The sun is shining at Odsal, and John Bastian is smiling. The scene could not feel more different to the one that engulfed everyone associated with the former Super League champions just 18 months ago.
When the Bulls were eventually placed into liquidation, forced to reform and start all over again, few will have felt it harder than Bastian. Three years of tireless work in keeping Bradford’s revered production line going as Head of Youth were wasted – with the likes of Jake Trueman, Cameron Scott and Alex Mellor, all now Super League players, signing elsewhere almost immediately.
“It was a huge shock to the system,” Bastian admits to TotalRL.
With their crown jewels gone, it may have perhaps been easy for Bastian – who has helped develop dozens of Super League stars elsewhere during his time at both Leeds and Warrington – to turn his back on the Bulls.
However, with the first-team now thriving at the top of League 1 under John Kear’s leadership, Bastian has fought, slogged and worked to re-establish the Bulls’ production line as one of the best in the British game still: which is quite the accolade for a third-tier side.
“We had to make sure we kept the junior pathways as a priority when we reformed because without youth, there’s nothing to build on,” Bastian explains. “When I met (owner) Andrew Chalmers, my mind was put at ease very quickly. Having a couple of hours in a Bradford hotel with him and Graham Lowe, you could see they believed in youth and they’ve stuck to that promise right through to now.”
In years gone by, some of the game’s biggest names have rolled off the production line at Odsal. This weekend alone, England’s team to face New Zealand will have four Bradford-produced players in it; Sam Burgess, Tom Burgess, Elliott Whitehead and John Bateman.
However, with the first-team now no longer the force they once were at the top of Super League, Bastian admits the way Bradford now discover the stars of tomorrow is slightly different.
“Once upon a time, the pull of Bradford could get anyone across the country through the door: now, we’ve had to tinker how we operate a bit but it’s working,” he says.
“We’re having to work a bit harder because the club is in League 1. While we’ve invested in youth development, we don’t go outside of West Yorkshire to pick juniors up. But Leeds Rhinos can’t have everybody, can they – and neither can the other Super League clubs in the area. We’ve got a very good talent identification system and the volunteers in that system are constantly out looking for players who we can work with, improve and develop.”
The hard work is already starting to pay off, too. Bastian’s under-19s side sit in mid-table in the Academy competition; above the likes of Castleford, Wakefield and Warrington. Only one side outside Super League has representation in the latest England Academy squad: Bradford, with Rowan Milnes and Oliver Wilson included.
“We’re extremely proud of that,” Bastian smiles. “It’s such fantastic recognition for the club’s production line – the only club outside of Super League to have international recognition in that squad suggests we’re doing something right.”
Milnes has already made his first-team debut this year; Wilson will do so before too long, too. And with Brandon Pickersgill, Ethan Ryan and Liam Kirk all prominent in Kear’s regular match-day squads too, Bastian admits he’s fortunate to have a head coach who shares his philosophies on junior development.
“That pathway comes from the top, from Andrew Chalmers, to John, right down to myself,” he insists.
“We want Bradford-born, homegrown players to be part of our team for the next few decades, not just years. What’s been difficult is constantly changing head coach over recent years, and it’s now nice to have some stability with John at the helm.”
Bradford’s approach – they run a full reserve side on top of a Category 1 Academy – is markedly different from some clubs higher up the food chain; some of whom do not even operate a fully-functioning Academy set-up. It is a philosophy lost on Bastian.
“It’s disappointing to see,” he admits. “My belief is in reserve grade or whatever you want to call it being key to junior development. The long-term, serious development of players begins to happen around the age 20 and over; that’s when they start to mature into young men.
“They become physically capable of handling tough competition – no matter what level of the sport it is – and playing with men at that age. Again, Andrew was very aware and supportive of our infrastructure needing a reserve side to succeed.
“We now need other sides to recognise the benefit of it and want it too: and the same goes for a strong youth development system. It’s crazy some clubs don’t seem to have any interest in doing that – but that’s an attitude we’ll never adopt here at Bradford.”
And if the Bulls are promoted this season and return to the Championship, Bastian admits that will have a knock-on effect right down to junior development too – with the club only set to get stronger in that regard.
“As you start progressing back up the ladder, people then become a bit more confident in you as a club,” he says. “Off the back of those difficult few years we went through, I’m hoping we can now attract even better juniors. We’re doing well now, but we can do even better, and heading back towards Super League will help us financially so we can become stronger with our staffing and resources. The future is bright at Odsal, I can promise that.”
With Bastian at the helm, it’s hard to argue.