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”.