By Jason McKeown
Steve Morison is fractionally offside as Lee Gregory heads the ball in his direction, but the flag stays down. The Welsh international has stolen in behind Nathaniel Knight-Percival and he stabs the ball into the net. It’s a Wembley goal that will earn Millwall promotion to the Championship, and bring ultimate victory to a three-year battle between the Lions and Bradford City.
It was a short-term rivalry that began on a freezing January 2015 night in West Yorkshire, when League One Bradford City humiliated Championship Millwall in an FA Cup third round replay. With a prize of a trip to Millwall’s bitter rivals Chelsea on offer, City’s 4-0 thrashing pushed Ian Holloway closer to the sack and ripped apart confidence in the London club’s doomed battle to avoid relegation.
A year later, both City and Millwall were fighting it out in the third tier, with the Lions emerging victorious in the 2015/16 play off semi final. Millwall went onto lose that play off final. But a year later they were back at Wembley – back facing the Bantams in a crucial game – and Morison’s late, late goal sent Millwall up at City’s expense.
Two clubs, vying for the same goal of second tier football – with barely anything between them in terms of final league position, and across the four League One meetings, over 2015/16 and 2016/17. But when it came to the balance sheets, the two clubs were poles apart.
In 2016/17, Stuart McCall was operating on a £2.7 million playing budget – around a third on the £8 million at Neil Harris’ disposal. Between 2011 and 2017, Bradford City climbed from the lower reaches of League Two to coming agonisingly close to promotion to the Championship, whilst making a £2 million profit. Over the same period, Millwall made a loss of £36 million.
Yet Millwall’s debt-driven approach is the norm in English football over recent years – especially for clubs in, or with ambitions of, reaching the Championship. It was Bradford City’s self-sustaining, keep-in-the-black philosophy that was out of kilter with almost everybody else.
And though a financially prudent mantra gives the Bantams greater security during times of uncertainty like Covid-19, the lower risk approach is also one of the reasons why it has fallen behind.
Bradford City’s largely frugal strategy to finances over the last decade has its roots in the scars of the past. Administration in 2002 and 2004 – even some financial struggles in 2011 – led to the club taking a more self-sustaining approach to finances that between 2011 and 2017 worked well. Debt has not been a popular word in these parts.
In the two-and-a-half years in-between Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn selling up, and Rhodes returning to help out, City had once again got themselves into a bit of a financial mess. That recovery is still to be completed, but City were edging closer again to becoming a break even club – at least before Covid-19.
Yet still, the buy now and pay later culture at the higher end of English football leaves a growing feeling of frustration amongst supporters at Valley Parade. The backwards steps City have taken since Morison’s Wembley goal have been really difficult to reverse. And the pace of turning around the ship is slow.
Clubs, like Millwall, who have gambled generally had wealthy owners who were willing to underwrite those losses. This was something beyond the financially capability of Lawn and Rhodes. If Stefan Rupp really wanted to, he could spend millions of pounds underwriting huge losses and making Bradford City a force. Invest in infrastructure, scouting and coaching support. Buy back Valley Parade. But in his defence, that was not the blueprint Rupp was sold when he was persuaded by Edin Rahic to fund the purchase of Bradford City – when he’d never been to a football match in his life. With the way things have turned out, ultimately, Rupp will want to sell the club. He certainly doesn’t want to keep pouring money down a black hole.
But the club’s challenge is getting supporters bought into the ‘live within means’ way of thinking and to provide confidence it can be successful. There is a limited appetite to go through years of struggle like we had to endure 2000-2012.
The impending introduction of the salary cap has a lot of negative connotations for Bradford City. It will mean the £2.7 million playing budget used last season will be reduced by 45% to £1.5 million at a basic level. (Although players already under contract are partially excluded from the cap, meaning the impact shouldn’t be as bad as initially feared for 2020/21.) So the financial advantage City enjoyed last season over around two-thirds of the rest of League Two will be reduced.
But it’s a deeper problem than that. The strategy Bradford City deployed between 2011-2017 – one that took City to the fringes of Championship football – will not work under the salary cap rules. Because that climb half way up the ladder, and £2 million profit, was fuelled by revenue from cup runs and player sales. The proposed salary cap rules deem that revenue achieved from these routes can’t be added to your playing budget.
The 2012/13 season was a brilliant example of how the approach worked. City pushed the boat out on signings – with a budget of around £1.9 million. This was more than the £1.3 million break even they could afford at the time, but they had certain possibilities in place to recoup the extra £600k. This included cup runs, sell-ons from former youth players snapped up by Premier League clubs (such as Andre Wisdom) and, as a last resort, selling a player like Nahki Wells.
Of course, the run to the League Cup Final provided City with a financial windfall beyond expectations. Part of it was used to settle the historic loan put in by Mark Lawn. But crucially to success, it meant Phil Parkinson could not only keep his squad but add to it.
In the end, City’s playing budget for 2012/13 was over £2 million. The success of the calculated gamble saw revenue come in that gave the Bantams the extra push to promotion.
But if City were to repeat the cup success of 2013 next season, under the proposed salary cap rules they couldn’t use the cup revenue to strengthen the squad towards promotion. Or, like in 2014/15 after the FA Cup run, increase the playing budget for the following season. Or, if they unearth the next Nahki Wells or Oli Mcburnie, reinvest the profits of a player sale to increase transfer spending.
That plan, which was so close to successfully bringing Championship football back to Valley Parade, now needs a rethink. The question is: to what?
There are two financial stages ahead for Bradford City – getting through Covid-19, and then (hopefully) a return to normality.
What’s important for City’s balance sheet is the speed of financial recovery from lockdown. Not so much in the sense of recouping the losses of Covid-19, which Rupp is said to absorbing, but in how long it takes for income and expenditure to return to the levels of before.
Will season ticket sales be strong when they are made available again? And if City have to operate with reduced crowds for a significant period of time, what will that do for matchday income, including corporate hospitality? And there’s the knock-on effect from how local businesses – big and small – are faring through the pandemic. When companies cut costs, spends like hiring executive boxes at Valley Parade, sponsoring the club and advertising in the programme could be the first to go.
It’s hard to see how there won’t be some negative impact over much of 2020/21. Other clubs are in the same boat too – Ipswich predict a £10 million loss, promoted Plymouth are expecting to cut jobs, Premier League clubs have collectively lost £1 billion in revenue. The storm has not yet passed, and that has to come into the short-term thinking. The reality is that City staff remain furloughed and there won’t be a lot of regular revenue coming into the club for some time.
Boris Johnson has talked hopefully about life returning back to normal by Christmas. And there is rising optimism about a Covid-19 vaccine. So there is light at the end of the tunnel for City. We still await to see the long-term consequences of all of this on football clubs. When stadiums are fully reopen again, will society quickly return to watching live football in the same numbers as before?
City’s plans are undoubtedly influenced by these events, but if and when the Covid-19 cloud does clear and normality returns, there is a real opportunity to focus more on the long-term structure of the club. Including deploying funding, that cannot go into the playing budget, into other areas.
The salary cap might be restrictive on the field, but it doesn’t stop City from still making more money than their peers, especially in League Two. If the Bantams can afford to have a playing budget that’s higher than they’re allowed to spend (both in League Two and One), the big question is what the club does with this sort of remaining budget in the long run?
It’s going to be more important than ever to get recruitment decisions right. In a sense, clubs are in a strong position this summer with the Covid-19 situation leading to lots of players out on contract and many facing the reality of reduced wages or no longer being employed as a professional footballer. So City, and others, have plenty of choice out there.
But when the market settles down again, in normal circumstances, clever recruitment is clearly going to be vital in gaining the edge in the new salary cap world. If you can spend more than your rivals, you can afford a few duff signings and still be near the top. On a reduced budget, there is a smaller margin for error.
There were rumours that City were going to improve the recruitment area – at least before the Covid-19 situation – and when the club is back up and fully running, it’s something they really need to look at. An analytical team could work wonders.
Can the training ground be further enhanced? A lot of the progress under the Phil Parkinson years came after significant improvements were made to the training ground from 2011. This included making sure there was a place the players can meet and change, rather than driving to and from Valley Parade in muddy kit. New pitches were also built.
City made big strides here – but the lessons of the past show that you cannot afford to standstill. That Stuart McCall the manager, first time around, was basically having to use the same training set-up he’d experienced as a player, first time around, showed years of neglect for something that is so fundamentally important. Even small changes can add up to a lot.
And there’s the coaching staff too. One of the big revolutions of 2011-2017 was the appointment of Nick Allamby by Peter Jackson. It became a real issue when Allamby left with Parkinson in 2016 – fitness was an obvious problem in the relegation season especially. City now have the services of Ben Rome, but there might be other smart additions to the backroom team that can really support the players. Add new voices and dedicated support.
For City to become more successful again, they also need to move away from the curse of short-term thinking. Part of the issues with recruitment right now is the high turnover of managers. Edin Rahic built a squad for Michael Collins. David Hopkin began to change it. Gary Bowyer was hamstrung by a large part of his budget already assigned to players he inherited. And now Stuart McCall has a similar issue.
Since January 2018, every time the club has struggled badly they’ve changed manager. That has sometimes been the right call, but the constant hitting of the restart button has made it very difficult to get any momentum going.
Like with Parkinson, at some stage we’re going to have to stick with a manager through a downturn, to allow them to properly rebuild. And with the limitations of the salary cap taking effect over the coming years, City are in less of a position to keep bringing in managers who don’t like the look of the squad they inherit. Or the cycle will keep repeating.
We need to find a way to bring back the culture of players sticking with the club for years, playing a key part in success. Your Stephen Darbys, Rory McArdles, James Merediths, Andrew Davies’, James Hansons. That comes from a central ethos. A blueprint that pre and post-dates the manager.
Since McCall was sacked in 2018, not one manager has lasted a full 12 months at the helm. At this level, it’s very difficult to attract a good manager who doesn’t have full control of his transfer budget. But it’s not healthy to keep signing players on contracts that outlast the manager.
Whether a smarter, progressive, long-term approach is ultimately enough to take City into the Championship – with the gulf between the top two and bottom two divisions only likely to grow over the next few years – is another question. But the first steps of getting City moving forwards again, and at least back to the top end of League One, has to be the initial priority. The stability at Wycombe Wanderers is certainly a good illustration of what can be achieved.
It appears the club has no choice but to accept a salary cap. We can’t ignore or overlook the problems it creates to the model, but it cannot be a reason to hoist the white flag and accept a lifetime in the lower leagues.
Culturally, and structurally, this might be the opportunity to build a stronger and more sustainable Bradford City Football Club.