduate engineer) and he was involved in buying out and taking forwards this company (he is the guy on the left in this photo). The pair have business acumen for sure, but apart from some scouting work by Rahic for VFB Stuttgart, their football experience is limited. WOAP understands that part of the takeover deal includes making sure James Mason stays on for continuity and for his expertise.
Whatever lies in store, there is no doubt that the Rhodeses and Lawn pass the baton on with the club in good health. A best league finish since 2004, average crowds of 18,000, and an inspirational manager whose services are secured for at least two more seasons (assuming, of course, Rahic and Rupp see that as a positive and keep him). Football club owners so often take over during moments of downturns and weakness, but City are looking onwards and upwards. Much of the new owners’ plan should surely centre upon not messing around with a club set up that, on and off the field, is working so well.
Julian should be proud of this. It is 19 years since he and his dad formally put money into Bradford City. Their Filtronic business was thriving, and the father and son wanted to find another business to invest into, as a hobby. The Bantams, a club they supported, was the favourable option. Geoffrey Richmond welcomed them with open arms.
Initially the aim for the pair was to be very much silent partners. Richmond was the front of house. The man with a plan and the drive to see it through. We City fans weren’t really aware of the Rhodeses involvement back then. In fact, the successful 1998/99 Premier League promotion was funded by the Rhodeses. Richmond, Paul Jewell and the players rightfully got the credit, but it wouldn’t have happened had the Rhodes family not borrowed £5 million in the summer of 1998.
And there also wouldn’t be a Bradford City without the Rhodeses. If there is criticism to direct at their tenure, it is that they remained too distant from the club’s affairs between 1999-2001, and that they didn’t stop or at least challenge the insane financial decisions Richmond was making, which would doom the club for 12 years. The Rhodes family remained silent partners, whilst accepting lucrative dividend payments that the club couldn’t really afford to gift to the Richmonds and Rhodeses.
But crucially, Professor David and Julian stuck around. As the club imploded over the summer of 2002, they picked up the pieces. They repaid all their dividend windfalls and then some. They put their family home on the line to guarantee debts the club had only a slim chance of repaying. They could have lost everything. That should never be forgotten or underestimated.
Richmond made no such sacrifices. He left, Gordon Gibb came in as a joint owner, but the mess wasn’t sorted and the pressure eventually told. Julian and Gordon fell out badly, and the club’s future was back on the line. Gibb is still viewed by some as the hero of that dispute, but his actions since leaving in 2003 were business and family wealth driven (not that this is wholly an impossible thing to understand). Once again, the Rhodeses were the only ones who stuck around to rescue Bradford City.
Julian has always looked a reluctant club owner. He rarely speaks to the press, won’t have his photo taken as he wants a quiet life. On his own between 2004-2007, the club muddled on in League One. Broke, falling short of supporter expectations, and crowds dwindling. The gamble of sacking Colin Todd and appointing David Wetherall didn’t pay off. City were relegated for the third time in six years.
Since 2007, the burden was at least shared out. Like Julian, Mark Lawn is a passionate City supporter and the club means the world to him. He travelled home and away in the 70s and 80s, befriended players like John Hendrie and Stuart McCall (who regularly invited him up to Scotland to watch Rangers games). Lawn was a self-made millionaire who jointly set up the Driver Hire business. He had looked to get involved with investing into Bradford City for a few years, but the timing wasn’t right. His arrival was inevitable.
The outspoken, plain-speaking Lawn is the cheese to Rhodes’ chalk. Yet somehow it has largely worked as a partnership. There are rumours that relations have strained over recent months, and the parting of ways is a natural ending to that.
Whatever you think of Lawn (and I am not a fan), his time in charge will be judged as a success. The board appointments of Peter Taylor and Peter Jackson did not work out, and it was Archie Christie who got the credit from Julian for bringing in Phil Parkinson. But Lawn got plenty right too, not least the inspired recruitment of David Baldwin.
Under Julian, Mark, Parkinson, Baldwin and now Mason, the club has made amazing progress since 2012. The numerous great moments and successes over this period are all linked to the joint chairmen. From their point of view, it was just reward for the countless sleepless nights and hours fretting over turning around the club. They deserve plenty of credit for their part in the past four years of upwards momentum. Especially for sticking by and supporting Parkinson through the bumps on the road.
And Julian especially deserves to be long remembered, and celebrated, for the way that he changed season ticket pricing. It was an amazing piece of vision by him to introduce the £138 ticket offer in 2007, when still in sole command and with City heading to relegation. Crowds had dwindled hugely post-2002, but Julian knew the potential was there.
It went from possible gimmick to the norm. During the fruitless years of 2007-2012, Julian and Mark must have been under a lot of pressure to give up the ghost, ramp up the season ticket costs to bring in more revenue. But they knew that, by doing so, many fans would be priced out or use it as an excuse to stop going. The combination of consistently low prices and post-2012 success has transformed the size of the club’s fanbase and cemented a new generation of fans.
Julian especially should be so, so proud of that.
In view of the progress over recent years, it is curious in many respects that the pair would sell up now. But that is to ignore the fact that the pressure of running Bradford City, whilst different now to what it was in 2011, never goes away. There is still an expectation and a drive to get the club up another level, and perhaps the reluctant owner thinks that now was the right time to let someone else take on that burden. Meanwhile he can do other things with his life, knowing he can feel pride in what he accomplished at Valley Parade – and that he will always be welcomed back.
WOAP understands that Mark did not want to sell and would rather have stayed on. With the sad death of his wife earlier this year, we cannot possibly imagine what he is going through and what is best for his future. Stepping back like this makes sense in one respect, but risks him living a life lacking purpose. Whatever his future (and there is a suggestion he will still have a role at the club), I hope he gets the support he needs and I’m sure his family will provide that. He might look back in time and be glad that he sold up, I hope that proves the case.
Certainly if the new owners can continue the club’s progress, build on the success further, it will look like a great deal for all concerned. All eyes are now trained on what Rahic and Rupp will or won’t do over the coming months and years. WOAP understands that Phil Parkinson is not feeling entirely confident about his own future, but it would simply cause a riot were Rahic and Rupp to get rid of such a popular manager, and the club’s biggest asset.
Uwe Rosler (or whoever) can either wait around for a long time or get lost. The real worry for City is that another club looks at the situation and targets Parkinson, like Sheffield United did last summer when the Gianni Paladini takeover attempt was in full swing.
That is all for another time. We don’t know as yet what the plan for Rahic and Rupp is, or how deep their pockets run. It’s going to be very interesting times to say the least; but whatever the future holds, the majority of us City fans won’t forget the job that Rhodes (especially) and Lawn did.
They got us through the dark times, and step down with the sun firmly shining over Valley Parade.