By Jason McKeown
Within the confines of Bradford City’s spruced up Woodhouse Grove training set-up, lies an unlikely remnant of the past: a toaster.
It sits unassumingly on a table, used for players to make a pre-training snack. The toaster is nearly 10 years old but in full working order. And when in the summer the returning Stuart McCall toured the training facilities, he instantly recognised the appliance.
For it was McCall who bought the toaster in the first place, nine years earlier, at the beginning of his first spell as manager. That McCall had to go out and buy such essential, yet hardly budget-busting, items hints at the widespread problems that lay behind the scenes at this time.
City had recently been relegated to League Two, after three years of frugality following a second period of administration in 2004. The club was no longer on its knees, but badly lacking in infrastructure. Lots of little issues that added up to big problems, undermining the front of house efforts to build a promotion-winning team.
The vast improvement in the club’s training set up since are one of the largest illustrations of the progress. When I interviewed David Baldwin for my book Reinventing Bradford City, he revealed that the training ground enhancements are his proudest achievement from his seven years in the role of head of operations. The influence they have had on the club’s rise from 2011 should not be under-estimated.
It’s a well-told story, but worth going through again. For decades and up until recently, Bradford City’s players had to go to Valley Parade to get changed for training, and then get in their cars and drive the four-mile journey to Apperley Bridge. Then after training it was back in the car in training kit – potentially by now covered in mud – and a return to Valley Parade to get dressed and go home.
It did for City in the 80s and 90s – McCall’s playing days – but football has changed so much. Whilst City spent a decade struggling with debts, their rivals were busy building themselves state-of-the-art training facilities that left the Bantams lagging behind.
Even in the Premier League heyday when money was pouring into the club and such matters could have been addressed, the priority was over-spending on wages. Players like Benito Carbone were deliberately not shown the training ground until after they signed their lucrative contracts. The nasty shocks of Apperley Bridge came after it was too late.
But one of the biggest benefits Baldwin identified from the training ground improvements is the impact it has had on team spirit. Under the new training set-up at Woodhouse Grove, the players all meet there in the morning, share breakfast, get changed and go out on the training ground together. Once finished, there is a lounge area to hang out and then have dinner together.
Suddenly the players are spending a lot of time together as a group, and the positive effects over recent years have been there for all to see. The spirit and ethos of the squad is strong, and it has remained in tact despite the inevitable turnover of players over this time.
And it is one of the reasons why – toaster aside – the tools for McCall to work under this time around are so much better. Over his first period of 2007-2011, the club’s board prioritised his playing budget over everything, which allowed him to sign good League Two footballers but be left lacking in the resources to get the best out of them. Wayne Jacobs tells the story of how he and McCall’s efforts to bring in a fitness coach depended on finding someone willing to work for no wages, just the promise of a free season ticket.
On the surface City appeared to be more affluent than their League Two rivals over this period, but there were gaps behind the scenes. They hampered McCall, just as they did his predecessor Peter Taylor. Only in 2011 when the training ground situation was sorted, and the likes of Nick Allamby were budgeted for under Peter Jackson, was an upturn seen. Phil Parkinson was the first manager to truly benefit from the greater off-the-field resources – and the results speak for themselves.
Just like Baldwin, the former chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes deserve credit for this. It perhaps took a while for the message to get through – I remember interviewing Lawn nearly six years ago and him batting back our questions about poor training facilities by citing examples of other clubs thriving despite poor resources. But by the summer of 2011 he, Rhodes and Baldwin had delivered on the first stage of the Woodhouse Grove arrangement, which they built upon quickly and built well.
The two chairmen also addressed the huge financial hindrance of paying nearly £700k a year rent on Valley Parade and the office blocks by buying out Prupim for the latter asset, halving the club’s rent commitments. In 2012 they sold on the site to the One in a Million school, and City quickly flourished.
Such moments are less headline-grabbing than beating Arsenal and Chelsea, but they are absolutely vital landmarks of the club’s resurgence. Lawn, Rhodes and Baldwin were vital in making it happen and in turning around the sinking ship. The training ground set-up, easing of rental pressures – and the cheap season tickets – are the foundations of the club’s ongoing success, and they are reasons why McCall’s toaster can be laughed about now.
As Edin Rahic watched the second half of Bradford City’s terrific midweek victory over Northampton Town from the back of the Kop, he would surely have felt immense pride about the club he has recently bought and of its potential to go further. It has been a smooth first six months at the helm for City’s German owners. A transition that threatened to be very bumpy has proven remarkably calm.
City haven’t missed a beat, and their excellent first third to the campaign offers strong potential of the club taking another forwards step.
Those sound building blocks from before have served Rahic and McCall well, and they allow them to dream bigger. It’s too early to declare any of Rahic’s decisions a success, but his strategy of involving more people than just the manager in transfer decisions – a move that was rumoured to have pushed Parkinson out the door – is bearing fruit.
McCall, Kenny Black, Rahic and of course the new head of recruitment Greg Abbott have brought in players who have hit the ground running. The worrying squad gaps that Parkinson’s departure caused have been addressed. The more unlikely and unpromising summer signings have proven amongst the best performers. They have been welcomed into a dressing room of strong characters, absorbed the culture and ethos, and thrived.
That’s on the field, and what Rahic and Stefan Rupp deliver off it could be just as important. The club are once again tapping on the door to the Championship, and if this season or the next is to end in the glory of promotion, the owners will face another big challenge in making sure City can cope with would clearly be an almighty step up.
Lawn hinted strongly that he and Rhodes would not have been able to afford to fund City in the Championship, where clubs run up huge debts and pay colossal amounts on player wages in chasing the dream of the Premier League. Yet one of the key reasons why Rahic and Rupp chose to invest into City in the first place was the fact they were in the black. Does he really want to be spending fortunes on making sure City can compete? Can he afford to? Recently he has also spoken about wanting to take the Bantams even further – the Premier League – and in doing so charge just £1 for tickets.
It will take a lot of investment for City to reach such giddy heights.
Rachic’s plan to achieve these major ambitions is unclear, but his talk of bringing through youth players and his deliberate moves to have a stronger management structure – one that doesn’t fully depend on who the manager is – point to a focus on strengthening the club’s infrastructure. Those who know Rahic hint that he will be willing to make big signings as and when needed, but that seems to be part of a bigger strategy rather than being the strategy.
Mark Lawn has recently returned on the radar after declaring his interest in buying the crisis-stricken Bradford Bulls. Weirdly, part of his plans for the Rugby club would seemingly include trying to get City to move to Odsal with the Bulls, by encouraging the council to rebuild the stadium for both sports.
He said: “We would have moved Bradford City up to Odsal on a redeveloped site, without a doubt. It wouldn’t have been popular with City fans but I would have been able to put more money into the football and rugby team.” Those words are typically blunt but also familiar, as Lawn spent much of his time at the Valley Parade helm talking about how he wanted to put every penny into the team, nothing else. It is a laudable concept and something most fans would find difficult to find fault with; but as an owner you have to go beyond making sure the club has a good striker. (And you certainly don’t abandon your home to buy one!)
Lawn realised those lessons in time and success followed. Rahic seems to be in tune with the off-the-field priorities from day one. He wants to deliver organic growth and for success to be built on more solid platforms, even if that means it would take longer to achieve. For example he would rather see Reece Webb-Foster develop than bring in an ageing, proven striker who can deliver instant results.
Such plans require time to bear fruit, and strangely the progress of Bradford City this season could mean that the stronger infrastructure plans Rahic might have would need to be accelerated through. Either way, there seems to be more of a plan, and a bigger vision, than there was before. It seems like it was the right time for Lawn and Rhodes to have passed on the baton. Not all of the detail of Rahic’s plans are known, but the intention is fairly clear.
Time will tell if it will work out, but the first six months of Rahic’s time at City suggests the club still have a way to go before they hit a glass ceiling. And if anyone loses sight of just how far we have come, they’d be advised to head down to Woodhouse Grove for a slice of toast.