By Jason McKeown
“We can’t be in this same position in 12 months’ time. We have to improve, season on season. That means the target for next season has to be promotion – anything less is falling short, in my view. We’ve got to have that kind of attitude and I am only interested in succeeding.”
As Bradford City’s topsy-turvy 2020/21 season heads towards a flat conclusion, a late push for the play offs failing to materialise, the Bantams’ CEO Ryan Sparks is full of determination about the future. He’s been at Bradford City for nearly three years now, and in that time has witnessed plenty of failure – without being in a senior enough position to directly address it. But as he prepares for his first close season in charge of the day-to-day running of City, the opportunity is now there for him to drive significant change.
We’ve met up on a warm Thursday April evening at the White Bear in Crosshills, taking advantage of beer gardens reopening to catch up and talk about the club’s direction. It had been another whirlwind day for Bradford City, with the shock news breaking earlier in the afternoon that Danny Rowe had been sold to Chesterfield. There’s understandably mixed opinion amongst supporters, with plenty of social media angst directed Sparks’ way. “Stop hiding and explain what’s going on” are amongst the more polite Tweets he is being tagged into.
“I feel that since I’ve become CEO I’ve shown I’m fully prepared to communicate with fans,” Sparks argues, pointing to recent appearances on a Radio Leeds fans forum and a Bradford City Supporters Trust meeting where he answered supporter questions. True to that ethos, in two days’ time, just before the start of City’s visit to Port Vale, Sparks appears on Radio Leeds to fully explain the Rowe saga.
In case you missed what he had to say, Sparks confirms to me that the club had received an offer from Chesterfield, which was initially turned down. However, following a second offer and conversations between managers, the player and himself, it became clear Rowe preferred to take up a longer-term deal with the National League club.
Rowe has swapped a contract at City with just over 12 months left to run for a three-year deal that will provide security until he is 35. Sparks continues, “Danny is a good man, someone I really respect and I am very grateful for his services to our club. He’s done his job in helping us remain in the Football League and he felt this opportunity was one he should take.
“He hadn’t been regularly featuring in the starting 11 and perhaps that influenced his decision. When situations such as this arise, my approach will always be very clear. I have an obligation to ensure the best-possible business deal for our football club, allowing us to move forward. And that is exactly what I have done. The emotion of the situation is irrelevant at the point the player and his representatives make it apparent Danny sees his future elsewhere.”
With the recent frustrations of losing Eoin Doyle and James Vaughan, and the pair delivering healthy goal returns at their next clubs, is there a worrying pattern of City losing talented strikers? Sparks argues that it’s different this time, “The last time a player left in this kind of manner was James Vaughan. The club did everything it could to convince him to stay, wasting time, money and energy as many potential replacements joined the likes of Cambridge and Salford. But the player had the power and – ultimately – we took a financial hit.
“Our approach with Rowe was very much that the player showed a desire to leave, and we’ve been paid a fee for him to leave, so we’re not losing out financially. Nor were we going to try to convince someone to stay when their heart wasn’t in it. Anyone who doesn’t wish to be a part of it has to move on. If I was ever approached by a member of staff, or a player, who made it clear they wanted out, I would ensure they got their wish – and I won’t waste time in the process.”
The cloak and dagger nature of football transfer deals means the fee City have received for Rowe has been listed under the frustrating term ‘undisclosed fee’. Sparks did at least reveal it was a structured deal that in time could see the Bantams recoup more than they paid for Rowe. At the very least, he stresses, they won’t make a loss on a player whose time at Valley Parade lasted just 92 days. They’ll also save money on his wages during the final, ultimately meaningless games, in addition to the summer months which could have also led to his departure – the sort of cost-saving approach Geoffrey Richmond regularly employed at the end of seasons.
“We have moved on,” Sparks adds. “We’ve already got several striker transfer targets in mind for the summer. As we have with other positions.”
It is that forwards-looking mantra that characterises much of our discussion as the sunshine starts to fade, and dusk descends on the beer garden. City have come a long way over the five months since Sparks’ first took the CEO helm. But frustration has grown of late that an unexpected shot at the play offs wasn’t taken, with City going down to four straight league losses. Criticism of the management pair, Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars, has been swift.
“I feel for Mark and Conor but they are tough enough, and it comes with the territory,” Ryan states. “They’ve perhaps become victims of their own success because they turned it around so quickly. If they’d had more of a battle getting us away from the bottom two and we’d have finished, say, 18th – they’d probably be getting more praise than they are now. We were in a really tough spot when they came in, and they deserve a lot of credit for the job they’ve done.
“That said, none of us are kidding ourselves that we’ve achieved anything yet. I talk to Mark and Conor all the time, and we are all very conscious that we need to improve the squad next season if we’re going to do better. We’re working closely with Lee Turnbull on our recruitment strategy for the summer. We know there will be positive changes needed.”
The Bantams have 14 players out of contract, plus the future of three loanees to decide on. Sparks keeps his cards close to his chest on the plans for these players; other than pointing out that some players are earning good money due to deals that were agreed when City were in a stronger position up the pyramid than where they now find themselves. A clear inference, it seems, that choosing to stay at Valley Parade will require accepting reduced terms. There is also interest from other clubs in a couple of contracted players. Any such transfer income would clearly influence overall plans.
“It will be a summer of great importance, on and off the pitch,” Sparks adds. “You’ll see some alterations to our backroom staff. I’m really keen to set up a wider structure that incorporates more performance management and sports science. And a big part of that is making the structure more robust and solid.
“Unfortunately, we all remember that when Phil Parkinson left Bradford City, he took almost all his backroom staff with him. That was a big problem for the club to fix. I want to set up a structure where the performance management side of the backroom team works closely with the manager and coaching staff, but they are also separate. So, if and when we have a change in the dugout, the other side of the backroom structure stays the same. This provides protection and allows us to collectively build our vision.”
Sparks offers a startling example of just how far behind City currently are on the sports science side of things. “The club has in the past invested in GPS tracker systems on player shirts, which measures how far each player runs and the type of runs they make. But this data is only looked at before and after games.
“I’ve seen several opposition teams this season turn up with equipment in the dugout to track their players’ GPS performance during the game. They’re using it to influence decisions on when players need to come off or are at risk of injury. At the moment, we don’t have that technology in place.
“So we’re going to invest in having that technology too. Having a live feed on our players’ GPS stats, and using that real time data to help Mark and Conor make decisions during the 90 minutes.”
Sparks argues that the restructuring of, and additions to, the performance management backroom team will enable City to make effective use of this valuable data, which many of their League Two rivals are already doing successfully. It can also help in other areas too.
“I was speaking to one League Two manager who informed me that GPS data forms a big part of their recruitment,” Sparks continues. “For example, they feel that to succeed in League Two you need a left back who can cover a certain amount of distance over a season. So they use the data to unearth left backs who are capable of providing that.
“It can also help you to better measure if a perspective signing has underlying injury or fitness concerns that might develop over the course of the season. With the expertise of a performance management team, we can use this data to help us make final decisions over who to sign.”
Talk of next season throws up all manner of questions about City’s future beyond the playing side. The milestone of being able to sit in a beer garden again is a welcome reminder that normal life is slowly returning. If all goes well, all current Covid restrictions could be lifted in two months’ time. Including a return to fans in stadiums.
There are an awful lot of considerations though – will as many fans feel confident enough to return to a setting of a large gathering compared to before, given Covid will still be around? Will City be allowed to have full capacity crowds? Sparks admits that he is managing a lot of unknowns.
“We’re planning to put season tickets on sale in May. I’m not sure we’ll get the same numbers as before, because of everything that’s gone on, but from a financial perspective we obviously need to have crowds back.
“We will be running two pilot friendlies during pre-season, where we will be allowed to have a maximum of 2,000 fans in attendance for each. If they go to plan, it should allow us to have larger capacity crowds when the season begins, although they might be restricted at first.” How will the matchday arrangements work? “We don’t yet know,” Sparks replies. “Will we have to do staggered arrivals? Will people be required to have Covid passports? No one can tell us at this stage.”
In the meantime, Sparks is fully focused on significantly enhancing the matchday experience for when crowds can return. He is close to finalising new deals with beer and catering suppliers – with talks taking place with companies national and local to Bradford. He wants to bring the price of drink and food down, so supporters are more likely to want to spend money at the concourse kiosks. He is also hoping a fan zone can eventually be set up at the back of the Kop.
“Valley Parade has been left to go backwards for 20 years,” Sparks declares. “It lacks character. You go to the McCall suite, and there aren’t even any pictures of Stuart. You go the Legends suite, no legends. We’ve already started to make changes, such as the players entrance where we’ve put up photos of City heroes and great moments. We’ve also built a players tunnel, which has the additional bonus that it is generating us revenue through new sponsorship.”
One of his most ambitious plans is something every City supporter can benefit from – replacing every single seat in the stadium. “We’ve agreed a deal with a supplier where it will cost us £2.5k per month to go around and replace every seat. It will take a few years overall, but it will make such a difference to the look and feel of the stadium. We’re starting with the Main Stand and work is already underway, before we move onto the Kop.
“I want to put some soul back into the club. We have to improve the matchday experience, so people want to be here, feel they are valued and involved in the club. When you bring people together, they naturally care more. I want to reinstall that feeling that, as a club – fans, players, backroom staff – we all win together and lose together.”
Improving Valley Parade is not an easy task and there are long-term unknowns, given the lease on renting the ground will expire in 2028. Sparks disclosed that he has recently met with the stadium’s landlord, Gordon Gibb, to instigate a working relationship – “We have met, will talk in the future and look to work with each other where possible and it can only help our club, in my eyes” – but for now it’s making best use of the obvious financial challenges that come with the famous old ground.
“Valley Parade costs over £1 million just to keep it alive,” he confirms. “But we need to move on from the ‘make do’ mantra of before. My ambition is to make Valley Parade a place to be proud of in the next five years.”
A key part of meeting those challenges is improving commercial revenue. Sparks is enthused by the early impact of the recently recruited commercial director, Davide Longo. The club are in advanced talks to enhance and – in his words – “transform” the club’s retail offering along with its commercial viability. Sparks is looking into relocating both the shop and ticket office to another part of the ground, so they’re positioned side by side.
“I set Davide an ambitious commercial revenue target, and he’s already about half-way to reaching it,” Sparks adds. “We really want to get into the position of having more sustainable income steams coming in all year round, rather than the current reality where we are relying on a big injection from season ticket sales at a certain part of the year.”
Off the field, Sparks is seeking to transform the culture of the club amongst its staff. There are now more regular senior management meetings and weekly department catch-ups. Sparks had seen first-hand the dictatorial approach of Edin Rahic, which left staff feeling unable to make decisions for themselves and – more often than not – hiding behind that or leaving. He wants everyone to have “shared accountability” in improving the club.
“This is our club, and we all need to work together. I feel that if we can raise the bar off the field, it will help to improve the standard on the pitch too.
“I think the best advice I’ve received is to surround myself with people who know what they’re doing. Many areas of the club had lost their way. We want to get to a point where everyone is pointing in the same direction. I am confident that – right now – there is not a single member of staff at Bradford City who doesn’t believe in what we’re trying to achieve.”
There are other activities and work in the pipeline – the club is in talks with a certain local Premier League side about building on the decent player relationship that has developed over the last couple of years. Sparks is also in more regular dialogue with the Bradford Council and other Bradford sporting clubs, to foster better, mutually beneficial relationships.
There is an obvious drive to Sparks, and a determination to change things significantly on and off the field. He uses the word “professionalism” several times throughout the evening. After the recent frustrations of results on the pitch, and some sadness about Rowe’s swift exit, it is reassuring to hear that structural plans are being engineered. Can we say, with confidence, that this has been the case in recent close seasons?
“The dream of promotion would have been nice this season, but ultimately we haven’t been good enough,” Sparks concludes. “But although the season isn’t ending as we would have hoped following the upturn, progress is being made at a significant rate off the field. I believe we are turning this back into a football club again, rather than a laughing stock. That progress is only going to continue. I’m absolutely determined to bring success to City supporters.
“I’m a big believer that you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you earn. We know we need to do more, and a large part of this summer will be geared to making the necessary improvements throughout the club – to put us in a better position for next season and beyond that.”