By Jason McKeown
The former Bradford City chairman Julian Rhodes has today made a surprise return to Valley Parade, taking on a consultancy role. Out of football since selling the Bantams to Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp in May 2016, Rhodes’ return could act as a timely boost for the beleaguered club.
WOAP understands that Rahic approached Rhodes over the weekend to ask him about coming on board to support him. Rahic, who is back from a two-week break in Germany, faces an increasingly impossible task reversing public opinion. Since his abrupt exit at half time of the Accrington game, the Bantams have fallen to the foot of League One. Supporter and sponsor anger at City’s dramatic collapse – Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Portsmouth was a sixth successive league defeat, extending the gap to safety to a daunting seven points – is firmly directed towards the hugely unpopular joint-owner.
It is some backdrop for Rhodes to walk back into, and a stark contrast to the upbeat atmosphere around Valley Parade when he sold up two-and-a-half-years ago. Back then, City had just finished in the League One play off spots under the inspirational management of Phil Parkinson – one of Rhodes’ last acts was to recommend Stuart McCall as replacement. The volatile levels of change since, under Rahic and Rupp, means Bradford City is a very different club on and off the field.
Having spoken to Rhodes on the phone tonight I can confirm he is taking on a day-to-day role. Comparisons have inevitably be drawn between the consultancy title assumed by Rhodes, and that of the role James Mason was supposed to have held after his resignation from the club in May. Mason was not consulted by Rahic, let alone brought into discuss anything. During our short talk tonight Rhodes was already full of ideas, which will become apparent over the coming weeks. He recognises the club must prioritise somehow winning fans back.
This surprise news follows a week of intense speculation that Rahic would be leaving Bradford City, removed by his partner Stefan Rupp. It would never have been that simple. Rahic owns around 22% of the club, and cannot simply be sacked. Nevertheless the growing hostility towards Rahic has seemingly made his position untenable. If it’s not already too late, this is his last, last chance.
Rahic has got so much completely and utterly wrong over 2018. But for once, this looks like a very good decision on his part. It is an acknowledgement and acceptance, finally, that he does not have the expertise and know-how to run a football club. That he needs support if he is to have any hope of salvaging this self-inflicted mess.
My advice to Rahic would be this: listen, listen and listen. Let Rhodes lead in decision-making. Trust in him to rebuild the club. Support him in everything he wants to do. Any illusions you have that you know what you are doing are surely now firmly shattered. There is no shame in asking for help. It’s just such a pity you waited this long. After selling the club in 2016, Rhodes had initially stayed on as a consultant before Rahic told him he wasn’t needed, just six weeks later, saying that personality wise they were very different. Don’t make that same mistake this time around.
And if he does listen and fully trust in Rhodes, Rahic will find he is working with someone he can really learn from. A lifelong City supporter, Julian – and his dad, professor David – first invested in the club back in the summer of 1997. They were very much silent partners behind the bluster of Geoffrey Richmond, providing the finances that helped the Bantams win promotion to the Premier League in 1999.
During those top flight years, the Richmond and Rhodes families rewarded themselves with healthy dividends, but after Richmond’s reckless financial gambles pushed the Bantams into administration by 2002, the Rhodes family paid those windfalls back and then some. David even put his house up as a guarantee to keep the club afloat.
In 2004, the Rhodes family once again rescued the club out of administration, aided by supporters raising £250,000 to keep City in business. And though the slide down the Football League continued, Julian – aided by the 2007 investment of Mark Lawn – eventually turned it around.
From 2012 onwards, Rhodes was instrumental in the resurgence of Bradford City, backed by bulging crowds that were the result of a pioneering approach to season ticket prices that Julian had introduced in 2007. The appointment of Phil Parkinson proved a masterstroke, and when Rhodes sold up in 2016 the club was firmly in the black, and knocking on the door of the Championship.
For Who We Are, I was able to secure Rhodes’ first major interview since leaving the club. He told me, “When we first took the punt, it was incredible really to enter the Premier League, and things seemed to be going very well. But then it all went wrong. I knew there was a big job. I didn’t envisage I would be around for that long.
“The horrific time was 2001-2002 really. It just got a little bit better as we went along. 2004 wasn’t great, but it was a lot better than 2002. And then I used to say to Mark [Lawn] – from 2007 onwards, it was nowhere near as bad as it had been, albeit we flirted with going out of the Football League, which to your average fan looked horrific. But the finances were just getting better and better, and I think I knew if we could keep them in the Football League, there was always going to be that period where everything would bottom out, and we could start moving in the right way again. The catalyst for that was Phil Parkinson coming in as manager in 2011. And I think I owe him quite a lot. I think we all do really.
“To be honest, I was quite proud of the way we brought the club on. You had to be close to it to realise what a basket case it was.”
That experience and know-how of turning around a crisis is absolutely crucial right now. What has damaged the club so badly this calendar year has been the complete and utter failure to show resilience to set backs – both on and off the field. And that comes from poor leadership.
The story of Bradford City’s rise between 2012 and 2016 was not just the cup runs and year-on-year league improvement, but overcoming set backs and sticking together in tough times. That backbone required strong leadership from the top, which Rhodes contributed heavily towards.
And that, coupled with the fact Rhodes has stared into the abyss of the 2002 and 2004 crisises and somehow guided the club to better times, makes him the absolute ideal man to come in right now. Edin, listen to this man. Simple as. And if you can’t and won’t, please go and take a longer holiday.
The scale of the task for Bradford City is enormous. There might still be a long way to go this season, but the desperate league position and poor squad means it is going to be a tall order to avoid relegation. Small crumbs of comfort came from a notably improved performance against league leaders Portsmouth.
Research conducted by WOAP’s very own Alex Scott, in to League One teams bottom after 17 games, since 2004, found only five clubs managed to save themselves from the drop. And only two of those five did it from as far back as City (Tranmere Rovers in 2009 and Notts County in 2013). Both Tranmere and Notts County went onto produce the equivalent of top 10 form to avoid the drop – is this City team capable of that kind of transformation?
It means that money in January remains absolutely vital. With club revenues down, Stefan Rupp will simply have to put his hand in his pocket to give David Hopkin any chance of significantly improving the team. It will need plenty of funds too. All clubs around City will inevitably sign players too. A January window as powder-puff as the last one simply won’t cut it.
If City can somehow avoid relegation, at least the damage of Edin Rahic’s dismal leadership of the club can be salvaged, and there’s a chance to rebuild. But fans will not be easily won over simply by Rhodes’ return, and Rahic’s own re-emergence at Valley Parade this week will see him remain under intense pressure to step down and leave the club.
It’s going to be one heck of a battle rescuing this sinking ship. But at the very least, City now have a man at the helm with proven experience of doing just that.