It can be astonishing how quickly fortunes, both in business and in football, can be lost. Reputations can be won or lost in what seems like the blink of an eye, with adulation turning to derision on the basis of the slimmest of margins. Bradford City, throughout the decade from the middle of the 1990s on, lived through a full roller coaster of emotions, ascending to the Premier League and then, to general astonishment, not getting relegated straight back to the Football League. That remarkable first season in the Premier League, however, turned out to be the beginning of the start of a downhill slide for both the club and the chairman that had got it there in the first place, and the clubs subsequent fall from its previously lofty perch became somewhat iconoclastic in itself, even earning itself a motto which came straight from the horses mouth itself. Bradford City Football Club was undone by ‘six weeks of madness’, and the architect of both that phrase and the undoing of the clubs success was Geoffrey Richmond.
In the middle of the previous decade, Bradford City had become tragically synonymous with the frightening decline of professional football in England. The club became, in 1983, one of a rash of mostly lower division clubs to enter into receivership in the early 1980s and differing insolvency laws and Football League rules meant that not even this gave the club a clean slate. In May 1985 came the horror of the fire at Valley Parade, which killed fifty-six people and shone a harsh light upon the lax to the point of negligence view that clubs took with regard to safety at the time. Valley Parade was rebuilt and the club pulled through, but it was a close shave in many respects and by the early 1990s it was back in financial difficulty again. The chairman of the club at the time of the 1985 fire, Stafford Heginbotham, had passed control of the club to his vice-chairman John Tordoff, but Tordoff had subsequently sold his shares in the club to businessman Dave Simpson, but Simpson had been unable to stem the clubs financial losses and by 1994 he was looking for an exit strategy.
His salvation came in the form of a Leeds-based businessman called Geoffrey Richmond. Richmond was firmly from the wheeler-dealer school of capitalist economics. He’d dabbled in various different areas but made a fortune in cigarette lighters, buying the Ronson company from administrators for £250,000 in 1983, finally selling it on for £10m just over a decade later. His interest in football first manifested itself when he bought Scarborough FC in the late 1980s, but purchasing a club of this had limitations and Bradford was also closer to home, so in 1994 one of the odder changes of ownership of any football clubs in recent years took place, when Simpson and Richmond swapped clubs, with Richmond taking the chairmanship of Bradford City. Richmond arrived at Valley Parade to find a familiar story. The level of the clubs wage bill was unsustainably high for one playing in the third tier of the game, and the clubs debt had risen to an unwieldly £2.3m. The club was facing legal action on several fronts, so Richmond lent it enough money to keep the wolves from the door and set about trying to rebuild it.
Initially he was successful and two years later the club won promotion via the play-offs under the tutelage of former managed now turned television court jester Chris Kamara. In 1997, Richmond sold 49% of the clubs shares to a family of businessmen headed by a father and son double act, Professor David Rhodes and his son, Julian. At this stage, the borrowing started. A lump sum to the new manager, Paul Jewell, to spend on players, a little more on redeveloping Valley Parade with a massive new main stand, one so big that at a glance it could even look as if the stadium might topple over into its side. For now, though, the clubs debts seemed manageable and in May 1999 Bradford City won by three goals to two at Molineux on the final day of the season in order to win promotion to the Premier League. Geoffrey Richmond, it seemed at the time, had the golden touch. Supporters had scoffed at claims that he made upon his arrival at the club that he could get it into the Premier League in five years. Five years on, exactly according to schedule, they had arrived.
The club spent sensibly on old pros and prepared for Premier League life. The clubs first Premier League season saw them spend practically the whole season in or around the relegation places. There were some horrible results – Jewells team lost by four goals on five different occasions throughout the season – but there were also bright spots, including two draws against Spurs and a win at Valley Parade against Arsenal, and on the last day of the season a one goal win against Liverpool was enough to keep the club in the Premier League for a second successive season. Geoffrey Richmond, whose Midas touch seemed perpetual, was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Bradford. There were, however, storm clouds gathering on the horizon. Major upheaval, and Geoffrey Richmonds ‘six weeks of madness’, was about to begin. Bradford City may have survived their first Premier League season, but Sheffield Wednesday were sniffing around after a new manager. Richmond, who had previously told Jewell that finishing in seventeenth place in the Premier League had been unacceptable, refused to accept Jewells resignation and placed him on gardening leave until a compensation package could be agreed with Wednesday. Jewells replacement was Chris Hutchings, his former assistant but a man with no previous managerial experience. During the same summer, the club spent lavishly on players, with the likes of Dan Petrescu, Ashley Ward, David Hopkin and, most infamously, Benito Carbone arriving at the club for big transfer fees or big wages. The team started the season with a win against Chelsea, but this was only a postponement of the inevitable, Hutchings left in November 2000 and was replaced by the former Heart of Midlothian coach Jim Jeffries, but Jeffries’ most significant victories came in getting Petrescu and Hopkin off the clubs wage budget. Relegation in bottom place in the Premier League followed at a canter.
There are few other people on this list for whom the downward trajectory can be so clearly marked. Richmond had secured loans taken out in the clubs name personally and, with ITV Digital teetering on brink of bankruptcy itself, 2001 was not a good time to be getting relegated from the Premier League. Moreover, Richmond was not making himself any friends in his new environment. He threatened legal action against the Football League if they didn’t release money that the league had paid clubs as an advance on television money and which Bradford City, as a Premier League club, weren’t entitled to. This didn’t come to anything, and neither did Richmonds ambitions to lead a second breakaway league in the form of the deservedly ill-starred Phoenix League, which intended to break from the Football League and become a second division for the Premier League. There were two main problems with this proposal. Firstly, it was a naked attempt on the part of the chairmen of clubs in the second tier to join the riches of the Premier League, but the top twenty clubs had already broken away in 1992 for the precise reason of not sharing money with the clubs below them. And secondly, it opened up a schism within the Football League between its biggest clubs and the rest, a source of distrust that would prove difficult to forget when the proposal was – predictably – laughed out of court.
On the pitch, Bradford City ended the season in fifteenth place in the table, safe from relegation but, perhaps proof in itself of the extent to which the wheels had fallen off the wagon and of the extent to which that two season stay in the Premier League had been a flash in the pan. Then, at the end of the season, came the Football Leagues cataclysm when ITV Digital collapsed. For months – years, perhaps – it looked as if this collapse might do for dozens of names below the Premier League. ITV Digital had signed a ludicrously plump contract with the Football League a year earlier which, we can say with the twenty-twenty benefit of hindsight, it had almost no chance of recovering. By the end of March 2002, Carlton and Granada Television, its owners, put the company into administration after the Football League refused to accept a £130m cut in the value of their £320m contract. The problem for clubs of the Football League was that they had already speculated to accumulate this money, committing to contracts on the basis of future revenues that would no longer be underwritten, but ITV Digital stopped broadcasting in May 2002 with the distinctive sound of a bubble bursting for the Football Leagues brief period of grand hopes based on lucrative television contracts. Less than two weeks later, Bradford City followed ITV Digital into administration with debts of £36m.
The administrators report ran to over thirty-five pages, and made for grim reading. Every tangible asset at Valley Parade had a debt of some description secured against it. Even the ground itself, right up to the fixtures and fittings was mortgaged or rented. The clubs Premier League parachute payment was mortgaged, as were the players, who had been sold and leased back to a company called REFF, who’d had similar dealings with Leeds United at around the same time. Most troubling of all, the administrators report confirmed that the Rhodes Family and the Richmond family had taken out over £8m in dividends in a period of less than eighteen months between April 1999 and August 2000. Even those with no objections to the directors paying themselves from the club were shocked at the scale of the payments being made, which continued long after the seriousness of the clubs financial position had become common knowledge. Near the bottom of the list of creditors was perhaps the most poignant creditor of all: the St John Ambulance, who had been present on the eleventh of May 1985 when real, tangible tragedy struck Valley Parade, were owed £5,475.
Perhaps inevitably, the Rhodes fell out with the Richmonds. Somebody needed to cover the running costs of the club whilst in administration, but Richmond stated that he couldn’t do. Richmond was eventually forced out of the club, and pitched up at Leeds United as an advisor to Gerald Krasner in his attempt to rescue Bradfords local rivals. There was a reason why Richmond was only acting in an advisory capacity on this subject, though. In May 2003 he was hit for a £2.3m tax bill relating to his sale of the Ronson cigarette lighter company nine years earlier. He challenged the case, but lost found himself liable for this debt plus backdated interest for the previous nine years, which added a further £1m to that bill. In April 2004, with Leeds United tumbling from the Premier League, Geoffrey Richmond was declared bankrupt, less than two weeks after his departure from Elland Road for ‘personal and health reasons.’
On the pitch the team, stripped of its best players, was relegated for the second time in three years in April 2003. In February of the following year the club entered into administration again, still financially crippled by Richmonds over-reach. The club was later relegated to the bottom division of the Football League, where it continues to tread water to this day. Those few years of misadventure at Valley Parade have come to cast a long shadow over this club, but opinion amongst the clubs support seems to still be split to this day. Bradford supporters will always have those wins against Liverpool and Arsenal, and no-one can ever take those from them. It could also be argued that that legacy of the fire of 1985 is that it taught these supporters the difference between real tragedy and football’s imagined tragedies of losing matches and getting relegated. On the eleventh of May 1985, though, fifty-four of this clubs supporters lost their lives in the simple act of watching their team play football. If a football club can find a legacy to match such a loss, then it’s continuing existence must be the bottom line in terms of being able to do so. That this club was almost taken away because a small group of individuals got carried away under the bright lights of the big city that is the Premier League could never compare to the losses it sustained a little over twenty-seven years ago, but the loss of the club itself would have been a tragedy in its own small way. That it is still with us today is no thanks to the man who mortgaged everything and then couldn’t keep the payments up.
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