By Jason McKeown
Stefan Rupp must sometimes regret his choice of bank. It was 2015, and he had recently sold part of his helicopter seats company, Fischer Seats, for a small fortune. Rupp received a call from his bank consultant proposing a meeting with Edin Rahic, who was looking for a partner to buy a football club.
Rupp knew little about football, never mind holding any desire to own a football club. But after sitting down with Rahic to listen to his proposal, he was won over by the investment opportunity. Rahic was convincing. His knowledge, his experience in the game – Ralf Rangnick, dubbed “one of the most important innovators in German football” was amongst his credible list of contacts – and his plan. English football was awash with money that would catch the eye of any investor. Rahic claimed it was a sport with flaws too. Flaws that they could take advantage of.
Fast forward to the present, almost five years on from attending his first-ever football match – Bradford City’s Tuesday night 0-0 draw with Coventry City, on a chilly November evening – and Rupp remains saddled with a business that he probably wishes he’d never laid eyes on. Owning Bradford City since 2016 can only have contributed stress and headaches. An asset dwindling in value, often in need of significant cash injections.
And at this, the beginnings of Rupp’s fifth season owning the Bantams, you wonder just how long it will go on for.
Rupp’s commitment to Bradford City has certainly been tested. But the option of walking away – at least with any semblance of claiming his money back – has not really been on the table. Rupp was, like many others, duped by Rahic. Wrongly buying into his former partner’s boasts about his football club ownership ability. But whilst it was relatively easy to rid himself of Rahic, it’s a lot more difficult to undo the decision to buy the Bantams.
He was supposed to be the silent partner. The man with the capital, but who could continue living his life in Germany without having to be consumed by the challenges of running a football club. Without speaking to supporters or the media. It didn’t matter that he had no football expertise, because there were other people to provide that.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way for Rupp. The incompetence of his trusted business partner left an almighty mess to clear up. By the end of 2018, financial leaks were springing out of a club that had for several years proudly operated in the black. The club’s staff has been gutted in number and morale. A culture of independent decision making no longer in existence, due to the overbearing micro-management approach they had been working under.
And then there was the team, robbed of its heart and soul. Replaced by misfits and spineless players, whose wage packets vastly exceeded their levels of desire. The history makers culture had been deposed for something else, where even the most willing of workers struggled to function. The youth and development squad set-up was dealing with budget cut backs. The scouting structure was torn up.
As Rupp flew into Bradford to unseat Rahic and assume full control in November 2018, City sat bottom of League One – having lost nine of their previous 13 games. Seven points from safety. All done on the club’s highest playing budget since 2002.
Removing Rahic stopped some of the bleeding, but the damage was done.
Rupp can claim he was duped by Rahic. But that doesn’t absolve him from sharing in the blame for Bradford City’s present day struggles. He was culpable, not just in leaving Rahic unchecked – but in validating and helping to drive bad decisions. The sacking of Stuart McCall, in February 2018, for example – a Rupp choice as much as Rahic’s. Or the poor planning a year earlier that allowed the core of the 2016/17 play off finalist team to leave as their contracts ran out.
Rupp has apologised for his role in the collapse. Pledged to continue funding the club. He feels a sense of responsibility to right the wrongs. You don’t have to look far to find other clubs starved of investment by their distant owners. At Charlton, for example, non-playing staff were at one stage not even allowed to eat crisps at their desks to save on cleaning costs. Rupp has not walked away or turned off the tap. He has been able to stabilise the club after the relegation of 2019.
But right now, to an increasingly frustrated fanbase, the big question is whether stability is good enough.
Bradford City has a wide-ranging fanbase and a core level of support, deeply passionate about its fortunes. It is a big club – too big to accept languishing in League Two. And like any big club, it needs hands-on leadership.
It is too high profile of a club, and means too much to so many people, to be treated as a part-time vocation. Rupp would be the first to acknowledge he is not that person to lead from the front.
He is not, ultimately, the owner that this football club needs in the long-term.
The club’s current under-investment and punching below its weight is not new. It stems from years of neglect that stretches all the way back through the wasted riches of the Premier League era, and to decades before even that. In the 68 years since English football was restructured to four divisions, City have been in the bottom two leagues for 49 of them. And 27 of those 49 have been spent in the fourth tier.
Rupp inherited problems that were not his making, but crucially lacks the appetite to address them. He is probably the richest owner Bradford City has ever had in its long history. Capable – if he really wanted – of building a new training ground, stadium, scouting set-up and football team to climb up the Football League. But instead, all he is really doing is repairing the cracks, maintaining the paintwork and ensuring it can ultimately be passed on to someone else.
That is not unreasonable of Rupp. If, back in that first ever meeting with Rahic, he would have known that by buying Bradford City he would one day be at the helm on his own, and that he might be expected to provide all of these things, he would have shaken hands with his new friend and walked away. Continued his life without football.
The more Bradford City rely on Rupp’s financial benevolence to climb forwards, the more in debt they become to one person – and with it less appealing to buy. If purchasing Bradford City would mean paying Rupp not just the club’s value, but re-compensating him for everything else he has put in, it’s a lot more to fork out.
If a club is set up to rely on the deep pockets of an owner in order to pay the bills, it also becomes a less appealing investment opportunity. Where would the profit lie for the next owner? Part of Wigan’s demise stems from the fact that even in their best moments under Dave Whelan, the millionaire was putting in around £850k a year to fund their grand adventure – on top of building a new stadium and training ground. Whelan largely did that through a love of his club. It’s not a football club ownership approach you see as much these days, at least in the top two tiers. It’s certainly not the type of owner that Rupp could be considered.
It is not difficult to understand why Rupp is leaning more towards trying to make Bradford City self-sustaining again. It makes for a more attractive football club for someone else to eventually buy from him.
The problem is that any realistic chance of someone purchasing the club from Rupp anytime soon is superseded by the current, unprecedented times. Covid-19 has changed the world. Football as a whole is estimated to have lost £11.1 billion. Football League clubs have collectively lost £50 million since the start of the pandemic. And the value of Football League clubs is said to have dropped between 10-34%.
City have had to go months and months without its usual revenue streams. Costs were reduced to an extent by the furlough scheme, but the resumption of the football season leaves the club trying to move forwards with little money coming in. The potential October return of small crowds to Valley Parade is a start, but a normal matchday gathering – with all the revenue that brings – is a way off. The rising concerns of a Covid-19 second wave also increase the threat of the new season coming to a halt.
In an excellent article in The Athletic last week by Matt Slater, the scale of the potential crisis was laid bare. “We need to start getting fans back inside grounds, or clubs will go to the wall,” Mark Catlin, Portsmouth CEO, is quoted. “If this carries on for much longer, it will be a catastrophe for English football.”
An unnamed Premier League CEO was equally blunt, “For the clubs outside the Premier League, this situation is unsustainable…There will come a point when (the professional game) is in real trouble and, to be honest, it’s not far away.” Or how about the words of Preston’s adviser Peter Risdale? “The fans are having a go at us for not buying players but we’ve been very prudent and, even then, we’ll need the continued support of the owner, who underwrites us.”
During lockdown Bradford City has had to go back to Rupp and rely on his financial support. Short-term survival has been the key, and it leaves the club in a much better position than many others. But the difficult landscape also makes Bradford City difficult to sell in the near future. There had been some interest a year ago, but that won’t be the case in these unprecedented times.
City are far from unique in this case. As the Sun journalist Alan Nixon put it this week, in response to rumours of a takeover at Burnley, “Who is buying right now? It’s future potential disasters that matter for any owner right now.”
At the sharp end, Wigan Athletic are said to be in danger of being wound up. “The pandemic certainly isn’t doing us any favours,” admitted administrator Paul Stanley. Last week Macclesfield went out of business completely, despite Stanley revealing the Cheshire club “could have been saved had an investor come along with as little as £150,000 or so. The club could have been bought for that price, but evidently no one wanted it.”
According to Luton’s chief executive Gary Sweet, “Right now there’s not really a queue of people willing to buy football clubs.”
What Rupp does offer right now is the stability of wages being paid each month. A guarantee the stadium rent can still be paid. Confidence that the club isn’t about to disappear in the near-term. That is a luxury many other clubs don’t enjoy, as they currently live hand to mouth.
It is a solid platform. But with Bradford City stuck below their level of football capability and unrest growing, to many supporters it also isn’t enough.