By Jason McKeown
It’s not just Theresa May operating with the threat of a leadership challenge. At Bradford City this week, speculation of a takeover attempt has elevated from rumour to the back page. A (legal) coup attempt, headed up by the unlikely pairing of Jack Tordoff and Gordon Gibb. Just when you think the summer can’t get any stranger, this leftfield takeover talk has put the spotlight back on Stefan Rupp and Edin Rahic.
After a difficult six-month period for the German owners, which has seen them come under criticism and pressure from some supporters, an exit strategy of selling Bradford City might appear to be a tempting option. But the noises from within the club have for some time been that there is no appetite to sell. That Rahic and Rupp are fully committed, and have no intention of leaving. It is rumoured that they’ve already flatly rebuffed another approach earlier this year.
And whatever your view of Rahic and Rupp, and their strategy that is now firmly embedded going into the upcoming season, it doesn’t necessarily mean this potential takeover bid is right for the club. What expertise do Tordoff and Gibb offer? Would the club be any stronger financially? Do they understand the club better, just because they were born in the county? After all, their business expertise is largely outside – rather than inside – football.
It’s complicated at best. Jack Tordoff’s relationship with Bradford City goes back decades. Having left school at 15, he embarked on an apprenticeship as a mechanic working at his family’s business. He later decided he could make better money trading cars rather than fixing them, and established the hugely successful JCT 600 business that has turned him into a multi-millionaire, estimated to be worth more than £200 million.
Tordoff first got involved with Bradford City as a director in the 1970s, and his positive influence really grew from 1983, when the Bantams were on the up but over-spending their way to success. In that summer City were placed into receivership, rescued by supporters raising money and a consortium of Tordoff and Stafford Heginbotham, who would return as chairman for a second spell, Tordoff acting as vice-chair.
It proved to an incredible ride; the first era of Bantam Progressivism. Under Heginbotham and Tordoff, City were promoted back into the top two divisions for the first time in half a century, and would be on the brink of promotion to the top flight. There was tragedy too, with the 1985 fire. Heginbotham and Tordoff played a vital part in keeping the club together and supporting fans, players and other staff through such a dark period.
However, Tordoff’s time running the club will always be clouded by the 1988 transfer fall out. Midway through the 1987/88 ‘nearly season’, Heginbotham stood down due to ill health, and Tordoff became chairman. City were doing incredibly well and in the frame for promotion to the old Division One. Famously, manager Terry Dolan wanted to strengthen his talented but thin squad, by bringing in Andy Townsend and Keith Curle for some £650k. The story goes that Tordoff didn’t sanction the deals, and at the final hurdle City’s stretched squad fell short of promotion. Given City had Stuart McCall and John Hendrie on the books, courting attention from big clubs, signing Townsend and Curle was not considered a gamble to some. The club would be able to more than recuperate the £650k outlay by selling McCall and Hendrie if they didn’t go up.
It was a pivotal moment in the club’s history. Had City got promoted to Division One that year, they stood a good chance of establishing themselves in the top flight for years to come. They could have been founder members of the Premier League, when it was launched in 1992. By the time City did reach the top flight in 1999, the financial imbalance of the Premier League meant survival was a tall order, and they were relegated after two seasons. An extra financial push in 1988 could have made a huge difference. We could be talking about a very different Bradford City right now.
Post-1988, the club declined and Tordoff and the board sold up in 1990, just as City were relegated back to the third tier. Since then he has been honorary life president of Bradford City, and the shirt sponsorship of JCT 600 has become synonymous with the club over the past two decades.
No one should doubt, or underestimate, just how much Tordoff cares for Bradford City. He has been vital to our ongoing existence. A presence we should all be grateful for. But now 83-years-old, just what would he be expected to offer other than money? And is that all we care about? Perhaps the real story is why Tordoff would want to get involved again at this point. Rumours of dissatisfied sponsors have been swirling for months. 2+2 doesn’t always make 4, but is there a link?
Where it truly gets complex is Tordoff’s potential partner, Gordon Gibb, the owner of the successful Flamingo Land theme park near Malton. Gibb’s history with Bradford City is chequered to say the least. Like Tordoff, he has rescued the club, appearing on the scene in the troubled summer of 2002, when City were in administration with debts of £36 million. Gibb was just 27-years-old when he agreed a deal with the Rhodes family to jointly buy back Bradford City from the administrators, saving it from going out of business. Gibb was appointed chairman.
In hindsight, Gibb was badly guided by those who were supposed to advise him, and did not do enough due diligence. For the 2002 administration was not an end to City’s financial woes, many of the financial headaches were prevalent and becoming more serious. Attendances and sponsorship interest tumbled, seriously impacting on revenue, and the team struggled under the austerity of low wage budgets and no money for signings, culminating in relegation to League One in 2004.
By that stage, Gibb had left Bradford City. In the autumn of 2003, he and Julian Rhodes were having to deal with two major issues. They were struggling to keep up with the payments of the £7.4 million mortgage taken out by Geoffrey Richmond, in 2000, to pay for the redeveloped Main Stand, with the lender, Lombards, on their backs. A deal was agreed to sell Valley Parade to Gibb’s family pension fund, therefore removing the problem. As part of the agreement, City didn’t have to pay rent for the first 12 months, and were locked into a 25-year lease.
The other problem was that an external review of City’s books found there were significant cashflow problems, and an urgent injection of funds was needed simply to make it to the end of the season. The Rhodes family agreed to pump an extra £3 million into the club, but in return requested from Gibb a greater portion of the overall shareholding of Bradford City. This enraged Gibb, who quit as chairman at the turn of the year. The subsequent fall out led to City returning to administration in February, which they remained in until the end of that year.
Gibb’s relationship with the Rhodes family and the club was now so damaged, he voted against a Creditors Voluntary Agreement package that was needed to take City out of administration. In the end a deal was agreed, but since then City have had no relationship with Gibb – meanwhile the ongoing rental payments are benefiting the family pension fund.
As part of Gibb’s interview with the Telegraph & Argus this week he claims to have always had the club’s best interests at heart. It is hard to see how this stacks up. Of course, we should be grateful he helped to save us back in 2002; but the frosty relations since 2004 have not helped the club’s efforts to reverse the downwards spiral we were in.
After Mark Lawn jointly bought into the club in 2007, he attempted to hold talks with Gibb about buying back Valley Parade, only to be quoted a price twice what was originally paid. In 2011, and with City struggling near the bottom of League Two, Lawn and Rhodes attempted to open a dialogue with Gibb about restructuring the rent agreement so they paid less in League Two, but more if they climbed back up the leagues. Gibb would not engage.
As Mark Lawn told us in 2011 about Gibb, “He’s overvalued the ground. And right now he’s getting about a 15% return on his investment every year. You tell me where you can get that, with a 25-year guarantee? I would say that we have offered Gordon Gibb a fair return to buy it back. If he was a Bradford City fan, he would have let it go at what we’re offering, because he was going to make a good profit on the figures that we offered him.”
There is a common misconception that Gordon controls the Valley Parade ownership debate. He is not the stadium owner, the Gibb family pension fund is. Those who run the fund have an obligation to get the best return for its members, and – for an initial outlay of £2.5 million and some £370k annually for 14 years – they’ve done that with this investment. Nevertheless, Gordon does hold large influence and at the very least could have developed better relations with the club over the past few years. For him to mount a publicity push to buy the club by saying he has always had the best interests of the club at heart does not help his credibility. It is not a good start.
Purely speculating, you also have to wonder if his motives to express interest in buying Bradford City include protecting the Valley Parade investment. There’s now officially only 10 years to go until the 25-year lease comes to an end, at which point City could walk away from the stadium and set up a new home elsewhere. That would leave the Gibb family pension fund with an empty stadium. A worthless asset that would be difficult to sell without making a large loss. And with the redeveloped Valley Parade beginning to show its age in certain places, the asking price of the stadium – should City want to buy it back – will start to reduce too. From the redevelopment of Valley Parade in 1986, to 2028, parts of the ground will be more than 40 years old.
In player terms, it is a bit like the Charlie Wyke situation. You spend money on an asset, it does well and grows in value, but with the contract situation winding down (Wyke now has less than a year to go on his City deal), at what point does the value of the asset start to depreciate? When is the right time to cash in? Or if not, can you extend the contract so the value is better protected? The Gibb family pension fund needs a Bradford City committed to either buying back Valley Parade, or extending the lease. If Gibb is influencing these future discussions on both sides, the outcome can be more favourable for him.
That does not mean this is Gibb’s true intent; the truth is we don’t know. But it underlines the importance of being cautious about this potential takeover attempt, rather than embracing it without challenge. If you agree with Rahic and Rupp’s strategy, you probably don’t welcome this possible approach. If you don’t agree with them, and think the club is in bad hands, you should be even more wary of the intentions and expertise of anyone else who might come to own the club. Just look at Leeds United’s modern history of swapping bad owner with bad owner.
Cards on the table, I’ve got concerns about the recent direction of Bradford City. I have yet to be convinced that we are moving in the right way. In my view, Rahic and Rupp still have to demonstrate they have the leadership ability and skills to take the club forwards. But I’ve no reason, as yet at least, to believe that a Gibb/Tordoff partnership would offer better leadership. It’s can’t be solely about money; it’s about the football club we want to be and the strategy for pushing on up the leagues.
As the debate about Brexit shows, registering dismay at poor leadership is one thing – but change only really happens by demonstrating the ability to offer a better way of doing things. Otherwise, you’re risking just changing one bad strategy for another.
I think we have to give Rahic a chance this season. As we’ll come on to discuss on WOAP over the next few weeks, I think we are taking a very high risk strategy that could go terribly wrong. But this is not the time to rush in and make pre-judgements either way. We have to see how this one pans out.
If the worst happens and Rahic fails this season, it will be interesting to see if there are potential other buyers out there. But we should be cautious about any changing of ownership. The club is too important, and fragile. If Gibb and Tordoff are serious about buying Bradford City, they have just as much to prove as Rahic and Rupp.