Beyond the Wall: Bradford City

This year, The Set Pieces will be making frequent sorties beyond the wall, looking beyond the realm of the Premier League and bringing you the stories of the clubs who lurk outside. Two years ago, Bradford City beat Aston Villa in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. Though they would lose the second leg, they had done enough to book their place in the final. But how did that cup run change the club? How did they spend the money? And where are they now? Bradford City supporter and football writer Mark Douglas takes up the story. 

The journey began at 7.47pm at a windswept Valley Parade in the Autumn of 2007. It was early October, Bradford City were hosting Accrington Stanley and 120 seconds were on the clock when a journeyman striker named Roscoe D’Sane strode past a static home defence to smack the first of three unanswered goals past home ‘keeper Donovan Ricketts.

City’s manager Stuart McCall spun on his heels, covered his face with his hands and drunk in the disappointment. Bradford were 11 games into their first season in the bottom division for 25 years, helmed by the club’s heroic returning warrior midfielder and backed by the biggest crowd in the fourth tier for some 40 years.

Yet by then failure had become the Bantams’ regular bedfellow – it clung to the club’s skin. Three relegations and two bruising spells in administration in the space of six years had taken their toll. The club had survived but on the terraces, fans openly wondered whether it might have been better to let it go out of business and start again as a phoenix­ style AFC Bradford City. It was not lost on anyone that Wimbledon, the club City had consigned to relegation in their first season in the Premier League, had reformed and climbed through the divisions in the same time it had taken their team to bottom out. They would play each other eight times before Bradford eventually earned a passage out of the fourth tier.

The return of McCall ­- the prodigal son who had played in Bradford’s great late­ eighties side thatbriefly outshone near neighbours Leeds and then came back to lead the club into the Premier League – had sent a shot of optimism surging through claret and amber veins. But by October 2, 2007 it had begun the long, tortuous process of curdling into that familiar feeling: pessimism.

“Let’s pretend we scored a goal!” the denizens of the Kop sang for 20 minutes in defiance. “I will put as much effort into this match report as the players did. Accrington came and played football, City barely turned up and conceded three goals,” the author of Vital Bradford reported. “I Am Most Unhappy.”

Six years later, Valley Parade is a noticeably different place. On Wednesday afternoon in the office of acting chief operating officer James Mason, they were cooking up a social media initiative to try and boost the attendance of next week’s Cup replay with Millwall.

The winners face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the fourth round and the top brass want to capture the mood reverberating around a club that has gone ten games unbeaten and sits in the play­ off zone in League One. They have settled on a tagline of “What if?”

“Maybe a few years ago what I would call that Bradfordian pessimism might have kicked in after the draw and we might have thought ‘Let’s keep quiet because we won’t beat Millwall’,” he tells The Set Pieces in a breezy, uplifting early morning call.

“But the zeitgeist at the amount around this club now is about possibilities. We’ve done something that no­-one would have ever thought possible so why can’t we do it again?

“We know it will be difficult to beat a Championship club but why not? There’s a whole new generation who believe it can be done after the League Cup run. They have seen it. It’s a great time to be involved.”

To recap. In 2013, Bradford did something that no other club in Europe had ever done: reach a major Cup final as a fourth tier club. A run that began on the final day of the London Olympics saw Phil Parkinson’s side defeat Notts County (away ­ after extra time), Watford (after extra time), Burton Albion (again, extra time), Wigan (on penalties), Arsenal (on penalties) and finally Aston Villa in a two­legged semi­final that stretched nerves before concluding with the club’s greatest moment since lifting the FA Cup in 1911.

It was a triumph for Phil Parkinson and Steve Parkin, the management team who took over City when the outlook was even bleaker than it was for McCall that day. The season before Wembley he had led a squad that Julian Rhodes, the club’s owner, subsequently branded one of the worst they had ever had from the precipice of a relegation fight.

The remit the next season was promotion. A modest budget was put together – good for the division, it must be said ­and Parkinson put the money to good use. Talismanic veteran midfielder Gary Jones was signed; defender Andrew Davies re­-signed. Nathan Doyle, who had won the club’s player of the season award in a year he only played half of it on loan, came back. There were high hopes for the developing Nahki Wells and James Hanson, who had been plucked from a part­time job stacking shelves in the Co­Op by McCall to spearhead City’s attack. It looked like a decent side but what it achieved during that incredible run was extraordinary.

“In terms of Cup runs we have to go way back before 2012 to really remember anything we’d done,” Mason -­ a Bradford fan who was a regular in stands before accepting the CEO job at the end of November – admits.

“I think I can remember the odd FA Cup game, beating Everton at Goodison Park in 1996, but we hadn’t really ever done much in the League Cup. Not many City fans would be able to remember too many upsets that we’d caused.

“I think it all started for me that year with Wigan away, when we took a big following to a Premier League club and beat them (on penalties). That feeling of the players celebrating in front of this big away end was just fantastic. It was just a big lift and really hammered home the potential of this club if it had a bit of success.

“Then Arsenal at home: that frosty winter evening. We had a bit of history with Arsene Wenger, who had told his team to get changed in the hotel during the Premier League days because he felt our facilities were too amateurish. Valley Parade was full and bouncing and it was an incredible night when we achieved something that was looked impossible.

“But we did it again against Aston Villa in what was probably the most magical night of my life supporting City. That home game was amazing and the away game was even better. I actually couldn’t get a ticket – we could have sold our allocation five times over – so I had to go in the home end, sitting on my hands when James Hanson scored.

“I think everyone around us knew we were Bradford fans by the end and they just turned to us at the final whistle and said: ‘Your name was on the final this year’.”

It ended with a sobering 5-­0 defeat against Swansea in a one-­sided Wembley final but this was a club transformed. Just maybe, though, not in the way that you might have thought.

City had got a windfall, but the financial returns – while considerable – were relatively modest. When push came to shove, the club had banked just over £1million from the run. That was comprised of TV money, gate receipts and commercial activity surrounding the Wembley final.

If anyone thought it was going to turn the club into a lower­ league Manchester City, they were soon set straight.

It removed several millstones from the club’s neck, and allowed them to pay back a loan to co-
chairman Mark Lawn that he himself had assumed would never be paid back. The budget was beefed up just in time to fund a post ­January promotion push for Parkinson, who led his team out at Wembley in the League Two play­ off final in May. They won 3­-0.

But this was not an agenda-­changing sum of money. Setting it into some sort of context, beatingHalifax in the first round of the FA Cup this season – which was televised by BT Sport – banked the club £125,000. The winners of the third round replay at Valley Parade on Wednesday will earn £500,000 simply for turning up at Stamford Bridge.

“Speaking about it from a club perspective now, the amount of money we made was about a million pounds,” Mason says. “It is a lot of money for a club like City but not anything like you get for the FA Cup. If we were to get through next week and play Chelsea it would be £500,000, for example.

“But what it did was to give us that little push and I think the money and the way it was used was pivotal to City. It enabled City to push for promotion and gave Phil that little bit of money to refresh his squad with a couple of players and we were promoted.”

“We’re now fifth in League One and the effect on Phil has been that he’s been able to sign players and tie down the players we had here, which might not have happened otherwise.”

There was a clamour to spend in the summer and optimistic talk about rolling through the divisions into the Championship (which the club thinks is its realistic home) but Bradford’s chairmen Lawn and Rhodes resisted.

The budget was pushed up but the business model remained. Which is something else that is striking: having seen their name become synonymous with how not to run a club in the last decade, City might now be pioneering a business model that could be a blueprint for lower ­league clubs.

Every year the Bantams make plans to start with a budget which is in deficit. It factors in the rent they have to pay to use Valley Parade ­ it was sold to make ends meet during administration – the wage budget and a transfer kitty.

To make up the deficit the club have to push on in the Cups to generate extra income. If they don’t, they will sell one of their players or cash in on one of their youth players (Tom Cleverley and Andre Wisdom are two graduates while a midfielder at Everton – George Green – was sold when he was 15 for a fee that might touch £1.5million.)

In the season following the Cup run, supporters saw the downside of this policy when a good start to life in League One fizzled out around Christmas. Nahki Wells, the club’s biggest asset who had scored against Aston Villa and terrorised Arsenal’s back four, was sold to Huddersfield for more than a million.

There was discontent, but it was laced with realism. He had 18 months left on his contract – a club observing the bottom line couldn’t afford to let such a big asset depreciate in value.

“At the moment we think were overachieving for the budget we’ve got,” Mason admits.

The key to making the whole thing work is people. At the top, Rhodes and Lawn are wealthy Bradford supporters. Mason regards them as the two “heroes” of the Cup run.

It was Rhodes, the son of David – who made his millions founding wireless communications company Filtronic, who struck upon the idea of making season tickets more affordable. In 2007 they announced season tickets would go on sale at £138 if enough fans backed the idea. They sold more than 12,000.

The next year, they modified the deal to a buy one, get one free initiative. 11,000 were sold. Bradford is a big city but it had already lost one club, Park Avenue, in the sixties. It was not uncommon to see kids kicking a ball around in the parks in Leeds, Manchester United or Chelsea shirts.

Former chairman Geoffrey Richmond, an avuncular and ambitious owner who had taken over the club in 1994 and immediately announced his intention to take them into the Premier League, had some success attracting children under 16 with season tickets that equated to a pound a game. But gates hovered around 6,000 in the mid ­nineties when the club were in the third tier.

Now Rhodes’ leap of faith was rewarded: City’s crowds didn’t dip despite the pessimism of those dogged days of losing to the likes of Accrington Stanley, Barnet and the rest. They were just waiting for things to improve.

“That business strategy and attractive season ticket prices brought City fans back together and the legacy is still there today,” Mason says. “On Saturday against Rochdale we’ll have 14,000, the second biggest in the division – and there are a lot of younger fans there.”

And that is the point: it is the young supporters who fall in between the ages when they can afford to pay Premier League ticket prices and their parents paying for them that are at the forefront of this swollen support.

Bradford’s away support is a measure of the commitment of a generation whose high watermark is the League Cup run. 1,100 of a 5,000 crowd at Millwall were clad in claret and amber last Saturday. “There’s a new generation who probably can’t remember the Premier League very well but whose halcyon days are the League Cup run. When people say it can’t be done, they’ve seen it happen. It has changed the feel of the club,” he said.

Take a trip around Valley Parade now and there are a few visible effects of the Cup run. The club renovated the Patrons Lounge as the 2013 club, decked out with photos of the run and a signed shirt from every player who played a minute through the rounds. There’s a big sign with the legend: “We Made History”.

And they did. But really, who can put a value on momentum, positivity and changing a course that seemed set on the road to nowhere?

“Administration and the relegations were a difficult time and there was a lot of pessimism and negativity around the club,” Mason admits.

“Each season we dared not get relegated because of the impact it might have had. We were starting from the point where each season was a battle for survival.”

They are still fighting in BD1, but it feels like they’ve already won hearts and minds.


What are your memories of Bradford’s cup run? Let us know by emailing [email protected]

You can follow Mark Douglas on Twitter (@msidouglas)

Beyond the Wall: Bradford City
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