By Jason McKeown
As Bradford City struggle to impress on the field, and with plenty of questions from supporters about the direction of the club, the latest fans media meeting was a welcome opportunity to hear from inside Valley Parade.
Joining myself in meeting with Bradford City’s Director of Communications, Ryan Sparks, was John Dewhirst (Bantams Past), Cathy Louise (History Makers Facebook page) and Nick Kitchen (Bantams Small Talk).
There were the usual invites sent to other City fans media outlets. Some, like the City Gent’s Mike Harrison, couldn’t make it because of work commitments. Bantams Talk moderators had been approached to send a representative – but they were unable to find anyone who could, or was willing to, come.
It was the first time since October that we’d met, which was largely my fault. The pressures of work – and being in the States over Christmas – have made it challenging producing WOAP content, never mind arranging meetings. Hopefully, these meetings will be more regular again from now on.
Here are the questions that I had chosen to ask, and a summary of the answers.
Since our last meeting there has been a very evident dip in morale amongst supporters – how mindful is the club of this?
The club is aware of the mood of the fans right now. Ryan said the club is in a bit of a lull on the field, having gone from a good run of form in September and October. The dip in enthusiasm of supporters has been very evident, particularly at the Leyton Orient and Carlisle away games.
Is the club concerned? How do you think it can be addressed?
We were talking the Monday after the Scunthorpe game, and Ryan had spoken to Gary Bowyer that day, who was disappointed about Saturday’s performance.
However, Ryan emphasised the need for context. The club was in a really bad situation at the end of last season. And if, in the summer, someone had offered us all the scenario of City being fifth in the league in January, two points off the automatic places, most of us would have taken it.
Ryan emphasised the club’s desire for stability after the fallout of the Edin Rahic era. He added that sometimes you have got to do a few hard yards to come out the other side and be successful. That it can take time to redevelop a football identity.
The football isn’t great to watch, which isn’t helping things…
Ryan shared the frustration that performances haven’t been as good recently. Individual mistakes, like for the two goals on Saturday, aren’t helping.
In terms of if City should be doing better under Bowyer, Ryan made some pertinent points about the constraints he is operating under.
The overall playing budget for this season is £2.7 million – but Gary has only been able to spend 40% of that budget. The rest is taken up by players who were under contract for this season. And although some of those players are playing a key part this season, it has limited how much Bowyer can truly fashion his own squad.
The club has been boosted by the Oli McBurnie transfer windfall. City are due another bonus should Sheffield United stay in the Premier League, which looks all but certain. This allowed Bowyer to bring back Eoin Doyle from his loan spell at Swindon Town.
On the other side of things, the club is still having to contribute towards some of the wages of Jackson Longridge and Sam Hornby, whilst they are out on loan in the Conference. Neither Torquay (Longridge) or AFC Fylde (Hornby) are in a position to take on the full wages. City are also still having to pay Tyrell Robinson’s salary, despite his ongoing unavailability.
It all leaves a delicate budget for Bowyer to operate under. City are within the League Two salary cap rules, but the legacy of the 2018/19 player investment continues to affect the overall finances for the City manager.
Communication continues to be issue – we hardly hear anything from Stefan Rupp or Julian Rhodes. How can the club communicate better with supporters?
Ryan explained that the role he has been given by Rhodes and Rupp is to be the communications figurehead to spread the message, when the club feels it has something to say.
On Rupp, Ryan added that there has been an expectation from some supporters that, once Edin left, Stefan would fly in and run the club, but that has never been his intention. Rupp trusts in Rhodes and others to run the club. He takes a keen interest – speaking to Julian and Ryan on a regular basis. Ryan has also been to Munich to visit Rupp.
Ryan emphasised that Rupp does watch all the games. He is an ethical man who does care. He feels accountable for what happened with Rahic, and hasn’t walked away from that.
What is the future for Julian Rhodes at the end of the season?
Ryan revealed that Rhodes had been lining up a replacement CEO to take over from him, but ultimately that person has gone onto take a more high-profile football role elsewhere.
Julian will stay at the club as long as he is needed. Ryan shared how much he enjoys working and learning from Rhodes – describing him as a football expert, who has produced some excellent deals and who has a real skill for making the best use of tight budgets.
Rhodes has been building the structure of the club back up again. He is working to make sure that he can ultimately pass on the baton to someone else, with the club in a strong position. And though he doesn’t have another CEO lined up right now, as far as Ryan knows, he will strive to make sure the club is left in good hands.
Is there a vision the club is working towards? And if so, has it become muddled?
Ryan stated there was a shared will within the club to restore Bradford City back to where it was before it had unravelled – back into League One as a starting point. And then the club can look to build from there.
He accepts the supporter discontent at the moment, reflecting that it is partly because everyone connected with the club wants to achieve success so badly. That includes Bowyer, with Ryan adding the City manager is not daft to the mood and is desperate to deliver for supporters.
How is the season ticket campaign going so far?
Ryan was positive about the campaign. He stated that it is a five-month campaign that has been done with honesty. The prices won’t increase before the deadline of 1 June. So if they want, some supporters can wait to see what division City are in next year before committing.
On the campaign message itself, Ryan came up with the ‘City for all’ slogan. He believes that whilst the club has had some good season ticket marketing messages in the past, it perhaps hasn’t fully capitalised on the fact the low prices mean people right across the Bradford District can genuinely afford to watch their local football team.
Ryan was also concerned by some racism creeping in amongst some City supporters – there was a racist attack on a fan earlier this season. He wanted to do a campaign that celebrates Bradford’s diversified nature – and the fact the club welcomes everyone.
Uptake levels aren’t too important right now – the club wasn’t offering season tickets this time a year ago, so there is no benchmark to compare – and Ryan is confident they will ultimately get a good uptake.
Rupp has said funds are available for Bowyer in January. Can we expect ins and outs?
Ryan confirmed there is chance of new arrivals; but added they won’t sign players for the sake of it. It’s all about finding genuine quality that can improve the squad.
What is the Eoin Doyle situation – is he happy to back/likely to stay?
As far as the club is concerned, Doyle is staying. There haven’t been any significant offers for him (ie from Swindon) and it would take something really big for City to consider selling him.
Ryan mentioned some of the criticism the club has received over the Doyle loan situation, and that many fans were expecting City to mismanage it over the window by not bringing him back. It underlines a point he has been making at several meetings over the past eight months – trust in the club is going to take time to repair.
As for Doyle himself, Ryan said that he has acted professionally on his return. He has come back to work without any problems – and concentrated on working hard. The club recognises that Doyle stated he wanted to remain at Swindon and understood why he would say that, given he was having such a brilliant time in front of goal for the Robins. But now he is back at Valley Parade, Doyle has been committed to the cause and is getting on with things.
The club expects Doyle to remain a City player after the window closes.
The stadium debate has again resurfaced, after a report – the club and the council quickly discredited – that City have been in talks about building an 18,000 seater stadium at the Richard Dunn site for both the Bulls and the Bantams. Was there anything in it?
Ryan made clear that City have not once been approached about being involved in moving to a new stadium at Richard Dunn. He added that City cannot move from Valley Parade until at least 2028, when the current lease runs out, and unless someone is going to offer to cover City’s rent obligations there isn’t an option to leave right now.
Whether the Richard Dunn idea ever takes off – and anyone with even a slight interest in Bradford sporting history will know not to hold their breath – City are not going anywhere until at least 2028.
Is there any dialogue with the Council and/or Bradford Park Avenue?
Yes – on both fronts. Ryan has been in contact with Kersten England – the chief executive of Bradford Council – and they plan to hold a meeting early next month. Initially it is aimed at building a better relationship between the two organisations.
Ryan is also meeting up shortly with Bradford Park Avenue with a similar objective. The City/Avenue relationship was damaged during the Rahic era; but has started to heal following last summer’s pre-season friendly. Ryan believes there is a shared belief that the two clubs can help each other in different ways – and is looking forward to exploring ideas.
What’s the latest on Tyrell Robinson?
The legal proceedings continue to be slow with Robinson’s case. There is no update on when it might be resolved either way. Robinson is contracted to the club until the end of the season. He is training on his own, but the club do monitor him.
John also asked a couple of questions.
What is being done about the state of the pitch?
Ryan explained that the “new pitch” was undertaken in the summer of 2018 wasn’t exactly the case. The drainage system fixed – there is less of a problem of standing water – but they didn’t, in fact, lay down a brand new playing surface.
The club was aware the pitch could become an issue this season, but given the financial issues left behind it wasn’t something that could be prioritised. The pitch situation hasn’t been helped by a particularly bad November for weather – rainfall was 25% higher in Bradford than the year earlier.
Despite appearances, the pitch does play right. It is hard and dry. They are using heat lamps on both goalmouths almost 24 hours a day right now. The current decent January weather is helping, but the surface won’t significantly improve until better temperatures in March and April.
Longer-term, the club has liaised with Bradford University, who are now undertaking some digital archaeological work in order to try and discover what’s underneath the pitch that is causing such regular issues with the playing surface. Hopefully, it will allow the club to better understand drainage and how to fix it better.
Will the matchday programme continue?
Ryan stated the programme would continue for at least next season. Its longer-term future will depend on sales.
The club has some exciting plans for the programme next season, which will certainly appeal to more fans. Watch this space!
Cathy also had some further discussion points provided by History Maker page users.
Some of the seats in the Main Stand are in really bad shape, what will the club do about them?
The club will be replacing the affected seats over the summer. They are now in a poor state because of corrosion (it’s worth noting these seats, in the lower tier, have been there since Valley Parade was rebuilt in 1986).
This work will cost £20,000-£25,000 per block.
The catering remains poor
These contracts are up for renewal this summer, so changes may occur next season.
There are lots of toilet related problems around the ground
Ryan was well aware of some of these individual issues, but not of others, so he took details to feedback and address.
Are there plans to commemorate the upcoming 35th anniversary of the Valley Parade fire disaster?
Ryan stated that the club does not as yet have any additional plans beyond the regular annual commemorations, but this will be discussed at a future club meeting.
Finally, Nick revealed that he is running a special Bradford City-themed raffle to raise money for Manorlands Hospice. He has secured several Bradford City prizes from the club. If you want to support this very important cause by donating, please contact Nick. The draw for the raffle is Monday 27 January.