Why Martyn Sadler got it wrong on the Bulls

Andrew Foster (pictured) is a performance consultant. He has written for League Express and Rugby League World, and has followed Bradford Northern/Bulls since 1988. Here he takes a contrary view to Martyn Sadler’s recent Talking Rugby League column in League Express on the supposed ‘rescue’ of the Bulls by the former RFL CEO Nigel Wood.

Had Nigel Wood himself dictated last week’s Martyn Sadler column over the phone, would there have been a single sentence different?

Both before and after its publication, Martyn joined others in calling for an independent inquiry into the Bradford Bulls situation.

But his column made no mention of this. Instead, Bulls fans were chided to be grateful for Wood’s intervention.

Like Alan Partridge’s TV ratings, Martyn’s column started badly and got worse. We were insightfully informed that neither Bill Gates nor the Sultan of Brunei were interested in buying the Bulls.

But readers were not informed that when in 2017 the RFL (CEO: Nigel Wood) awarded ownership of the Bulls to Andrew Chalmers (a known friend of Wood according to League Express reporters Matthew Shaw and Aaron Bower), that was in preference to a bid by former Cronulla Sharks chairman Damian Irvine and Rotherham RU CEO Richard Lamb.

This bid was a majority supporter trust shareholding, and was underpinned by £1 million cash proof of funds. Transparency and re-establishing trust with supporters were to be paramount.

Further, Dr Marwan Koukash and former Wasps RU CEO David Thorne have expressed anger and bewilderment in response to how their bids for the Bulls were received by the RFL.

Once in post, Chalmers ran up a reported debt of £750,000 in less than three years, while failing to make player pension payments.

This, despite the best ticket sales and highest ticket prices outside Super League, plus the windfalls of the sale of Oliver Wilson and a home Challenge Cup run against Leeds and Halifax.

Martyn went on to call Rugby League fans “past masters of the art of conspiracy theories”. But who could look at the above facts and not want some explanation? Martyn, apparently.

He even neglected to mention the Wood-led RFL’s purchase of the Odsal Stadium lease. What was the RFL’s plan at the time? What is it now?

Others’ suggestions as to Wood’s motivations are dismissed as “ridiculous”, but the only one offered is altruism. There is one fig leaf paragraph criticising Wood for the same intransigence he asks Bulls fans to accept.

Martyn tells us “what matters is that the club is revived, both on and off the field and that process has now seemingly begun”. But eight (and counting) of the seventeen that shocked Leeds, plus then-injured Joe Keyes, following Wilson out of the door is not a revival. More like selling off both your kidneys and declaring yourself in the market for a dialysis machine.

This supposed cost cutting comes at a heavy price. Users of the TotalRL and RLFANS forums have seen numerous longstanding and well-known Bulls fans declare they want nothing to do with Wood’s zombie club. People like Sam Grundy, former Bulls Independent Supporters’ Association chairman and supporter of forty years, are if anything harder to replace than the players jettisoned.

To re-engage these fans, openness and a reckoning with the past are non-negotiable. Martyn is right that Eric Perez and Mark Sawyer bring talents to the table, but it would be better to start again from scratch than to allow them to proceed without scrutiny, building on sand. York have shown what can be achieved from rude beginnings, and with a fraction of the Bulls’ fanbase.

Martyn has past form where Wood is concerned, responding to a fan questioning why League Express had not commented on his £300,000 payout by saying, “it speaks for itself”. And he was almost alone in welcoming the appointment of Ralph Rimmer as Wood’s replacement.

It is telling that in his column Martyn evokes the name of Peter Deakin, who helped to create the Bulls brand, but is happy to entrust the future of the game to those that gave us Shuddersfield and the Blue Sox.

The Bulls are part of a wider problem. Everyone in our game knows we have two potential futures before us.

We can carry on as at present, and watch Wood and Rimmer retire as rich men, whilst Rugby League heads towards the same sporting graveyard as speedway. Or we can seek new leaders and give ourselves a fighting chance.

Martyn seems content to help the first option to unfold. But I am not, and I am not alone.

This article was first published in League Express, Mon 4th Nov 2019.

Click here to read Martyn Sadler’s Talking Rugby League column on Bradford Bulls.