David Conn: Bradford still recovering from 'six weeks of madness'

Another struggling Yorkshire club could tell Leeds a thing or two about what it is like to live a hand-to-mouth existence
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The Independent Football

It will not be much consolation to Leeds United fans eyeing the wreckage of their club's romantic notions, but they do not have to travel far for a glimpse of how it all might end up. Bradford, in many ways the quirky poor relation to its sprawling North Yorkshire neighbour, provides a neat, smaller-scale version of the same abject story. While the Leeds chairman, Peter Ridsdale, famously admitted to "living the dream" - built on fierce ambition and hire purchase - Bradford's chairman, Geoffrey Richmond, looked back on his summer of 2000, when he also availed himself of the loan services of Registered European Football Finance to sign players including Benito Carbone on wages of £40,000 per week, as his "six weeks of madness". Bradford, who this week signalled their intent to bounce back by appointing Bryan Robson as their manager, have had three miserable seasons to repent, went into administration in the summer of 2002 with debts of £36m, and have been living hand to mouth ever since.

The glamour players have gone - although the club are still paying the remnants of fabulous wages of some who have moved on, including Ashley Ward and Andy Tod, the team has been operating one of the First Division's lowest wage bills. Under the manager, Nicky Law, who departed three weeks ago, the Bantams won only twice, crowds slumped and dissatisfaction grew, even with the chairman, Gordon Gibb, and the chief executive, Julian Rhodes, who have bankrolled the club's survival. Cushioned from the bottom of the table only by the wretched artists formerly known as Wimbledon, Bradford this week gave Robson a brief to earn himself a bonus and a one-year rolling contract if he can keep them up.

Administration, to which Leeds say they are heading, allows a club to pay creditors less than what they are owed, but it leaves local suppliers unhappy, less prepared to support the club. Creditors do not settle for nothing, and Bradford have been crippled by their continued hangover of debt. They emerged owing a finance company, Lombard, £6.7m, secured on the Valley Parade ground, and the Professional Footballers' Association £2.6m, which the Rhodes family partly secured with the deeds to their own home. The club agreed to pay unsecured creditors, including Gerling, the insurers of the £7.4m outstanding to REFF for the "sale and leaseback" of players, a total of £3.26m, in 24 monthly payments of £42,000 (£1m in total), £1.26m in August next year, followed by another £1m in August 2005.

But since those agreements were made, the transfer market has collapsed, further undermining Bradford's budget, and the drop in crowds and other income has left the club £500,000 down on its forecasts for the first three months of this season.

"For people to agree to a CVA, to accept less than they are owed, you have to show you will try hard to pay what you can," said Julian Rhodes, who has had a dire 18 months since starting work full-time at the club he has supported all his life. "We still have major debts and every day we have wondered how on earth we'll make it to the end of the month."

The Rhodes family fortune was built by Julian's father, David, an electronics professor whose company, Filtronics, supplies the arms and telecommunications industries. Last year, when the family owed, jointly with Richmond, around £14m in personal guarantees for the club's debts and had handed over the deeds to their home, the company shares had slumped to 27p each and the family were contemplating possible bankruptcy. The scale of that personal commitment has not been unappreciated by the Bradford fans, who know they have been lucky to have genuine fans as backers.

Gibb, owner of the Flamingoland zoo and leisure park in north Yorkshire, paid £1.8m to the HSBC bank as part of the deals to bring Bradford City (1983) Limited - so named because the club went bust 20 years ago, too - out of administration, jointly owned by him and the Rhodes family. Since then they have dealt with some of the Lombard burden by having Gibb's family pension fund buy Valley Parade, then rent it back to the club on a 25-year lease. Gibb has openly said his pension fund has to do deals which can make a profit, but nevertheless this is generally seen as a better deal for the club than owing Lombard, and Gibb is showing faith by hitching his financial future to the club's ability to stay alive and pay the rent.

With the miserable season they are having, however, Bradford have been struggling again to pay their debts, and have looked to renegotiate the amounts owing to Lombard and Gerling, who, even with their debt reduced to a fifth, are still owed around £1.3m. Filtronics shares are back up, to £4 each, meaning the Rhodeses are very rich again, but they want to reduce the size of the old black hole before reaching, sighing, into their pockets again.

"Our family is worth something again and we are prepared to put money in to shore up the club - and to go for a bit of success," Rhodes said. "But we're not willing to pour it into paying off old debts."

Negotiations, he said, have been going well - Bradford evidently cannot pay as things stand - and he is hopeful that a firm deal on reducing the amounts owed under the CVA will be signed in January. Then he hopes to put more money in, probably more than the rumoured £1.5m, in February.

"If it all goes belly up, we reckon the Rhodes and Gibb families will have lost £5m each," he said. "It's been rough, but we've worked hard to make the club viable again. All this dates back to those six weeks of madness."

Of Richmond, Rhodes does not say much. An influential and charismatic chairman who cut his teeth with success at Scarborough, Richmond came to Bradford in 1994 with a fortune from selling his Ronson lighter company, rebuilt Valley Parade, and saw the club blinking into the Premiership spotlight. But having shared with the Rhodes family £8.125m in dividends paid in four hefty chunks in 14 months from April 1999, and been paid a £250,000 consultancy fee in October 2001, he, unlike the Rhodes, did not stick around last year to clear up the debris. This summer he lost a court appeal against an Inland Revenue demand for £2.3m tax dating right back to the original sale of Ronson. The personalised number plate which once adorned his Bentley was recently advertised for sale, and apart from a brief appearance as the mooted chief executive of Notts County, he has not reappeared in football. Many fans still remember him fondly for the early years of winning leadership and the two seasons in the Premiership, but his ultimate legacy has proved to be administration and the present team of youngsters and loan signings clinging perilously to First Division survival.

Mark Hovell, the PFA's lawyer working on the Bradford case, has been into 40 clubs similarly stricken, and said around 20 have deals outstanding with REFF. Several Premiership clubs are also known to have done such players' deals on tick, not to mention bonds, and securitisations of future income, as at Leeds, Manchester City, Newcastle and others. "People say players' wages are the problem," he told me. "But we see clubs living beyond their means to finance short-term dreams. That's the real problem. They have been mortgaging the future and, like Leeds, and Bradford, run into trouble."

For Bradford, the gloom has descended in the club's centenary year, a history lovingly celebrated in an exhibition curated in Bradford's Industrial Museum by a fan, David Pendleton. Bradford won the Second Division just five years after they started in 1903, and won the FA Cup in 1911, beating Newcastle 1-0 in a replay at Old Trafford, their first and last major trophy.

According to Pendleton, the club's history is not so much fields of glory as a hundred years of muddling through, barely surviving regular financial crises in the 1930s and 1960s. In 1983, having failed to pay £10,000 - the figures look quaint now - for the England full-back Trevor Cherry, Bradford were served a winding-up petition by another club - Leeds United. Bradford went bust, reformed and cobbled together a sparkling side which won the Third Division Championship in 1985. But on the very day their triumph was being celebrated, the consequences of the threadbare existence, chasing football success while neglecting basic housekeeping, came horrifically home with the fire in the rundown, litter-strewn main stand, which killed 56 people. The Government stepped in after that, and the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters, legislating to ensure the clubs' neglect would never again extend to leaving their grounds lethally unsafe, but Bradford's recent history shows how far football still has to go to clean up its act. Different world now, same old game.