By Jason McKeown
The chairman of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, sums it up well. In times of adversity and change, he believes, “We really discover who we are and what we’re made of.” Unfortunately in the case of Bradford City, the adversity that came up during the final week of the transfer window did not produce outwardly positive answers about the strength of the club.
It’s no secret that the Bantams remain wounded by the destructive era of Edin Rahic. Financially, personnel and status-wise, the club is poorer for the former chairman’s wrecking ball approach to leadership. But the events of late have really highlighted the structural issues at the club. And the huge importance of getting it right.
The adversity came from on the field matters, where a poor run of form came to something of a head the Sunday after City were battered 3-0 at Mansfield Town. Bowyer had called the players in for a clear-the-air meeting. It is the type of moment football clubs up and down the land typically go through at some stage of every season. But whatever was discussed between Bowyer, the coaching staff and players, it didn’t appear to bring everyone together.
And it left City in an astonishing position of going into the final week of the transfer window prepared to let two of their main strikers leave. The merits of Eoin Doyle and James Vaughan’s departures have been debated at length. But whatever the rights and wrongs, it was the succession planning that underlined the issues at the heart of the club.
At such a crucial, high pressure moment of the season – with Bowyer’s own future in doubt – City were forced into a reactive approach. It led to a rush to identify and try to sign suitable replacements. Bowyer himself talked about relying on his coaching staff to hurriedly rush through the research on the transfer targets. It was clearly frantic, and the club deserve some credit for at least getting Lee Novak and Kurtis Guthrie through the door, especially as Aramide Oteh and Omari Patrick also departed on the final day. The alternative – of having no pure strikers on the books, other than Clayton Donaldson – might have effectively ended the season now.
But even so, it doesn’t appear to be a well-planned, methodical transfer strategy. To the outside, City were left scrambling to fix a huge problem. The departures of Doyle and Vaughan were sudden and unexpected, probably even to the club. But with a more thorough succession approach to recruitment, City might have been able to bring in more high calibre replacements.
Whilst Bowyer clearly merits criticism here, he can with justification argue that he does not have the support he needs. Bradford City has no chief scout or analysis team, at a time when even most lower league clubs have such a set-up. Bowyer’s focus – first and foremost – is on the team and upcoming matches. Where would he have had the time to go out watching other games to identify potential signings?
Compare and contrast this window with four years earlier, and the 2015/16 season. There are some telling similarities to the situation. Then-manager Phil Parkinson was under some pressure following a poor set of results – and especially a lack of goals in his team. Many fans were urging him to select his top scorer Devante Cole, who was hardly getting a look in. But then seemingly out of nowhere, Parkinson sold Cole to Fleetwood Town. The deal included swapping Cole with Jamie Proctor – a little-known Fleetwood forward, who couldn’t get in their team.
The reaction from City fans was reminiscent of the way last week went on social media. Parkinson had lost the plot. We’ve done a terrible piece of business. As fans favourite Gary Liddle was also allowed to leave, the questions directed at the club and Parkinson were similar to those aired right now. Where was the ambition? What was the club doing?
Yet Parkinson proved to be right in these calls. Proctor scored on his debut, and performed well over the rest of the season. The outgoings also left room for City to sign Wes Thomas and a certain Josh Cullen. City lifted themselves out of their mid-season rut to reach the play offs.
The major difference of then to now was that Parkinson was working with a chief scout, Tim Breacker. Whilst there was a number of transfers that didn’t work out during this period, crucially enough were successful, which allowed City to prosper. Breacker would have been out there spotting players like Cullen and Reece Burke. The Bantams had also built up good relationships with clubs like West Ham. And so, when it appeared the club was taking leave of its senses in allowing good players to leave, there was actually a plan behind it.
This time around, City were completely reliant on their manager, who would have struggled with the time and resources to make better decisions. And all this, at a point when the City manager himself is under serious pressure and fighting for his own future. It’s hard to look on the events of the final week of the transfer window and conclude City have made the best decisions they could have. Through adversity, the thinbare structure of the club must have been creaking at the seams.
Even if Bowyer survives the harrowing defeat at Oldham, and his new signings do a good job, the club is still operating a recruitment approach entirely at the hands of whoever is the manager. And when they inevitably leave, City are left having to make big changes. Players are signed on contracts that comfortably out-last the manager who brings them in.
There is just no long-term outlook. The club has got used to operating on a week-to-week basis with short-termism decisions.
And the problem is that this issue is not confined only to the coaching set-up. There are some very good people who are employed by Bradford City. They care incredibly deeply about what they do. They want to do the best for supporters. But do they have enough support around them? Do they have the resources and structure they need?
That all points to the top. The club remains owned by Stefan Rupp, who doesn’t live in the country and never bought Bradford City with the intention of running it day-to-day. Rupp seems to be a good man with honourable intentions, keen to fix past mistakes. It would be wrong to say he doesn’t care. But without the desire and time to become more involved in the direction of the club, there is a leadership vacuum.
The biggest issues at Bradford City right now are investment, long-term thinking and communication. Responsibility for the first two in particular lies with Rupp. He has put serious money into the club and no one should forget that. Not only did he invest a lot of his capital at first, in buying Bradford City, Rupp has also had to cover serious losses that his old partner Rahic ran up and tried to cover up.
Rupp’s own healthy financial position means he could invest more into Bradford City. He doesn’t want to do so. And that is not unreasonable when he has probably already put in £10 million without any sign of a return. But the hard truth is the club needs investment and vision to really move forwards. So where does it leave us?
Rupp is something of a reluctant owner, and he has every right to be. If he could turn back the clock to May 2016, he would probably have never bought the club. But ultimately, Bradford City needs a more hands on owner who will be prepared to invest into the structure of the club. Who has the time and skill set to drive it forwards. Rupp reportedly turned down an offer for the club last summer. After another 12 months of not much progress, you wonder how much more tempted he might be if another offer comes along.
It’s hard to see how long this can go on for. The longer Rupp owns the club with all its problems, the more likely it is he will squeeze investment and become less engaged. I just don’t see how this works in the long run. Perhaps, moves to sell the club are underway. It might explain some of the recent transfer activity.
Rupp has employed Julian Rhodes to run the club for him – whilst there is some form of search for a new CEO. With 19 years previous involvement with steering and owning the Bantams, Rhodes undoubtedly has the experience to repair the club. His expertise is vital right now and shouldn’t be discounted – if he wasn’t running the club right now, who else could be? – however, he is also in danger of tarnishing his legacy.
Rhodes has never wanted to be front of house. But that reluctance, coupled with Rupp’s own unwillingness to climb into the spotlight, is seriously hurting the club. Bradford City is effectively being run by two people who cannot or will not communicate with fans. That has been a real issue for some time, but in moments of heightened uncertainty like now it simply isn’t practical.
Ryan Sparks, as director of communications, is doing a fine job. But at times of crisis – real or perceived – fans need to hear from those at the top. There are certain messages that need to come from the owner or CEO. What is the explanation for recent events? What does it mean for the future of the club? What exactly is the long term plan?
Back in that 2015/16 tough transfer window, the team’s form initially remained poor and they went into a home game with Fleetwood on the verge of social media unrest turning into outpourings of anger in the stadium. But what helped then was a more proactive public relations approach. James Mason sat down with Parkinson to record a 11 minute interview that the club put out before the match, titled ‘Your City needs you‘.
It wasn’t exactly brimming with subtlety – they filmed it in the 2013 suite, so Parkinson was talking in front of a background of photos of his previous achievements – but the open communciation and humble tone about the challenges of the day undoubtedly helped. City went onto beat Fleetwood 2-1, and the storm quickly passed.
At the time, Mason told me about the initiative, “We wanted to do an in-depth feature interview, to show the transparency of how the club is run. A cards-on-the-table interview to ask some of the questions that fans are asking themselves and to give them the answers, with the transparency of saying that we are hurting just like the fans are with recent results. And that we are doing everything we can.”
Right now, City need to really communciate with fans about what is happening and what the future holds. The club has talked about wanting to get back to the Championship over the next few years. But to us supporters, there is no obvious strategy towards achieving it. In a rare interview, Rhodes disclosed an aim to get 20,000 season ticket holders next season. Yet on and off the field there are few reasons to buy one other than loyalty.
Does the club have the solutions? Perhaps, perhaps not. And you know what – if they don’t have all the answers, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing either.
Right now, City have a fanbase who are hurting and who feel incredibly disillusioned. But no one has stopped caring. Social media has become a pit of anger, that at times goes way too far and loses any sense of rationality. But if you actually sit down with, and listen to, supporters, we all have opinions, views and ideas that might actually help the club.
I think it’s time Bradford City truly opened the doors to fans. If the club are having some financial issues, trust us to be adults in grasping and accepting the reality. And if there aren’t financial concerns, get that across in a way that is more credible.
I would give serious thought to organising an event at Valley Parade. A fans forum that goes deeper. Share the challenges and invite our views. Get people who work at the club to talk about the issues and the work they’re doing to build things.
Football clubs are blessed with a customer base who are so engaged and passionate about what they’re trying to achieve. And despite the best intentions of a lot of good people who work for Bradford City, there is more that can be done to engage and tap into our views – and even our skill sets.
Fixing Bradford City is clearly a huge, huge challenge. But whatever the future holds, we supporters will always be the ones who stick by the club. It’s time to be properly honest about where this football club is going. And for everyone to work together to build a better Bradford City.