Issue Groundsharing at Odsal moves from debate to battle

As told by Jason Mckeown

The Bradford City Supporters Trust holds its AGM this evening, with one especially pensive agenda item up for discussion.

Last February Bradford City revealed it was considering an option to ground share with Rugby League neighbours Bradford Bulls, in a council-backed redevelopment of its Odsal stadium. With the rental payments and running costs of City’s 105-year-old home, Valley Parade, somewhere in the region of just under £1 million per year, the opportunity to be released from expenditure which is potentially holding back the club’s  progress is one difficult for joint chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes to ignore. The time is approaching where the debate moves forward and firm actions need to be taken.

When plans were first mooted for turning the basic Odsal ground into a sporting village, it was easy to dismiss it as fruitless council activity that would ultimately be ruled unworkable. The cost of the project is widely expected to be over £80m, a quarter of which would be provided by the council. In the mist of a UK recession where the affects are more visible within Bradford than many parts of the country – witness the giant hole in the city centre that was supposed to be a shopping complex by now – it’s questionable where the rest of the funding would come from, but the council is said to remain confident of acquiring it. It means that, rather than sit back and wait for the sums to not add up, City fans against their club moving home need to make their voice heard.

Writing in the latest edition of City Gent, BCST Chairman Alan Carling outlines a timetable for council activity which suggests a decision over City’s future could be made by early 2010. A green light would see the Bulls temporarily move to Valley Parade in 2011 while building work on Odsal took place, with both clubs beginning life in the redeveloped Odsal by August 2013. Alan also suggests the Odsal go-ahead is dependent on City’s involvement, as the income streams from only the Bulls make it difficult for investors in the development to receive a desired return.

Not that matters are so simple for City, with the giant question mark of the 20-year Valley Parade lease the club is financially obligated to complete as part of the 2003 deal which saw then-Chairman Gordon Gibb buy up the stadium. Alan speculates two ways the council and City might work around that problem, neither which appear financially desirable. The first is the council buys the stadium from Gibb, thus freeing City from the terms of the lease. The cost of purchase and then demolition of the ground is a poor use of tax payers’ money given the returns from then selling on the land will be far less – and that’s ignoring the sheer ludicrousness of the council buying and demolishing a stadium City want to remain in so they can persuade the club to move elsewhere.

The other suggested option is a strategic City administration, with the idea being the new City owners would be removed from previous financial obligations and be free to leave Gibb with an empty stadium. Whatever is thought of Gibb, this is morally wrong and risky, as the club cannot put itself into administration until it’s about to move over to Odsal, in four years time. Is the business-wise Gibb going to sit back and wait for that to happen? Is the Football League going to allow one of its members to so blatantly get out of financial commitments? Is the council going to devise a sensible business plan on the basis of encouraging a local company to bend the rules?

In his article Alan wrote, “My personal concern is that if the club goes along with the Council’s Odsal plans, we may be venturing into an ethical and practical minefield for the sake of financial gains that are both uncertain and distant. And these anticipated gains are unlikely to be large enough to outweigh the attendant risks, which may include risks to the survival of the club.”

All of which continues to make it difficult to see just how Bradford City and the people of the Bradford district would benefit from the club moving to a redeveloped Osdal, when there is already a suitable venue for the City’s two professional clubs in Valley Parade, achievable to buy for a fraction of the cost. The proposed Odsal Sporting Village is aimed at providing a wider range of sporting facilities, but there is no obvious reason why it couldn’t still be developed to the benefit of local athletes. Training facilities for both City and Bulls could be situated here too.

It would still a disputable use of public money to buy Valley Parade for two commercial organisations, but it could be argued that, by doing so, the space vacated by the Bulls could be developed into an important sporting community focal point that aspiring local athletes can develop from. It would be reasonable for City and Bulls to pay rent to the council and, within Valley Parade, there may also be opportunity to push ahead supporter desires for a return to standing areas.

Of course the prospect of the Bulls moving to Valley Parade is something its supporters are understandably opposed to in the same way City fans don’t want to be moved to Odsal, but is their discomfort more important than ours and is it justification enough to unnecessarily spend millions of pounds? Even allowing for the hindrance of claret and amber-tinted spectacles, I find it difficult to see the logic in the whole proposal.

But those with the power to make it happen clearly do see something, and tonight BCST will discuss how City supporters can make their voices heard. There are suggestions the club is taking an increasingly-dismissive view of the Trust’s power and influence, largely due to its membership size, but whether members or non-members all City fans opposed to the Odsal plans should be considering how they can support the Trust in leading the fight. It has been suggested the club will hold a referendum with all supporters before any final decision is made, but is it enough to sit back and wait for a voting slip to appear?

The biggest concern over the decision to stay or leave Valley Parade is that assumptions and apathy might come to be later regretted.

*The BCST AGM is being held at Bradford Irish Club from 7.30pm tonight.