Bradford (Park Avenue) CEO Damian Irvine (right) sits alongside new player-manager Garry Thompson (centre) and player-assistant manager Shaun Gardner (left). Photo: Tom Pearson

A second successive season in the National League North play-offs it may have been, but times are most certainly changing at Bradford (Park Avenue). With manager Mark Bower moving on last week after three years in charge, a fellow former Bradford City favourite Garry Thompson has since been named as player-boss, in what will be the 38-year-old winger’s first tilt at management.

The developments and endeavours behind the scenes continue at a pace. It was last October that structural changes were announced, with Bradford Bulls commercial director Damian Irvine overseeing the day-to-day management of the club. Former chairman of National Rugby League (NRL) side Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks back home in Australia, Irvine has also held commercial roles at Notts County and Wycombe Wanderers in the past.

In our conversation, Irvine offered detailed insight into the ongoing efforts and changes at BPA, addressing suggestions from earlier this year that the club had decided it wasn’t ready to win promotion into the National League, and much more.

 

A natural place to start, with the managerial change this week, when did it become apparent that Mark would be leaving, and when did the idea of bringing Garry in first come about? You know Garry of course from previous clubs.

We obviously had our final game against Spennymoor in the play-offs, and in the sort of days after that, we started to plan with Mark for the new season, to start to look at our retention list. It became apparent at that time that Mark had taken an interest elsewhere and wanted to speak with other clubs. He’d had a good three years at the club and he’s well thought of at the club, and we certainly had big plans for Mark to be the stalwart of the club going forward, but there’s been a lot of changes at the club in the last eight months, in terms of taking a new approach and a new look at things, because the club in the last three-to-four years has been pretty stagnant in terms of off the pitch and growth, and it’s been still losing half a million a year. We’re looking at doing things like utilising more loan players, freshening up the squad; Mark had had that squad mostly since Guiseley, for a number of years. The thing with football is the players have been fantastic, they’ve done a great job, but as players get older and a group get older, wages generally don’t reduce, so squads need to be freshened up. I think Mark came to us and said he was quite happy with the squad and building. If we’re going in another direction he thought maybe he wasn’t the right one to go forward with the club. We reluctantly said ‘if that’s where you’re at, we’ll have to look elsewhere,’ so that was in the last sort of week, and it was time for a change. We spoke with Garry; we’d had a little look at Garry potentially as a player in the Christmas window. I’ve known Garry for a long time and he comes with great references in terms of his leadership. He’s been looking to move into management so it was the perfect fit at the right time.

There were suggestions last season that the club had said it wasn’t ready to go up. Is that at all fair or do those suggestions need clarification?

We’re very ambitious and no one was more gutted than us at the early exit in the play-offs. The club is ready to go up and it’s always been our plan to go up. We’ve gone through everything – finances, the budget – with Garry, and he’s absolutely buzzing and excited, and he knows that we’ve got enough to go up. The difficulty was that the side is a small squad, and Mark does a great job with small, tight-knit groups, and he’s a great man-manager. He’d had the core of that group, as I said – they’re very loyal to him and he is to them – since Guiseley, a lot of them, so I guess the job of a CEO and the directors of a club is to help the manager, first and foremost. I think with that small squad and an ageing squad, what had happened before any talk of moving out any players, the side hit a real lean patch at the start of January. So in order to really make a push and freshen up, one or two changes were prudent, so we went to Mark to get help with that and ask him who he would bring in, but to do that with a small squad, you need to move one or two out. That’s all it is; how do we improve the greater sum of the squad?

What does your role generally entail from one week to the next?

It’s all-encompassing. Everything from recruitment, retention for the manager; the manager always has first and last say on it, definitely, but someone has to do the business behind those deals. Then on the other side is earning the budget, signing the sponsorship deals; we just released a major sponsor today (Utilita Energy will be the club’s front-of-shirt sponsor). All the sponsorship deals, all the revenue, all the operations in terms of stocking bars and the café and all of that. Overseeing all of the press and the media, season ticket sales, season ticket campaigns, the design of it all. Overseeing the academy operation, in terms of all the education side and the paperwork of that is my responsibility. Then of course all your accounts and finances behind that, day-to-day bookkeeping and office-keeping, and then all of your stadia operations as well, I have to oversee them. We’re very lucky that we have some great volunteers, one or two in particular, because without them we couldn’t operate. These clubs at this level, they don’t have a budget for off-field staff, not full-time staff, so there can only be one person really, and you have to earn that, so it’s very much a one-man band at times. Without those volunteer groups it would be impossible.

In football in general, but certainly in non-league, often people take over at a club or step into a high-ranking position behind the scenes, speaking of all these grand ideas they have. The reality can then be very different and those people are soon gone from the club, for whatever reason. With the well-publicised turmoil that we’re seeing at various clubs at present, if there is any doubt at all, what kind of assurances can you give to the fans here that they have the right people on board?

Well it’s a great question, and for one, the owner, who is the sole reason this club exists, Gareth Roberts, he’s shown for four years that he’s not going anywhere shortly. He has funded a massive loss, year on year, while this club has done things the same way each year, continuing that loss, so he’s demonstrated through action, I guess, that he is here for the long haul. What he said last October was he wasn’t prepared to throw money in any longer while people went through the motions and took it for granted. He wanted to see legacy, not just a massive loss year on year from playing budget and having no improvements to show for it. He wanted to see a club with a tangible community legacy and stadia improvements, rather than being exactly the same club as it was four years ago, just having churned through a playing budget.

He brought me in, in October, with Jonathan Collura as a director, to just do things in the right way in terms of getting those legacy things in the right place, cutting unneeded costs, putting a playing and strategy budget in place that is value for money, in a sustainable way. All of that does, long-term, bode well for on-field performance, absolutely, but it has to be done in a sustainable way and that’s all the changes are. For me personally, I haven’t failed at a club. Cronulla Sharks were dead when I took them over in 2009; four years later they were very successful and very rich. Notts County were heading for relegation and were in all sorts of state off the pitch when I went there with Shaun Derry and Greg Abbott, and we got through relegation and got them out of that. Wycombe Wanderers, fully supporter-owned club, non-funded at all, were in a really bad place commercially and off-field, and were not looking like promotion or anything. With Gareth Ainsworth and his football model of sustainability and getting best value for money, we brought in a lot of good commercial partnerships and just streamlined the place; that was three years but it was successful.

So I think all you can do is rely on your past record, and that’s all that fans can look to really. I can promise them that we’re gonna do the job here, but that’s just words. You can only point towards the history and say ‘well there is a bit of a track record of success there,’ and that’s already been shown; the success that we had with Charlie Andrew (on loan from Hull City) and Romoney Crichlow-Noble (on loan from Huddersfield Town) was tangible and noticeable at the back end of the year. The supporters saw that, and that’s not an approach the club has taken previously. We haven’t had a paying front-of-shirt sponsor in a couple of years, so the changes are coming slowly, but the appointment of Garry and Shaun (Gardner) as assistant, that’s on me. I’ll take accountability and we’ll be judged no doubt at Christmas time and at the end of the season. All I would say on that is my record in terms of knowing what successful football culture looks like is quite good, and I know what a successful squad looks like and the leadership that’s involved in that. I moved on the Australian national coach (Ricky Stuart) at Cronulla Sharks to install his assistant (Shane Flanagan), who won the club its first ever Premiership a few years later, so I understand what a coach looks like and I’m really confident that Garry can do that. There’s no guarantees, and as I said, I’ll be judged on that.

Is there anything you’ve learned from previous roles that Bradford (Park Avenue) are now the ones to get the benefit of? Maybe something that you found doesn’t work as well as you thought.

I think what I did learn from all those roles is that when you compromise what is right, so if you try and take shortcuts, they never work. At times I’ve taken a shortcut, or listened to someone who said ‘we do it this way, it’s much easier,’ rather than going with your gut or your knowledge and experience, and knowing that you have to strip out all of the culture, if it’s bad, and start again. As soon as you compromise once for a shortcut, that’s a bad thing; you have to rebuild it anyway eventually. I have learned that you have to be consistent in being very firm and sticking to what you know is the right way forward.

Where does the most enjoyment come from for you doing this job?

The number-one buzz is seeing smiles on supporters’ faces. Supporters will naturally doubt and question; football is littered with examples of reasons why they should be sceptical, so I fully understand and appreciate that. I think the biggest buzz is when you look at them in a few months’ time, or when you’ve had a bit of success, and they see the tangible difference at the club, and they look at you and say ‘well maybe you’re not so bad after all. Maybe your heart is in the right place.’ As I said, you can tell them and say all you want, make promises, but it’s so cheap. Watching supporters actually understand the change and realise that the club is better off, that’s the biggest buzz.

In terms of growing the fanbase, is there an overlap of Bulls/BPA fans there to tap into?

There definitely is. BPA’s a bit different in that it’s had two strong colour schemes through its history; the red, amber, black, following the Bulls link, and then the green and white. We’re wanting to lean a bit more towards that red, amber, black, because it’s far more synonymous with the city, and Bulls supporters as well; we’re very, very local to Bulls. We do have a lot of crossover; we do have a lot of fans that support both. In terms of growing our supporter base, if we keep doing things the way we always have, and resist change and resist new ideas, then we’re always going to have those same 3-400 supporters and it’s not going to grow. Initiatives like the season ticket campaign, with the #ProperBradford campaign and the pricing in that, and bringing new national sponsors in which I guess reach outside our traditional demographic, and even bringing young loan stars in from bigger clubs, that’s what attracts younger fans from around the Bradford area, Bulls fans and City fans even, to come down when their team’s not playing. The new partnership with the university’s very much geared towards that; we’ve got over 1500 students in the Football Association at university and we wanna make BPA their non-league club of choice. We love our 3-400 fans, they’re fantastic, they’ve kept this club where it is and they’re amazing volunteers, a lot of them, but even they say we need to bring new people in, so we’ve got to focus on that.

For you personally, are you fully based over here? Are you settled?

I’ve been here since 2014, since I came to Notts County. I’m based in Bradford, my family’s based here. I love sports and sports administration, and being able to link rugby league and the football club here was really exciting for me, because football’s the big game here and I’ve certainly enjoyed being a part of that through my Notts County and Wycombe links. I’m here full-time, it’s very busy, but in sport you’re only as good as your last club really. People always look at what legacy you leave and what you’ve achieved in your tenure at a particular club, just like a manager, I guess. It’s exciting. I’m really excited with Garry and Shaun coming on board, they’re very fresh, and the key is it’s not a slight on Mark’s three years here at all. It was very amicable and we just decided it was time, both of us.

Aside from sport and family, what else do you enjoy in your life? Is music a key part?

Yeah, you got it there; outside of family it’s music. I love being over here in England for the summer festival season, I really do, and I was quite involved, in another life back at home, I had a fashion design company and we designed a lot of music artwork, album covers and music videos. I’ve been very blessed to have some good friends in the music game and I can’t wait to see them when they come and tour. I always go and make sure they’ve got a Bradford Park Avenue shirt on! I like to listen to The Hives when they’re playing, and Ash are obviously touring again. Merseyside bands like The Shipbuilders. Rock ‘n’ roll’s where I’m at, and when you’re on the road a lot, you’ve got to have the music up nice and loud as well.

Finally, whenever that day may come, what do you want to know you’ve achieved at this club the day you leave?

I wanna know that this club, whether Damian Irvine, Gareth Roberts, Jonathan Collura, Mark Bower, Garry Thompson or whatever individuals are involved, I wanna know that this club is sustainable in its income that’s set up year on year. It’s covering the expenses each year, more or less, within reason, and that’s the best legacy anyone can leave their club. You can be the most wealthy owner in the world, but if you stop putting that money in and walk away and the club is in administration, then you’re not worth that much to that club, are you? You haven’t really, in my view, created a legacy for the club, because it’s a false economy; it’s only there because of one person’s bank account playing God for the club.

Like at Wycombe, it doesn’t have someone handing out money, it’s got to survive. You look at Notts County now and the other side of it, the worst case. We see Bolton, we see Bury, Gateshead. There are so many clubs out there that are not run properly, and what I mean by that is, it’s not about choosing managers or buying in big-name players or overspending on a budget; that’s not properly running it. At this league level, they can’t afford it, so we know we can do it a way with Garry, with player-managers and with enthusiasm and excitement and using the loan market, we know we can have a very successful football side that pays for itself. That’s the legacy; get it to that stage and it doesn’t matter if fans like me or hate me, or I move on, they’ve got a club. Whether Gareth Roberts decides to stay in five years’ time, it doesn’t matter to the fans, because they’re not reliant on that. It’s a very dangerous platform to be on when one individual and all their circumstances are what the future of your club relies on. That’s 90 percent of football clubs out there and I’m not about perpetuating that as a model, because it’s wrong.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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