By Jason McKeown
On Monday evening, the latest Bradford City fans media meeting took place as Director of Communications Ryan Sparks met with myself, Cathy Louise (History Makers Facebook page) and Nick Kitchen (Bantams Small Talk). It was a lower than usual turn out, as the likes of the City Gent, Bantams Banter, Bantams Talk, Bantams Heritage and Bantams Past were unable to attend. The Cow’s Arse was also invited but ultimately couldn’t make it either, although they sent on a couple of questions that were asked.
The format of these meetings is low key and casual. There is no chairperson or an agenda. Instead, we come along with our questions, which Ryan does his best to answer. For this particular evening, I began asking my questions for the best part of an hour and a half, before Cathy and Nick raised their own.
Happier times for Bradford City
I started off by asking about the mood amongst the players and behind the scenes, following a very encouraging few weeks for the Bantams.
Not surprisingly, Ryan confirmed there is a feelgood factor returning to the club. He reflected on the end of last season – admitting, internally, the club had basically accepted its relegation fate in April (when the situation looked bleak), and so they began preparing for life in League Two. By planning ahead in advance for this season, Ryan argues that what we are seeing is not entirely a surprise.
Not that anyone at the club is patting themselves on the back just yet. Ryan explained that everyone is fully aware there is a massive trust rebuilding exercise still to do with fans, and that even promotion this season won’t fully restore the damage of what has gone on.
Nevertheless, the club is encouraged by the way the season is shaping up. Ryan said the players are bouncing off the walls, and relishing playing for the club. They believe in Gary Bowyer and are responding well to playing for him. Some of the new arrivals have been curious about what went wrong last season for City, simply because they can’t understand how it could failed so badly – given the club’s organised set-up and passionate fanbase they’ve experienced.
Balancing the books
Ryan pointed to the last few weeks of the transfer window as being crucial for City’s progress. Gary Bowyer had identified where he still needed to strengthen, and moving on Eoin Doyle and Sean Scannell freed up the budget to sign six players. Ryan added that letting Doyle and Scannell go was Bowyer’s decision so he could strengthen better. The club remains in line with its budget.
With Doyle scoring goals for fun at Swindon, we asked if there was a January recall clause in his loan deal. This was not something that Ryan could comment on due to the confidentiality of the agreement between City and Swindon.
On the arrivals, Ryan was full of praise for the way the likes of Harry Pritchard, Dylan Connolly and Callum Cooke are performing. Ryan was chatting to Connolly at the weekend and asked him what he made of playing in front of City fans. The Irishman was full of enthusiasm, pointing out that if you can’t get excited about playing in front of 15,000 supporters you need to take a good look at yourself.
With Peterborough United chairman Darragh MacAnthony recently revealing that City chose to sign Cooke on loan, rather than bring him in permanently, I asked if there were plans to look at this in January. Ryan explained that City are only paying a portion of Callum’s wages. Whilst no decisions have been made either way, making Cooke’s deal permanent would see City incur higher wage costs.
Chris Taylor – who it had been announced earlier in the day has signed for the Bantams – is here on a short-term deal until January, providing cover in midfield. He had a trial in the summer and at the time had other options, but with time having gone on he is grateful to be here and looking to make his mark.
Ryan feels the new arrivals have made a positive difference to the squad’s morale. He cited the example of the injured Jamie Devitt, who travelled to Morecambe on Saturday, on crutches, to support the players.
The financial rebuild
This led to me asking about the health of the club’s finances, which remain a big talking point amongst fans. When we last met, the club had just heard the news of the Oli McBurnie transfer windfall. So how has it been put to use?
The majority of the McBurnie has funded last season’s loss and the remainder will go towards the loss we would have incurred this season, due to the number of contracts we still had from last season.
City could yet receive further money from the player’s move from Swansea to Sheffield United, if they stay in the Premier League. It would be a significant sum. The current transfer budget hasn’t put the club at risk.
What City are now focusing back on is getting the conveyer belt of youth talent going again. The club has recently sold a young player to a Premier League club – the name couldn’t be disclosed, due to the age of the player concerned. Given the well documented changes in youth academy transfer rules, the fee involved wasn’t as high as some of the deals City have done in the past for youth players, but it is still a fruitful route for the club.
Ryan explained the club’s overall goal right now is to get to the Championship, and to do it they’re restoring the strategy that was in operation during the Phil Parkinson years. That includes creating gradual growth, by making the club stronger on and off the field – rather than pouring in money left, right and centre.
This led me to ask about the club’s accounts, which remain relatively secretive. The football finances expert, Kevin Maguire, has been very critical of City’s lack of disclosure in their financial accounts – they just show basic profit and loss.
I asked Ryan why the club takes this approach. He said there was no real reason, and that it might be something which Stefan Rupp looks to consider changing in future (in the chairman’s defence, he inherited this accounting stance from Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn).
Ryan reiterated there is nothing to hide, and that Julian has offered the Bradford City Supporters Board the opportunity to see the accounts in full, which they have taken up.
This led me back to a familiar discussion point – the assistant manager situation at City. Martin Drury remains the assistant manager to Gary Bowyer, but is generally not popular with fans. Is Bowyer okay with this situation, or would he like more budget to bring in his own choice of assistant?
Ryan stated that keeping Drury was Bowyer’s decision. If he really wanted to make a change, he could do so. He added that in the summer the club’s medical staff were all out of contract, but Bowyer took the decision to keep them all – suggesting he was happy with much of the staff he inherited.
Moving onto other areas, all three of us wanted to talk to Ryan about the recent spate of supporter behaviour incidents and – in particular – the setting off of flares at away games. This is something that has upset many older supporters, given the physical and mental scars of the Valley Parade fire disaster.
Ryan revealed the club is working closely with the police to find the people who have been setting off flares. He shared some of the details of the work taking place, which has to stay off the record – otherwise it could jeopardise these efforts.
The club take the incidents seriously and have received several letters from the FA. The latest flare, at Morecambe, has seen the FA contact them within 48 hours. The Walsall incident was more serious, as the flare ended up on the pitch.
The pitch invasion issues at recent home games has been partly addressed by putting netting over the front three rows of the Kop. One supporter involved in the Carlisle pitch invasion has just received a 12-month ban for their actions.
This led me onto ask the two questions put forward by the Cow’s Arse. Firstly, why are volunteers doing high profile tasks for the club?
Ryan (and I) took this to mean the associate directors. He explained that they are not volunteers, but a group of people who pay a yearly amount of money to aid the club, for which in return they are club ambassadors. However, they don’t have any real involvement in running the club. In the past they attended board meetings, but there aren’t board meetings anymore – just one-to-one discussions between Rupp and Rhodes.
Roger Owen does still help the club out in certain areas. For example, he liaises with the council about rates, and with the club’s stadium rental agreement.
The day-to-day running of the club is undertaken by staff, who are all paid. Ryan added there is now a senior manager group who make the key decisions – the group comprises of Julian Rhodes, Ryan, Paula Watson, David Garth, Gary Bowyer, Neil Matthews and Ian Ormondroyd.
The club’s vision
The other Cow’s Arse question was the long-term ambitions of the club and how they will get there. The how has already been covered earlier to an extent, with the aim of restoring of the club’s philosophy pre-Edin. Ryan added that getting out of League Two is the first goal, and the pushing onto the Championship. They want to do all of this in the next two-five years.
Should the club make it to the Championship, they can start to make significant changes – such as improving the stadium and general infrastructure.
Right now, off the field the club is focused on making sure the right people are in the right roles, and that they have the tools and resources to do their jobs.
It was then over to Cathy, who had some additional questions not covered, which came via History Makers users.
One supporter had asked about the club’s approach to reserving season ticket seats, should City manage to pull off a big home cup draw. The supporter was unhappy that he wasn’t guaranteed his own seat in the past. Ryan said it would be something the club would look into if it arises, and his view would be to have a window for reserving your regular seat.
The price and quality of food and drink sold at Valley Parade was criticised. Ryan said he would pass the feedback on, but pointed out that these services are franchised out which means the club does not directly control them. They are good deals for the club, but he would speak to the companies to share concerns.
The marketing of the club, to student audiences in particular, could also be better. Ryan agreed and explained this is something he is already looking into. He is focused on widening the club’s appeal to different audiences around the city. Watch this space.
With the Valley Parade lease having only nine years to go before it expires, is the club looking at buying the stadium? There are no immediate plans to do so right now, but never say never. Realistically, it is something that will be looked at nearer the time.
Finally, Nick Kitchen asked about what has happened to the fanzone proposal? Ryan said that the proposals were with Bradford Council to consider, which can take a while. The club is looking to do a Christmas market in the concourse during December, to trial appetite for this sort of thing. There is still a lot to consider with the fanzone, but the idea is still being pursued.