By Jason McKeown
Over the last few weeks I have met with Edin Rahic and Daniel McGeachie, who has recently joined the club’s communication team, plus spoken to other people with close links to Bradford City. What follows is my attempt to present the story of what has been happening behind the scenes in a balanced, non-judgemental way. It is up to you, valued reader, to form your own opinions.
When Bradford City kick off the 2018/19 season on Saturday 4 August, it will be a football club submerged in, and amendable with, the blueprint and vision of Edin Rahic. After taking over the club in May 2016, the Rahic and Stefan Rupp stamp now firmly runs through the club. Direction, approach and philosophy stem from the clear ordinance of the Bradford City chairman.
Tony McMahon’s summer departure means there is no longer a single senior member of the playing squad who was at the club before Rahic and Rupp’s arrival. The coaching staff is all but transformed, save for Alan Nevison and Chris Royston. On the non-football side of things, only a handful of key positions are held by staff members who were here pre-May 2016. Commercial manager Michael Shackleton, ticket office manager Mick Lamb and media manager Mark Harrison, for example.
Rupp has no day-to-day involvement in the club. He owns the majority of Bradford City and it reportedly worth over £100 million. But he has bought the club with the aim of running it as a business, not to pour in his personal fortune.
Rahic has been inside the club day in day out for the past two years. The pair have agreed for Rahic to implement significant culture shifts in terms of the philosophy on and off the pitch, and in how the club operates. This has involved challenging members of staff over the way they work and how it can be improved. Some of these conversations has uncovered practices and procedures that alarmed the owners, and prompted an expectation for employees to work in a different manner.
Any organisation that goes through a cultural change will have its casualties. There has been a higher than usual turnover of staff – relative to the club’s historic trends – especially over the past 12 months. Some of the people who have departed had clocked up years of service for the club – often playing a significant role behind the scenes.
Clearly, some have not appreciated Edin’s hands-on style, with some airing their grievances to supporters in open or cryptic ways. Others have seemingly adapted to the change and continue to serve the club well. Meanwhile, Rahic is keen to make sure his employees have clearly defined roles, and focus solely on these. The owners are creating new roles and an organisational structure which hasn’t previously existed.
The risk of this approach is that, by allowing people to leave, you won’t automatically be able to replace them with employees of equal or greater ability. That’s not meant to be a criticism or slight on anyone who has joined the club over the past two years – they may have made a hugely positive difference behind the scenes. But Bradford City, like many League One clubs, will not be high payers for non-playing staff, and have traditionally relied on employing people with a huge amount of goodwill towards the club. That kind of dedication can be difficult to find. It’s hard to teach people to care.
Take the playing squad changes over the past 12 months, which included the departures of the final members of the history makers squad – a team that embodied a never-say-die attitude, and personified incredible levels of character. The January 2018 collapse strongly suggests the dressing room is no longer as strong as it used to be. Sometimes you don’t realise what you had until it has gone. It is difficult, as supporters, to gauge the impact of non-playing staff changes. Rahic is looking for professionalism and dedication in everyone he employs – to consider themselves as working for the club rather than simply working to pay off a mortgage. And therefore, to regularly go that extra mile.
Another potential downside is the loss of a lot of experience. In the four years before Rahic and Rupp arrived, the club enjoyed considerable success and a collective spirit was fostered within the club and amongst supporters.
In terms of key personnel, James Mason represented the final link between the past and present. Julian Rhodes had stayed on after the takeover to act in an advisory capacity, but this was cut short. Other directors from Rhodes and Mark Lawn’s time are no longer steering club matters and have assumed the title of Club Ambassadors. Roger Owen, one of the now former-directors, recently shared his feelings on the matter via the Bantams Talk message board, “If only people would accept experienced advice the world would be a better place and business would run smooth in my not insubstantial experience.”
The key word here is experience. When Stefan Rupp first visited Valley Parade in November 2015 as part of negotiations to buy the club, the 0-0 draw with Coventry he saw was the first time he had attended a football match. Rupp is unquestionably a hugely successful businessman, but he does not know the football industry. Rahic has a greater insight after a short spell as player (ended by injury), working as a scout and sitting on the board at Stuttgart Kickers. He has developed links with clubs like Bayern Munich and the Matter of Heart film has helped to establish new contacts around Europe. However, the pair did not buy Bradford City with first-hand experience of running a football club, never-mind a football club in a foreign country.
That is not to accuse the pair of naivety. Rahic did his homework. He studied British football, and his extensive research into the 92 in England and Wales, plus Scottish clubs, lead him to conclude Bradford City suited his ideals and ambitions. He is not the Venkeys who, as the legend goes, apparently bought Premier League Blackburn Rovers without realising the club could be relegated. The plan he has developed is one he retains full conviction in, despite recent knocks.
But that lack of experience does mean mistakes are inevitable, and it is worth pondering how Rahic’s background stacks up against other City chairman of the last three decades. In terms of involvement running a football club, it can be argued Rahic is the least experienced since David Simpson, who in February 1990 led a consortium that bought out Jack Tordoff.
Simpson was succeeded by Geoffrey Richmond four years later, who had substantial experience running Scarborough. Julian Rhodes, whose family bought into the club in 1997, spent time learning from Richmond before events thrust him into the limelight. And even Gordon Gibb and Mark Lawn were working alongside Julian when they became chairman, and so had an experienced hand to guide them.
Rahic and Rupp have isolated themselves from such first-hand expertise. Whilst Lawn and Rhodes are still regulars at Valley Parade, they are there as spectators and have no active involvement. Mason was a vital steering hand over the 2016/17 season – Rahic’s first year as chairman – especially. But his influence has been significantly reduced. It all means Rahic has limited access to guidance and exposure from people who have been there and done it. That when it comes to shaping new ideas and developing plans, there isn’t a great deal of in-house knowledge to offer opinions on whether it will work.
Of course, the personnel changes can be advantageous too. The new employees – on and off the field – should have greater buy-in of Rahic’s vision and way of operating. And if everyone is pulling in the same direction, the club has a far greater chance of success. Greg Abbott is a great example of this. The head of recruitment plays a huge role here in supporting Rahic, and the pair are said to work very closely on a daily basis.
Whatever you think of Rahic and Rupp’s strategy for the club, it is unconventional and different to the rest of English football. Embedding it can, and probably has, thrown up resistance and opposition, which can dilute the approach or disrupt its implementation. And if Rahic and Rupp are confident in their own ability and ideals, does it help to surround yourself with people who tell you that you might be wrong? Or is it better to have people who are on the same page, working for you to achieve it?
Time will tell.
The new head coach is a further statement of Rahic’s culture and philosophy. Whilst he and Rupp deserve credit for giving Stuart McCall the job after Phil Parkinson quit the club two years ago, it came on the back of a recommendation from Julian Rhodes. That said, Rahic was well aware of McCall’s qualities after watching him play for Rangers during a period where he lived in Glasgow.
Simon Grayson’s appointment came at a time when Rahic was dealing with the supporter backlash caused by the harsh sacking of McCall. Landing the serial promotion-winner was a coup, but it was driven by short-term aims of trying to secure a play off spot. Despite his underwhelming 14-game spell in charge, Rahic held talks about keeping Grayson. If the former Leeds and Huddersfield man had stayed on, the model would be very different to what it is now. Grayson is a manager, not a head coach.
So instead Michael Collins comes in to replace Grayson. And this is undoubtedly a Rahic appointment, driven by him with minimal input from others.
It was a long, drawn-out process – which has cast doubt over just how attractive the Bradford City position, and by implication working with Rahic, has become. But in Rahic’s defence, he had a very specific vision of what he was looking for. The head coach role is pretty much alien to Bradford City supporters, and it has made it difficult for us to truly understand what the club was looking for and the type of candidates who would fit the bill.
The head coach recruitment approach automatically ruled out a number of out-of-work managers. It narrowed the search into areas that are more known within the industry than to the football public. Several people were interviewed, and – upon hearing what Rahic was looking for – ruled themselves out of contention. Finding the right candidate, who was willing to take on this specialised role, was not easy. We can but hope the long wait proves worth it.
Collins’ job specification stretches beyond winning games of football. He is expected to coach and develop young players, affording them opportunities in the first team along the way. He will be judged on the level of improvement he can cultivate from the squad – even though, due to the transfer committee approach, not all the players brought in are of his choosing. If players increase in value, either in terms of what they bring to Bradford City on the field or in the profit that can be made on the transfer market, Collins is doing his job.
Rahic spoke a lot to me about Sunderland, Wigan, Blackburn and Sheffield United – divisional rivals to City, whose big budgets City simply cannot match. He wants to find a way to compete with them whilst spending less. A head coach approach is his way of finding that added value.
The style of football is also important. Rahic has always valued attacking football but it is more considered than that. He acknowledges that it was a mistake to lose so much character in the players the club have let go over the past two years, and that winning in a certain style, with high levels of commitment and belief, can be a template to success. It might not translate into a promotion-challenging squad next season, but if Rahic can see that something is building and a clear attack-minded philosophy is developing, the head coach will be viewed as performing well.
The big challenge that Rahic and Collins will face is whether those ideals are accepted and bought into by supporters.
After all, in 2016 and 2017 City finished in the play off spots and came close to promotion from League One. The expectation when Rahic and Rupp bought the club is they would have the financial resources to take the club up to the Championship. And the pair’s public comments about aiming for the Premier League do little to temper such hopes. If City are stuck in mid-table next season – or worse – will bringing through young players appease fans? History suggests not.
And at that point, Collins will need the support of his chairman. If the club is struggling and fans are restless, the temptation to abandon a youthful philosophy, simply to get short-term results, will be difficult to resist. Collins takes a job where it is okay to lose football matches, providing the medium to long-term strategy is progressing. But it won’t be easy. If, in the worst case scenario, City stand 19th in League One come October, the bravery to give young players like Omari Patrick a run in the team will be severely tested.
On Rahic’s part, his emotions and passion have sometimes contradicted these ideals. He partly sacked Stuart McCall for a short-term bad run of results. The Matter of Heart film features scenes where Rahic cannot hide his anger about drawing matches. He will argue that – when the team is drawing – he would rather see City go all out for a win and risk losing, rather than settle for a point. But the rumoured fallout between McCall and Rahic, after the 2016/17 Easter Monday loss to Sheffield United – a game where McCall went too gung ho – hints of a failure to live up to these values. Finally, the short Grayson era saw Rahic aim to appoint someone who is anyone but a head coach, causing mixed signals.
Ultimately, Rahic has a big role to play in supporting his man through good times and bad. And in demonstrating a strong commitment to these ideals through the volatility of a football season.
If the transfer approach, married with good coaching, can succeed, City genuinely could have a competitive advantage. Tyrell Robinson is on his way to being the first successful product from this strategy. If the young winger can build on his breakthrough year, his reputation and transfer value will grow, and he could be sold for a huge profit. Should the likes of Joe Riley and Jordon Gibson follow suit next season, in a couple of years’ time they could also command sizeable transfer fees. Along the way, the club would benefit from the strong performances of developing players, which should translate into success and perhaps even that elusive promotion.
The key is to keep unearthing these undervalued players – there remains huge scepticism amongst supporters over Rahic’s involvement in this aspect of the strategy. But if they can get recruitment right. And if the young players are brought into a team alongside experienced heads – who can lead from the front during difficult times especially – the club has a real chance of success. Nevertheless, it is at present an unproven strategy. Can a team of Tyrell Robinsons compete with a Sunderland side built on a budget of millions? Can the club turn other clubs’ young cast offs into players who command substantial transfer fees? And do the unsuccessful purchases of Dominic Poloen and Shay McCartan give confidence that any transfer windfalls will be utilised wisely?
It could work, but the brutal reality is that it has to start working quickly. The last few, difficult months have come at a heavy cost to the club. Rahic’s standing amongst fans has taken a serious hit. Thousands of fans have voted with their feet by not renewing their season tickets; others have renewed but are not convinced by the chairman’s methods.
Rahic has his supporters for sure, but the whole atmosphere has become fractured. If this long-term plan takes too long to get going, the patience simply isn’t going to be there. It is not hard to envisage supporter hostility at matches. The season needs to start well.
Rahic also has a duty to communicate better with fans. The club has its own media channels, the interest of local media organisations, and is attempting to build better relationships with fans media. Rahic needs to utilise them all. He cannot go into hiding, like he did in the months after sacking McCall. He has to accept he cannot control the debate. But by actively engaging with supporters, he can influence the conversation positively.
When I spoke to Rahic he acknowledged this. He and the club are seeking to improve communications, with the recent Bantams Banter video interview a step in the right direction.
Ultimately, we enter a critical phase in Rahic and Rupp’s reign at the club. Their ideals and approach are now fully installed in and around Valley Parade. If Collins doesn’t work out, Rahic’s judgement will come into question. If the team under-performs over the 2018/19 season, the chairman will get blamed. But that works the other way too. If Collins is successful – and if the club start to embrace the underdogs role and compete at the top – Rahic will deserve the credit. For better or worse, this is his plan.
Rahic and Rupp are not going anywhere, and it has proven to be a bumpy journey to get to this point. Whether we are on the right path, and whether the pair are capable of taking the club forwards, will truly be known over the next few months. It’s a big, big season in the modern history of Bradford City Football Club – and it’s impossible to know which way it will go. The stakes are incredibly high. There are a lot of questions that are yet to be answered.
Are Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp changing Bradford City for the better? Or is the heart being ripped out of the club? We will soon find out.