By Jason McKeown
Ryan Sparks has been named the new chief executive of Bradford City, following several months of speculation over who would replace the outgoing Julian Rhodes. Sparks will oversee the day-to-day running of Bradford City, reporting directly to the German-based owner, Stefan Rupp.
The 29-year-old originally joined Bradford City in the summer of 2018 as head of media and public relations – and it’s fair to say he has had an eventful couple of years. Recruited by Edin Rahic during a period of huge staff turnover, Sparks out-lasted his old boss and increasingly took on a greater role after Julian Rhodes came in. Earlier this year, Sparks was appointed Director of Communications and Commercial.
Bradford City is not Sparks’ first sporting experience. After his career began as sports editor at the Sports Newspaper, he spent two years working as Media and PR Manager at Bradford Bulls, and a further two years as Head of Communications at Featherstone Rovers.
I’ve got to know Sparks a little bit over the past couple of years, through fans media catch ups (before lockdown), and infrequent chats. What stands out about him is his level of confidence and self-assurance, but also his willingness to listen and engage with fans. He is very passionate about his role and the club, and very accessible.
Whether these qualities contribute to making him a good CEO is of course open to debate. Time will tell.
Sparks is not shy to have an opinion and make his views known, and inevitably he will need those broad shoulders to succeed in a high-profile role that habitually comes in for heavy supporter criticism.
Sparks’ appointment heralds the end of Julian Rhodes’ tenure as Chief Executive. It’s just over two years since Rhodes returned to the help out the club, at the request of Rupp. He was asked to provide a supporting hand to the beleaguered Edin Rahic, as the wheels began to be put into motion for the controversial chairman’s departure.
Rhodes was asked to stay on and steady the ship post-Rahic. He was able to get to the bottom of the true scale of the financial mess City had got into under Rahic, and offer leadership to off-the-field staff who had been badly marginalised and micro-managed.
There was no-one else that Rupp could turn to at the time, and Rhodes was not necessarily keen to undertake the role. His motivation was ultimately to ensure that the club could continue, and he inherited a situation where trusted, capable staff who had fallen foul of Rahic had been dismissed and there was no money to pay the wages or creditors. It was not the easiest of tasks.
The change of leadership from Rahic to Rhodes wasn’t enough to rescue the sinking ship from capsizing into League Two. They went down despite having the biggest playing budget in more than 15 years. A financial loss of nearly £2 million was a shock development for a club who had for so many years operated in the black.
Rhodes played an important role in starting to fix the financial mess, with City’s balance sheet further boosted by an interest-free loan from Rupp and the windfall of Oli McBurnie’s transfer from Swansea City to Sheffield United – a sell-on fee that Rhodes himself had put in place, back in 2015. Balancing the books is not particularly glamorous or headline-grabbing, even at the best of times, but subsequent events are showing its importance. City’s financial stability – relative to others – during these Covid-times should not be under-estimated. Even if this is far from reflected on the field.
Of course, Rhodes has held the CEO role during a period where he has come under increasing criticism from supporters. He has been scapegoated by many for the club’s continued struggle to recover from the dreadful mistakes of 2018. The growing level of disgruntlement is likely to have speeded up his departure. Ultimately, he wasn’t commanding widespread supporter confidence – partly because of the fact his anonymity means most of us are unaware of what he actually does. He has also clearly made a few enemies over the years, who have been briefing against him.
In many ways this departure is best for all concerned, not least Rhodes. The incessant online criticism can hardly be enjoyable, even though those who know him say he deliberately ignores it to maintain his sanity.
The saddest aspect of Rhodes’ tenure as CEO is that he has undone some of his previous high standing with most City supporters. If he’d steered clear when Rupp made the call two years ago, he would probably be remembered with greater affection. A reminder of more stable times, where for all the disappointment of the post-millennium decline he had ultimately left the club on an upwards curve, on the cusp of going to the next level.
In business terms, a CEO is the highest-ranking executive in a company, whose primary responsibilities include making major corporate decisions, managing the overall operations and resources of a company, acting as the main point of communication between directors and corporate operations.
Ultimately that is the role Rhodes has been undertaking. It is not his own money funding the club, it’s Rupp’s. It is down to Rupp how much money is put into the club and the resources that are available. Rhodes has been managing the operations. Ensuring the staff are doing the jobs expected of them, making day-to-day decisions. Making sure budgets are in place and stuck to. Setting the tone and the culture within the organisation.
So much of what Rhodes was expected to do is not seen outside the four walls of the club. We did not get to view how he operated, the decisions he made and how well he performed his duties. And without that insight, it’s not easy to truly know just how good or bad a CEO he was.
There has been a line of attack that the club has struggled for 20 years, and Rhodes is the one common denominator in that. But it is the usual social media, black-and-white type of analysis that ignores the different shades of grey. And too often, there’s just no balance to the criticisms.
What organisation in the world is success or failure down to just one person? For how much criticism Rahic deservedly got, he also did a lot of good things for the club and had some very intelligent ideas. The reality is that over his tenure as chairman, Rhodes made lots of mistakes and got things wrong. But he also did lots of good things and played a part in the 2012-2016 success. Shades of grey.
But there is a distinct difference between the two spells at the club, and the roles he did. It is understandable to lump it all together – but it is sweeping analysis.
Personally, I think Rhodes did a good job as chairman. He inherited a financial mess from the Premier League days. And though he was complicit in the mistakes that led to administration, crucially he stayed around to fix them – even putting his family’s house on the line – to ensure there is still a Bradford City today. That deserves respect, as does the fact he and a cast of others eventually reversed the decline from 2012.
As for Rhodes as a CEO, clearly the jury is out on that one. His biggest failing was undoubtedly his lack of communication to supporters and the media. When he was chairman, his hiding from the spotlight might have been disappointing but wasn’t especially detrimental. Silence has not stopped Chelsea fans loving Roman Abramovich, or Man City fans staying behind Sheikh Mansour. You employ other people to communicate, as Rhodes and Lawn did in the shape of David Baldwin and James Mason.
But when you’re the CEO, there’s no excuse not to communicate. During a time of questionable leadership and loud questions being asked by supporters, we deserved better than Rhodes’ minimal communications. He reverted to the style he was comfortable and familiar with, but it wasn’t appropriate for the circumstances. And it was made more difficult by the extent to which social media is demanding of constant and instant communications from the club.
When lockdown hit us, and Bradford City stopped playing games of football, the supporter focus turned to off-the-field matters. The questions got louder, and they became angrier when the answers weren’t forthcoming. It was a discussion that Rhodes seemed unwilling to get involved in, and that only added to the frustrations many supporters felt. That said, Sparks did a very job over the summer communicating through the local media.
At a time when fans wanted to have more confidence and reassurance about the direction of the club, Rhodes was unable to provide it. And that wasn’t going to be good enough, unless the behind the scenes work of Rhodes led to outwardly positive progress for the club. All we really have to measure that by are results on the pitch. So far, it’s been a gloomy picture.
Perhaps the biggest thing that Rhodes has done for on-the-field direction is in handing back control to the manager. When he returned in early November, David Hopkin was in the hotseat but not far from quitting in frustration over the failure of the club to provide what we asked for – be it coaching staff or new signings.
The squad that Hopkin was struggling to get a tune out of had been built by a mish-mash of people, not least Rahic, with detrimental results. Before Hopkin, Stuart McCall, Simon Grayson and Michael Collins had limited say on transfers. Rhodes has subsequently let the managers manage. Giving back control over recruitment to the man in the dugout.
It is fair to say that this approach has delivered questionable results, with the timing of the changing of managers not exactly helping stability within the squad. Hopkin quit just weeks after the closing of the January 2019 transfer window, where he had been backed to push the boat out to keep Jack Payne. Gary Bowyer did not rate Payne and other Hopkin arrivals, and the dismantling began.
Flash forward a year, and Bowyer was fully calling the shots during a January window when his own future was increasingly in doubt. Leading to the infamous events of the final week, when Bowyer opted to allow James Vaughan and Eoin Doyle leave and brought in questionable replacements. The “let the manager manage” mantra meant Rhodes had to back Bowyer, even though a defeat to Oldham a day after the window closed triggered a parting of ways.
They do not look like clever decisions in hindsight. But at the time, they were not easy choices. Letting Vaughan leave in January did not look a good idea, but if Rhodes had tried to stop Bowyer he effectively needed to sack him there and then. Take away the personalities, and it’s a principle of letting the manager call the shots. If an owner or CEO starts dictating transfers, it can be a dangerous path.
That’s not to say Rhodes got it right – he clearly didn’t – but the ethos is understandable. Ultimately, City remain stuck in a spiral of short-termism. They want to fully trust in a manager to rebuild a damaged dressing room, but the club is understandably under pressure to produce short-term results. Famously Phil Parkinson’s first season resulted in an 18th-placed finish, but events at the time meant supporters and owners tolerated this further bump in the road – allowing him time to truly rebuild.
“Let the manager manage” is not a bad mantra – it certainly worked for Rhodes with Parkinson – but the revolving door to the dugout is moving faster than ever at City. There has to be a way of giving more support to the manager, especially to help them quickly get to the other side of these constant bumps in the road. Rahic’s transfer committee was badly executed but it was not a bad idea.
We will wait to see how history judges Rhodes’ second period at the club. Much will depend on where City go from here.
Speculation about Rhodes’ successor has finally ended with Sparks’ promotion. And for those who had pinned their hopes on a high-profile appointment, it is a disappointment. However, the expectation of a big name CEO at Valley Parade always seemed fanciful. How many senior executives would be likely to want to risk their reputation at Valley Parade for a likely unattractive salary, in relative terms? It was always more likely that such an individual would arrive at City with the sale of the club and with the opportunity for equity upside, but clearly that hasn’t happened and nor does it seem likely for now.
Huw Jenkins was obviously the subject of national media speculation as the next CEO. But when we and others pressed the club for answers on these rumours, it seemed more a case of people close to Jenkins seeking to keep his name in the public spotlight, rather than a serious possibility he was about to relocate to West Yorkshire.
The reality is that Jenkins probably would have held some interest in the post, but City probably couldn’t afford him. In 2012/13, he was earning £450k a year at Swansea, including dividends. By 2016/17, his annual salary was reported to be £600k. Jenkins did take a pay cut when Swansea were relegated, but he was still likely to be earning a salary higher than City would be willing to pay, in League Two. Was there enough financial incentive for Jenkins to seriously consider the possibility of upping sticks and taking the reins?
That naturally throws up a question of ambition at Bradford City, not for the first time. After all, Stefan Rupp is a man of wealth. But the reality – however much we don’t want to face up to it – is that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. City have gone months and months with barely any revenue, and in all probability that is going to continue. The news this morning Bradford will be in tier 3 Covid restrictions means fans are not returning anytime soon. City are not immune from the harsh realities of this climate.
For a club that can fairly be described as under-achieving and going stale, the idea of an outsider coming in with new perspectives and ideas naturally held appeal. That’s exactly what Geoffrey Richmond did to Bradford City in the mid-90s, with stunning initial success. Jenkins has a record that on paper looks exactly what the club could benefit from now. But it seems a cruel trick of false newspaper speculation to believe he was about to come on board.
However to be dismissive of Sparks ignores the fact that, for the most part, the role of CEO involves the humdrum day to day reality of keeping the show on the road. A task that Sparks has already performed. Furthermore, Sparks’ willingness to be transparent and to communicate is also to his credit. He has the further advantage of being intimately familiar with the club and the district. He also fits the bill of those calling for an individual to inject energy and passion.
Behind the scenes, Sparks has already started making a series of subtle changes to the running of the club. Small incremental improvements may not be noticed in isolation but in aggregate can make noticeable changes. He now has a chance to really stamp his authority on things. It will be interesting to see the path he takes.
At 29 years old, Sparks is young but that in itself is not an unusual occurrence at Bradford City. Julian Rhodes was in his early 30s when he became chairman. Gordon Gibb was 25 when he bought half of Bradford City in 2002. James Mason was 36 when he joined the Bantams in 2014. As was David Baldwin when he came on board in 2007.
It is a gamble for the club, simply because the reaction to Sparks’ promotion is not going to be positive. Bradford City’s decline since 2017 has been about failure of leadership – from Rahic, from Rupp, and to an extent from Rhodes. As supporters, we’re desperate for some sort of knight in shining armour to be that leader. And the appeal of an outsider was high and very understandable.
Perhaps Sparks’ biggest immediate challenge is to communicate a vision that supporters can understand and buy into. There is a huge distance right now between the club and its fanbase – partly caused by the Covid lockdown, but added to by the anger at how badly City have performed over the last few years.
Sparks would do well to spell out where the club is right now. What the immediate and long-term objectives are. The plan of how we will get there. Some of that communication might involve some truths we’d all rather not hear – that the club is tredding water rather than seeing this as a season to push for promotion, for example – but it would be clear up confusion and help to address frustrations. And to hear what Sparks plans to do to fix the problems.
The other job is managing upwards. In Rupp we have an owner who will keep the lights on but do little more. The value of his investment is falling with the club’s continued decline. If Rupp can be persuaded to spend more on infrastructure on and off the field – especially with light at the end of the tunnel regarding Covid – it could make a huge difference. Part of Sparks’ job must be to fight for that extra investment. A DoF type figure is no longer a nice to have, it’s vital.
The club has been in survival mode. Fixing the damage of 2018, and then dealing with most of its income reduced because of Covid. But as the backdrop changes in 2021, we need to be more front-footed. And that starts with more investment in the right areas.
For all the gloom, success doesn’t feel like it should be illusive. It just takes a bit of upwards momentum, to get the club going again. Changes are needed throughout the club, but they should be attainable. Time will tell if Sparks is truly the person to provide that change, but it would not be fair to instantly write him off.