By Jason McKeown
The name Gareth Roberts might not be familiar to you, but his story is truly inspirational.
Roberts is a multi millionaire who lives in Texas. After working for oil giant Texaco, he founded his own business, Denbury Management Inc, which acquires, develops and explores oil prospects in the United States. It has assets of almost $4.7 billion and its shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. He sold his stake in the business some 10 years ago and dabbles in a range of different ventures.
Roberts is also a Bradfordian.
He grew up in the Holmewood area of Bradford – the South East side of the city. Aged just seven, unimaginable tragedy struck when his father collapsed and died at Gareth’s sports day at the Horsfall Stadium. His mum raised Gareth by herself, but there was very little money and it was a real challenge for him just to complete school.
What made the difference was the community spirit of Holmewood, as locals rallied around the family, providing money and sharing resources they barely had for themselves. Gareth graduated from Tong Comprehensive School and with the support of others successfully applied for a scholarship at Oxford University. He rocked up at college wearing clothes donated by social services.
Roberts’ successful completion of a masters in geology at St. Edmund Hall led to him securing a job at Texaco in London, moving to New Orleans and getting to where he is today. It is a triumph against considerable odds, but he’s not forgotten his roots – and what the people of Holmewood did for him and his mother.
That especially includes his boyhood affection for Bradford Park Avenue, who he was introduced to by his uncle Vincent. Roberts has continued to take in a couple of games a season on visits back to the UK, and in 2015 opted to give something back by buying the club. And now, he’s on the brink of delivering an even bigger community asset to the Holmewood area. One that two of Bradford’s main sporting clubs – the Bulls and Avenue – will also benefit from.
Community is really important to Roberts, who tells Width of a Post, “I’ve no idea what it’s like today, but growing up on Holmewood everybody was poor but there was a certain dignity in being poor. We treated each other pretty well. We got a lot of hand-me-downs from people with not much to hand-down. Quite a lot of neighbourly charity was going on at the time.”
On the springboard that his time growing up on Holmewood gave him, Roberts recalls, “In 1974, the North Sea was just expanding and oil companies in London were looking for people. They recognised that it was slow work. So Texaco sent a group of us to the States to learn about how it was done. I was in New Orleans and Houston for 18 months. That was a great education and I learned a lot about oil and gas. Living in the States. I came back to a miserable time in Britain – the three-day working week and the power cuts, all that sort of stuff. I was able to get another job in oil in Arkansas – I made my own Brexit about 40 years ago!
“I worked for a couple of companies and then started my own company, which eventually got very big. I left that about 10 years ago, to semi retire. I’ve messed about with several other businesses since.”
Those business dabbles included buying Bradford Park Avenue. “I’ve always believed in giving something back to community schemes in Holmewood,” Roberts explains. “I thought buying the club would be a relatively inexpensive way of giving back to the community. But it’s hard to make a difference.”
The investment in Bradford Park Avenue has aided the club. Over the past two seasons, Avenue have reached the National League North play offs, coming close to being just one division below City. Next year will be the 50th anniversary since Park Avenue were voted out of the Football League and the ambition is still there to regain league status. But Roberts is not operating like the Class of 92 at Salford, who are willing to pump in endless money to make it happen. First and foremost, Avenue must be a community asset.
At the end of last year, Gareth’s partner and Director at Bradford Park Avenue, Jonathan Collura revealed an ambition to make Avenue self-sustaining, pointing out that the investment since 2015 had covered the club’s daily expenses rather than improving its infrastructure. Losses had totalled in excess of £1 million with little to show for it. Collura announced a change of tact, stating, “You will see some changes coming. Each will focus on sustainability, advancement of the squad and the ultimate goal of attaining Football League status.”
This leads us to Roberts’ greater ambitions that stretch beyond Park Avenue and making a much bigger difference to the community. In May it was announced Avenue is in advanced talks with the council to take on a 35-year lease on the Horsfall Stadium. It’s a really important step in enabling Roberts to use the land to develop superior facilities that will be used not just by Park Avenue and probably the Bulls – but also the Bradford public.
Roberts is investing a sizeable amount of his own money to create a community sporting hub. It is a very significant move for the future of Bradford sport, and will create a lasting legacy that can enhance the lives of Bradfordians.
Roberts reveals, “It has been a little bit slow developing because we’ve had to wait for now for the council to agree to give us a long enough lease on the place where we can actually do things to improve it. We would like to put a 3G pitch in there, so we can get use on it seven days a week. We’d like to be able to access FA money. And you can’t do that until you have a long lease.
“One of the things that made a difference in my childhood was sports, so I thought that having Bradford Park Avenue would be a useful top of a pyramid that includes youth football development. The club is in what we call a community interest company. It’s non profit. It’s for the community. We’re probably not going to get to the Premier League soon, so really the focus is on the community and just getting more and more kids playing good quality sports.”
The timing is vital to the city. “You probably know that a lot of pitches in Bradford are not the best,” Roberts reflects. “The council has struggled to keep them up anyway, and now we’ve even more cuts it’s impossible for them. So we’re not only looking at the Horsfall Stadium but we’ve started a Horsfall Trust which is going to try and extend the management to some of these grass fields and improve them. Build some proper changing rooms next to them. And get them being used more often. Bradford has a lot of green space, but it’s not being well used. That’s the motivation.”
Roberts’ regular visits back to his home city have enabled him to develop a keen appreciation of the economic challenges the city faces. But he believes sport is a great way to offer development and life lessons to young Bradfordians. “Growing up and maturing through sport is what a lot of kids need, and some of them won’t be getting it right now,” he argues. “Ironically Bradford has a lot of 3G pitches, but they’re all at these Bradford institutions that don’t seem that motivated to use them in the evenings. In some cases it’s positively discouraged.
“We want to create a football hub where there’s a lot of things going on – a refreshment tent, just a lot more fun. You could have mini tournaments.
“The city is making a decent try of improving the amount of 3G pitches in use, and we are part of what they call a satellite hub. And I just wish we could go faster. It is politics and it is difficult. The whole country seems to have been frozen for the last three years because of Brexit, and this means it’s difficult for sponsors to really open up their chequebooks. Patience is required – but we’re not going to be deterred.”
The ever closer link up between the Bulls and Avenue is interesting. The two clubs share admin staff, saving money and swapping expertise. Avenue’s community focus has seen them launch season tickets under the marketing campaign ‘Proper Bradford’ and return to its more traditional, Bradford red-amber-black sporting colours for this season. When the Bulls played Leeds Rhinos in the Challenge Cup in May, the hashtag #beatleeds was embraced by both the Bulls and Avenue. Just 1.4 miles separate the clubs, who have run special discounts to entice supporters of each club to visit the other.
Of course, Bradford Park Avenue and Bradford Bulls share roots, with the Rugby League club set up in 1907 as a protest after Bradford FC switched from Northern Union to Association Football. This close working approach makes them both a more powerful force.
Roberts is a keen advocate of the benefits of shared resources. “It’s just simply using some common people that do the same job – catering staff, groundkeepers. The Bulls have helped us out with some management issues that we’ve had.
“The city’s got a problem compared to other cities that have a nice stadium, good facilities and sporting villages, that sort of thing – we don’t have that in Bradford and I hope we can get one.”
The inspiration for Roberts’ approach comes from the US, and the wonderfully named Nebraska Bugeaters – who Collura launched in January 2018. The Bugeaters are also a community club, focused on developing college and local athletes. Collura has established a link that will see Lewis Rathbone and Jack Bennett join Avenue from the US college system via the Bugeaters. The success of Man City’s Jack Harrison – who spent last season on loan at Leeds – shows the potential fruits of bringing in US college players.
The Bugeaters focus heavily on providing an enhanced matchday experience – they even offer their own beer. It’s a model Avenue is looking to replicate, and the recent friendly with Bradford City saw a huge amount of work by the club staff – including CEO Damian Irvine – to promote the game. They arranged for craft beer to be on sale and activities for kids, to make it a bigger event. The Bugeaters kit is a nod to Nebraska’s agricultural heritage and the tractor on the club badge is based on a model Collura’s grandfather had. It is this type of thinking that has shaped Bradford Park Avenue’s return to traditional colours, and the redesigning of the club badge.
But if one side of the city is becoming stronger in both its sporting clubs and community links, the question is what involvement Bradford City might want to have in what is happening. For decades City have used Apperley Bridge for training facilities. There was a clear detriment to the club, who for many years didn’t have on-site changing facilities, meaning the players had to drive to and from Valley Parade in training gear. The 2011 tie-up with Woodhouse Grove School has led to on-site facilities and ongoing improvements to the training pitches, but Stephen Warnock and Simon Grayson were recent critics of the set-up.
In 2010 Peter Taylor had requested City find better training facilities, but the club could only find a suitable venue on the outskirts of Leeds – a move that fell through at the last minute. At the time Mark Lawn complained of the lack of alternative options in Bradford. So if City were ever to want or need to move away from the Woodhouse Grove arrangement, they’d find a similar shortage of options.
Which might make the Horsfall initiative an attractive one to the Bantams. There’s also the huge appeal of the community work Roberts is spearheading. It might unearth players who could have a future at Bradford City. And perhaps more tellingly, it would allow the Bantams to get closer to the roots of the city. Becoming a more prominent and valued part of the community – and encouraging the next generation of locals to be City supporters.
Would Roberts and Avenue welcome a closer relationship with City? “Avenue and the Bulls are trying to help each other and we would extend that to Bradford City as well. We talked to City a couple of years ago, with the new owner at the time. He sounded enthusiastic but we never really had a response.
“I think that the management at the time was just interested in developing players for the first team and would have been interested in any players that we might be developing in the youth ranks, but that’s not our focus at all. We want to have a youth system, a BTEC academy, but we’re not looking to be elite. We’re looking to have a cross section of society, average people. And of course we’ll get some good athletes no doubt, but it’s not just about developing the best players. We’re also interested in ladies football and developing our academy to take girls. Participation sport is the main thing.”
It is such grounded ambition that makes Roberts’ approach so interesting. He comes across as extremely modest, and during the recent pre-season friendly between Bradford Park Avenue and Bradford City he was spotted helping out staff with various jobs, and chatting to people with a clear concern of wanting everyone to enjoy themselves. There’s no aloofness, or being flashy about his wealth and status. It’s an approach other football club owners could learn from (Edin Rahic, for example, was said to order members of staff to clean his car every week).
And there is value in his One Bradford mantra. Ever since the emergence of Bradford FC and Manningham FC in the late 1880s, Bradford’s split loyalties have held it back as a sporting powerhouse. The Bantams were less of a force than they could have been because of the rivalry with Avenue, and vice-versa. In the sixties, both clubs were in a dismal state and it was only a matter of time before one went out of business.
It was to City’s good fortune that it was they, not Avenue, who survived, and for half a century the rivalry has reduced to nothing. But the late nineties emergence of the Super League saw the Bulls dominate Rugby League and become World Champions, detracting support for a struggling Bradford City. Even in the modern era, Bradford sporting allegiances are split.
What’s striking about the Bradford Park Avenue project is the way Roberts and the club are embracing the original sporting heritage of the city. The recent #ProperBradford initiative has been a clear move on Avenue’s part to reach out to the whole of Bradford, including Bradford City, to celebrate a common bond of a love for our city and our local sport.
“We want to encourage Bradford City fans to come down to the Horsfall Stadium when City are away,” Roberts concludes. “The sporting clubs in Bradford are all really aligned. We want to make sport a part of the Bradford culture. We’re not in competition with each other. It’s basically an attempt to show that we are aligned. It doesn’t matter if you go and see Bradford Bulls, City, Avenue or Eccleshill – let’s have sport for all.”
For more information on how Bradford Park Avenue is paying homage to its past, read John Dewhirt’s excellent Back to the Future article.