Part one of a two-part series looking at the origins of Bradford City’s decline.
By Jason McKeown
“They haven’t recovered.”
During his recent appearance on the Undr the Cosh podcast, Robbie Blake took a pause from sharing funny stories about his time at Bradford City to make a serious point. “Apart from a good run they had under Parky [Phil Parkinson], they haven’t recovered in 20 years when you think about it.”
It’s a stark assessment that’s difficult to disagree with. This summer marks the 20th anniversary since Bradford City had earned Premier League survival, before undertaking a series of high-risk decisions that have had long-lasting repercussions. Just at a point where the club seemed to be in the strongest position in its history – on and off the field – it went down a path that would ultimately lead to self-destruction.
Almost every problem that continues to affect the club, two decades on, can have its roots traced back to the summer of 2000. The infamous six weeks of madness, when chairman Geoffrey Richmond went on a spending spree that was designed to take the Bantams to the next level, but instead acted as a millstone around the club’s neck. He had a misplaced self-confidence, gained from six years of spectacular progress, that he could do no wrong.
The summer of 2000 saw Bradford City sign six players, which included breaking the transfer record for the seventh time in Geoffrey Richmond’s reign, plus forking out eye-watering wages. It brought in a new level of player to the club, one that Richmond gambled would ensure Premier League deliverance for years to come. But when it became apparent that the new-look City were sliding to relegation, the club was left on a flight path to financial implosion.
How did it go so wrong that summer? Just what caused Richmond to lose his Midas touch? After all, his comments in the immediate aftermath of City securing Premier League survival by beating Liverpool were grounded and realistic. “There won’t be bucketfuls of money available for signings,” he explained. “As we look forward to next season, we will again be seen by the national media as one of the favourites for the drop.
“We are still seen as the absolute outsiders. The fact we have stayed in the Premiership does not mean we do not face another tremendous battle next season. Our aim this year was to finish at the top of the bottom league within the Premiership. Next year we hope to go one better and secure our safety on the penultimate weekend!”
Richmond was always a man with a keen grasp on the finances, and appeared to be under no illusions about the true financial rewards of being in the Premier League. On the prospect of another year in the top flight, he stated the day after the Liverpool victory, “There is no doubt that the difference in income to a club like ourselves is somewhere in the region of £6 to £8 million. It is probably more for the bigger clubs.
“Apart from five clubs the Premiership is not a golden egg. In the 1998-99 season, the other 15 Premiership clubs lost money. It isn’t a pathway to riches, but for a club like ourselves what it does mean is that if we survive for three or four years we can really establish ourselves at this level.”
Yet by early August, Richmond had flown into Milan and spent six-and-a-half hours locked in talks to sign Benito Carbone, a feat he achieved by agreeing to pay the Italian £40,000 a week, plus buying him a seven-bedroom house in Leeds to live in. Coventry City were also in for the Italian, offering £30,000 a week. At the time City made Carbone one of the best paid players in the country, earning a higher salary than the likes of David Beckham.
Somewhere during those summer months, Richmond lost sight of the true realities of Bradford City’s position. What had got the club to where it was, and just how fragile their hopes of surviving long-term in the Premier League remained.
There are several theories floated around about the summer of 2000 and demise of the Bantams – one of which is whether it would have been better if they had actually lost to Liverpool, thus being relegated after one season. Without staying up, the reckless spending on Carbone, Dan Petrescu and Ashley Ward would never have happened.
Whilst it’s difficult to dispute City’s survival in the Premier League ultimately inflicted more damage, it’s questionable just how different the club’s path to administration would really have been. The spending approach in the summer of 2000 was not that different to what got them from the third tier to the Premier League, and there is no reason to believe it would have stopped with relegation.
Just read the words of Richmond on the future, after the Liverpool victory, “There will be team strengthening and there would have been team strengthening if we had been relegated.” Of course, City would never have signed Carbone if they were Football League bound that summer, but it’s fair to assume they would have still spent a sizeable amount of money.
They would probably still have broken their transfer record, for example, in pursuit for a return to the Premier League. And unless that promotion push would have proven successful, City would still have been coping with a growing wage bill and the ITV Digital crisis of 2002, which several clubs were ultimately the victim of.
And some of those financial issues that continue to haunt the Bantams to this day are beyond reckless transfer spending. Fans turning up to the Liverpool game that day would have noticed a building site setting up in the North West corner of the ground, with work about to begin on building the corner stand and second tier to the Main Stand. Richmond continued, “Work starts tomorrow on the new stand and it would have started whatever happened against Liverpool. That has been the pledge and commitment which has been there for some time and demonstrates the faith the board have in the future of the club.”
This was the next step in Richmond’s vision to eventually turn Valley Parade into a 35,000 seater ground. And when the work on the main stand was completed, City were left with a £7.4 million mortgage to repay, not to mention the approach to leasing the fixtures and fittings that in 2002 left the club with few assets and all manner of debts to different companies.
All of this would have still happened if City had been relegated by Liverpool. Richmond’s drive to transform the club at such a fast pace has left City with a wonderful home to play in, but Valley Parade now has a 25,000 capacity they rarely need full use of – and the stadium is no longer owned by the club.
There was also the issue of dividend payments to shareholders, which were effectively shared between Richmond and the Rhodes family. According to David Conn’s brilliant 2004 book, The Beautiful Game?, the dividends totalled some £8.125 million, between April 1999 and August 2000 – so a large part of this money was awarded to shareholders before the Liverpool game. The Rhodeses, to their credit, would pay all of their dividend windfall back, and then some, over the following years, when they took on true ownership of the club and its huge debts.
The point is that Richmond had for several years instigated an aggressive growth strategy that saw City spend big on players and improving the stadium. Up until 2000, this high-risk approach delivered spectacular rewards. Even with relegation, there is no suggestion Richmond would have lost belief in this policy. So in that respect, beating Liverpool 20 years ago did not set the club on a doomed path.
In my opinion, the biggest reason for Bradford City’s demise was the breakdown between Richmond and his manager Paul Jewell.
As our Premier League Years series as covered, the pressures of fighting to stay in the top flight had put a real strain on the pair’s relationship. Richmond was always a hands-on chairman – something Jewell knew full well before he first took the job in 1998 – but when the stress levels rose in the high-profile battle to stay up, Jewell needed a supportive boss. Instead, he faced angry criticism and unwelcome team selection interference from Richmond.
Jewell’s experience of dealing with Richmond meant he was now more inclined to stand up to him, and that probably only served to enrage the chairman further. Hence Richmond made barbed digs that Jewell was on TV too regularly and listening too much to his assistant Terry Yorath.
There were echoes of how Richmond’s relationship with the previous City manager, Chris Kamara, had ended. In the final few months Kamara had gone against Richmond’s advice on who to sign – buying John McGinlay for a club record £625k, with the Scot proving a big disappointment. Kamara also refused an order from Richmond to get rid of one of his assistants. The final straw that led to Richmond sacking him.
Ultimately Richmond was a chairman used to getting his way, and so it must have grated him to see Jewell going against his wishes.
Jewell told me when I interviewed him for my book Who We Are, “It was a great learning curve for me, and I’ve spoken at many seminars since about managing upwards. Every day was tough. But every day I was learning more about how to manage upwards. Not just my players, but the people above you.
“He tried to pick the team, he tried to do things. I couldn’t tell him to f**k off, because I’d be out the door. I had to do cleverer things than that. I had to massage his ego to a large extent, but never allow him to affect my thoughts on football.”
When City travelled to Sunderland with four games of 1999/00 to go, Richmond had told Jewell what team to select but the manager ignored him. The Bantams won, and Richmond failed to ring Jewell to congratulate him – win, lose or draw, the chairman always rang his manager after a game.
Still, after the Liverpool victory Richmond was full of public praise for his manager. “I am happiest for Paul Jewell and his family. There has been pressure on a young man.
“We didn’t win a game between February 5 when we won at home to Arsenal and Easter Monday when we shocked everyone by winning at Sunderland, but he never lost his sense of humour nor did we lose our sense of belief and our team spirit never disintegrated.
“We have a great set of lads in our dressing room and Paul Jewell and his coaching staff deserve every credit.”
With the pressure of a tough season over, Richmond and Jewell had the opportunity to clear the air and continue their productive partnership. They went out for lunch at a trendy Heaton restaurant called Clarks, for what was supposed to be a celebration. But it proved to be the final tipping point for Jewell.
During the meal Jewell presented Richmond his player targets for next season. Richmond declared he had never disagreed with a list of players so much in his life, before he pulled out his own list of targets.
He then told Jewell he thought his manager had been lucky to keep City up, that he’d been shown up tactically in games and that – if his contact had been up for renewal – he would not be getting another one. Richmond had also chosen to enter City in the Intertoto Cup – a summer European competition, that would mean the Bantams would be playing matches from late June – which was a decision Jewell strongly disagreed with.
Jewell left the meeting seething, but unbeknown to Richmond he had a get-out option – Sheffield Wednesday had approached him about taking over as manager. When I interviewed Jewell for Who We Are he told me, “I came out of the meeting and felt so low. I realised I had to get out of Bradford because I can’t work with the chairman. Having been tapped up by Sheffield Wednesday two weeks earlier, I rang up them up and said ‘If you still want me I’ll do it’. They said no, we’ve gone for Joe Kinnear now.
“I went away on holiday. Joe Kinnear had second thoughts, probably saw what was going on at Sheffield Wednesday. I came back and told Geoffrey I was leaving. He told me that the most important relationship in any football club is between the chairman and the manager. And ours was breaking down. I needed to get away.”
Richmond stated in the 2006 book The Pain and the Glory, “At the end of the season, Paul and I should not have spoken until a healthy period of recuperation had elapsed…I told him over lunch that he was not the same person I had appointed two and a bit years ago…I admit that I told Paul that if his contract was up that day I wouldn’t be offering him a renewal. Now that was a long way short from saying the word ‘sack’. It was a warning shot across the bows.
“However I regret the conversation deeply. It was very damaging.”
Whilst Jewell’s time at Hillsborough was disappointing – it was a rebound job to go into, as he overlooked the club’s perilous financial position – he subsequently proved the brilliant job he did for City was no fluke. Between 2002 and 2007, Jewell took Wigan from the third tier to the Premier League, masterminding their top flight survival for two seasons and reaching the League Cup final. He proved a huge, huge loss to City when he left that summer.
Richmond faced a major problem replacing Jewell, but stuck to a tried and tested formula that had seen Kamara and Jewell deliver success. Hire from within, by giving the job to someone grateful for the opportunity and less likely to challenge Richmond’s authority. Chris Hutchings, Jewell’s assistant, got the nod.
As Lee Sharpe winces in his autobiography, “Who would we get as manager at this most important moment in the club’s history…Chris Hutchings? Who?…In what other walk of life would a multi-million-pound company, which is what Bradford had become, have as its most important senior employee a man with so little experience of the job? I can’t think of one.
“This was the other side of football…chaos and amateurism.”
Where did it all go wrong for Bradford City? concludes tomorrow