David Conn: Bradford's escape proves clubs' survival-skills intact

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The Independent Online

It was scruffy, messy and a very close shave, but at 4pm on Thursday the battered bantams of Bradford City somehow scampered clear of the latest bloody threat to their existence and into the hope of a healthier future. Two and a half years since Bradford became football's first major financial collapse following Carlton and Granada's scrapping of ITV Digital and the famously self-confessed "six weeks of madness" by Geoffrey Richmond, the club chairman, which saddled them with debts of £36m, Bradford have scrambled into an agreement with creditors which should see them out of administration again - just.

It was scruffy, messy and a very close shave, but at 4pm on Thursday the battered bantams of Bradford City somehow scampered clear of the latest bloody threat to their existence and into the hope of a healthier future. Two and a half years since Bradford became football's first major financial collapse following Carlton and Granada's scrapping of ITV Digital and the famously self-confessed "six weeks of madness" by Geoffrey Richmond, the club chairman, which saddled them with debts of £36m, Bradford have scrambled into an agreement with creditors which should see them out of administration again - just.

Fans and officials at the Football League had to stop, check the records and pinch themselves before confirming that, niggling details aside, Bradford are the last club to wriggle free of the pile of insolvencies which have blighted the League since 2002. Oldham, Wimbledon, Darlington, Luton and the rest; all the clubs whose weight of debt and chaos made their situations look so impossible, have muddled through and battled on. As in the even more horrible crises of the 1980s, the League has faced a major financial threat but all its clubs have somehow survived. In the Eighties, the League agreed with the notion that it had too many clubs, and decided not to replace those which folded, reducing to 80 or even 70 clubs. They changed the policy because the clubs, bloody-minded and calling on great loyalty, kept pulling through. This time, the League is confident its clubs have proved their resilience.

"We cannot say clubs won't have problems again," said the League's spokesman, John Nagle. "It's too simplistic to say the clubs have survived. They haven't; the companies which ran them have gone bust. Fans and businessmen have put money in, taken clubs over and kept them going, because they are so loved and loyalty to them is so strong. We're committed to our clubs being better run, so that they can repay that loyalty and the special place they have in their communities."

At Bradford, the emotional attachment to the club and its Valley Parade ground runs deep. Many of today's fans lived through or lost loved ones in the 1985 fire which killed 56 people. This summer, after the administrators, Kroll, said they would close the club unless they had £250,000 to keep it going through the close season, supporters dug deep into their pockets and time. Together with the local newspaper, the Telegraph & Argus, and local businesses which gave money, fans contributed with hundreds of fundraising events, including one beyond-the-call-of-duty feat - live maggot eating. Children sent their pocket money, saying they'd rather it helped the club. The money was raised, Kroll kept the club going, and on Thursday secured agreements from 78 per cent of creditors. Under 75 per cent and Bradford could have gone under.

Mark Boocock, the 29-year old chairman of the Supporters Trust, said the pressure had been enormous: "Driving into Bradford in July, I cried, thinking this could be the last time I would be helping my club. I was only nine when the fire happened and wasn't at the game, but it underpins everything. The thought of it folding was too much to bear."

Thursday's Company Voluntary Arrangement will see Julian Rhodes, the fan and major shareholder who, with his father David, has already lost around £6m propping up the club, putting in another £600,000 to pay off creditors.

Now Bradford can contemplate daylight, after two administrations in two years, precipitated when Bradford's Premiership survival in the summer of 2000 went to Richmond's head and he signed players on unpayable wages, notoriously Benito Carbone on £40,000 per week. This is a symbolic moment for the League; the landmark has been reached following the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons for which Carlton and Granada, now merged into one ITV company, refused to honour the £185m their ITV Digital venture had contracted to the League.

The crisis threatened the continuation of the League itself, sparking endless breakaway talk by First Division clubs, but the League rallied and has emerged looking stronger. Clubs in Leagues One and Two can now spend only 60 per cent of their turnover on players' wages and there is a "fit and proper person test" for club directors.

Boosted by crowds larger than at any time since the mid-1960s, League clubs have come through this grim chapter feeling more optimistic about their place in the football landscape, despite the Premiership's overbearing wealth.

"Wouldn't it be nice," Julian Rhodes smiled, "if instead of constantly talking about creditors, tax bills and players wages, we can actually begin to think about football again?"

Across the League, tentatively, football people are beginning to hope that the madness may be over.

Insolvent clubs since Premiership breakaway

Includes those who became insolvent on dropping out of the Football League (Scarborough, Halifax Town). Thirty-six in total, exactly half the League's 72 members, have been insolvent. Six have been insolvent more than once: Scarborough, Halifax Town, Swindon Town, Luton Town, Darlington, Bradford City.

1992 Northampton Town (Administration)

1994 Exeter City (Ad), Hartlepool United, Barnet

1995 Gillingham (Ad)

1997 AFC Bournemouth (A), Doncaster Rovers (Ad), Darlington, Millwall (Ad)

1998 Chester City (A), Hereford Utd

1999 Crystal Palace (A), Luton (A), Oxford United, Portsmouth (A) Halifax

2000 Scarborough, Swindon Town (A)

2001 Chesterfield (A), Hull City (A), QPR (A)

2002 Barnsley (A), Bradford City (A), Bury (A), Carlisle United (A), Halifax Town (A), Leicester City (A), Lincoln City (A), Notts County (A), Port Vale (A), Swansea City, York City (A), Swindon Town (A)

2004 Huddersfield Town (A), Ipswich Town (A), Wimbledon (A) Darlington (A), Scarborough (A), Bradford City (A)

Research: Stephen Hope, Roehampton School of Business & Social Sciences

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