“What’s happened with the club over the last couple of years has been a disgrace.”
James Lowes, Bradford Bulls legend and current Head Coach.
It may be a simple case of stating the bleeding obvious, but Jimmy Lowes is right. Bradford Bulls have been relegated from Super League, which means next year the club will start outside the top flight for the first time since 1973.
Since the inception of Super League, Bradford have won the championship four times, gone on to win the World Club Challenge three times, finished top of the table three times, lost another three Grand Finals and won the Challenge Cup twice. They also held the record crowd in the comp from 1999 to 2005. Bradford’s relegation really should be a shock. But it isn’t.
Sadly, the demise of Bradford Bulls has been slow, painful, and, in the last few years, sadly predictable. Looking back, the date when it all started to go wrong for Bradford was 1 July 2004 – the day Iestyn Harris was unveiled as a new signing.
Harris had left Leeds Rhinos to go to Cardiff rugby union. After a relatively successful spell, he came back to league to play for Bradford. The Bulls were flying at the time and offered him more money than Leeds, who also wanted him back.
Unfortunately both Bradford and Harris had some awful legal advice – Harris had a clause in his contract when he left Leeds that said they had first option on him if he came back to league. It might sound daft, Harris certainly thought so when he said:”You can’t sell a car and then say in three years you want it back. It does not work like that”.
Sadly what ‘bar room barristers’ think and what the law of the land is are often two separate things. So when Leeds to the matter to the High court, Bradford and Harris lost. Bradford had to pay Leeds’ costs of £64,000 plus an undisclosed sum, which local rumour put around half a million quid – the actual figure was never disclosed.
After the legal verdict, the number of players heading for the exit door has been more of a stampede than a trickle. Great Britain captain Jamie Peacock left for Leeds; Leon Pryce, disgruntled at not being able to play in his favoured stand off position, left for Saints, Stuart Fielden became the most expensive transfer in Super League when he left for Wigan. Initially they were replaced with decent players, but over recent years that hasn’t been the case.
John Bateman went to Wigan, Elliot Whitehead went to Catalans, Craig Kopczak went to Huddersfield. There’s pretty much an entire team of ex Bradford players still turning out every week that could win the Super League at a canter.
The club sold its best players in an attempt to pay the costs they owed to Leeds and to keep the lights on at the club. While it was an obvious tactic, hindsight may show it was the wrong one. With a weaker team, the club kept missing out on the play offs and barely made a dint in the cup. With no additional games and TV income, the problems were multiplied. Sponsors walked as the club slowly became mid table rather than top table and then the financial crisis hit.
A series of administrations, last minute rescue deals and fire sales has managed to keep the club alive, but with Super League withholding some of their central distribution, the problems of the club have just multiplied month after month.
Two ex players, Jamie Peacock and Paul Anderson have suggested this relegation might be the making of the club. They seem to have a decent back room team in place now and in Jimmy Lowes have a great coach to help with a tilt at promotion. The ridiculous format for for 2015 also gives a pathway back into the top flight, even if it is a bit convoluted.
But going down to part time rugby doesn’t feel like the magic elixir the Bulls need. Slogging it out in front of a handful of people in dilapidated grounds, with a low paying sponsors, and second rate players might not be the perfect springboard back to the big time. Widnes have been back in the big time since 2012, without the trap door of relegation, and they’ve only this year stopped being an easy two points for everyone.
Hopefully Bradford will come back up, but I can’t see anything other than yo-yo-ing between the two divisions for the next few years. Unless the club invest cash they don’t have to chase a dream that might not be worth it or find an investor willing to bank roll the club.
It’s not going to be a pretty few years for Bradford and it may be a long time before anyone from Bradford buys a ticket to the World Club Challenge. But hopefully Marc Green and his team can keep the dream alive because the city needs the team.