SUNDAY will be the last time Bradford Bulls – probably any professional rugby league side – will play at Odsal Stadium which seems a ridiculous sentence to be writing.
It is ridiculous in the sense that it was not long ago that the Rugby Football League bought the leasehold to the famous ground in order to “safeguard the future of one of the sport’s most famous stadia.”
They have never before shown such interest in a club ground, no matter how iconic it may be deemed, and it created an obvious conflict of interest.Dave Craven
Yet here we are, just seven years later, and it appears there will be no one to actually play in the iconic ground that has been Bradford’s home since 1934.
Bulls owner Andrew Chalmers said the club – who host Sheffield Eagles at the weekend – cannot afford the cost of rates, rent and maintenance of the decaying stadium.
Yet that in itself is strange; the New Zealander moved halfway across the world to take on the new club following its previous incarnation’s liquidation in 2017.
Surely he must always have been fully aware of all the costs associated with a club and stadium that were both in such decay? They have not just magically appeared in the last couple of years.
Still, back to the RFL. It remains staggering that when they selected Chalmers and fellow Kiwi Graham Lowe as the new owners of the Bradford club, to replace the liquidated version, that they did not first insist on them signing a long-term lease to actually play at Odsal.
That has now run out and the Bulls have decided to move on to play at Championship rivals Dewsbury Rams in 2020.
Chalmers says he has a two to four-year plan to return Bradford to the city but so far there has been no details made public.
The fear is that could be as much pie in the sky as making Odsal the Wembley of the North.
The RFL, ‘reluctantly’, have agreed to the Dewsbury switch but not before firing shots at Chalmers and the club, labelling their decision ‘poor’ and questioning the ‘credibility’ of those return plans. Yet, of course, it was the governing body who welcomed Chalmers into Odsal in the first place ahead of a number of other potential buyers. They also gave the green light to Marc Green who was in charge in 2016 when Bulls went into administration for the third time in just five years. Granted, the governing body will rightly say they cannot be responsible for the actions of owners – and Bradford have had some disastrous ones – once they are through the door.
But other questions linger. Firstly, why did the RFL even get involved with the leasehold?
They have never before shown such interest in a club ground, no matter how iconic it may be deemed, and it created an obvious conflict of interest.
I remember Nigel Wood, the RFL chief executive at the time and now often seen at Bulls games since leaving the governing body, being incredulous at such a suggestion during one media briefing.
Yet, to everyone else, it seemed obvious why it seemed peculiar.
Obviously, this is not to say there is any wrong-doing.
But some people could easily question why the governing body would act in such a way. You certainly would not see the FA intervene in such a fashion.
Initially, there could be arguments that they favoured Bradford by bailing them out of another cash crisis by buying that leasehold. Yet now critics could argue the other way and say their firm stance on rent is part of the reason why Bulls are leaving Odsal.
But what happens next? There could be hope that a compromise is reached but to think that would be utterly naive.
It was announced in May the RFL had signed a memorandum of understanding with Bradford City Council – who own the freehold – and the Bulls to explore redevelopment options for schemes at the Odsal site.
There was talk of a “flagship sports/leisure/commercial gateway to the city centre” with hotel, restaurants and the like.
The RFL said it would be “contingent on the protection of professional Rugby League in Bradford.” The MOU, though, is non-binding.
It is no surprise that Bradford fans young and old will be heading down one last time on Sunday. Let’s hope it’s just the end of the ground, though, and not the club.