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That Bradford City should be yet again linked with a move away from Valley Parade should come as no surprise. This time, the local council want them to move to a “sports village” at Odsal Stadium, which they will share with local rugby league club Bradford Bulls. Many Bantams supporters, however, are struggling to see what exactly the benefits of moving to Odsal would be to the football club. After all, for one thing Valley Parade is a stadium that is bigger than the proposed new 18,000 capacity stadium. For another, of course, Valley Parade holds an especially poignant place in the history of English football.
It was almost a quarter of a century ago that the main stand at Valley Parade went up in flames during a Third Division match between Bradford City and Lincoln City, killing fifty-six people. Coming a couple of weeks before the Heysel disaster, four years before Hillsborough and quite possibly because it involved two “smaller” clubs, the Bradford fire has become the forgotten stadium tragedy. In the years immediately after the disaster, Valley Parade was extensively rebuilt to become a modern stadium before many others took the leap into the twentieth century. Valley Parade, however, has a significance which is far greater than just being another football ground. How, one wonders, might the site host a more fitting memorial to those that died in 1985 if it were, say, a supermarket or an office block?
The financial side of the argument, on the surface, is easy is decipher. When Bradford collapsed into administration in 2002, Valley Parade was sold to then-chairman Gordon Gibb for £5m. Gibb resigned as from the club in 2004, but the ownership of Valley Parade remains in the name of his pension fund and the cost their staying there isn’t cheap – in the region of £1m per year, including rent to Gibb and all of the attendant costs of staying there. On the surface, this seems like a powerful argument but it is not quite as simple as leaving Valley Parade to save £1m per year. Firstly, the proposed new stadium is smaller than their existing one, which holds a shade over 25,000 people. Why should Bradford City move to a new stadium that is smaller than the one that they own?
Secondly, if Bradford leave Valley Parade they will be losing part of their identity that is irreplaceable. They will be moving about four miles away from their home in Manningham to Odsal and, once there, there is no guarantee that they will be anything other than second class citizens at a stadium built on the site that has been the home of the rugby league club since 1934. Considering that Valley Parade is the more modern of the two grounds, wouldn’t it make more sense for the Bulls to move there and share that? The answer to that question seems to be a resounding “no”, and for the reason why, one has to look to Bradford City Council.
The council has been reasonably open in admitting that a new, 18,000 stadium at Odsal cannot be justified on the basis of Bradford Bulls alone playing there. They need Bradford City on board to justify the cost of it all. The club is said to be relatively keen on the move, but further financial complications arise from the fact that the arrangements over sponsorship, catering and a whole host of residual sources would be seriously affected. The £1m per year saving on rent could be eaten up in many ways that couldn’t be countered if they are effectively tenants at Odsal Stadium. Also, the club has a long-term lease at Valley Parade which isn’t going to be easy to wriggle out of, though the rumours of how this could be achieved are very troubling indeed.
It is not uncommon for people to “play” the insolvency laws, but the possibility of Bradford City having to go through a period of “strategic insolvency” can’t be allowed to pass without comment. Such action would free them from their contractual obligations with Gordon Gibb, but it is ethically fairly abhorrent (it would have knock-on effects on all of their creditors) and may not be as easy as just transferring ownership of the club and closing the old company. For one thing, the FA and the Football League have rules over insolvency and these are likely to get tighter rather than looser over time. A ten point deduction might be the least of their problems. In any case, however much they may resent paying rent to Gordon Gibb, not all of Bradford’s creditors are quite as undeserving. The likes of season ticket holders, and the club’s staff may also end up as creditors that on the wrong end of a “strategic insolvency” event.
What is in the Odsal Sports Village for Bradford Bulls is pretty obvious. Odsal Stadium held over 102,000 people for a Rugby League Challenge Cup Final replay between Warrington and Halifax in 1954 but has been in decline ever since. It’s capacity is now a little over 27,000 and it seems to still be in a state of decline. The club seems to have very close ties with the council, and the new stadium probably won’t or can’t go ahead without the involvement of Bradford City Football Club. Bradford, however, have a perfectly good stadium and any financial savings would be far from certain. The common sense thing to do would be to move the Bulls to Valley Parade, Gordon Gibb, and redevelop the two smaller sides of Valley Parade. Even the redevelopment may not be necessary. Add in the factor of the history of Valley Parade, and it starts to feel as if the only sensible decision for Bradford City to make on ethical, practical and perhaps even financial grounds is a polite but firm, “no thanks”.
Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
We went through a period of ‘strategic insolvency’ in 2004. This resulted in Gordon Gibb walking away from the club after an irreconcilable falling out between himself and the Rhodes family, thus giving the Rhodes control of the club, at the expense of having the stadium outside of the club’s control. Needless to say, the Football League would very rightly view a third period of administration in 7/8 years very darkly indeed (and fourth in 26 years if you add 1983 into that). As would I. I think a ten point deduction would be extremely light, all things considered.
The crucial variable here is Bradford City Council. Simply put, they are the most incompetent local authority in the UK bar none. They have a penchant for very grandiose schemes that look very pretty on the front page of the Telegraph and Argus, but often collapse. The epitome of this is the very large hole in the middle of the city centre that has stood idle for five years without mall developer Westfield paying one penny in penalty clauses. The entire development is now “shelved”. See also the current Odeon cinema fiasco, and the 1960s demolition of vast tracts of the city centre, to be replaced by buildings which were then demolished in 2004 to yield the current hole.
Just what makes them think a £70 million development that yields a stadium that is too small for either prospective tenant – Bradford Bulls’ record home crowd is 24,020 vs Leeds in the Super League era – is good value for money, is a mystery. As you say, the most sensible thing would be to purchase Valley Parade from the Gibb pension fund and complete the redevelopment. The cost of ground purchase would be far less than £70m. But that sort of joined up thinking is beyond the powers-that-be in City Hall.
My own personal opinion is that I would, reluctantly, support a move from Valley Parade if it meant a guaranteed long-term future for the club, free from severe rental terms and overheads. There is no doubt a redeveloped Valley Parade is a fitting monument to 11-5-85; I was only seven years old at the time and thank my lucky stars a) I wasn’t there, and b) my dad could jump over the Paddock wall of the ill-fated stand. The annual minute’s silence on the anniversary is never less than moving. But if a move meant a better future for the club, then I could come to terms with it; a club away from Valley Parade is better than no club at all. This opinion is probably the minority view though.
But as the current plans stand, I couldn’t support the move.
Two things should happen:
1) The rugby club should change their name back to Bradford Northern.
2) If they’re that desperate for another sport at Odsal, they should reform the speedway team there.
Why don’t City have a word with Park Avenue? Wasn’t their, ahem, controversial chairman Bob Blackburn making grand claims about how he was going to build them a 20,000 seater stadium? Maybe they could share the burden with him?
A subject close to my heart. Gordon Gibb has never had the credit afforded to someone like John Bachelor at York City or many other chairman who seem to exit the company coincidental holding the biggest asset in their own name so it is nice to see this being recognised in a wider context.
There is, of course, no reason at all to leave Valley Parade. The rent of £1m is a headline figure but is not all paid to Gibb – the seats, for example, are rented from another company and are part of the annual “cost of being at Valley Parade” figure but not paid to the former chairman (and let us not start to talk about why the seats and everything else that can or can not be screwed down at Valley Parade was sold and leased back to the club) and some of the expenses would be incurred or matched at Odsal (or anywhere else the Bantams were to play)
The headline saving of £1m is not there – although there is a merit in ensuring that Gibb gets not a penny more in rent – and were we in a council run facility the penalties we may suffer – from not being able to pick our own match days to having to play on a pitch that is used for Rugby League – may be worth the money paid through gritted teeth to Gordon Gibb.
Gibb incidentally manages to hold the entirely contradictory set of views that he owns a “worthless” stadium – a nice way to talk about a place which has a memorial outside – but refused to sell back the ground for anything less than 125% of the £2.5m he spend on it (the other £2.5m was paid by Lombard bank for the offices and club shop).
Gibb has also never answered a question as simple as with the sale of the ground to him for £2.5m and a guaranteed rent that runs easily over half a million pounds a year how many other investors other than the sitting chairman were offered what seems to be a Goose that lays Golden eggs? The rate of rent payments increased after the first five years but most calculations have Gibb turning a profile after seven years and with that sort of return would a multitude of people – people who might have offered more for the ground or agreed to less rent – be interested. One has to wonder if the chairman selling a ground to himself for these sort of returns without offering it around is not something that needs investigating further.
Of course all this happened in a period where football clubs in general and Bradford City specifically were scrambling for life and some point exploited that scramble to emerge with handsomely lined pockets. Geoffrey Richmond is dubbed as the crook of Bradford City but he was declared bankrupt while Gibb emerged with the biggest assets the club has and guaranteed income he has already used to recoup the outlay.
The best route would be for the club to stay at Valley Parade, the Bulls to move in if they really have to but on the proviso that the ground is bought back from Gibb using council funds (I’m a Bradford tax payer and I see the council fritter away far more than £3m on schemes that never benefit anyone in this diverse community) and returned for the use of the club and its tenants as a community owned facility with an eye to returning it to the football club.
Such thinking will never get a grip at Bradford City Hall though I fear.