With a Whimper Rather Than a Bang – The Decline of Bradford City
When the end came, it was with a whimper rather than a bang. Such has been the dismal performance put out by Bradford City over the whole of this season that this wasn’t too much of a surprise to supporters, but relegation still stings when it’s mathematically confirmed, no matter for how long it has been expected. A two-nil defeat at Coventry City on Good Friday combined with results from elsewhere ensured that the Bantams were relegated back to League Two after six years, a period which had begun amid considerable optimism that the club was due a revival after years of stagnation and steady decline.
The closing weeks of the 2012/13 season all seem like a long time ago, now. Bradford City may have been beaten by five goals to nil by Swansea City in the League Cup final at Wembley, but they’d got there in the first place and had beaten both Arsenal and Aston Villa en route, and the distractive effects that such a cup run can have on a club seemed notable mostly for their absence, as well. In the weeks following their Wembley trip Bradford nudged their way up from a mid-table position into the final play-off place, winning promotion after three first half goals blew Northampton Town away in the final.
Those first few seasons back in League One were marked by successive narrow misses from promotion into the Championship. A seventh placed finish in their first season back was followed by two successive play-off appearances after finishing in fifth place in the table, beaten on both occasions by Millwall, in the semi-finals in 2016 and at Wembley in the final the following year. Even last season, the club seemed well-positioned for a shot at promotion before a disastrous run of form in the new year saw just three wins from their final twenty league matches of the season, dropping the club from fifth place in the table down to eleventh.
Blame for this decline has been levelled at the club’s owners, Stefan Rupp and Edin Rahic. Rupp and Rahic arrived Valley Parade in May 2016, with Rahic taking the position of chairman and chief executive and issuing a statement which seemed to reflect a belief that the club didn’t – at that time – need a vast amount changing if it was to continue to press towards promotion to the Championship:
Both myself and Stefan have a background in business and sport, and after looking at a number of clubs in England, Bradford City had the potential and fan base that interested us most.
We do not have plans to make big changes but to work with the existing structure. We have seen the way the club and fans interact and the model of affordable football is very important to us.
I met with (the club’s then-manager) Phil Parkinson this morning and we had a very encouraging discussion about the future.
We understand there is a lot to do over the summer and we must manage expectations of the fans in the short term. We are looking forward to working with everyone associated with the club and respect its traditions.
Parkinson, who’d taken the club to Wembley in the League Cup and taken them up into League One in the first place and who was the fifth longest serving manager in English league football at the time of their arrival, left the club for Bolton Wanderers a couple of weeks after their arrival. In the two years and ten months since then, City have burned their way through three managers and three caretaker-managers. Stuart McCall was in the job until February of last year, before a run of six straight defeats saw him relieved of his duties, even though the club was still in sixth place in the League One table at the time of his departure.
Since then, Simon Grayson saw the club through to the end of last season but didn’t renew his contract beyond that point, Michael Collins was appointed in June but was sacked at the start of September after the team lost four of its first six league matches of the season, and David Hopkin, fresh from two successive promotions in Scotland with Livingston, took over for six months before resigning at the end of February, having won seven of his thirty-five games in charge and with the club one place off the bottom of the League One table. His successor, Gary Bowyer, at least has experience of trying to manage under terrible owners, having previously managed at both Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool. How long he’ll stay now that relegation has been confirmed is, however, very much open to speculation.
Such a high staff turnover, of course, hints that the issue within Bradford City over the last three years hasn’t been any of the individual managers themselves. The club failed to replace Chief Operating Officer James Mason, who left in June of last year, whilst financial losses topped £2m for the last financial year and the club’s decline on the pitch has been matched by steadily falling support, with season ticket sales having dropped by 4,000 and one home match, against Coventry City in October, attracting the club’s lowest league attendance in the last five years. Bradford City have continued their policy of selling season tickets cheaply at £150 on an early bird offer in order to fill Valley Parade and it’s likely that the club will be the best-supported in League Two next season by some distance, but there is a definite feeling that this is a period of decline that has to be arrested now if the club isn’t to avoid slipping into a battle to hang onto its Football League place next season.
Earlier this season, however, something finally did change. Edin Rahic’s actions since assuming his position at the club hadn’t give much indication that he had its best interests at heart. With Stefan Rupp barely attending matches, Rahic had been in control of the day-to-day running of the club and his decisions were accused of being self-serving. There were points at which he assumed the the roles of Chairman, Chief Executive and Director of Football all at the same time, while he appointed his wife as the club secretary despite her having no previous experience in such a position. It was also rumoured that he was interfering in team selection issues, whilst there was a steady flow of backroom staff out of the club reflecting what were widely reported as poor management skills. The return of Julian Rhodes was a final nail in the coffin for Rahic, who finally quit his position in December.
The owners of the club attempted to make too many changes too quickly, in spite of their initial statement when taking control of the club three years ago, whilst the apparent motivation of the man placed in control of the day-to-day running of the club seemed directed more by ego than the best interests of the club. Failures in recruitment at all levels have been a clear signal of the shortcomings of the ownership, but Stefan Rupp – who had been largely an absent owner, having left the running of the club to Rahic – will presumably only leave at a time that is beneficial to him, and it’s difficult to believe that Bradford City’s value could be worth more now than he paid for his 78% shareholding in the first place at present.
Having said all of that, however, hope remains. Despite relegation, the club has sold 13,000 season tickets already for next season, which hints at the potential of the club and the loyalty of those supporters who have stuck with it. Those numbers, however, have been slowly declining, and many of those who have purchased season tickets for next season will have done so with the implicit understanding that League Two next season cannot possibly be any worse for the club than League One has been this time around. The concern, of course, is that things can get considerably worse. The National League is littered with clubs who have played League One football in recent years before finding that tailspins can be considerably more difficult to get out of than they are to fall into in the first place, and relegation is not a particularly good time to start thinking “We’ll piss this tinpot lower division” without concrete cause to do so.
The decline of Bradford City over the last couple of seasons may have been something of a surprise to those who hadn’t been paying much attention to the club in recent years, but it is considerably less of one to those who hold it dear to their hearts. The mess left by Edin Rahic will take some time to clear up, and the manager – whether it’s Gary Bowyer or yet another new face – will need both financial backing and the freedom to make substantial changes to the squad without interference from above. In recent years, Bradford City have spurned a spectacular opportunity. The growth of the club’s profile from reaching a League Cup final and getting promoted in the same season was a set of circumstances that any club at their level would have killed for, and that this couldn’t be built on reflects extremely negatively on those that took over the running the club in 2016. This summer is surely the point at which Bradford City have to break the cycle of short-sighted and ultimately destructive management which has seen it pushed back down into League Two. The stakes are too high for this level of failure to continue.