By Jason McKeown
Sometimes reflecting on the what might have beens can be a comfort. You revisit a dilemma or small moment in life, remind yourself of how difficult it felt at the time – even if only for a fleeting moment – and feel grateful for how things turned out. Especially when you imagine how it might have played out had it gone the other way.
It’s an idea that J.B Priestley – that brilliant and much celebrated Bradfordian writer – clearly understood. 90 years ago, Priestley came up with an idea for a play of exploring how differently a situation might turn out, depending on whether a small moment in the build up did or didn’t take place. The result was a play later turned to a film – Dangerous Corner – where a chance remark at a dinner party leads to a spectacular fall out and tragic consequences. The story suddenly goes back to the start of the dinner party, supposes the chance remark isn’t said, and you see events play out completely differently.
There’s a modern day term for this concept, named after a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow that borrowed heavily on Priestley’s idea. Even if you’ve not seen that 90s romcom you’ll have heard the term Sliding Doors Moment. The theory that if one event hadn’t taken place the way it did, everything that followed would have been very different.
In 2021, as the world was still recovering from the pandemic, we didn’t really have dinner parties of the type Priestley wrote about. But we did have Twitter spaces. We had non-fungible tokens. And we had rich Americans, with interesting enough ambitions to be interviewed by the Washington Times.
And that gave Bradford City their own Sliding Doors Moment. Or to put it more aptly in these Priestley-loving parts, their own Dangerous Corner.
Yep, it’s time to talk about Wagmi United. Who – it won’t have escaped any Bradford City fan’s attention – are about to come up against the Bantams, with Crawley Town’s weekend visit to Valley Parade.
This is no ordinary League Two fixture between a team near the top and one struggling at the bottom. The presence of Wagmi United gives the game an edge. An edge where the conversations inside the Valley Parade boardroom on matchday might just be as tasty as any mistimed challenges on the field.
It’s getting onto a year now since Wagmi United first burst onto the Bradford City radar, when a curious article in the Washington Post about some cryptocurrency investors looking to buy a League Two club was immediately linked to the Bantams. Within a matter of hours, the mysterious group were holding a Twitter space where they nervously tried to maintain the anonymity of who they were about to take over, whilst fielding Bradford City supporter questions about specific matters they appeared to have no clue about, such as what they’d do about the training ground.
The disingenuous front was soon abandoned, with one of the leading Wagmi figureheads, Jack Setttleman, embarking on a series of ill-judged tweets that included posting a picture of Derek Adams and adding “explain who this is to me like I’m 5”.
Within a matter of days, it would be made clear by City owner Stefan Rupp that Wagmi United’s advances had been rejected. And as the fall out grew ugly, there was even legal action launched which ended with Wagmi United making a public apology for misleading claims. Meanwhile a mini-civil war was breaking out amongst City supporters, with many arguing strongly that Rupp should have sold to Wagmi United. And that he’d just turned down a once in a lifetime opportunity for the club to benefit from untold riches and forward-thinking leadership.
Rupp was in his own Dangerous Corner and had the choice between staying at a club where his popularity was sinking, or taking the money and running off into the sunset. He chose the former.
10 months on, it’s quite striking the contrast in fortunes between Rupp/Bradford City and that of Wagmi United, who after being rejected reset their sights and purchased Crawley Town. And it’s fair to say that the argument City were missing out on something special has aged badly, and quickly. There won’t be many people with claret and amber running through their veins wishing we could be experiencing the alternative reality of this sliding doors moment.
First of all, let’s talk about City and Rupp. Last December’s takeover attempt from Wagmi came at a moment where City’s season was not going to plan, and discontent towards Rupp was growing. Four and a half years on from the painful League One play off defeat at Wembley, the decline of City under Rupp’s tenure was understandably prompting a lot of questions and discontent. As Adams struggled to get a tune out of his players on the field, heady pre-season expectations were looking misplaced and the rot seemed to be setting in. Those who wanted to see Rupp sell, and fresh leadership come in, were not exactly being unreasonable.
And it came as a surprise that Rupp said no to Wagmi United. Up until then, there had been plenty of claims Rupp was holding out for a sufficiently large bid to come in – one that might even give him a profit on his initial investment, plus the additional money he’d put in clearing up the financial difficulties Edin Rahic had caused. It appeared the offer from Wagmi was financially lucrative enough to give Rupp that (the Daily Mail estimated Wagmi paid £16 million for Crawley). Wagmi offered Rupp a way out from a club that some felt he looked disinterested in owning – with a very good payout to boot.
But Rupp turned it down, and that challenged the narrative. If Rupp really didn’t care, why would he not walk away at this point? What reason did he have to stay? Either he didn’t see Wagmi United as a good pair of hands to pass the baton onto, or he wasn’t desperate to take the money and run. Either way, the previous criticisms of Rupp were in need of revisiting. You could question his leadership ability for sure, but to say he didn’t care clearly didn’t ring true.
It would be wrong to call this a turning point for Rupp and supporter relations. Within a matter of weeks, City’s form was collapsing badly and chants of “sack the board” were aired during a miserable home draw with Leyton Orient. Talk of protests, and of boycotts, began to grow louder, as results continued to dwindle. The sacking of Adams was entirely necessary but not a good look for a club who has gone through manager after manager. In mid-February, a managerless City lost 3-1 at home to Harrogate in front of a notably empty Valley Parade.
That night feels very much like a rock bottom moment, given what’s happened since.
The news, two days after the Harrogate defeat, that Mark Hughes was the new City manager changed the outlook. It was a statement of intent from an owner who was being increasingly accused of lacking ambition. And the follow up actions in the summer – where City have installed a head of recruitment and clearly had a competitive budget to strengthen the squad – have given supporters more reasons to have greater confidence about the direction of the club under Rupp.
Things are not perfect, and some of the off-the-field decisions of late – the loyalty away ticket system, ‘We Are the Bantams’ membership scheme and rebranding efforts – show the club still has progress to make. But on the field, things are going well. And the fantastic crowds City are getting is testament to supporter buy-in of the club’s direction.
There will be storms to come. That’s football, and certainly life at Valley Parade. But the sharp levels of criticism that Rupp was receiving last season have faded. And it can be difficult for even his most ardent of critics to dispute the improvements he has overseen over the last 10 months.
Meanwhile, at Crawley Town…
It’s easy to crow over Crawley’s league position and brand the Wagmi United project a failure. But to be kind to them, it’s early days into their tenure. As they said in that original Washington Post piece, “we are going to try a bunch of unconventional stuff.” They have been true to their word on that, and it’s probably an understatement to say they’ll have learned a lot. They’ll be wiser for their tough experiences of the first six months running a lower league English football club.
Wagmi United bought Crawley in April. They had some pretty difficult early challenges, namely the allegations their then-manager John Yems, who, amongst many things, was accused of calling players of Asian heritage “terrorists, suicide bombers and curry munchers”, and creating a racially segregated dressing room. Wagmi deserved credit for quickly suspending and eventually parting company with Yems, who has been charged by the FA and remains under investigation.
Yems’ departure gave Wagmi a clean slate to revamp the club in the way they believe was right. They choose to appoint Arsenal youth coach Kevin Betsy. And whilst Betsy was building a fine reputation and deserved the chance. It left suspicions Crawley had appointed someone who would bend to Wagmi United’s will in a way an experienced manager would simply not entertain.
And it’s fair to say we’ve seen some unconventional methods. Over the last few months, Wagmi United said it would sell digital tokens that gave holders a say on how much of the wage budget should go on which part of the team. They held a vote for Crawley season ticket and NFT holders on whether the club’s next signing should be “an attacker, midfielder, defender or goalie?” A midfielder won the vote. Off you go Kevin, our NFT holders say you can have another central midfielder.
In October, Wagmi sparked incredulity when they announced they were scouting a prominent YouTube football team – Sidemen – who were playing a charity match. And that if any players impressed enough they would be signed by Crawley, and earn a place on the bench for Town’s FA Cup first round tie. Crawley fans were aghast. With Town’s former media and communications officer, Craig Bratt, tweeting, “It’s plain embarrassing at this point. You wanted to be ‘The Internet’s Team’. You’re struggling to be your own fans’ team at the moment.”
At each point of controversy, Betsy – recruited from leading Arsenal’s under 18s – publicly said he was supportive of these methods. In July Betsy told The Athletic, “These guys (WAGMI) have been making vast sums of money in their journey, through ways that other people haven’t thought about. This is way ahead of certain people’s capabilities to understand. It’s a bit new, sure, that’s where the anxiety comes from. I’m sure in time that many people will be very familiar with NFTs and crypto.”
Yet after a dreadful run of results, Betsy has recently been sacked. There has been notable improvement in results since, with Crawley unbeaten in four games. Although the silliness continues, with Crawley announcing this week that three of the Sideman players will train with the club next week with a view to featuring in their upcoming FA Cup tie against Accrington. On Crawley’s discord channel, there is now talk of supporter boycotts and protests against Wagmi United. As EFL expert Gab Sutton wonderfully put it, “Crawley more interested in how many people are taking photos of their car, than whether there’s petrol in it.”
That’s just on the field. Off it, they’ve made their third kit only available for supporters who buy an NFT. And on the opening weekend of the season, Wagmi were forced to apologise for releasing a social media video making digs at Carlisle United. Here’s a taste of what the video said, “Why do we hate them? Erm first of all they are nicknamed the Cumbrians. You ain’t gunna win soccer matches if your brains are made on cum. Oh I’m sorry, I meant they are the Cum-Brians, so a Cumb-brian is someone who comes from the English county of Cumbria…. boring! If I’m gunna root for a Cum-Brian, they better be some hot Australian guy named Brian, who eats a lot of pineapple.”
What on earth can you say about such embarrassing communications from the owners of a football club? Imagine trying to pull these sorts of stunts at Bradford City? That’s part of the Sliding Doors theory, where we imagine them manufacturing rivalries with clubs we are at best lukewarm towards, and where that beautiful navy blue away kit can only be bought through a non-fungible token.
On the other side of the coin, Wagmi have paid off a lot of Crawley’s long-standing debts, slashed season ticket prices, gave Betsy a large budget that included signing the prolific Dom Trelford, have improved matchday catering and are talking about improving the ground. Still, it hasn’t been the greatest of starts on and off the field.
And then we come back to the funding. To those NFTs. One of the central arguments for letting Wagmi buy City last December was the financial potential of NFTs. They are the future, it was said by some, and anyone against the takeover simply didn’t understand what they are. A few of us were called dinosaurs.
It’s been a really tough 12 months for everyone financially, and your more conventional stock markets have struggled. But the NFT market has had an especially rough time. In January – a month after Wagmi’s takeover attempt failed – NFT sales reached $5 billion. They halved to $2.6 billion in May and then fell to $700 million a month later. Quarter one (January to March) sales had totalled $12.5 billion, but had dropped to $3.4 billion in quarter three (July to September). That’s a third of what they were.
The average value of an NFT was $1,754 in April, when the Wagmi United takeover of Crawley took place. On 22 October, it was $587. A 67% fall. In Wagmi’s defence, they made it clear the club was bought in regular pounds, and they have high levels of cash reserves to protect Crawley from NFT market falls. But what about those asked to buy NFTs to have a say in the running of the club?
NFTs will surely recover in time, but whether they can recapture their popularity of 2021 remains questionable. And that was always the huge risk that Bradford City were taking on by tying up the fortunes of the club with a high volatile, unproven financial market. And when you do things like only make your third kit available to people who invest in this stuff, you put fans’ money at risk and stand accused of getting them to invest their money in things they might not fully understand.
The other big part of their plan is to build worldwide interest in Crawley Town, partly because of NFT holders having a stake in what’s happening and partly due to the team playing “a beautiful style that’s actually easier on the eye.” Hmmm, I’m not sure if Crawley’s battle to avoid relegation from League Two is quite the global hit just yet.
Still, it’s too early to fully judge. Preston Johnson has this week announced he has had to temporarily step away for health reasons. Hopefully he recovers fully and quickly. And you can’t deny their passion, or the potential benefits of being a disrupter of the status quo of English football. Just shy of a month ago, Johnson defended Wagmi United’s approach, “I’ve heard people say in the last few weeks. That if WAGMI hadn’t shown up, the club would’ve just gone on doing things the exact same way. Crawley would have been a League Two club forever; everyone would’ve been better off.
“But that’s not realistic. The club was being unsustainably run for the last few years, even at League Two level. It was losing over £1million each year. On top of that, there was almost £2million to pay off in debt stretching back almost four years. We struggled to even get a loan to hire vehicles for the club. Meanwhile, other clubs are spending to get better, and Crawley were continually cutting costs. You can only do that for so long before there’s serious consequences.”
Indeed, and you hope for the sake of Crawley fans this story has a happy ending.
For me, the biggest problem I had with Wagmi United last December was the way the owners behaved and presented themselves. They clearly had no real understanding of English football or of Bradford City. And, with it, they seemed to have little idea how to run a football club. It may work out for Crawley in time, but seeing the actions of Wagmi since taking over the Red Devils doesn’t exactly fill you with envy. They did beat a Fulham reserve team in the League Cup, mind.
At this point in the play, the lights go out. A clock in the corner is moving backwards. We’re back at the dinner party – or to be more accurate, that first Twitter space. Only this time, Rupp doesn’t say no to Wagmi United. He sells.
What does the other side of this Sliding Doors Moment look like? We’ll never know for sure, but it’s not hard to imagine. Adams would still have gone for sure – probably within minutes of Wagmi taking over. Ryan Sparks was unlikely to have stuck around. There would be no Mark Hughes taking over, running the rule over YouTube footballers to sit on the bench for the FA Cup tie with Harrogate. No Stephen Gent, waiting on the results of a poll on what area of the team NFT holders think needed strengthening before he could put players forward for City to target. Kevin Betsy’s Bradford Army might have been an interesting concept, but I think it’s fair to say we wouldn’t swap Hughes for any manager in League Two.
For Bradford City, there can be little doubt the Wagmi United takeover attempt has had good long-term consequences in perhaps sharpening a few minds behind the scenes. One of the other supporter arguments for letting Wagmi buy City last December was that even the risk of going out of business was preferable to the status quo of the stagnation we were enduring. For some fans to feel so disillusioned they’d have preferred to gamble everything on black – and risk losing everything – should have acted as a wake up call.
It seems the club, and Rupp have gradually gone from strength to strength since that moment. And though the progress made is nowhere near enough for any pats on the back just yet – and there are issues still to fix – Bradford City is moving forwards. Whilst Wagmi’s difficult start to leading Crawley is a timely reminder of what might have been.
Of course, all this doesn’t change the likelihood of Bradford City slipping over banana skins this weekend. We all know how the script goes on occasions like these. What on paper is our easiest home game of the season so far will likely prove anything but. Especially when you factor in Crawley’s recent resurgence.
Still, whatever happens on Saturday, the respective medium-term directions of each football club would suggest that Rupp’s rejection of Wagmi United’s advances was one of the best decisions of his tenure.