Football: Bantams face a heavy burden

Alan Hubbard visits a city in high expectation that bust will not follow boom; The Premiership and player-power have descended on Bradford, and the fight for survival begins
BRADFORD'S MOST popular curry house is doubling its capacity to cope with the hungry hordes due to descend on the city during the football club's debutant Premiership season. "Enjoy the difference," exhort the advertising billboards for the world renowned Mumtaz restaurant at the neat little ground nestling at the end of Valley Parade.

It is boom time in Bradford. "There's a feelgood factor here which we haven't experienced for years," says 60-year-old Tony Miller, Lord Mayor during the club's promotion season and a lifelong supporter. "Getting into the Premiership has given the city a new dimension, a new vision. You can sniff the prosperity in the air again."

There is certainly an expectant, excited buzz about Bradford where the club known as the Bantams embark on their Premiership idyll. Fantasy football has arrived. "One of the misconceptions about Bradford is that we all wear cloth caps and walk around with whippets," says Miller. "But this is a city on the up. The Premiership will put us back on the map. It's the icing on the cake."

But can the optimism last? Already, before a ball has been kicked in the Premiership there are worried frowns among the fans who snapped up the 15,000 available pounds 200 season tickets within two days of the club gaining promotion in May.

That champagne spring, with an open-topped bus tour and the first civic reception in the club's honour since they lifted the FA Cup 88 years ago, has been followed by a summer of discontent. The Premiership may bring fame and possibly fortune but it is accompanied by some unwelcome baggage. Throughout the close season the club has been riven by contractual disputes brought about by the demands for big wages to match the big time. This culminated last week with the star striker Robbie Blake, who scored 17 goals in helping Bradford reach the top tier, being transfer-listed after rejecting a five-year deal. He was reportedly asking for pounds 8,000 a week.

Two other players, Darren Moore and Wayne Jacobs, are up for sale and despite the acquisition of five signings, including three from Leeds, there are signs that the team spirit which lifted them out of the First Division is creaking at the most crucial time in the club's history. "I sincerely hope this proves not to be the case," says the Bradford chairman, Geoffrey Richmond, "for without it we don't have a chance of survival.

"This is all a direct result of going up. We are now at the mercy of player-power, with misguided agents and solicitors knocking at my door and saying `My man is a Premiership player now and I want him rewarded as such'. I turn around and point out that he hasn't touched a ball in the Premiership yet. I say `Come back and see me in 12 months' time, if he's still a Premiership player we'll pay him as a Premiership player'."

Bradford's problems are heightened by the absence of the 35-year-old club favourite Stuart McCall who will be out through injury until the autumn, leaving a dangerous deficiency in midfield.

Leeds-born Richmond, who made his money out of buying and selling the Ronson cigarette lighter empire, says he is working on it. He's very much a hands-on chairman, with all the trappings of self-made wealth, including the silver Bentley with personalised number plates parked in the forecourt. He's at his desk at the club at 8am every day and for the five-and-a half years he's been there Bradford have shown a profit. He is a big, genial man - 6ft 4in tall - but his bonhomie disguises a streak of ruthlessness which has seen him sack three managers in those five years. He was certainly big enough to take on and verbally flatten David Mellor when old motor- mouth hinted that the dismissal of Chris Kamara had racial overtones.

Despite the setbacks of the summer, Richmond remains optimistic that Paul Jewell, whom he surprisingly upgraded, will do the business for Bradford despite being unsung, while proving wrong those cynics who say that the Bantams are destined to suffer the same short-lived fate as Barnsley, who they faced in a friendly yesterday. It was their final chance to get it together again before opening their Premiership season at Middlesbrough on Saturday. "Paul will cope with the situation, he is a great man-manager and motivator," says Richmond of the 34-year-old Merseysider who used to lace Kenny Dalglish's boots at Anfield and will be the Premiership's youngest and least experienced manager. "I know people are saying we will go straight back down, but survival is what we are about. I know we're not going to win the title. Fourth from bottom will be fine. Anything better will be a bonus. I'd love to see us stay up. There has to be a place for romance in these days of money, money, money.

"It's not just for the club but for the city. What has happened here has restored local pride. The city hasn't fared too well in the last 30 years. There has been a fairly serious decline since it ceased to be the capital of the world's wool trade and, with the fire in 1985, there hasn't been a lot of good news about."

Bradford, denied stock-market flotation because the City did not consider them "sexy" enough, have none the less acquired considerable sponsorship. They kick off the new season with a new stand and the former Pulse Stadium has been re-named the Bradford and Bingley Stadium, thanks to the building society's investment. Although it will be one of the smallest and certainly the most intimate in the Premiership, the 18,300-seater arena has a guaranteed sell-out for every home game.

As the former Lord Mayor Miller says there are many surprising things about Bradford. It is the fourth largest metropolitan district in England and has the nation's most cosmopolitan population, certainly more turbaned than flat-capped these days. The club draws its support from a large catchment area that stretches up the Wharfe valley into Bronte country and fans tend to come more middle-aged than teenaged.

Bradford reckons itself as a relatively peaceful place. Its large Asian population even seemed to find football too aggressive for their nature. The city's Islamic Cultural Centre is just a corner kick from the main stand yet there is little active support from the community. "When I first came here you could count the Asian fans in their dozens," says Richmond. "Today it's in the hundreds. I'd like to say thousands but that's not the case. I believe it will grow, especially now we have Premiership football." There are no Asians among Bradford's 21-strong full-time professional staff either (Swede Gunnar Halle is now the only non-Briton on their books) but there are several in Bradford's two schools of excellence. Asians living near the ground were among the first to help rescue victims of the 1985 fire when 56 lives were lost. Memories of that awful day remain evident and even now the local newspaper, the Telegraph and Argus, refuses to use the word "disaster" in a football context.

"What happened on that day was a disaster," says David Markham who has reported on the club for more than a quarter of a century. "What happens on the football field isn't." Markham adds: "It has been like a pall hanging over the city. People still don't like to talk about it; everyone knew someone who died. Even now I can hear the crackling of the wood. I can feel the heat on the back of my neck as I rushed along the stand to find my two sons."

For Markham, the Phoenix has finally risen. The years of trundling to places like Hartlepool, Darlington and Rochdale have given way to glamour. But, although it is 77 years since Bradford were last in the top echelon he never gave up on his dream. "You might have lost on a wet Wednesday night to Rochdale but you always knew that deep down there was more to come from Bradford than there ever would be at Rochdale, and now this has been realised."

With the local rugby league side, Bradford Bulls, topping the Super League, local sport is now buoyant enough for the Telegraph and Argus to have restored their Saturday pink; like those retailers and restaurants they can look forward to a boost in business. However, as they say, going up is one thing, staying up another. On Boxing Day, Bradford are at home to Manchester United. By then we should know whether the Bantams are true heavyweights, or just Premiership punchbags.