Issue Talking to Mark Lawn: Part Two

As told by Jason Mckeown and Michael Wood

Following on from Part One, our interview with Mark Lawn continues as we move onto the relationship with Bradford Council and the training facilities…

And we continue

BfB: How about the council, is there any interest on their part to help out?

I’ve worked very hard to build relationships with this council, and we now have an okay relationship with the council. They don’t do a lot for Bradford City Football Club, we don’t ask a lot out of Bradford City Council.

BfB: Following on from Valley Parade other people see the training ground as a significant problem – back in 2000 we had Benito Carbone, Dan Petrescu and a flooded Apperley Bridge – and Peter Taylor was keen to address this problem.  Again how important do the board of feel the state of the training facilities is? What is being done to address this situation (if considered important)? Can the club’s aims be achieved using Apperley Bridge?

We’re looking at ventures, perhaps with a private company that may want to address Apperley Bridge to improve the facilities down there. But it’s in the very early stages so I can’t discuss who it is and what it is. It’s council-owned land, so we’ve got to talk to the council about it as well, but we are looking to get those facilities down there.

BfB: Are the players still having to get changed at Valley Parade and go down there?

Yeah they are, but under Peter as well they’re using the pitch here (Valley Parade) a lot. The pitch is in better condition now, so it will take it and then we can fix it and get it right (for matchdays). So they tend to use this pitch when it’s bad down there.

BfB: How important do the Board think the training facilities are?

It’s a little bit like a chicken and egg really. I mean you can turn around and say that’s been our training facilities since the 1960s and they got us into the Premier League. I mean the facilities have got to be improved, but they can be used as an excuse I think as well.

If I’d have been here in the Premier League I’d have made sure that we have something like Blackburn Rovers now have without a doubt. I’d have put money back into the club and into facilities like that. But Blackburn Rovers are struggling aren’t they? And then look at Middlesbrough, they are renowned for having the best academy for kids – and they’re dropping down the leagues. And I think that’s the state of the game today, because we have so many foreigners coming in. And Geoffrey had this thing, and maybe he was proven to be right. He turned round to me and said “It’s no use giving me a kid who is going to be good in six years – I need someone to score on Saturday.” And I think that goes right throughout the leagues.

You look at these academies, and the problem is they’re (young players) not coming through are they? I think that is to do with the pressure put on managers to get a result as well. They’re not under pressure to bring a kid through.

I think that Leon Osborne, personally, would be better if he could get a run of six or seven games – but who is going to give him six or seven games if he doesn’t perform after two? Because the manager has got the fans on his back.

BfB: Talking of young players, what did you think of the reception Joe Colbeck received from some fans when he came back recently?

I think they forgot that Joe gave his all when he was here, he might not be the best player in the world but what Joe did give you was 100%. And I’ve always thought that Bradford fans always respected players who gave 100%. I always tell new players who come here that “You can be rubbish, but if you always give 100% these fans won’t slag you off.” So it is a bit disappointing that Joe has come back and got that. We seem to have problems with wingers getting stick don’t we? You go back to Summerbee and things like that.

BfB: If Peter comes up to you and says he wants to bring in a loan player for Saturday, in the back of your mind do you think “Why don’t you just play Leon?” (for example)?

Yeah I’d like that because it saves us all money (laughs), it means the budgets are easier! But if he turns round and wants one that’s his decision. We’re in talks with a loan player now.

(Note: Lawn then discusses negotiations with a loan player but doesn’t reveal who. We later discover, at the game that evening, that it is Jon Worthington).

In terms of negotiations for players, we usually take it in turns and Julian is working on this one. I normally get the awkward ones (laughs). I was the one who had to tell Martin Allen he’d didn’t get the job (laughs).

BfB: And on Martin Allen, how close did he come to getting it?

He was very impressive. His commitment (pauses) and if we’d have wanted a cheaper option – he didn’t want paying!  He’d got a pay off from Cheltenham until October, so he just said I’m already getting paid. So if we’d have wanted a cheaper option we could have taken Martin on.

BfB: Going back to the training facilities, do the club think they’re good enough for our aims of getting back to the Championship?

Well they will have to be, because we ain’t got the money to improve them unless we go into a joint venture with a private company. That’s what we’re trying to do. We might not be able to put up capital, but what we can do is rent the facilities off the company at a guaranteed rent for 10 years – so they’re getting a return on their investment. So that’s what we’re talking about doing and hopefully we can get that cracking.

We’re trying to make the facilities better for everybody, but let’s just turn round and state a few facts. Did you know Blackpool still take their training kit home and wash it? Did you know Rotherham take their training kit home and wash it and they don’t get fed? We’ve got a chef who cooks for them here (Valley Parade). And not only that, some of them have got dietary needs and some want a bit of fish and the chef looks after them. He spoils them!

So, I do expect a bit more out there than what we’re getting – considering what we’re putting in.

BfB: Much has been said about the affordable season tickets which are being offered once again for a fourth year.  Do the board feel that this has been a success? Is that success qualified in any way? Would anything result in the club moving back to the previous pricing policy?

It’s a difficult situation of where you balance it. We could do with more money, and surely the fans have got to realise that we’re doing it for them. What gets me is that (pauses) I mean I don’t read the websites, but people tell me what they’ve read – people saying “we should be charging more money.” So I think “well why doesn’t that person donate another £100?” No one is stopping anyone who is paying £150 from turning round and saying, “It’s too cheap; here you are, here is an extra £100.”  We don’t get any of that. So all those people who are saying we should be charging more, well pay more. We’re not stopping you from paying more.

We looked at this year in particular because of the recession and we thought, it’s going to be a tough year and a troubling year for people – everything’s going up, and people are going to be down. And you know what if you can still get to see a football match, you’ve got your ticket paid? I think that (the season ticket initiative) it’s a great idea.

I don’t think that Bradford City get enough credit from the Football League and the FA. We’re doing it, and no one is praising us. Four years we’ve done this, and not a single bit of praise from anybody. People turned around at first and said “you’ll never be able to keep it going.” Well we have kept it going.

The demographics in Bradford – it’s not the best paid here. So we’ve got to keep it reasonably priced.

BfB: So is the pricing a permanent thing?

As much as anything can be permanent. We’ve got to get prices up, but the Board still want to make football accessible. I think we’re still the only club who do under 11s free – everywhere else it’s under 7. And we don’t get any credit for that. We don’t win Family Club of the Year, Huddersfield do. And when they quote why they won that they say “under 7s go free” – and our under 11s are free. Maybe we don’t shout about it enough.

BfB: From an ethical point of view I believe the pricing policy to be utterly commendable – times are tough and City are helping people out for one, for two why should it cost two and a half times more to go watch football than it does to see a film? – but considering that ethical basis would the club consider extending the offer to include people who pay on the door and to include away supporters? If not, why not?

The away fans is something we’ve not thought of to be fair. They are getting in same price as our fans because of Football League rules. So if we did that we’d have to do walk ups (City fans who pay on the day) at that price as well.

Now to be fair we’ve said if you want to put your money there ahead it’s cheap, if you want to pay game-by-game and choose when you come or not, it’s a little bit more expensive. Because those people are subsidising the people who do buy cheap season tickets.

BfB: Do you get many fans who turn up on a game-by-game basis?

We get about 1,000. 1,000 when we’re not so good (laughs) and you can get 2,000 when we’re doing alright. I think we’ve got a fan-base, realistically in this league, of about 13,000-14,500. I think that would go up by 3 or 4,000 if we went up a league. And for some games, certainly, we’d be filling it if we were in the Championship. We play Leeds United – well they’d want 5,000 for a start.

BfB: Before you joined City, Julian agreed deals with Surridge and EMC to run the club shop and catering facilities respectively, are these deals proving financially-rewarding?

Absolutely brilliant – he stitched them up like a kipper! We’ve never taken as much money as we get from EMC, even when we were in the Premier League. We are having to renegotiate the deal with EMC this season, so they will continue but perhaps not as a good a rate going forward. What people need to realise is that the staffing levels, just to build and maintain facilities like that, is frightening. You can’t just get temporary staff in, you need a fair bit behind you.

BfB: Do you find there is a massive difference between what people perceive the problem is and what the problem actually is?

Well I was the same! Before I came on board, I didn’t realise what was involved with running a football club. It is very difficult, and there’s lots and lots of problems that you’ve got to sort. I used to think “why don’t they do this?” and then you come in and you understand why.

BfB: Any examples of that?

(Thinks for a few seconds). One of them was food for the footballers. I thought “bugger it; I’m a chef I will do that.” But you can’t because you’re too busy doing everything else! So you think there are roles that aren’t necessary, but they are when you get involved. It’s not as simple as you like to think.

BfB: Words like “failure” are banded about for most clubs in football – for Chelsea second in the Premier League is failure, for Aston Villa that would be success – and the term loses its meaning if it is not rigidly defined on a club-by-club basis. So what do the board consider to be a failure for Bradford City at present and what constitutes a success? Is there any middle ground between the two?

Well you have to have bite-sized chunks don’t you? And my first bite-sized chunk is that we’ve got to start finishing in the play offs. That’s got to be the minimum bite-sized chunk. Every season we don’t get into the play offs is, in my view, failure.

BfB: And then, does it get to the point where we finish in the play offs and that becomes acceptable or do we then say that’s not?

Not more than twice! I wouldn’t be happy losing in the play offs more than twice. If I was the Bury chairman, I wouldn’t be happy about losing in the play offs two or three times. I’d be starting to ask questions.

BfB: Which brings us onto the long-term. 18 months ago I was present at the VP Fans Forum where Mark you stated the club’s objective is to be in the Championship in five years. With only three-and-a-half years to go that vision may not occur in this time frame, but do you believe the club can still rise up the divisions in the next few years?

Well 18 months ago I put £1 million in and that was part of the thing that got blown (laughs). So, like with any aspect of business sometimes you’ve got to change your thinking. Look, our business plan is still to get there but our business plan has been curtailed by (pauses); I don’t want to speak ill of people, but we put a lot of money into this club and it didn’t work.

BfB: It’s almost like a snowball effect in that if we got one promotion we’d build momentum…

Yes I think so. If we got one promotion we’d get more fans. I think the base is there to bring more fans in. I think we’ve got a hardcore of around 7,500 fans – real hardcore. I think 7,500 would watch us if we were playing on Peel Park. And then I think we’ve got another 2-2,500 who are dependent on things like where we are in leagues. And I think we’ve probably got another 5,000-10,000 more fans where it depends where are in leagues, how we’re doing and whether they can pick and choose games they want to come to. I might be wrong but that’s where we are abouts.

BfB: Do things like the size of the fan-base come into it when we’re talking to people like Nike and EMC?

Without a doubt. When they see things like our season ticket sales for this year and next, it’s that sort of thing they want to get on board with. They realise that, if we can get up these leagues, they got a base there. You know Bradford City Football Club – and I’m not being derogatory to other football clubs here – Bradford City are a proper football club, that’s been starved of success. You’ve only got to turn around any look at what happened when we went to Wembley. If we could give the Bradford public success, I think they will come out and watch us. And that’s what we’re trying to do.

BfB: Is more outside investment needed to climb the leagues?

It’s a difficult situation that, because you look at other football clubs. Look at MK Dons, they got out of this league by having the biggest budget. I think there budget that year was £2.5 million.

BfB: That’s a lot for this level…

Well we had £1.9 million once, and we didn’t get out of this league. So is it the budget? Then you turn round and see Dagenham get promoted with a £750,000 budget. So is it the budget? I think it’s down to managers, I think you look at managers and it’s getting that right manager.

As for us, I don’t know if we’ve been kicked by Gypsies or something (laughs), whether we are cursed, but you look at what we’ve done. We’ve put in lots of money, we’ve brought in an established manager in Peter Taylor who has been a success at every single level that he’s been at – and certainly this level – and up to now it’s not worked.

I’m still not giving up on this season, there’s still a lot of games to be played. But what we do need to do realistically is go on a run of winning five games. We need 69-72 points by the end of the season, that’s what you need to get in that last play off position.

BfB: So you don’t see that more money is the only thing that will get us success?

Well more money often buys more success whereas more money for us didn’t buy success. It did buy MK Dons, it did buy Peterborough…

BfB: What about the lad Tom Cleverley? If he moves on from Man United do we get a similar kind of pay out to Fabian Delph?

Not quite as good. The one that’s good is if we get the lad from Liverpool (Andre Wisdom) – that’s better than the Delph. Knowing our luck he will probably play for Liverpool for the rest of his bloody life (laughs). Have a great career, and never move on!

BfB: Would we put that money straight into the playing budget?

Yes of course. This club needs to be in the Championship. In the Championship we survive and we survive well. That’s where we need to be. The overheads suddenly don’t become as bad because we need this type of stadium to survive. Everything works in the Championship, once we get into the Championship. So everything needs to be directed on getting players to get us into the Championship. Then when we get there, we can turn around and start looking at buying new facilities, etc.  First of all it’s how can we get out of these leagues?

BfB: What is your view on the way the non-league players have developed at the club? For example some people are calling David Syers player of the season…

Well let’s not call him player of the season because they always go then don’t they? (laughs). I think Syers has a long way to go but he’s got a lot of potential. He’s shown he’s got it if he can keep improving. I think that (James) Hanson needs to keep improving as well, but I think he can go on. I do think Hanson should be playing in the Championship. If he can keep learning from old pros and stuff. That is how to be a centre forward, I’m not talking about his lifestyle, but how to make the right runs, etc. If he can learn that I think he can play in the Championship. I think Steve Williams has also got the potential. There’s not been as much fuss about him like Hanson, but if he can learn as he makes the full transition he can go far.

One thing I would say is that the transition can be a problem, and this is where the PFA should be getting involved and helping. They have to quickly learn to become athletes, because they haven’t been brought up as pros. And perhaps this is a transition that maybe we could help better with – because it’s a big leap for them. It’s not just the training, but a matter of I’ve got to watch what I eat now, I’ve got to watch what I drink now, I’ve got to go to bed early. It’s that sort of thing that, at non-league level, they don’t really need to do. So perhaps we could do a little bit more for them.

BfB: No one doubts how hard you and Julian work and how much you have put into the club; it must be so frustrating for you to see the club continue to fail on the pitch despite your best efforts…

I have a lot of sleepless nights. When I bought into the club Julian shook my hand and said “Welcome to Bradford City, now you become an alcoholic insomniac!” I said to him “I think you’re joking” and then talked about my Driver Hire company which had a turnover of £75 million and 120 franchises – “You don’t think I can run a football club?!”

When we lost to Morecambe in the first season I rang Julian up the next day and said “I’m in the alcoholic-insomniacs club!” And I think it’s been like that ever since (laughs)!

BfB: But you do seem to enjoy it?

I have a passion for the club because I love the club. I’m probably the only Chairman in the Football League that has a tattoo of their football club on their arm. I had an argument with Peter Risdale at one of the Chairmen meetings, because I said “I can’t understand why, if you’re a Leeds fan, you’re at any other football club.” I would never be at any football club but Bradford City. It’s hard work, and I certainly ain’t here for the glory or money. I’m here because I’m a fan, so I didn’t understand him. He took exception to that!

BfB: It’s been really great to talk to you like this and I’m sure our readers will be delighted to have this opportunity to hear your views. As a final question, what are your favourite memories of supporting Bradford City over the years?

(Long pause) Oh the ones I can tell you (laughs). Darlington away (1969), I was nine-years-old. My sister took me on the coach. It was my first success. Then we had the bleak years didn’t we? I think everyone forgets that.

I’ve supported them since 1964, I think. My first game, Southend United I think it was. We won 3-0 and I thought that’s what always happens!

Also, Cambridge away (1984/85). Leaving my coat on the barbed wire so everyone could use it to get over onto the pitch! I ended up kissing John Hendrie, I don’t think he appreciated that! (laughs) I’ve known John and the players from then a while before and those lads aren’t as aloof as they are now. If you could get that spirit now – they used to be singing songs on the bus going home. And they mixed with the fans as they weren’t aloof. Maybe they’re under more pressure these days, I don’t know. Certainly there is more expectation on Bradford City players now than there was then.

But the best day of my life was Wolves (1999). I’ve got four girls and a boy and we took everyone down except for the wife. After the game they all just dived on me and I ended up in tears. The whole family was crying with joy. That’s something my wife is really upset about because she missed that, and it’s something that you can never take away from me. Pure joy between myself and children at that stage.

Wembley was good too, but I spent most of it throwing up in the toilet with nerves. Even though we battered them didn’t we? (Laughs) I didn’t really enjoy that one!

Post-amble

What is the perception of Mark Lawn? That he is a blunt man but a passionate one, perhaps? Perhaps that he is a Bradford City supporter first and a chairman second. Going into – and coming out of – an hour and a half conversation with the man these perceptions seemed confirmed.

He speaks as he sees it for sure and that may or may not be a good thing but few could doubt that his dedication for the club, and for bringing success to it. Talking to the man he seems as desperate and one might not agree with or appreciate way he is taking the club to try achieve that but not his commitment to, and his honesty about, wanting those achievements.

Moreover though talking to Lawn – the first contact that BfB has had with the club – there was a feeling of a man (or a group of men) isolated from a support with both sides entrenched into positions of opposition. There are plenty of brickbats thrown over the walls of Bradford City at Lawn and his fellow directors – we have thrown a few ourselves, and no doubt will again – but for all the things lobbed over the wall it seems that, if you try it, the door is open.

Anyone trying to enter with an idea, an inspiration, even a constructive criticism might be surprised at the welcome they get.