By Jason McKeown
“Is this a sick joke?”
“Disgraceful cheap option”
“Conference here we come”
When Ryan Sparks was announced as the new Chief Executive of Bradford City in November, it’s fair to say the initial fan reaction was far from positive.
Sparks had until recently been the club’s Head of Media and Public Relations, seemingly more well versed in managing official Twitter accounts than football club budgets. He is just 29 years old. And his appointment came at a time Bradford City were badly falling short of pre-season expectations of a promotion push, sliding instead towards relegation trouble. All in the middle of a global pandemic.
It was a brave call.
Yet nearly 12 weeks on from that day of social media scorn, the youngest CEO in the Premier League and Football League is winning over a fanbase that has in recent times maintained a mistrust of those running Bradford City. Weary cynicism has been swapped for cheery enthusiasm, as green shoots of progress have become visible on and off the pitch. The new leader overseeing the day to day running of the club has begun to lift the gloom.
With the Bantams having climbed up the table whilst significantly revamping a faltering squad, the last three months have gone much better than was first feared when Sparks was unveiled that November afternoon.
“I knew that I would get a mixed reception to say the least,” Sparks reflects to WOAP. “I probably wasn’t who people wanted to take over the role. I understood that and knew what was going to come my way.
“Supporters probably saw it as an easy option for the club to turn internally. I saw it differently. I saw it as that I’d had an inside track of the club for the last two and half years, when it was at its worst, but I’d also seen the very positive steps we had taken over the last 12-18 months that perhaps had been masked by on the field disappointments. I also had a vision for what the next steps needed to be to keep us moving.”
Looking at the situation from the outside, it was easy to write Sparks off. But the reality is the experience he had built up, working in Sport over the last 15 years, offered him a good grounding to take up the mantle. He reveals, “I’ve always wanted to get to this position. I made myself a promise when I was 16 that I would run a club in a sport by the age of 30. That was my personal goal.”
Having initially cut his teeth as a sports editor, Sparks spent two years as Media and PR Manager at Bradford Bulls, during a period where the fallen Rugby League giants were dealing with administration. At one point, Sparks was just one of four employees kept on and between them they had to somehow keep the club running. He then moved to second tier side Featherstone Rovers as Head of Communications, where crowds hovered around 2,000. It was no wonder, perhaps, that the opportunity to join Bradford City in 2018 held appeal.
“I have Gareth Jones, the ex-Radio Leeds sports editor, to thank for the initial link up between myself and the club. As he recommended me to them,” Sparks reveals. “At the time Edin Rahic was looking for someone to shape the club’s communications and improve its image. From a distance, in the relatively quiet town of Featherstone, I thought that would be a good challenge – and one that I could actually deliver on quite quickly.
“Initially the conversation with Edin was good, but it was clear to me that something wasn’t right. There was a distraction. We first spoke in April, but I didn’t join the club until July. He was never clear with me, but eventually he told me he’d like me to come in.”
All this was taking place during a time when Rahic was under increasing pressure from fans, after the collapse in results that followed Stuart McCall’s controversial sacking. Troubling stories were coming to light about the way the chairman’s overbearing management style was tearing the club apart. Sparks quickly realised that the situation was a mess.
He continues, “I was very uncomfortable when I joined. I thought the culture inside the club was toxic. The remaining staff weren’t on the same page, there was zero leadership, there was no direction. I thought there was an identity crisis going on in terms of the look and feel of the club. Having come from Featherstone where, yes it was small, but we knew what we were trying to achieve all the time and had a set strategy, it was a real shock.
“I remember having a conversation with my chief executive who I had left behind at Featherstone, and he rang me one week into the job to see how I was getting on. I told him I just wish we had some of the things in place that were at Featherstone. It was hard for me to come to terms with the fact I thought the set-up of a Championship Rugby League side was far superior to a club who only 18 years prior was playing in the Premier League.
“When I look back now, I was perhaps a little bit naïve. I think that me coming to Bradford City was a bit of a final throw of the dice for Edin, from an image and communications perspective. He didn’t really know where to turn.”
Sparks quickly found his responsibilities went far beyond the remit of the role. In City’s third game of the ill-fated 2018/19 campaign, Sparks was left to manage the Tyrell Robinson situation, with the young winger facing serious criminal charges. “It became very obvious that Edin wanted nothing to do with that. He appeared to be still trying to get his head around the fact we couldn’t sell him,” Sparks laments. As City predictably fell apart on the field, Sparks contacted Stefan Rupp to try to get him to understand how bad things were. He also confronted Rahic himself, telling the chairman he needed to go.
Sparks explains, “I said to him that his position was untenable. I never saw it as a confrontation, I saw it in a strange way as trying to help him. I felt really bad for his family and what they were subjected to. I knew his kids were at a local school, things like that.
“Stefan rang me just before the Luton Town game and told me he was on his way to the UK. We discussed our previous conversations and he explained how he was going to act on them. I can understand why he wouldn’t have listened at first as I’d only just joined the club. But I was raising the issues with him for the right reasons.
“It was very emotionally draining. And I was regretting what I’d got myself in for. It wasn’t a nice place to be.”
Following that trip to the UK, Rupp acted and Rahic left the club. Julian Rhodes had returned to try to fix a financial mess that had been kept hidden even from Rupp. Amongst Rhodes’ lengthy to-do list was persuading a disillusioned Sparks to stay.
“At first I didn’t trust the situation,” he admits. “I didn’t know Julian from Adam. I was unsure of why he was there. But he was honest with me, he showed me every aspect of the financial situation at the club. I’ve seen financial turmoil at the Bulls, it wasn’t far off that. It was quite scary. Not knowing the back story, I could tell by the reaction of the fans that Julian was someone they trusted to steady the ship.
“Julian convinced me to stay. I had a good opportunity to move to a Super League club that December, which took a lot of turning down – especially given where we were. But I felt as though I had something to achieve at Bradford City and I didn’t want to close the book on it too quickly.”
As Rhodes uncovered the true scale of Rahic’s overspending, and the financial implications, Sparks worked closely with the interim CEO to begin to improve the situation. “We were working against the backdrop of financial ruin. There was a lot of work going on and Stefan had to put money in to help stop it from collapsing around us. It reminded me of the situation at Odsal when we were plunged into administration.”
Sparks feels he has learned a lot from Rhodes. “Julian was someone I could trust. I think it’s safe to say we’ve built up a really good relationship in the 18-24 months that followed. It’s been a real education for me, and I’ve really enjoyed working with Julian a lot. He deserves a lot of credit for the difficulties we’ve had to overcome – and in fact we are still overcoming.
“If the average person had looked at the budget compared to the cash flow and then looked at the accounts that were popping out on the back of that, you would have run a mile back then. It was a really tough spot. It became obvious to me that Julian felt he had a duty to help piece it back together. At the end of the day, it’s his club. He is a Bradford City fan. He didn’t want the club to collapse. I don’t think he could have lived with it.
“That’s why he chose to come back and help. And then probably stayed longer than he wanted to. But we were thrown up lots of different issues: relegation, the pandemic, the list goes on.”
As the world turned upside down last March, the curtailing of Bradford City’s 2019/20 campaign was one of the side effects of the pandemic. Sparks was thrown more into the spotlight as he communicated regularly with local media and supporters about the implications for the club. In the summer he was promoted to Director of Communications and Commercial, whilst a plan was put in place for him to succeed Rhodes.
Ryan explains, “Julian was really keen to put me into the CEO role. He approached me about it over the course of last summer, and I went away and had a think about it.
“In my time at the club I think I’ve always demonstrated that I saw no boundary to what I could do. Every time I got asked to take something on, I took it with very little fear. You only get one shot at life. As time rolled on, I spoke with Julian and admitted that whilst I lack in some areas, if he could help me with those areas over the next few months I could eventually take over. Stefan was on board; it was left between me and Julian.”
This transition period, behind the scenes, commenced as the 2020/21 season kicked off with matches behind closed doors. On the field it was soon evident that things weren’t going to plan, which increased Sparks’ urgency to take the reins.
“I felt us drifting. And people were blaming Julian for that, which I didn’t understand because he’d already internally and somewhat externally explained that his time was coming to an end,” he continues. “Julian believed he had completed his interim post if not overstayed it, in his opinion – and that it was time for the club to move on.
“I felt I’d had good apprenticeship and the transition could continue, so I was quite pleased to take it on. I try to take us forward a little bit each day. You get set-backs – along the way I’m going to make some bad decisions and I’m going to make some good decisions, hopefully more good than bad! But I’ve really enjoyed it so far, because this is what I’ve worked towards since I was 16 years old.”
The initial few weeks in charge were challenging though, as City continued to slump down the table. Sparks had made the decision to extend the under pressure Stuart McCall’s contract, but in the end made the tough call to sack the City legend.
Sparks states, “I don’t regret the contract extension, because I wanted to give Stuart every opportunity to succeed. But sadly, things didn’t work out.
“The day he was removed from his role was horrible. It was one of the worst days of my life. Probably the worst day of my career. It was difficult and quite painful. I told him that part of the decision to part company was based around protecting his legacy. It’s a results based industry, and our results were far from good enough. But I had it clear in my mind that Stuart McCall has to have a future at our club forever, and I would never let that be tainted.”
It was the third time McCall has departed as City manager, and the previous two were emotional and controversial. This time around, there was no bad blood. “One thing that’s very pleasing to me is that we have spoken several times after,” Ryan confirms. “Stuart rang me around Christmas, and we had a good chat. There was no clearing of the air needed. Parting company with him wasn’t personal and he knows that. Right to the very end, I stood shoulder to shoulder with him.
“I respect Stuart. Growing up in Bradford, he was a hero. When I think of all the managers and coaches I’ve worked with over my career, and there have been several, he ranks right up there as one of the ones you’ll never forget. He was fantastic to work with.”
After sacking McCall with City 22nd in League Two, Sparks turned to academy coaches Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars as caretakers. The pair have hugely impressed, halting the external search for the next manager and being elevated to the title of interim managers. Sparks beams, “We’ve unearthed two fantastic potential managers through trusting them, knowing what they had in their locker and giving them a chance.
“It’s quite strange because there is some synergy between their appointment and mine. They were given a shot and probably written off by some, but we’re trying our best as a collective with a clear vision that we all share.”
Given the upturn in results since – City have achieved 18 points from a possible 27 under the pair – is Sparks tempted to make the arrangement more permanent? “As a club, including Mark and Conor, we’re all quite relaxed about the situation,” he responds. “It will develop naturally. They’re very happy. We all trust each other. Mark and Conor know I’ve got their back 100%. I have done from day one. Their previous roles aren’t in jeopardy. The academy is also right behind them because they are their products, if you like.
“If and when we think a decision needs to be made, to take that further, we will. Making them interim managers has suspended if not closed our search for a new manager. So at the moment they are very much in charge of the team.”
The trust in the rookie managerial pair extended to letting them play a huge role in the January transfer activity that has seen nine players come in and six shipped out. “Recruitment is an area we had to get better at,” Sparks admits. “Whatever happens with the salary cap, in my mind we’ve got to win the recruitment race if we’re going to compete at the right end and move forwards.
“The club has got it wrong too many times, through no fault of the players who have come in. And I just won’t have that. We cannot let history repeat itself, or I’m not doing my job. I’ve got to be focused on making sure the people who come through the door are our kind of people, in terms of how they go about their business and the application.
“I think we’ve more than like for like replaced the players we’ve said goodbye to. And I think we went about that in the right way as well, ensuring that the players who left the club had a future elsewhere. Because one thing I want us to do is be respectful as an organisation.”
The transfer activity has been shaped by another arrival, Lee Turnbull as Recruitment Director. Ryan is delighted with the impact Turnbull has made, “Lee has been brilliant. I met him in November, just before I got the CEO job. Immediately I thought he was someone I could work with. I liked what he had to say. We talked about the different pillars of successful recruitment, and how it can be wrong and right.
“The deals Lee did were fantastic. We were pleased with how we executed the plan over January. There were some changes as we went along. Stuart’s departure changed things slightly as well in terms of the profile of the player the manager was looking for. With certain positions, they saw it differently to how Stuart saw it, and that’s fine.
“At the end of the day, the squad has been recruited for Mark and Conor and it’s by Mark and Conor. They identify the players they liked, and Lee has gone away and worked with me in terms of trying to get the deals done. We’ve worked together really well. And I think Mark and Conor would agree that we’ve delivered an improved squad.”
Whilst Ryan stresses he himself was not making decisions over which players to sign, he has been very keen to make sure that people are coming in for the right reasons, and that they will contribute to a stronger culture.
“When I first walked into Bradford City, it was full of ego and disregard for each other – and those days are over,” he declares. “We’re together and we respect what each other does. It doesn’t matter what job you do at the club: everyone has got a role to play. It’s a different Bradford City at the moment and it’s one we’re trying to build for tomorrow not just for January.
“The one thing I’m trying to build now is the lure of our club. The value of playing for Bradford City. And building the culture around that. Because that’s what initially attracted me to the club.”
With Bradford City beginning to get back on track, Sparks is now focused on continuing to rebuild whilst mindful of some tricky challenges ahead. The news that the salary cap has been withdrawn is potentially a welcome boost for the club. But with the UK lockdown continuing and uncertainty over when fans can return, the financial outlook remains uncertain.
Not that City are in trouble right now. They continue to be financially supported by chairman Stefan Rupp, who quietly behind the scenes keeps in regular contact with what’s happening at the club. “Stefan and I speak most days now,” Sparks confirms. “He is well aware of everything we’re doing. He is involved, but he doesn’t interfere with things that we pay other people to do.
“We now talk about the next 2-4 years and what we want to achieve. I think he understands that what we’ve been through is disappointing. He is supportive of myself and the staff at the club. He’s really behind Mark and Conor.
“One thing he repeats to me a lot is that we have to get the club back to the one he found, that’s the task. He often says, ‘I owe that to the people of Bradford at the very least’. That is the benchmark. We’ve got to get back to the right half of League One.
“The recent attendance figures we’ve been getting on iFollow have got Stefan really excited. As it shows that fans are rallying behind the club again and believe in our direction. Stefan is also really excited by Danny Rowe’s right foot!”
The extra financial revenue that City are earning through iFollow sales – more than 3,000 supporters bought a pass for the Exeter game – could be really important over the second half of the campaign. Especially as hopes of fans returning to stadiums before the season’s end appear to be fading. And there are some challenges ahead, not least what to do about season tickets for 2021/22.
Sparks admits, “It’s pretty tough. The iFollow figures will certainly influence where we are at by the end of the season. Because of the way we’ve handled the last 12-18 months, we can just about work our way to May/June before we have to go with selling season tickets.
“We’ve been in meetings this week with the EFL, and part of it is discussing if iFollow will be available next season if we need it, as a back-up. We don’t want to go there – we all want to be back at Valley Parade in person. But the idea of keeping next year’s season tickets off sale as long as possible is to give us the injection of money when we need it. It also shows our supporters the same respect we did with them last season, by suspending sales, because we refuse to sell a non-viable product.”
Sparks is referring to the decision City took last summer to take season tickets off sale until it was known what the 2020/21 campaign would look like. And when they did eventually go back on sale, they were positioned as iFollow passes first and foremost. Sparks revealed that City were criticised by other clubs and even questioned by the EFL over their stance then, but he feels this will put the Bantams in a better position than many others over the coming months.
“It’s proving to be one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. Because unlike other clubs, we are not facing the possibility of mass refunds – because we sold them as iFollow passes rather than season tickets.”
And what is the plan for 2021/22 season ticket prices? “I don’t intend for any major price hikes, I want to make it as accessible as possible for people to come and watch us, because I can imagine what people have been through the last 12 months is far worse than what we’ve been through. We’ll be looking at payment plans and credit for season tickets. We’re trying to support people the best we can.”
Nevertheless, Sparks warns that a low uptake of season tickets could really hinder the club. “If we are behind closed doors next season, I will be worried, because we can’t take much more of a hit. If we can’t attract at least 9,000 people to buy a season ticket, potentially to only watch games on iFollow, that would be a threat to us. But we wouldn’t be alone in that respect. And I’m sure our supporters will want to help us along the way.”
The ongoing uncertainty caused by Covid will clearly have an impact on budgets for next season. Whilst City were active in the January market, most clubs – especially at the top – kept their powder dry. An uncertain market lies ahead for all – which impacts the potential of City keeping out of contract players on good wages, like Connor Wood, Anthony O’Connor and Lee Novak.
Ryan explains, “Next week we are beginning our recruitment cycle for the summer. We’re going to be in the rare position – at least during my time at the club – where we are not going to be overhauling the entire squad. We’ve got around a dozen players contracted for next season, and that gives us a real platform. It takes the pressure off, in terms of filling the squad with quality.
“Without naming names, once we begin that recruitment cycle, we will begin building certain personnel into the budget. And offers – if we feel it is right for that particular player – will be made. It will be constantly reviewed. The salary cap scrapping helps us, but in the same breath – when the threat of jeopardy is real, and we don’t fully know what next season will look like in terms of Covid restrictions – we still have to be careful.
“One thing I don’t want to do in my first year is record massive losses. I want to make sure that what we do is sustainable. There’s a lot to go into the mix. We’re not quite at the stage of sitting down and talking to specific players out of contract, but we’re monitoring it carefully.”
In the more immediate term, there’s almost half a season to complete. What are the objectives over the coming months? “When I first took charge, I had two clear goals for this season – improve the squad in January and keep us in the Football League. On the second one, we’re slightly exceeding that, but mathematically we’re not fully out of the woods yet. My aim is to finish as positively as possible, ideally in the top half of the table.
“We need momentum. From my time here, we were relegated in 2018/19 and started the next year with a brand new team, so no momentum at all. In 2019/20, we were slowing down fast. Our results were fading – everyone will remember the Salford game. We curtailed the season on a negative, with no momentum, and another overhauling of the squad followed.
“So the aim is to finish this season on an upwards curve, with players in the building we’re all excited to see again next season.”
Sparks is hopeful that more concrete building blocks are in place to achieve that. “I think we have a core for the XI next season already. And we can add to that in the summer. That’s where you will see Lee Turnbull have the most important transfer window, along with whoever is the manager by then, that we’ve had for a long time. We see it as an opportunity to really take the squad up another level.
“We want to be battling again next season, but at the other end of the table. That’s our aim. It will not be easy. The semi-abolishment of the salary cap brings its own uncertainty – clubs don’t really know what to do. Some are scared to spend. Some will gamble.
“We believe our recruitment will not be about pounds or pence. It will be about culture and what these players want to achieve in claret and amber, rather than what they think of the stadium or the fact we once won promotion to the Premier League.
“Our ambition is to turn Bradford City into a club to be proud of again. We are extremely proud of our past – and now it’s time to make new history.”