By Jason McKeown
Just over a month on from the first meeting, on Tuesday 25 June fans media groups met with representatives from Bradford City to discuss recent events and the plans for the fast-approaching new season.
It was a similar size group getting together. The Head of Media and PR, Ryan Sparks, and Commercial Manager, Mick Shackleton, met with myself and Tim Penfold (WOAP), John Dewhirst (Bantams Past), Aaron Bower (Bantams Heritage), Connor Hughes (Bantams Talk) and Nick Kitchen (Bantams Small Talk).
It has been quite a busy period for the club since we last met. A deluge of new signings, backroom staff changes, an exciting pre-season friendly programme and the release of a claret and amber striped home shirt have all fuelled supporter optimism for the season ahead. The Bantams certainly seem to be in a different place compared to the negative mood at the end of last season.
On the morning of the meeting, City had announced the impressive signing of James Vaughan – a player with notable pedigree at a higher level. This, along with Clayton Donaldson, has demonstrated the financial commitment of Stefan Rupp. The Bantams are bringing in players of a greater calibre than many supporters expected, although that has fuelled speculation the previously mentioned £2.6 million player budget is surely being increased.
Ryan explained that the budget in fact remains unchanged. Despite the speculation Tranmere Rovers came in with a late bid to sign him, Vaughan had all but agreed to become a City player two weeks ago, just before he went away on holiday. All that had been left to do was complete a medical and sign the forms when he got back this week. There was no late drama or bidding war that meant City had to throw huge money at it.
Does the arrival of Vaughan and Donaldson mean the club is confident of offloading the underachieving high earners of last season, to fund these transfers? Again, Ryan stated this wasn’t necessarily the case. Whilst further player departures may happen, nothing is imminent and the arrivals of Vaughan and Donaldson are not linked to an assumption the club will be definitely freeing up budget elsewhere.
Ryan added that the influx of nine new faces is part of a strategic aim to have the key signings for the new season in place for the start of pre-season. There will be more signings right up to the closing of the transfer window, but City seem pleased with the business done so far. Ryan contrasted it to last summer’s transfer activity, when many of the key players were only signed up just before the season began, which evidently caused problems. This time around, Gary Bowyer has the makings of a team he can build further. There is still work to do, of course. Central midfield is an area that still needs strengthening.
The players have this week returned to pre-season training and Ryan – who spent Monday at the training ground – feels the atmosphere is notably different. This is the case amongst players who were here last season too. Shay McCartan and Jordan Gibson have also returned from loan spells looking positive and determined. A fresh start will hopefully benefit everyone.
This led us onto talk about the backroom staff, which has had plenty of supporter focus this pre-season. Gary Bowyer had recently spoken in the Telegraph & Argus about the assistant manager situation that had prompted some concerns this area is being neglected; albeit the subsequent announcements of John Vaughan and Ben Rome have eased fears.
But what of the assistant manager? Ryan and Mick confirmed that Martin Drury will be taking on that role. And, crucially, that Bowyer is happy about that. I tried to push this point – viewed cynically, the fact Drury has two years on his contract to run means Bowyer has little choice – but Ryan argued that Bowyer could have changed it if he really wanted to. There might still be tweaks here and there to the backroom staff, but Bowyer rates Drury and wants to keep him.
Some fans are concerned that Vaughan and Adam Henley have histories of injury problems, and this could cause issues. But when we put this to Ryan and Mick they argued the medicals are much more stringent this season and they’re confident about squad fitness. The players are so far adapting well to the fitness approach brought in by Rome. This includes Jake Reeves, where the first real tests of his recovery from serious injury have so far gone well. Although there is a long way to go and he will be carefully used during the friendlies.
In terms of the strategic objectives of the club, Rupp’s aim right now is to restore Bradford City back to where it was before the implosion. That includes becoming debt-free and self-sufficient again, along with getting out of League Two. Bowyer is being empowered by Rupp and Julian Rhodes to rebuild the club’s identity, right down to the foundations.
And the noises here about Bowyer seem mightily encouraging. Bowyer has taken a real interest in the history and heritage of Bradford City, and he wants his players to buy into it too. We already saw at the end of last season the way Bowyer actively learned about the Fire disaster by watching the film documentary twice – including getting the players to view it.
Within the training ground, Bowyer has sought to make changes to the displays. Removing David Hopkin’s attempts to get players engaged – the former manager put photos up of Valley Parade to try and inspire the squad – and replacing them with timelines about the club’s history, special displays about the History Makers team, and boards marking up notable club records such as all-time most appearances and scorers.
Ryan added that as Bowyer is a keen Rugby League fan (as well as cricket and speedway) he is really bought in on the Bantams Heritage number initiative and very supportive of its introduction this season.
His next step is to get players to value the club’s heritage. He wants them all to understand what it means to play for this club and the identity it stands for. Bowyer’s research has seen him conclude that the club has a rich heritage that should be celebrated. This will be a key part of his pre-season programme with the players.
Elsewhere we chatted about the Liverpool friendly, which is taking shape well and on course to be a sell out. I was intrigued how the fixture came about. Ryan explained that Liverpool were keen to do something to support Stephen Darby, and coupled with City regularly speaking to Darby and his agent, the three parties were able to agree something.
Ryan added Liverpool have been tremendously supportive. Beyond playing Tranmere, it is very rare Liverpool play a pre-season game in the UK. Whilst there are no guarantees of what sort of side Liverpool will bring, Ryan expects them to respect the occasion by fielding a strong team.
This led to us chatting about supporter engagement and the efforts to restore it. Ryan has plans to showcase the personalities of the new Bradford City players so fans get to know them better. The club recognises the lack of relationship between fans and players last season meant there was no patience towards the team when things went wrong. Ryan also has some clever ideas for players engaging with the community that will be interesting if they come off.
There are supporter events planned in July, and talks are ongoing with the council about setting up a fanzone outside the ground on matchdays. The new family stand is something that has been announced since our last meeting, and it is something the club plan to build up. Finally, there are some good ideas around the pre-match music and engaging with supporters on the choice of songs.
The club is proud of season ticket sales in all the adversity of last season. No decision has been made on what they will do with season tickets in future, but Ryan revealed that Rhodes remains a huge advocate for keeping prices low. Rhodes believes the atmosphere it creates can be pivotal in terms of on-the-field success, and that it also really helps the club to attract higher calibre loan players, who want to play in front of big crowds.
Attendance figures announced will be more accurate next season. A change of catering supplier will hopefully lead to better matchday food and drink. The new shirt is selling really well.
Overall there’s no question there has been a lot of progress over the summer, but the tone of what Ryan and Mick had to stay remained realistic and grounded, rather than triumphant. There was a clear acknowledgement that there is still a lot of work to do – and that this season will have its challenges. Rupp, they say, is determined to right the wrongs of what has gone on. They feel the player budget will be strong compared to others in the division, but some clubs – such as Salford – will have bigger resources.
We’re hoping to arrange the next meeting just before the season gets underway.