By Jason McKeown
10 years ago, Mike Ashley was a popular owner of Newcastle United. Having bought the club in 2007, he sacked the under-performing Sam Allardyce, replacing him with a club legend in Kevin Keegan. Ashley was one of the lads, even sitting with Newcastle supporters for the derby game at Sunderland. It seemed he understood the club, and the fans were right behind him.
But then Keegan stepped down as manager – he later won a case for constructive dismissal – finding he could not work for Ashley. Keegan was not given control over transfers. After reluctantly agreeing to sell James Milner – falsely promised by Ashley that Bastian Schweinsteiger would be signed as a replacement – and after seeing players brought in that he didn’t want or rate, Keegan walked away from the club he loved.
Newcastle fans were outraged, and angrily protested against Ashley. Things were never the same again. Ashley remains at the helm, but is a dispassionate, aloof owner despised by most Newcastle United fans.
As the fall out continues over Bradford City’s complete and utter collapse since January, and fans debate over whether chairman Edin Rahic might be the next Coventry, Charlton or Leyton Orient owner, to me it is the comparison with the early reign of Mike Ashley that seems most apt.
Whilst Bradford City lost 5-0 at Blackpool on Saturday – a new nadir to an utterly appalling second half to the season – Rahic and his family were back in Germany. The joint-owner missed the disgraceful performance from the players, and the angry reaction of a sold out away following who even resorted to singing Stuart McCall’s name. Rahic has missed more than half of City’s games since taking the controversial decision to sack McCall in early February, after six straight defeats. This was someone who loved the club, never missing a home game and even going to the development squad games. Rahic is said to remain hands on away from matches.
A break with the family is probably needed by Rahic, and certainly not something to begrudge. But when his batteries are rercharged, there remains a mounting list of problems back at Valley Parade. And the increasing distance between chairman and supporters is amongst the issues.
Ashley would eventually acknowledge he made mistakes in first sacking Allardyce and then not properly backing Keegan. But the damage it caused to his standing amongst supporters is something he could not or would not repair. And Newcastle United remains a much poorer club for this fractious relationship.
We don’t want the same at Bradford City.
Let’s be clear, it is not Edin Rahic’s fault that City were so badly beaten at Bloomfield Road. The players continue to down tools. Rumours of a split in the camp are supported by what we see with our own eyes. The Tony McMahon absence in January was allegedly due to something more serious than an interest from Scunthorpe United in the player. And it has had lasting repercussions.
The players have failed to perform for the club ever since the events in and around the Yeovil Town game, where Luke Hendrie made a dramatic departure from the team hotel. Those close to the players tell of a dislike within the camp towards the chairman, with the rumours about clashes over bonuses failing to be adequately cleared up at the fans forum. The players stopped playing under McCall, and they aren’t playing for Simon Grayson either.
It is therefore obvious the players have stopped playing for the club. To us supporters, paying good money and investing time to watch the games, this is unacceptable – and certain players need to be pushed out during the summer. It is absolutely galling, especially when our recent history has been lit up by players achieving astonishing things by ploughing their heart and soul into Bradford City, and the meaningful bond that developed between the team and supporters.
That connection disappeared when the last of the history makers exited last summer. How we have missed Stephen Darby, James Meredith and Rory McArdle; even others who learned to embody these values, such as Josh Cullen, Mark Marshall and Billy Clarke. It’s difficult to look at any of the current squad and feel that same affection. Even the likes of Romain Vincelot and Tony McMahon are undoing their legacies.
The players clearly have their reasons for feeling the way they do, and those in a position to question them need to get to the bottom of it and fix it. But this shocking attitude is badly hurting fans. If the players don’t want to play for the owner, fine, but what about us? What have we done to deserve such spineless performances?
They must improve, or the atmosphere during the five final home games will grow incredibly toxic. This is the game group of players who were in the play offs for more than half a season. They are capable of much better. So show it.
What to make of Simon Grayson? He was the best candidate for the job, without question. And of any available manager out there right now, Grayson’s record remains superior. It’s not his team, and the players he has inherited are not suited to his style of football.
It’s difficult to be judgmental, yet still there is a sense of disappointment that Grayson has failed to impress. He almost boasted about his credentials when he first joined, but has struggled to back that up. If he stays, he will go into next season without a honeymoon period from City fans. Ultimately, the size of the budget will determine his future.
Which brings us back to Rahic, and his ambitions and capability to arrest Bradford City’s slump. There have been rumours of interest in buying the club from Rahic and Stefan Rupp, but Width of a Post understands there is absolutely no desire to sell up. For Rahic – who invested a six figure sum into the club, alongside Rupp’s larger capital – running a football club remains his dream.
Personally, I don’t buy into the argument that Edin is a bad person, out to ruin the club. Whilst there are, admittedly, troubling comparisons with the early reign of Charlton owner Roland Duchâtelet and Ashley’s, I believe Rahic’s intentions are good, and his vision for bringing success to the club is a laudable one.
The problem, however, is the way he is going about it, and the mistakes he is making – which have very much fallen into the public domain. And it is damaging his credibility and his reputation.
Whatever your view on sacking Stuart McCall, it hasn’t resulted in any improvement in the club’s fortunes – the opposite, in fact. All it has succeeded in doing is upsetting a huge proportion of fans, and creating a mood of disillusionment that is proving impossible to shift. The transfer strategy Rahic has instilled and oversees, as Head of Football, isn’t working, even if many of the principles behind it are credible.
With a host of non-playing staff having also departed behind the scenes this season, Bradford City have started to resemble something akin to the Trump administration. Some of those who have exited talk of an atmosphere of feeling belittled and not trusted to do what they’re good at. Most have not been replaced. The toxic atmosphere has seemingly spread into every area of the club.
The Matter of Heart film featured a number of staff admitting they found Edin Rahic difficult to work with. That his hands-on, constant-barrage-of-questions was exhausting. No one likes to be micromanaged. Edin has invested his money into the club and cares deeply about how it operates. But good leadership is learning the value of delegation and empowering people to build and develop their own skill set, even if they don’t always come to decisions that you necessarily agree with.
A good delegator ensures their team or organisation functions better and achieves more. A poor delegator overburdens themselves with too much work, whilst employees become under-used, bored and feel like they’re not trusted.
The loud blasts of criticism Rahic is now receiving are unrelenting, and they are only going to carry on from some fans. Unless City miraculously turn around the season, it will continue into the summer and then only get worse if next season starts off slowly (imagine, also, the backlash if Grayson elects not to stay).
And that should worry everyone who cares about the club.
So what is the solution? Because Edin isn’t going anywhere, and nor do I personally want him to. I’ve met him twice, and he is a good man who genuinely loves the club. He lives and breathes what he does. He’s moved his family from Germany to West Yorkshire to be here. His commitment, dedication and enthusiasm are qualities that can add huge value to the club.
But at the same time, he doesn’t look like he knows how to fix this mess, and that he is out of his depth. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s not meant to be a malicious one. We are talking about someone who has only limited experience of running a football club. Yes, he has done scouting in Germany and was on the board at Stuttgart Kickers. But that doesn’t give him the necessary experience and perspective that is needed during downturn moments like this.
Rahic might have ideals about how to make a football club successful, but this is the first time he’s tried to put it into practice. And to add to the challenge, he is implementing it in a country he is less familiar with, and at a football club much bigger than Stuttgart Kickers; bringing with it a different level of pressure.
In such circumstances, mistakes are inevitable. Rahic is on the biggest learning curve of his life. Did he realise, for example, just how much he would need to know about the cost of drainage underneath a football pitch? I bet he knows more about it now than he ever wanted to.
Rahic needs to understand that he needs help to get through this crisis, and he needs it now. It’s no use isolating yourself, or hiding away in a sulk over the fact not everyone shares your view on events. That’s why I believe the best solution right now for Rahic is to take a step back. Accept the help of others. Allow them to take on more responsibility. Put people in charge who know what they’re doing.
James Mason can be that man. He’s been part of the Valley Parade scene since 2014, when he was brought in by Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn to follow in the formidable footsteps of David Baldwin. He has been able to add to the success of the club in recent seasons, most notably significantly building on the season ticket initiative that has seen sales reach record figures.
Mason has the experience of difficult moments – ask him about the Reading cup ticket fall out – and has been here to turn around the club through poor runs of form. He has had some involvement in signing players, and knows the club inside out. He understands what it takes for Bradford City to succeed.
And, like Edin, he also cares deeply about the club.
When David Baldwin joined Bradford City in 2007, it was on a six-week arrangement to look at how the club could generate more commercial income. He was asked to stay on and given more responsibility, moving onto look at the club’s infrastructure and if it could become more efficient. This was followed by negotiating the buying of the office blocks the club was renting at a high cost from Prupim, and setting up the shirt sponsorship deal with Nike. And then Baldwin moved onto the footballing side of things; tackling the difficult problem of inadequate training facilities and supporting Phil Parkinson with signing and releasing players.
At the same time as Baldwin’s responsibilities and influence grew, Mark Lawn began to take more of a step back. Like Rahic, Lawn had attempted to be hands-on during his early years at the helm – at one stage he was even cooking the players’ lunches – but in time he learned the value of letting talented people like Baldwin assume more control, and to ease his own workload to focus on specific areas. It is no coincidence that Bradford City began to become a more successful football club over this period.
Following a similar path now looks like a workable solution for Rahic and Bradford City. James Mason is a popular chief operating officer – you only had to see the professional way he communicates on Twitter to see the rapport and understanding he has with the fans. His article in the Telegraph & Argus made great reading, and he even fronted up on local radio after the Blackpool debacle. He is also well thought of outside of the club. Indeed WOAP understands he turned down an opportunity to work elsewhere last summer.
Blackburn – far from the example of a well-run club – offer an interesting comparison. The Venky family bought the club in 2010 and instilled their own ideas, without taking advice from people who were running the club, and it all went wrong. The Venkys have not attended a game for four years and, this season, have stepped back from running the club, leaving it back in the hands of senior staff. Blackburn are on course for promotion. For Blackburn to have disinterested owners is not a good thing, but at least they are letting the right people run it day-to-day.
In a more prominent position, Mason can start to win back supporters feeling disillusioned by the club. His media background makes him an excellent public figure for the club. Mason has already had some involvement with signing players. He can talk around unhappy sponsors (I’m sure we’ve all heard the rumours). Retain and set up commercial agreements with suppliers. There is not a part of the business he doesn’t know.
By giving Mason more control, and trusting him to make the right decisions, Rahic can ease the pressure on himself.
The worry I have with Rahic following the Mike Ashley path is where that leaves Bradford City’s future. Newcastle now look like a corporate entity, with an uncaring owner openly pocketing supporters’ money and barely reinvesting into the team. At Manchester United, the Glazer family who own the club barely communicate with fans. And as for West Ham United…
There is a coldness about the relationships these supporters have with their clubs, and it would be a very sad day if Bradford City went the same way. We have almost always had an open relationship with our chairmen. It hasn’t meant previous owners have always been popular, but it has almost always felt like they are one of us – caring as much when we win, dreaming the same dreams. Rahic very much began out that way, and I hope we can get it back in time. We don’t want a wall up between the boardroom and the stands. We don’t want it to become “them” and “us”.
It won’t be easy to fix this, and it won’t happen overnight. But that is what Rahic needs to focus on. Start attending community events, engage with supporter organisations, recommence speaking again to Simon Parker and the Telegraph & Argus. Bit by bit, step by step, restore your reputation with the fans. And – after so much talk from him about City getting to the Premier League – start fine-tuning that long-term strategy and bringing it to life, whilst Mason concentrates on the day-to-day decisions.
Of course, that is not the dream that Rahic himself talks about in Matter of Heart, and his reasons for buying the club were to stamp his personality on the club. But that dream has turned into a nightmare. And it needs to be fixed as soon as possible. The talent and expertise lies within the building to turn this around – Rahic just needs to empower people to do their jobs.