There are some things that politics and football have in common, not least of which is the feeling that, in order to survive and thrive at the top table, you need a big ego. It should probably come, therefore, as no great surprise to hear that the new Member of Parliament for Bradford West, George Galloway, has marked his first week as the elected representative for his new seat by making soothing noises in the direction of Bradford City Football Club and its supporters. Whether you agree with his politics or not, it is difficult to argue that Galloway’s win in this seat was not stunning. He managed to take the seat from the Labour party with a massive majority of over 10,000, a result which, somewhat ironically, may have been cheered as loudly at the headquarters of the Conservative party amongst his own supporters for the reputational damage that his victory did to Labour at a time of considerable difficulty for the coalition government.
What, though, is a newly-elected Member of Parliament to do, once he is safely installed in office? Well, Galloway has big plans for some of the city’s more venerable landmarks, and Bradford City Football Club is amongst them. “I have big plans for Bradford City FC”, he told the press last weekend.”With my connections in the Arab world, I am actively speaking to and seeking out sovereign wealth funds and Middle Eastern princes to pump investment into the club. There is massive potential.” At this point, the standard reaction of the football supporter is supposed to include pound signs appearing in the eyes, but Bradford City supporters have greater cause than many to be wary of anybody talking about pumping money into their club.
The story of the last ten years in the history of Bradford City FC has been a story of one of English footballs more enduring hangovers. When the club was promoted into the Premier League in 1999, the scale of the task facing the club for it just to hold onto this newly-acquired status would be immense. Yet in the last day of their first season at these exalted heights, they confirmed their survival with a win against Liverpool. It was a result that would instigate a chain of events that can be traced more or less directly through the clubs history since, right the way through to their current precarious position, just above the relegation places in League Two.
What followed in the summer of 2000 became known as “Bradford City’s six weeks of madness.” Emboldened by Premier League survival, club chairman Geoffrey Richmond decided to, as it were, speculate to accumulate. Marquee signings, such as the Italian midfielder Benito Carbone and new record signing David Hopkin, arrived at Valley Parade on fat salaries as the club gambled almost everything on a second season of Premier League riches, but what happened next was as depressing as it was predictable. Manager Paul Jewell, who had taken the club up and kept them there, quit for Sheffield Wednesday during that summer and his assistant, Chris Hutchings, was promoted into the manager’s seat. The team, however, failed to gel in its second Premier League season and was relegated back from whence it came in bottom place in the table, having collected just twenty-six points from their thirty-eight league matches.
The summer of 2001 was not the best of times to be getting relegated into the Championship, either. As ITV Digital started to collapse, the clubs of the Football League started to buckle under the weight of bills underwritten by television contract money that would now not being received and in May of 2002 the broadcaster collapsed, leading to widespread financial panic amongst the division’s clubs. Bradford City were not immune from this and, having finished their first season back in the Football League in fifteenth place in the table, were amongst those to enter into administration in 2002. It was a blow from which the club has never fully recovered. Further relegations followed in 2004 and 2007, and at the time of writing the club is still not guaranteed holding on to a Football League place that it has held since its very formation in 1903.
Even if we set aside how exactly a local Member of Parliament might put such “big plans” into place and whether it is morally justifiable for an elected official to be looking to seek investment for what is ultimately one private company, there are questions that should be asked over the wisdom of any such idea. The reflex reaction for the football supporter when faced with phrases such as “sovereign wealth funds and Middle Eastern princes” is for the eyes to glaze over and for Sheikh Mansour and the riches that he has lavished upon Manchester City to drift into the mind’s eye. Regardless of who Galloway may or may not have access to, though, there is no such thing in life as a free lunch, and for every Sheikh Mansour in football’s recent past, there has been a Munto Finance – the shape-shifting and, as things turned out, non-existent vehicle for a fraudster which promised Notts County the earth but almost ended up killing it – or the succession of individuals that drove Portsmouth to the brink more than once.
The relationship between politicians and football can be mutually beneficial, but it can also be fractious. At one end of the spectrum, Plymouth Moor View MP Alison Seabeck and Darlington MP Jenny Chapman have worked tirelessly for their local football clubs when in serious financial difficulty over the last year or so, and there are others that have done the same. At the other end of the spectrum, however, the influence can be more malign. For example, David Bellotti, one of those responsible for the asset-strip of Brighton & Hove Albion’s Goldstone Ground in 1997 had previously represented Eastbourne as a Liberal Democrat MP and to this day sits as the councillor for Lyncombe ward on Bath and North East Somerset council. Whether his constituents are aware of the fact that his actions – along with those of others – almost killed a football club and left it homeless is not known.
There is certainly something a little jarring about seeing a politician purported to be of the left making such noises in the direction of a football club. “Sovereign wealth funds” and the like can only be framed as being from one of capitalism’s more extreme ends, and Bradford City would be well-advised to consider anybody making offers of investment that seem too good to be true for a football club that is near the foot of League Two. This is nothing to do with the nationality or race of those concerned, of course – it has become standard – if unofficial – for supporters to carry out their own version of “due diligence” on any new owner or investor before they get involved, and this is even more commonplace at clubs at which there have been problems in the past.
George Galloway is more than used to the public sphere and the attention that comes with it, and there is nothing wrong per se with a Member of Parliament taking an interest in their local football club, but Bradford City, for all the decline that they have suffered in recent years, are solvent at the time of writing. Perhaps Galloway could use his position to try and encourage more people to turn out on a Saturday afternoon or to encourage the club to move towards greater supporter ownership in terms of the way that it is run. Either of these, we would contend, would be better for the long-term health of the club than perpuating the myth that the only way that any football club can make progress both on and off the field is through the munificence of an individual – or group of individuals – with no previously recorded interest in the city’s football club.
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