Issue The ownership model which deserves some success

As told by Jason Mckeown

Fresh from reading another article about the Glazers, at the weekend I asked a Manchester United-supporting about his views on the American owners who are seemingly taking money out of the club for their personal gain having not contributed a cent of their own money in the first place. His response stunned me – “Who cares? The only thing which matters is that we’re winning trophies.”

My friend’s attitude is far from representative of most United fans. The Glazers have saddled the previously-richest club in the world with eye-watering levels of debt which is beginning to hinder their ability to compete at the top. But worse is their loyal supporters have endured a 50% rise in season ticket prices and the highly controversial (now scrapped) automatic cup ticket scheme, while the Glazer family has legally being able to take part of the profits for personal needs and shows no intention of using their own money to pay back its borrowings to buy the club. It’s not hard to see why the fan protests of last season were so sizeable in number and anger.

But nevertheless does my friend have a point? The Glazers’ arrival prompted thousands to defect from the club and set up their own, FC United, but many thousands more stayed and paid those ticket hikes. Only when United began to struggle by their own high standards did the protests start up, will they continue next season if the likelihood of trophies becomes stronger?

While the rest of football watches closely and wonders how on earth the Glazers can get away with their actions, unless the previously unseen sight of empty seats at Old Trafford for some Premier League games last season continues to grow momentum, the continuing huge levels of revenue generated will protect the Glazers from re-evaluating their business plan. And it’s difficult to expect loyal fans to register their displeasure by depriving themselves of going to watch their own football team, no matter how much it must grate to know the harm it is seemingly doing.

The Glazers must surely be the worst football club owners in England, but they are not unique in putting self interest above the welfare of the club they are custodians of. The Premier League has thrown the door open to outside investors and the returns they can enjoy are clearly highly rewarding. Most supporters will accept this as long as they “put their hand in their pockets” and spend millions buying better players. The odd billionaire with a mountain of cash to offload aside, it’s doubtful how often some owners really do spend their own money to buy these players without eventually making a bigger return. It is at odds with the hopes of supporters, but if the club is performing well it can be largely forgiven.

The ownership model at Valley Parade is very different, for better or worse. Towards the end of last season, and not for the first time, there were rumours of foreign businessmen investing in Bradford City. Predictably nothing materialised, but the thought of a significant cash influx for new players naturally excited many fans who heard the speculation.

If an investor ever does materialise beyond the imagination of a message board rumour-starter and into the Valley Parade reception, questions must surely be first asked about their intentions by both current owners and supporters. Clearly any would-be investor with no previous connections to the club is going to be striving to become richer. This would be largely acceptable if the investment is able to elevate City beyond a level they currently struggle to reach and can be sustained in the long run, but equally it has to be understood that the risk prospective owners take investing their money, with no guarantee of success, deserves that reward in the long run.

At the fans forum a year ago, Mark Lawn was asked why the Munto Finance organisation had invested in Notts County and not Bradford City, with a tinge of jealousy floating around the room. It didn’t take long into the season for all of us to agree it is a good thing they had designs on someone else. Notts County might have gained promotion last season, but the financial mess left behind threatens to catch up with them sooner or later.

Was the Notts County Supporters Trust right to sell the club to Munto last August, given the successful promotion it couldn’t have financed themselves? Was it better for County to continue struggling on in the bottom half of League Two, or to enjoy some success at the potential price of their very existence? We’ll watch closely this season to see, but I know which choice I’d have voted for.

Despite a huge fanbase and relatively small debts in comparison to the traumas of the two administrations, Bradford City is clearly not an attractive proposition for would-be investors. Whether this is due to the high running costs of Valley Parade – has anyone viewed the books? – or the reputation the club and City possess is unclear. But while Liverpool fans curse their previous owner David Moores for selling the club to Americans with no heart and little money, we could easily have ended up in a situation where we regretted Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn selling up.

Though it is worth considering whether City are really in need of investment. Sure, the idea of suddenly having sizable transfer funds to buy the best available players has an appeal, but to succeed the Bantams would still need to ensure all the other factors which they can control without extra investment are still in place – namely solid management, suitable facilities and a collaborative spirit.

The reality is that City have two owners who care deeply about the club and for whom making a profit is on the agenda. No one can deny owning Bradford City has reduced the Rhodes’ family’s wealth, and while Lawn has loaned money to the club which he will eventually receive back, allegedly with interest, he is undoubtedly as passionate about the club as any of us.

Naturally neither are far from perfect. Lawn’s public statements in recent months have often seemed naively blunt, alienating many fans in the process. Rhodes’ more considered views are more enjoyable to hear and read, but his obvious reluctance to take a public profile means leadership is not as visible as we’d all like to see. Although I’ve seen many photos of Rhodes over the years, shamefully I’m not confident I’d recognise him walking around Valley Parade. The number of times I’ve seen Lawn in and around the stadium on match days in comparison suggests I’ve probably walked past Rhodes without realising. He probably likes it that way.

The recent visit of David Baldwin to the Telegraph and Argus’ message board also emphasises another regular failing, namely that the club is too concerned and pays too much attention to those supporters who shout the loudest, regardless of whether they are representative of most supporters views. Whatever the views of Stuart McCall’s departure, the less-than-sensitive way the club handled the situation last February was more in keeping with pleasing those who’d strongly urged the club to get rid, than those who were genuinely upset at the way it ended for a club legend.

It appears too often that the City Board is more reactive than proactive, and that a clear vision of the way the club should be progressing is lacking – with decisions too quickly abandoned and changed. Much of the recent strategy has come from the outside views of Peter Taylor, rather than the bright thinking of the boardroom. There is little Geoffrey Richmond-style innovation or feeling the chairmen are one step ahead of supporters in their thinking, though equally of course there is also no fear of hidden motives and risky gambles which could dramatically backfire.

But I’d love for them both to finally get the rewards their efforts deserve in the shape of a promotion this season. Like my ignorant Manchester United supporter alluded to, it’s success on the field which ultimately matters. Whatever the past mistakes, they both work hard to bring success and without Rhodes, and perhaps even Lawn, there would not be a Bradford City kicking off another pre-season this Friday.

They own the club because they care, not because they want to make money out of our passion. They are striving to make it a self-sustainable business and, while this may have limitations at times, it’s an ownership model that deserves to succeed.

Certainly more so than the get-even-richer-quicker approach of other football club owners like the Glazers. It is truly sad that modern football has become so geared up to making money and that success and failure is not always connected to exploits on the field.

Hopefully this is the year an under-achieving West Yorkshire club can buck the trend – and Julian and Mark can take a deserved spot on the open top bus.