By Jason McKeown
As Bradford City prepare for an important game against Carlisle United this weekend, the ownership of the football club has once again come under the spotlight.
Late on Wednesday evening, the Daily Mail reported that the Bantams are the subject of a takeover bid which has stalled because owner Stefan Rupp is asking for £10 million. By Thursday morning, the Telegraph & Argus published a swift denial about the story from Rupp, who claimed there has been no serious recent interest. The chairman also reiterated his commitment to the club.
Takeover rumours have been ten a penny for the past 12 months – here at Width of a Post, barely a month goes by without hearing a new claim of would-be buyers lining up. The much discussed traumas of Edin Rahic saw a well-run club, up until 2016, suddenly rocked by instability. The recovery is far from complete.
It would not exactly be a shock if Stefan Rupp is not the owner of Bradford City in two-five years time. His ownership is somewhat unprecedented in Bradford City history – never before has the club been solely led by such a distant figure, who lives in a different country. Rupp rarely attends City matches. He has his own life in Germany, with other priorities and interests. At times, Rupp must see owning Bradford City as more of a hindrance than a pleasure.
In his defence, a hands-on chairman in the manner City fans are used to was never meant to be part of the deal. Rupp was sold a vision by Rahic, with the agreement Rupp would continue his life in Germany whilst his partner moved to West Yorkshire to run the club day to day. The idea of investing into Bradford City must have seemed fun to Rupp. A quirky hobby, and an unusual status symbol, without huge day-to-day hassle. Prior to opening talks to buy Bradford City in 2015, Rupp had never been to a live football match.
But it does sit uneasy to an extent to have an owner who wants to keep such a low profile. Geoffrey Richmond he is not. And in times of difficulty, such as last season’s needless relegation, fans look for leadership that Rupp could not publicly provide. Many fans also struggle to forgive the fact Rupp unleashed Rahic on the club, and for a time was blind to the destruction that was occurring.
None of this adds up to an obvious long-term relationship between Rupp and Bradford City, but that doesn’t mean he is desperate to sell. Especially at any price. The suggestion presented to WOAP by a reliable source is that a summer offer to buy Bradford City totalled around half what of what Rupp reportedly paid to buy the club in 2016. If true, who can really blame him for turning the bid down?
Asking for £10 million sounds steep. But if you weren’t in a hurry to offload the club, it’s probably a fair figure to quote. Rupp has covered the £2 million loss of last season and put in more of his own money to fund this year’s budget. The Oli McBurnie windfall helps to offset this, but Rupp’s overall outlay in buying City, getting rid of Rahic, and covering those losses will probably approach £10 million by the end of this season. Of course no one is going to take the club off him for that price, but it doesn’t mean Rupp is ready to write off millions of pounds in losses.
Rupp would probably argue that despite the public perception of his distant approach, he actually now has the structure to provide the stability the club lacked a year ago under Rahic. And that because of this, him living away from West Yorkshire doesn’t matter. He doesn’t need his own exit strategy.
Julian Rhodes has effectively replaced Rahic in the day-to-day running of the club – the big difference is he actually knows what he is doing and has experience of turning around a loss-making football club. And beneath Rhodes, there is a better structure of staff who, compared to Rahic’s over-bearing approach, are trusted to do their jobs. For Rupp, it’s pretty much the organisational structure he envisaged all along.
Whilst Rupp isn’t a visible presence to fans, he is reportedly in regular contact with Rhodes and members of staff. He is making key decisions, and watches most games through iFollow. He might not have a Bradford City tattoo like Mark Lawn, but he does care. Staff speak very highly of him.
However, the question remains how long this can go on for. Right now, Rupp will be banking on at the very least restoring the club back to where it was when he bought it, if not guiding them into the Championship. There’s personal pride at stake, but also his financial reputation to an extent. Get City back to where they should be, and those losses he is funding can be repaid and he can eventually sell the club on, probably with a queue of interested buyers.
But what if that doesn’t happen? WOAP understands Rupp’s additional summer funding has been undertaken with the clear objective of getting promoted, not spending the next six years in League Two. What will Rupp do if this season’s financial support doesn’t deliver promotion, and next summer he is faced with the dilemma of investing even more money? At what point will it be too much of a burden, leading to Rupp deciding to cut his losses? Any would-be buyers will probably be looking at this as a long game too. If there really is a £10 million asking price, at what stage would Rupp reduce it out of urgency to sell up?
It promises to be an interesting few years, but right now Rupp can at least count on most supporters backing him. Many consider Rupp as much a victim of Rahic as the rest of us, and there is respect towards him for his attempts to clear up the mess and provide further financial backing. That’s probably being too charitable towards Rupp – he was just as involved in the big mistakes like sacking Stuart McCall – but whereas Rahic seemed vindictive, Rupp appears naive. And some can forgive that. On Rupp’s part, those close to him say he feels a personal sense of duty to do the right thing and fix the mess Rahic caused.
Naturally, takeover reports like this won’t be welcomed by Rupp or the club, as they threaten to destabilise that goodwill. City’s stuttering start to the season has led to a wider debate about the general ambitions of the club and supporters, and the ownership structure cuts right to the heart of this.
Rupp and Rhodes are criticised by some for a conservative approach. For not pushing out the boat further on signings and coaching staff, for example. Recently, calls have been aired on Twitter for City to leave Valley Parade and find another city centre location.
The arguments for building a new ground include the reality Valley Parade is beginning to look run down and isn’t even owned by the club. Such calls lack true credibility right now (who is going to fund a new stadium?) But should they gain momentum, it would put the advocates on collision course with Rhodes and Rupp, who have made clear their intention to stay at Valley Parade beyond the expiry of the current lease in seven years.
So on the surface, the prospect of alternative owners gives credence to the idea of dreaming bigger. After all, when any football club is the subject of a takeover attempt, it’s natural for fans to assume the would-be buyers have bigger dreams and deeper pockets than the current owners. Sadly, reality later shows that all too often such hopes prove misplaced. In City’s case, there is no guarantee any potential buyer of the club has greater wealth and ambition than Rupp. The opposite might well be true.
Rupp has made many, many mistakes for sure and won’t win any polls for best football club owner. But with nothing known of the potential buyers – and the traumas of Rahic and the mess of Bury’s Stewart Day and Steve Dale still fresh in the mind – caution has to be exercised. It’s not just the EFL’s job to think about fit and proper.
Right now, we need to keep working on getting the Bantams back to what it can and should be. And then, the right long-term ownership of the club can be developed with the true best interests of Bradford City at heart.