By Jason McKeown
They are having the season of their lives at Bramall Lane. Sheffield United are seventh in the Premier League and have a huge opportunity of securing European football next season. A remarkable achievement, for a club playing in League One just three seasons ago.
There will be smiles too, within BD8, over United’s achievements. For Saturday’s draw with Brighton pushed the Blades to the magical 40-point total threshold, which all but guarantees their Premier League status. And that pretty much assures Bradford City a further financial windfall, to help them move forwards.
That’s because of the add ons included in a structured deal City struck to sell Oli McBurnie to Swansea City in 2015, which allows the Bantams to share the financial rewards of the striker’s progress at Sheffield United. Swansea sold McBurnie to the newly promoted South Yorkshire side in a deal worth up to £20 million. It’s proving a lucrative piece of business for Bradford City.
According to Richard Sutcliffe in The Athletic, City initially earned £250k from selling McBurnie to the Swans five years ago. The deal included a 15% sell on fee, which meant City earned just over £2.5 million last summer, when Sheffield United bought the player. The Swans-Blades transfer is structured in a way where United must pay a further £2.87 million if they avoid relegation, which means City are going to be due another £431,250 at the end of the season.
It’s fair to say no one at Valley Parade back in 2015 would have predicted McBurnie would one day be a £20 million player. But the clever way the deal was structured has meant selling him to Swansea has proven to be a remarkable piece of business. It’s also proven hugely important for City, in view of the post-Rahic landscape of financial turbulence.
City chairman Stefan Rupp was greeted with some unpleasant surprises in November 2018, when Julian Rhodes got hold of the financials and the scale of Edin Rahic’s deception became evident. To Rupp’s credit, he covered those losses – preventing serious money problems. But with much of the McBurnie windfall used to pay Rupp back, effectively the success of McBurnie has paid off the debts caused by Rahic’s destructive leadership.
So stability is restored at Valley Parade to an extent, but amongst supporters this season there is a growing sense of frustration at the weak infrastructure of the club left behind. A feeling that a lot of hard work and progress has been thrown away. And that, whilst it could be worse in that at least a financial crisis has been avoided thanks to Rupp and McBurnie, the goal of becoming a Championship club again now feels more distant than ever.
After all, what is there to show for the amazing ride of 2012-17? The club experienced some incredible moments and impressive progress. But we’re now back in League Two where it had all began, as though it never happened.
City earned huge amounts of money during the ride to the League Cup final, promotion from League Two, reaching the FA Cup quarter finals and the League One play off final. But for many different reasons, the club has not been transformed. It is not stronger for the good times. The legacy is lacking. Right now there is no great long-term vision. And a danger that future generations of Bradford City support could be lost.
When you dig deeper, the feeling that a huge opportunity was wasted becomes more evident. City made a lot of money in 2012/13, but with a loan to Mark Lawn needing to be paid off, the opportunity was taken to pay off debts so City could operate in the black. Given the long-term financial problems of post-Premier League administrations, that was a sensible judgement and set City up. Debt-free, over the final three years that Rhodes and Lawn ran City in League One, the club’s league position improved year on year and the training ground was further developed.
Rhodes recently disclosed City made a profit of £2 million between 2011 and 2017, when over the same period Millwall – who pipped the Bantams to promotion to the Championship – lost £36 million. It shows how well City did against a far from level playing field, but also just how difficult it is to make a profit as a lower league football club.
So when Rhodes and Lawn sold up in 2016, the club was unquestionably in a good position. Ready, it seemed, to be taken onto the next level through bigger investment. Alas, it all came crashing down through inept leadership. When Rhodes returned last season to help out Rupp, he declared, “We had years and years of going in the right direction, but it now feels like we have fallen off a cliff.”
Rhodes deliberately keeps a low profile and doesn’t seek to take the limelight – a shame because when he does speak, he talks a lot of sense. In the absence of a vocal presence, supporter scorn of Rhodes has been allowed to grow. Over the last 12 months, he has earned the nickname ‘Captain Admin’ and retrospectively been criticised for the deficit strategy that served the club well between 2012-2017.
Whilst history shows Rhodes was far from blameless for the Premier League financial car crash, the way he eventually turned around the club and delivered sustainable success is exactly the type of leadership needed right now.
That said, supporter frustration lies in the fact City are owned by someone with the financial capability to invest more money building up the club, but seems unwilling. Rupp deserves more respect than he gets for his commitment – other Football League clubs have been left to flounder under disinterested owners who grew fed up of funding losses – but it will always remain difficult to believe he is in it with us for years and years to come.
If Bradford City was a house, Rupp is faced with the issue that it is currently worth less than he originally bought it for. And to restore its value either requires time (such as house prices to rise) or investment to do up the property so it is worth more. Right now, Rupp appears to favour the former option. And he has the time and financial stability to allow that to happen. But if the Bradford City house proves a further drain on resources, that patience could be tested. Especially as the general market for football clubs is damaged by the Bury situation.
The club will always be far from the most attractive of assets for would-be buyers. It doesn’t own its own ground, or training facilities. It gets good support, but they pay rock bottom prices. The potential is there to play in the Championship, but it would require a lot of investment to get there quickly. There is not a lot tangible beyond a Football League share.
In the meantime, it is clear that Rhodes is trusted with the strategy of restoring Bradford City, and that he is following the template he used before to revive it. A key part of that is an understanding and perspective that it does take time.
The success of 2012-17 was preceded by several years of struggle, although the club’s financial health was in a stronger place before it became evident through on the field success. As Rhodes explained to me when I interviewed him for my 2018 book Who We Are, “To be honest, I was quite proud of the way we brought the club on. You had to be close to it to realise what a basket case it was.”
Rhodes was speaking in the summer of 2018, before his surprise return to Valley Parade. He reflected on his chairmanship, “I do think we built something special at Bradford City. And that really hit home to me when I went to look at other clubs, and some of them are in a real mess. It’s just a fact of life for them for the chairman to chuck lots of money in. But for me it wasn’t, it was all about doing it the right way.”
When you analyse that period of success, it’s obvious to cite the impact of Phil Parkinson. But there was also significant improvement to the club’s foundations before that, which aided success. For example, in 2011 Lawn, Rhodes and Roger Owen acquired the club’s former shop, saving a huge amount in rent that was proving a drain on resources. A year later, the trio had sold the building. It was a crucial piece of business in halving City’s rent outgoings. Rhodes added in Who We Are, “We bought it for a very reasonable sum and sold it for more to the Department of Education. All the proceeds went into the club. It was all about building up the club.”
Meanwhile, David Baldwin was overseeing significant improvements to the club’s training facilities. In 2011, the club was able to agree with Woodhouse Grove school to use parts of the school site for changing rooms, offices and areas the players could eat together and bond. Work was also done to improve the training pitches. And so the old arrangement of the players having to get changed at Valley Parade and drive to and from the training ground came to an end. Finally the club had a facility they could be proud to show off to prospective signings.
These infrastructure changes were vital in getting City off the canvas. And they were continued as the club began to progress up the Football League ladder. When I interviewed Baldwin for my 2016 book, Reinventing Bradford City, he explained, “I always say that my biggest achievement at Bradford City, for me as an individual, was the redevelopment of the training ground and the environment that the team operate in.
“When I was there as a kid in 1987 playing football, and compared to when I came back in 2007, the facilities were worse! When I left in 2014 they were equal to a good Championship facility. The decisions taken with the training ground in 2011 allowed us to be more ambitious about the players we targeted.”
When Baldwin left City in 2014, much of this work continued. His replacement, James Mason, oversaw the upgrade the parade initiative that helped to fund the redevelopment of the changing rooms and the scoreboard. Some of the seats within Valley Parade were replaced during the 2015 FA Cup run. Under Parkinson, the backroom set up was strong with a chief scout in Tim Beaker assisting with finding players. And with squad building, there was succession planning developed around a core group of strong characters who set the culture.
All of these enhancements on their own are small and not always headline grabbing. But incremental changes added up to something stronger. The Bradford City pre Rahic and Rupp had a strong sense of direction and a clear purpose. It was building in a self-sustainable, debt-free way. Perhaps it didn’t set pulses racing, but it was a growth model that was working.
The question of how Bradford City restore that sort of culture – and ultimately build stronger foundations – has been the subject of regular supporter debate this season. There is some very good and relevant criticism on the financial priorities. A wish list that is difficult to disagree with the principle behind. But from some fans at least, there is unquestionably a lack of realism about some of the practicalities.
For instance there is talk about the merits of leaving Valley Parade for a new ground. A debate heightened by the plight of Bradford Bulls, who claim to be looking to build a new stadium in the city. The Bantams’ Valley Parade lease is due to expire in eight years, which will leave the owner of the time with a decision to make over whether to stick or twist.
The emotional pull of remaining at Valley Parade is obvious. The tragedy of 1985 gives City and supporters a stronger connection with its ground compared to other clubs. But on the other side of the coin, the rental commitments hold back the club. Valley Parade is also beginning to look its age, with some parts of the ground badly in need of maintenance and TLC. This will only continue as time goes on.
Nevertheless, finding a suitable site for a new stadium in Bradford, not to mention having the finances to build it, remains highly dubious. What Valley Parade really has going for it is a capacity that suits the club’s potential. Moving to a stadium with, say, an 18,000 capacity would hurt long-term growth. It’s difficult, but not entirely impossible, to see how City could do better than Valley Parade. They just need to do something about the rent millstone, or get to the Championship when the rent won’t matter as much.
There are also calls for City to build their own training ground. Again, City are paying rent for their current facilities. You can’t beat owning your own home. However, the facilities City have access to at Woodhouse Grove are excellent, and it would cost millions for the club to build their own. The open nature of Woodhouse Grove can be problematic – keeping potential signings a secret has been an issue – but it’s probably not enough of a concern to push a new training ground to the top of the priority list.
Perhaps a training ground is something to consider the next time City achieve a windfall they can invest. Other clubs have used cup revenue on such a legacy, leaving them in a better position. Whatever the future holds, City must learn lessons from the past. That they paid Benito Carbone £40k a week but had him training with such inferior facilities was a poor use of a huge investment. City didn’t move with the times, and it’s a trap they must avoid slipping back into.
Beyond that, questions of whether City can be stronger in recruitment and scouting are valid. As we wrote a month ago, the turbulence at the end of the transfer window appeared to see a scatter gun approach taken to signing players. From the outside it looked far from joined up. The club does not have a chief scout. The rapid turnover of managers hasn’t helped, but the current squad looks badly built and performances don’t live up to the overall investment.
A careful and considered transfer strategy is needed this summer. What McCall can do that Gary Bowyer could not is really rebuild the squad. Only 12 of the current squad have a deal beyond the end of the season, and a lot of high earners will be out of contract. We ideally need to stop bringing in players on contracts that outlast the manager who signs them. We can’t afford more Hope Akpans.
Is the affordable season ticket philosophy a help or a hindrance? It’s a debate that always attracts a range of passionate views. To the most engaged supporters, with the wealth to pay more for their season ticket, it can be frustrating wondering if the low prices leave City short of the resources to build a stronger club. But others – including me – would argue that the club exists first and foremost for supporters. And that having more people being able to afford to buy season tickets has financial benefits on matchday revenue.
Then the discussion quickly moves onto the franchising of matchday catering and the shop, with poor quality results. And we haven’t even got onto the youth set up yet. Or the bloody pitch…
In short, Bradford City is lacking investment in key areas – but with such a huge to do list, it seems impossible to improve everything. It’s no wonder many supporters are pining for some sort of revolution at Valley Parade, but it’s hard to see it occurring anytime soon. And so, the frustrations continue to build.
At the same time as Sheffield United were in Premier League action on Saturday, 67 miles away in East Lancashire, Burnley were taking on Bournemouth in the top flight. In the build up, the New York Times journalist Rory Smith wrote a really interesting piece about the contrast between the Clarets and the Cherries.
Both are in an enviable position to most lower league clubs, including City. But whilst Burnley have used the Premier League money to invest in the infrastructure of the club – building new training facilities for example – Bournemouth have spent the majority of their top flight revenue on players.
The challenges of the staying amongst the elite means both clubs are susceptible to relegation every season, but the differing strategies used means Burnley would go into the Football League with more to show for their Premier League endeavours, whilst Bournemouth would be more likely to suffer financial headaches. Yet for all Burnley’s laudable principles, their fans have frustrations with a perceived lack of ambition.
For Bradford City, the dilemma is similar and a key consideration in attempts to rebuild. Do we put more resources into the playing side to build a really strong football team next season, in the hope it will take City forwards, and enjoy greater financial rewards to then build up the infrastructure? Or do we focus on the infrastructure now, knowing it could hold back results on the field in the short term at least, but could ultimately place City in a strong position to progress in the long-term? Better still, can we do both?
Within the confides of Valley Parade, you suspect they’re treating it as a balancing act. Over the course of the last 12 months, incremental improvements have been made. Evolution not revolution. From trialing a fanzone and supporters singing section, running money-earning events like the Premier League and Chelsea nights, setting up the Bantams Heritage numbers, through to replacing damaged seats this summer. And although the change of manager in February hasn’t yielded improvement yet, sacking Bowyer was a statement of ambition about the drive to get promoted.
Of course the small progress made this season won’t earn the club much credit. It increasingly looks like City are destined to remain in League Two, and that keeps them a long way short of the heights on 2017. But compared to the financial mess of the end of 2018, the club has moved forwards in a relatively short period of time. Behind the scenes, they’re getting some things right.
But imagine what City could do with more investment?
This summer will be a further test of Rupp’s appetite to keep funding the club, especially as deeper financial commitment could make a real difference now the Bantams are on more of an even keel again. The near half a million extra McBurnie windfall will help, but hopefully will be treated as a bonus investment rather than needing to cover a deficit. That £431k could offer City an edge, if used well.
The demands of fans will continue to be loud. The restlessness won’t ease. After getting a prolonged taste of how strong this football club can be between 2012-17, the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. There is much work to do to restore Bradford City, and fixing those damaged foundations is surely the key to success.