Bradford Bulls caused me some serious heartache as a young Wigan fan. I remember when they were the team to beat, a side to be feared in play-offs and finals. I remember when Paul Deacon was on fire, he’d kick for goal and you’d know that there was little chance he’d miss. The Bulls made five consecutive Grand Final appearances between 2001 and 2005 – three of them wins – and in 2003 they were the first club to win both the Challenge Cup and the Grand Final in the same season.
This year, Bradford have been plagued with crisis and after Sunday's 50-22 defeat to Bradford, there have been some seriously mixed messages in the media. Before the fixture, head coach Mick Potter - now working on a voluntary basis - thought that it might not be impossible for Bradford to make the top eight. After the game, he said that it was coming to the time when serious decisions must be made at the club. An offer's been put on the table and rejected, it's now being revised but there's no doubt Bradford are a ticking time-bomb and have been for some time.
So what’s happened between their victorious period and now? In March, ex-chairman Peter Hood declared that Bulls needed £1m to stay afloat with the first £500,000 needed within 10 days. In April, fans pulled together to meet the target and in May Peter Hood stepped down as Chairman. It was June when administrator Brendan Guilfoyle asserted that they had 10 days to save themselves but, about a week later, sixteen coaching staff were fired including Mick Potter's wife.
Two days later, against all the odds, Potter returned to coach them for free. Guilfoyle set a new deadline of June 27th to find a buyer but rejected the offer from a group of businessmen who call themselves ABC consortium the day before the deadline.
When you scale it down to just over a hundred words, it becomes apparent how much of a sticky situation this is. To add insult to injury, Bradford were deducted six Super League points last week to drop them from what would now be sixth place to ninth.
Some strange things have happened during the time Bradford began facing financial difficulty. The RFL bought their stadium, Odsal, in January leading people to speculate that they may have had an idea of what was to come – though no one could guess quite how bad it would be. Some fans speculated that the real start of Bradford’s problems was marked by the transfer of Iestyn Harris eight years ago – which they revealed in July cost a total of £625k. On the RFL's website they write, of Grade B Bradford:
'Bradford Bulls provided a solid submission detailing a strategy, tactical plan and targets to achieve improved commercial and financial performance. The club has a solid fan base, a strong brand and good operating structure/governance in place. However the club faces some challenges. These include the local economic environment, poor recent on-field performance and an ageing facility. The application acknowledges these challenges; however the club believes that its business plan for the next three years will move it to a position of sustainability with good prospects for further growth. The club has invested heavily in its youth performance programme in recent years, and it is expected that the club will soon start to reap the rewards of this investment with improved performances and increased numbers of quality club-trained players.'
So when the club was branded 'Grade B' just last year (the current licenses are from 2012-2014), the financial situation couldn't be foreseen. Ironically, the RFL point to reasons that hold Bradford back which, in my opinion, don't ring true this year. Firstly, the economic environment doesn't really affect a club whose majority fans are season ticket holders. Secondly, they've put in quite a few good performances this year - enough to get them a place in the top eight before the points were deducted and finally, the RFL bought the 'ageing facility' themselves.
The most infuriating thing for fans about the case, though, has been the lack of transparency throughout the process. When the initial drive for half a million took off back in April, it was believed (and not stated otherwise) that that was the target which would keep the club alive.
Despite this, the fans have been able to put the difficulties aside in order to continuing supporting the Bulls. In recent matches, away ticket sales have been donated back to Bradford and the fans have turned out in force. When the club sold off its merchandise, the fans turned up to buy it and they set up a hardship fund to help out the staff – a true reflection of their love for the club even though many feel like they were kept in the dark over the matter.
In spite of it all, what has happened at Bradford has been a pretty magical thing. The coaching staff are working for free and the players are remaining loyal when they could easily jump ship and start looking for work. It’s remarkable and it reflects the rugby league family, but I don't think Bradford can cling-on much longer with all of the off-field drama. I hope that they will find a buyer but can't help thinking that there's a huge mountain to climb even if they do. Given their previous success as giants amongst men in the early 00s, and even their performances this season in the face of huge adversity, if they do bow out of Super League, it will be a very sad day indeed for rugby league.