By Jason McKeown
After a few days back in Germany, new Bradford joint owner Edin Rahic will return to West Yorkshire next week and begin to truly assume control of the club, with fellow new investor Stefan Rupp said to be in a more backseat role.
At the top of Rahic’s priority list will be finalising a playing budget to support Phil Parkinson’s aim of automatic promotion next season. League One looks set to be a weaker division than last year and, similar to the 1998/99 promotion season, a sizeable investment into the team now could prove to be a successful piece of timing.
Yet beyond putting up the money to sign a proven goalscorer, a new midfield and a replacement for Reece Burke, it is curious to consider, at this point, just what difference Rahic can make, and what his priorities should be. Not because he doesn’t have any expertise to offer, but the relatively rude health of the club suggests that a gentle rather than a firm hand is what’s needed.
It is unprecedented, at least in the club’s modern history, for a new owner to come in with City on such an upwards curve.
Back in 1983, Stafford Heginbotham and Jack Tordoff helped to rescue the club when it was in receivership, ensuring its continued existence. Heginbotham stepped down for health reasons, and Tordoff eventually left in 1990, with the Bantams doomed to relegation after mis-spending the money raised from selling Stuart McCall and John Hendrie.
David Simpson took over the reins, but he and his consortium could not stop City from drifting. In 1994 Simpson swapped clubs with Geoffrey Richmond, who famously took the Bantams to new heights. But he of course left under the cloud of 2002’s administration. Gordon Gibb similarly departed amidst the club’s financial strife of 2004. Even Mark Lawn came on board (joining Julian Rhodes) just after the club had been relegated.
The point is that each regime change took place with the club either on the downturn or going nowhere. And thus the arrival of new owners was warmly greeted, their ideas openly embraced and their drive for change easier to implement.
Rahic, in contrast, has bought a club that is progressing impressively on and off the field. Season upon season of improved league positions, record season ticket revenue, a small annual profit. Rahic has much to offer of course, but one of his objectives might be to avoid the urge to make wholesome changes, as it might risk destabilising that progress.
Take Leyton Orient, who two years ago were in a very similar position to where Bradford City are right now. Under Russell Slade they had reached the League One play offs, losing the Wembley final to Rotherham. Francesco Becchetti bought Orient from Barry Hearn, claimed West Ham would be petrified of his wealth, and quickly sacked the over achieving Slade.
It hasn’t worked out. Orient were relegated a year later whilst running up a £4.4 million loss, and failed to make the League Two play offs in 2015/16. Seven managers have worked under Becchetti in two seasons, one of whom was kicked by the owner and another is currently suing Orient. A club that was on the up have seemingly fallen to pieces following a change of ownership.
Last season Burton Albion quickly emerged as as League One’s surprise package. Promoted the year before under the management of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, they continued their momentum under the Dutchman. Only QPR came calling, Jimmy left the Brewers, and replacement Nigel Clough had the daunting task of not screwing up someone else’s excellent work.
Clough recognised this and deliberately changed little. He acted as a steady hand and maintained Burton’s flight path. Burton were promoted again.
As is often said in investment circles: sometimes doing nothing is best.
It is not entirely the same and Rahic has plenty to offer, but you hope he is taking the stance of initially observing how the club is run, and providing some steer and insight, but isn’t assuming that he knows better. There’s a lot that the club has got right since 2012, and those who are behind that – and there will be lots of people – should be proud of their role.
This isn’t a time for a revolution.
Yet there is one area where I think Rahic might be wise to be consider – the strength and sustainability of the club. For how much progress there has been over the past four years, are the foundations underneath solid enough?
Take Phil Parkinson. No one can question what an outstanding job he has performed, but what would the club do if he was ever to leave? The reliance on Parkinson is huge and no one should be pushing him towards the door, but there should be more football expertise around to survive if another club ever lured him away.
There is talk of Uwe Rosler and director of football – a term everyone dreads – and it would be foolish of Rahic to appoint a football man above Parkinson who he doesn’t want to work with. But that doesn’t stop Rahic from working with Parkinson to find someone who can genuinely help the manager with signing players and the like. So there is a better structure in place to support both short and long term goals.
Consider Barnsley. For a long time they turned sacking a manager into an annual event. But this season that stuck with Lee Johnson during a dreadful run of consecutive defeats that left Barnsley bottom of the league, and were rewarded by Johnson turning it around. But then, even more remarkably, they shrugged off losing Johnson to Bristol City.
The board stated after giving him permission to speak to Bristol City: “We believe that the structures that we now have in place must be the key to our future success rather than dependence on a single individual…if he chooses to move on, we will continue unabated with the plan we have in place for the progression of our Club.”
And they were proved absolutely right. Paul Heckingbottom took caretaker charge and Barnsley didn’t miss a beat. They ended the season promoted at Wembley after also winning the JPT.
When I briefly interviewed Parkinson in September 2011 – just after he had taken charge – we discussed the role of Archie Christie, then pretty much director of football, Parkinson stated that clubs always need someone like Christie to help get deals over the line. There is no reason to believe Parkinson wouldn’t welcome working with someone else in such a role, but clearly it has to be on his terms and not forced upon him.
At the other end of the player spectrum is the youth set up. It’s now 6 years and counting since a youth graduate made a meaningful contribution, and a consistent criticism that can be levelled at Parkinson is that he doesn’t give youth a chance. It’s a cheap shot in many ways, especially given the culture of the club doesn’t readily welcome young players.
This could go one of two directions: Radic could increase investment in this area and improve the infrastructure of the youth academy; or he could scale it back, if not abolish it altogether.
Brentford offer an interesting perspective here. At the end of the season the Bees announced they were closing their Category Two Academy (reportedly costing £1.5 million a year to run). In a statement the club explained “As a London club, there is strong competition for the best young players, and the club’s pathways to First Team football must be sufficiently differentiated to attract the level of talent that can thrive in a team competing at the top of the Championship.
“Moreover, the development of young players must make sense from a business perspective. The review has highlighted that, in a football environment where the biggest Premier League clubs seek to sign the best young players before they can graduate through an Academy system, the challenge of developing value through that system is extremely difficult.”
This argument is completely relevant to Bradford City and its own Category Three Academy. There is no doubt that, over the past 10 years, the Bantams’ youth set-up has paid for itself with the sale of a number of promising youngsters to top clubs, such as Tom Cleverley, Andre Wisdom, Fabian Delph, George Green and this season Oli McBurnie. Yet the revised rules (known as the Elite Player Performance Plan) mean that such financial rewards will not be available, as the maximum compensation is significantly less.
Equally the first part of that Brentford statement, around having an academy capable of attracting players who can thrive in the team, is prevalent to City. To be brutal about it: City have grown a lot over the past four years, and the bar for getting into the first team has become much higher than it used to be. Parkinson can be criticised for apparently ignoring youth, but no one can realistically argue he has been wrong to do so.
The City youth academy has to improve in line with the status of the club, otherwise it risks failing to produce players who are anywhere near good enough for the first time. There is absolutely no suggestion that’s the case at Valley Parade and I’m sure it has improved over recent years, but that bar continues to rise.
Rahic must plant his flag somewhere on the spectrum of increasing funding for this area of the club or scrapping it. I hope it’s not the latter – it would be a terrible PR message – yet it has to prove its worth.
But it’s not just about the player side of things. Bradford City clearly operate in an economical way, employing as few staff as possible and prioritising spend on the pitch. That is laudable (not to mention attractive to Rahic and Rupp in the first place, confident they were buying a cost-conscious football club that wouldn’t need downsizing), but it can lead to the odd cut corner and a make-do mentality that leaves the club weak at times.
Consider the Upgrade The Parade campaign. It was very laudable to have fans raise money to cover the essential cost of refurbishing the changing rooms – Rahic must have been impressed – but the new active owner must have also wondered how the club was in a position where it couldn’t really afford to pay for it themselves, at least not without slashing the core playing budget. The club has operated in a way that leaves it at risk of not being able to afford any unexpectedly high costs that might suddenly arise, and that can have a detrimental effect on future plans.
It’s a bit like having £1,000 in savings, entirely earmarked for a holiday, only for your car to break down and cost £600 to repair. With no other spare cash, the holiday plans have to be significantly downgraded. If you are more prepared for all eventualities, there is less chance of something significant going wrong.
On Valley Parade, Rahic has been quick to rule out buying back the stadium for now. He will no doubt have taken advice from Julian Rhodes, who two years ago told me his belief that the rent commitments are manageable and the club doesn’t need to worry about buying back Valley Parade right now. “I personally don’t think the rent is bad when you actually look at this stadium. The rent is £380k a year. We more or less cover that from catering and stuff. I don’t think it’s that bad…I think it’s a decent rent and I think we’ve just got to get on with life. Pay the rent like we do and concentrate of moving upwards.”
Clearly buying the ground now would be a considerable outlay, with little guarantee it would increase the value of the club in line. The Gibb family pension fund apparently have an above-market valuation for the ground.
There is no doubt that buying back Valley Parade would be a hugely symbolic gesture to City fans, but you can understand Rahic ruling that it is not a priority.
Beyond that, Rahic might consider if further investment in the ticket set up (and online system), marketing and training facilities can be enhanced to lead to more revenue or improved performance. It is less about fixing things that are broken, or ripping up current plans, and more a case of getting lots of 5% extra from key areas. They soon add up.
The French sculptor/painter/writer Marcel Duchamp once said, “There is no solution because there is no problem”. It is not quite so plain sailing for Rahic and Rupp at Valley Parade, but they are starting from a strong position and that makes it harder to imprint your ways without risking that progress. There is no doubt they both have so much expertise and experience, but equally they have much to learn about their new investment.
It is going to be very interesting to observe how they approach the next few weeks, their strategy for the 2016/17 season, and – ultimately – their long-term plan to take Bradford City to the next level.