Issue #82 Buying Bradford City and worrying

As told by Michael Wood

The deadline for Gianni Paladini’s exclusivity on a bid to buy Bradford City will expire at midnight tonight and by tomorrow morning the club could have a new owner.

Should that happen Mark Lawn, Julian Rhodes and David Rhodes will leave the club – taking the rest of the current board with them – and be replaced by Paladini and his friends who seem to include a number of the London mega-rich. The numbers water the eyes: £10m for players, more for wages, and Valley Parade bought back.

But there is worry.

…be happy

Any change of ownership brings a worry for the supporters of a football club with good reason. David Moores – the owner of Liverpool during good times at Anfield – was only prepared to sell the club to people he could trust but ended up saying of “I hugely regret selling the club to George Gillett and Tom Hicks.” The recent history of Manchester United is the story of an aggressive takeover making the supporters pay for someone else to own the club.

At the other end of the spectrum at York City John Batchelor was happy to attempt to strip any asset he could from that club. He died aged 51 and his epitaph was his frank statement “I fuck businesses, its what I do.”

The annuals of football club ownership since the 1980s are the story of opportunists taking what they can from clubs like ours. Like the generally held view that all politicians lie, all football club chairmen are out to rip off the fans. While it is cynical to admit it people who want to buy football clubs are considered guilty until they can prove themselves innocent.

The third way

There is an alternative of course and it is one that was briefly considered during Administration in 2004. Supporter owned clubs are some of the success stories of the modern game. FC United of Manchester, AFC Wimbledon, Exeter City. Stupid names but stories of the sort of community commitment that we would all can only dream of at Valley Parade.

Restarting Bradford City as a community club at the bottom of the pyramid did not happen but Julian Rhodes pulled the club out of administration promising that the fans would be at the heart of the relaunched Bantams as a kind of middle ground. This manifested itself in a season ticket pricing policy. More on that later.

That third way of fan ownership exists for the clubs most abused. If City could not have been saved as a business in 2004 then an AFC Bradford City would no doubt have sprung up. It is always the final censure for anyone looking to buy a club.

End of aside.

What to worry about

There are worries about what Paladini would do at the club – worries caused in no small part by the film Four Year Plan – and how he will fund what he does and the reason that he does it. We – the Bradford City community – need to listen hard to what is said and not be distracted by the promise like £10m on players.

The sleight of hand that focuses the eyes on the field while distracting the mind as money is taken from the club is the realism of modern football. The Glazers did this at the biggest club in the UK. It happened in 1999 when Bradford City went into the Premier League and (approx.) £9m were taken out in dividends by the Directors.

One of those Directors was – of course – Julian Rhodes who has since ploughed money back into Bradford City. He was also on the board when one of the board members sold the club’s biggest asset (Valley Parade) to his own Pension Fund.

The price Valley Parade was sold for – considering the rent paid by the club to play there – was an amazing deal for the then chairman Gordon Gibb. Ostensibly this was a deal done to “save the club” but the club was not saved and less than eight months later the business failed.

Anyone can understand the worries that a new chairman and a new board could work against the interests of the club as an institution and of supporter but many of those worries have been manifested at the club in the last few years.

Mark Lawn loaned the club money at a nine per cent interest rate above the Bank of England base rate. The board then sanctioned that money to be spent on what could best be described as player gambles. Large wage budgets for Stuart McCall and Peter Taylor (remember the phrase “push the boat out”) which the board acknowledged it could not sustain and resulted in teams being built and ripped up in the space of weeks were the board’s way of showing ambition but they could never be described as being necessary spending as evidenced by how the club finally found promotion when the budget had been reduced.

That is a point worth recalling. Bradford City did not need the money which it borrowed from Mark Lawn to stay in business, it borrowed it to try improve the business with promotion. Mark Lawn did not “save the club” as he seems to be credited with. Without him the club would have had less money to spend on players but still would have had a larger wage bill than many others in the League Two we took part in.

The boardroom borrowed money – from one of its members, and at a great rate – to take gambles on winning promotion that failed only to pay that money back later from the club’s winnings on the field from Wembley 2013.

And I’m not complaining about that but what I am saying is that if Paladini were to arrive at Valley Parade tomorrow saying the he would lend Bradford City £10m to pay for players and he would take it and more back when the money rolled in he would probably be viewed as an opportunist looking to make what he can and gambling with the club’s future.

You either believe that situation is risking the club’s future, or it is ambitious football business, but it would be the same for both and not different because as far as we know Paladini does not have a Bantams tattoo.

Not worried about

This is what I am not worried about.

I’m not worried that he will rename the club and change the colours because Vincent Tan did. I’m not worried he will try change the name of the club because Assem Allam did. I’m not worried that Paladini will do what Massimo Cellino has done at Leeds. I’m not worried that he will do what Francesco Becchetti has done at Leyton Orient.

Do we assume that Paladini will turn up to board meetings drunk, or high, or boasting about which of the club staff he is having an affair with which are all things which English chairmen at the 92 clubs have done.

We don’t assume he will threatening legal action against you own clubs fans. Or be banned from driving for being drunk. Or cheer the opposition during games. Or call the team rubbish to their faces. Or call them a waste of money. Or racially abuse one of his own team’s players. We don’t assume he will do any of these transgressions which were all done by English chairmen of Football League clubs and we do not read concerned articles worrying that a new owner at Valley Parade is liable to do them.

Too much of the debate about Gianni Paladini is framed in a context of his nationality with unpleasant undertones. When you start suggesting that Paladini will want to change the the club name or colours you probably need to ask yourself good questions about why you made that comparison.

We continue

The Rhodes commitment to supporters as seen in the low season ticket prices has been held over fans frequently as being on the verge of ending rather than being enshrined as part of the club putting the fans first. The weekend when Mark Lawn decided, then changed his mind on the club being put into administration following his car being damaged. Allowing the Valley Parade pitch to get into such a poor condition that it is laughed at by other teams managers. The much talked about ban on The City Gent from Valley Parade. This week’s unveiling of a new shirt which was not Claret and Amber stripes.

I’ve heard arguments about all these points: the finances dictate prices, why not wind up the club if your car is vandalised, its not our fault the pitch it bad, the City Gent should be supportive or what is the point of it, Nike control the shirt design; and you can decide for yourself how valid those defences are but as you do imagine if they were not coming from the “proper Yorkshireman” and others on the current board, but from Paladini, and how reactions would differ.

My point is that we should worry about that Mr Paladini might act in ways which are against the best interests of the Bradford City community, just as I believe we should worry more about what the current board do, and I should have worried more about what Geoffrey Richmond’s board was doing back when I started BfB back in 1998.

I am worried about what will happen to the club in the future if it is taken over, but I am worried about what will happen to it if it is not. The Football Association and the Football League have singularly failed to do anything to control the owners of football clubs. Most of the time most of the chairmen in football act in their interests and not in the club’s interest.

I’m worried about that.