The Bradford City leadership landscape – part two

Continuing on from part one, which can be found here.

Image by John Dewhirst

By Jason McKeown

Geoffrey Richmond changed Bradford City forever. Its identity, its value, its worth. The genie was let out of the bottle, and can never be put back in.

In the 25 years before the Richmond revolution, City’s average attendance was 5,986. Over the 25 years since his arrival, the average gate is 12,529 – more than double.

Richmond took City from the lower reaches to the second tier, and then smashed the club through the glass ceiling to enjoy the Premier League. The stadium and fanbase were completely transformed. It was a small club. It became a big club.

He shifted the dial on what Bradford City was capable of. But the astonishing mid-90s rise stands not just as history to inspire, it adds a weight of expectation. Richmond had a long-term ambition and the drive to deliver it. Football has completely changed in 20 years – the Richmond approach to getting to the Premier League would not work today – but that grand, colourful vision is in stark contrast to the more grey, quiet City rebuilding of today.

There are echoes of Bradford City within Nottingham Forest, and how the Midlands club was perceived before and after Brian Clough helped them scale unimaginable heights. And like Clough with Forest, it can leave a daunting legacy for those who follow. No Forest fan expects to win the European Cup again. No City fan expects Premier League football to return to Valley Parade. But neither fanbase can accept going back to what they were before Clough/Richmond either. Nor should they.

Clough and Richmond both injected into their respective clubs a powerful dose of ambition. And whatever the modern day highs and lows of Forest and City, however much the sport has changed to conspire against them, each club’s fortunes are looked at through the lens of knowing that – under previous leaders – they achieved greater things.

And because of those past accomplishments, we know that both Forest and City are capable of more than what they’re currently delivering.

***

The long-term ideal is that Stefan Rupp finds a buyer for the Bantams. That he can leave with most if not all of his investment recouped. And that he passes the baton onto a new owner with a stronger football nous, decent financial clout and a plan to run the club day to day. It’s ultimately the best thing for Rupp. It’s ultimately the best thing for Bradford City.

But the reality is that it isn’t going to happen soon. Certainly not until football returns to normal, with Covid-19 manageable enough for the club to function in the way it was. Perhaps not even then, if City are still floundering in the fourth tier.

What it means is that City need a considered plan that can deliver success. That can revive the club from the ditch they’ve been languishing in over the last couple of seasons. Momentum is so powerful, and all it would take is a season of good football, pushing for promotion, for the feelgood factor to return to Valley Parade. Season ticket sales are understandably down, but there remains a strong loyalty amongst the hardcore of supporters.

Win them around, believing in what you’re trying to do, and City supporters can lift the club a long way forwards.

***

There have been lots of calls for more strategic thinking. For investment in training facilities, recruitment, youth development and into a stadium that is starting to show its age. For there to be a clear, considered plan to move forwards that we can all believe in.

In reality that’s difficult to achieve. Not the investment and actual addressing part of those things, but to present a vision that people can genuinely believe in. In our lives, we’re all obsessed with the present and that makes it close to impossible for us to implement sensible long-term decisions. Go for a five-mile run to lose weight, or eat a slice of cake? The latter is instant gratification, the former painful in the short-term and where ultimate success is harder to envisage.

Football, and Bradford City, really struggle with long-term thinking. Rupp could have publicly announced he was building a new training ground, and brought in a recruitment team, but it wouldn’t prevent the angry backlash that greeted last Tuesday’s League Cup humiliation. We can all agree in the logic of giving a manager time to build, but if they lose a couple of games question marks about their future inevitably rise. Just look at Bolton, whose summer actions attracted envious eyes from City supporters. They’ve started very badly, and fans are angry. Bolton’s supposedly superior plan is so far not working.

In life, and football, we want to see instant results from our decisions. We judge their level of success in days and weeks – rather than months and years. Football is a volatile sport, and the foundations at City have been weakened from so many short-term storms.

We need to fix the roof. To do those off the field things that in time will make Bradford City a stronger football club. But we also need three points on Saturday. There’s an obvious correlation between the two. But given the pain of the last few years, long-term aims only stand a chance of working if there’s evident signs they’re working in the short-term.

***

And that all brings us onto Julian Rhodes, who is in the role of acting chief executive. Running the club day-to-day, on behalf of Rupp. Fixing issues and waiting to pass the baton onto someone else. The person who more than anyone else is looked on to provide that robust plan. To rebuild the club.

What can we say about Rhodes? I write as someone who has had the opportunity to meet and interview him twice. I think he is a really good man. He is intelligent, knowledgeable, confident. He brings a calm assurance to the way he leads people, but has a hard edge. He knows the football club inside out. He has succeeded, once before, in turning around a heavily in debt Bradford City. Handing over a club that was profitable and successful on the field.

Rhodes is highly rated by people in the game, with the likes of Phil Parkinson and Stuart McCall full of nothing but positivity for what he is like to work under. And when he did sell City in 2016, Rhodes was approached by other parties to get involved with running several other football clubs – including one Northern club who are significantly bigger than the Bantams.

But as much as I can give him a glowing character reference, what reason can I offer you to believe me? What evidence is there for you to see with your own eyes? And this is where it really falls down for Rhodes. His achievements are not tangible beyond those who were in the room to see them. And that makes it very difficult for him to command the trust and confidence of supporters.

In any business few people are aware of everything that a chief executive does in fulfillment of their duties. The public sees only a small amount and the fact that Rhodes prefers to be anonymous means that, in the case of City, very little is seen of him.

On a normal matchday, Rhodes could walk through a crowd of City fans and no one would recognise him. You won’t find an audio recording of him speaking, or a video where he appears. That’s the way he chooses to be, and he has own reasons for that. But it makes him almost impossible to defend to others.

There’s a huge vacuum that his detractors have seized upon. And in this post-truth era, where opinions can become more important than facts, it threatens to undo his previously good reputation.

When chairman of the club, especially alongside Mark Lawn, there was no obligation for Rhodes to speak much in public, other than through newspaper interviews. But he’s now interim chief executive, and there’s not many organisations in the world where a CEO is not visible through media and other communications. Ryan Sparks is brilliant at front of house stuff. But there are times when supporters expect to hear from the top.

Rhodes’ reluctance to have a public face is a criticism of him as a CEO and he has not helped himself by remaining private and not communicating. It makes people question what he does and make him the scapegoat for the club’s failings – even though that’s not entirely fair.

Above all else, Rhodes is reluctantly involved at Valley Parade. Holding the fort, because right now there is no one else do to it. Previously he was happy to operate in the background and allow Lawn to be the public face, but since returning to Valley Parade he hasn’t had that foil.

Could the club recruit a high profile, more extroverted CEO? Firstly, there’s a question of if they could afford it at a time when some non-playing staff remain furloughed. Whatever Rhodes is currently being paid, if anything, it is unlikely to be the market rate. Secondly, would someone of higher calibre come to Valley Parade right now?

It seems that Rhodes’ time at the club will be coming to an end in the near future. Getting his replacement is said to be on his to-do list. We will wait to see what difference such a change would make.

In the meantime, we judge Rhodes now not as a football club owner but as a CEO. And though he might be producing brilliant work behind the scenes, there is no visible substantiation of his work that we supporters can see with our own eyes. So yes, buy me a pint and I’ll tell you why I think Rhodes is a good man who deserves much better treatment. But I can’t offer you anything stronger than testimony.

And it’s completely understandable why this isn’t considered good enough.

***

There is not going to be an obvious change in the ownership and leadership of Bradford City any time soon. There’s a pragmatic, mend-and-make-do feel. We need this to work for a bit, before we all go our separate ways – hopefully still able to shake hands.

But it can feel like a circle of gloom. We need to start being successful in order to move the club forwards and ultimately become a sale-able asset again. But can those at the helm bring that success? And if they can’t, just what is this leading towards?

We’re probably just one more unsuccessful season away from things getting really, really ugly. Protests, boycotts and the like. Or until even the most committed fans decide they can stomach no more.

With no physical get together, the angry atmosphere of right now is restricted to the battlegrounds of social media. That can amplify tensions beyond their true reality. Scroll through the #bcafc timeline, and ultimately you only really see the same 30-40 names taking part in the conversation. At least on a regular basis. Social media and message boards can be a useful mood barometer, but have obvious limitations.

The downbeat mood will only get truly problematic when it can be seen physically from thousands of City supporters attending games, expressing their anger. Or from season ticket renewals dropping well below break-even levels. But make no mistake, we are moving down that path. Whatever the recruitment strategy is, right now – to us supporters – it looks increasingly desperate. The promising start to the season had its foundations shaken by one bad performance. That’s how delicate things are.

For this reason, the long-term idealism of rebuilding stronger than ever need quick signs of validation. Green shoots need to start appearing now. Sometimes, you just need to have a bite of that cake.

The club has to win matches on a regular basis. Make some convincing signings. Fight in the upper sections of League Two. Start to progress. There isn’t the appetite for more treading water. There isn’t the patience to continue being unsuccessful.

It’s a time for actions, not just words. For hope to be visible to our eyes. There’s no reason why better things can’t be within the club’s grasp. But, sadly, that’s felt the case for the last three years.



Categories: Opinion

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7 replies

  1. it really annoys me when ‘some’ fans bring their focus of ire and need to sound off on Stuart. For me he needs time to build. It appears financially that his hands are tied. Forgetting the imposed limited budget/salary cap, some other clubs manage to work around it before it took place. We had Ryan Sparks making a statement that we will be looking to work within it. In hindsight the first warning sign of a cut in resources which ‘fans’ naturally then claim to be a lack of ambition. Thus back to Stuart who is having to play the hand dealt to him. An hand that is unbalanced, and inherited members who failed last season and of varying degrees of quality and experience. I feel sorry for him from where he was last time and unjustly sacked to now. It reminds me of the second season of his first stint at the club in the players at his disposal. I believe that Stuart is already getting the best out of what is available and just a few additions could make a big difference. I wasn’t overkeen on the return of Billy Clarke. It didn’t inspire me at all. However Stuart has already getting more out of him than in his previous spell. In the limited players signed Watt looks a real find and has potential to improve with games. However some fans carry agendas or as the article states only see the short term /last result and will not be prepared to allow Stuart to build ‘his’ squad and develop players thus gradually improving the team. I cannot see anyone doing any better with this current squad than Stuart and even if we do not achieve a play-off spot or promotion i only hope that ‘fans’ will see an improvement and attempt a longer term vision.

  2. Stuart is the same manager we have seen each time he is here, he gets a lot out of the players in terms of energy and commitment and they seem to enjoy playing for him. When that is paired with a good squad, it leads to good things. Right now, with a squad no better than middle of the road for the league, we may need more from a coaching & tactical pov that he can offer.

    The ownership is demoralizing, every organization suffers without leadership and vision. Batten down the hatches and wait for the next guy is sensible but it’s very hard to watch.

  3. Do not underestimate the challenging times ahead for clubs in the lower divisions. After the announcement today regarding people entering sports stadiums, I don’t think that we will be able to visit Valley Parade to watch Bradford City play until 2021.
    With the current situation, I want people who care about our football club to have a major role to play in leading it. Thus, I will take Stuart McCall and Julian Rhodes. I’ve mentioned before the need for stability and right now that is what our football club needs to survive. A successful season isn’t about finishing in the top seven this season; it’s about surviving as a football club with a team to support for many years to come. I will choose a marathon to lose weight rather than eat a big slice of chocolate cake.

  4. For many clubs, long-term planning is now about living week by week and looking no further ahead than the next wage bill. Whatever the critics want to claim otherwise, Stefan Rupp is at least providing the club with the stability and assurance that a lot of our rivals do not have. My suspicion is that a good number of EFL clubs are not going to survive this crisis.

  5. I agree with John – because of the pandemic, the most important objective this season is survival. Looking beyond that, I find it hard to imagine that with the current state of the club (no physical assets)that Stefan would find a buyer, let alone recoup much of his outlay. The original plans of Rahic and Rupp had merit, it was the execution that was rubbish. Maybe he should take a longer term view and put in place plans to increase the “value” of the club through infrastructure investment (ground and training facilities) and player development (a la Brentford) with a view to establishing the club as a top 10 Championship side.
    We can but dream!!

  6. Top, top article Jason. A fantastic read.

    So where do I start. Well let’s start with Kepa the Chelsea keeper, he cost £71m. Not particularly money well spent I’d say. However, imagine if an owner could spend £71m on City, we’d be fast tracked to the championship, be able to buy the stadium outright, modernise the training facilities and still have a few bob left over.

    Unfortunately, we have not found that sugar daddy yet. I say yet, as I do believe it will happen and hopefully, they will have much deeper pockets and longer arms. Fundamentally, what Rahic and Gianni Paladini saw in our club is a business opportunity. It ticks so many boxes, for someone courageous [or stupid] enough to have a flutter. A 25k seater stadium (leased), large potential fanbase, low-cost of entry compared to other comparable clubs.

    Having watched City when 6k fans was the norm, I still smile inside when we have significant attendances.
    Richmond saw the potential of our club and propelled us into a place which many fans thought was impossible. A fatal mistake burst that bubble but had he pulled it off we’d would have cemented our place in the highest league, like Burnley have done. The margin of error was small, the fallout huge. Don’t get me wrong Richmond had his faults but boy, the memories of watching us during that period is now rightly folklore. Take the Mills/Blake strike partnership, that wouldn’t have occurred had it not been for the chairman sanctioning the move.

    Fast forward to 2020 our owner Rupp, as you say he doesn’t want to be at the club. I see two options. Sell up for a loss now or invest heavily and aim to get us into the Championship and sell us for more, including recouping his larger outlay. You have to speculate to accumulate. Homes under the hammer would be my cheesy analogy. The problems is, I don’t believe he has the heart or desire to invest heavily, which is why flipping the club for a minimum loss is probably his preferred option.

    Covid, bizarrely also creates a opportunity to assemble a team to punch above its weight at lower cost than the previous year. However, until we see a statement of intent from Rupp, then we will remain in this ‘keeping the lights on’ mode. For some fans this stance is a perfectly fine, for me Id like someone who likes to roll the dice and give it a right go. This club will be here long after we have gone.

  7. As we have seen selling the club to a new owner does not always work well.
    I am sure that ML and JR did not intend to sell to people who did not have the best interests for the club at their heart.
    In fact they had little control in this once the contracts were exchanged.
    The analogy is selling your house and telling the neighbours that you will only sell to `a nice family` but upon moving in they find that they hold noisy wild parties.
    They really had little control.
    The problem if Rupp ever sells is will he be so keen to get us of his hands that he will not care about who the new owner is.
    we could find ourselves im a worse position.

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