The ex-NRL chairman’s foray into English football

Source: AAP

Former Cronulla Sharks boss Damian Irvine has moved into football and taken charge of English non-league club Bradford Park Avenue.

Founded in 1907, Bradford Park Avenue play in the National League North, five divisions below the Premier League.

The club has joined forces with rugby league side Bradford Bulls, of which Irvine is commercial director. 

Part of the new partnership between the two sporting outfits has seen Irvine handed the day-to-day running of Bradford Park Avenue.

The two Yorkshire clubs have a shared history going back initially to 1863 when they existed as one entity, then 111 years ago they split to focus on different codes.

“We’ve been working quite closely with the chairman of Bradford Park Avenue for the last little while and he’s been fighting the constant conundrum of trying to create a sustainable lower-league operation,” Irvine told The World Game.

“He’s a great benefactor of the club and has been for a number of years, but it’s been costing him a lot of money in the last three to four years and long-term that’s not sustainable.

“Obviously with my record in the game and being so closely linked geographically and the DNA historically, we’ve been talking and he looked for a better way of running his club going forward.

“We had a close look at the Club Doncaster model, what Bristol Sport is doing and that’s very similar to some of the European clubs like HSV Hamburg, and others that have multiple sporting teams.

“We see the merit in that, particularly in a city like Bradford that has limited government and council resources that it can tap into. By centralising and pooling our resources at a management level and representing both clubs, we’re rationalising our off-field operations.

“It’s more about centralising the central services that clubs in rugby league and football, the centralised servicing of social media, marketing, commercial resources, IT and technology, safety officers, it’s really common sense from an economic point of view.”

Irvine is an experienced sports administrator who spent five years heading up Cronulla in the NRL, where he improved the club’s off-field performance and financial stability.

He eventually stood down from his position in 2013 following the breaking of the ASADA peptides scandal.

Since then the Australian has moved to the UK and served as commercial director of League Two club Notts County and head of commercial activities at League One side Wycombe Wanderers.

Irvine believes both Bradford Park Avenue and the Bradford Bulls can be more sustainable operations through collaboration.

“We’ve gone in as a management firm I guess to do an audit for them and run the club in order to get to the bottom of the well,” he said.

“To determine where the club’s at, where its expenses and revenues are at and where they can be at, with a plan we’ve put forward as part of our centralised model showing where the cost savings will be and what that means to the bottom line. It’s a spring-clean.

“The ultimate idea is to have a better projection year-on-year and a more sustainable model and then both clubs don’t have to put as much in every year to balance the books.

“It’s similar in the first days when I went into Cronulla, and Wycombe and Notts, I do thrive on that initial period. It’s really an information-seeking, gathering thing at the moment looking at what we’ve got and where we can go. It’s exciting.”

Bradford Park Avenue have competed in all four top tiers of English football during their long history and currently sit in third position in the sixth division, four points below league leaders Chorley. Bradford City are the biggest football club in the city, but they are struggling and sit at the bottom of League One.

Irvine said the main goal of the new partnership is to make the club more efficient, not push for immediate promotion up the football pyramid.

“The chairman Gareth and the directors Jonathan and John, they haven’t put a target on that because you set yourself up for failure, or either you get there and there’s no vision for what to do when you’re past it,” Irvine said.

"The main ambition at the moment is to capitalise on the really good work done by the manager Mark Bower and the playing staff. They have fought above their weight in the National League North last season making the play-offs and this year they’re up there again.

"We’d love it to be the in Football League but the main, overriding goal is to be consistently competitive where we are the moment and sustainable. No club, big or small, can rely on the beneficiary of one man or woman, or one business [forever].

“You’ve got to cut the waste out. You’ve got to watch every single dollar or pound that comes into the club and watch it like your own and spend it wisely. And spend it with return on investment, and with checks and measures and good governance to make sure that happens.

“All you’ve got to do is give yourself a chance to compete and before you know it, promotions can happen and you can start to dream.”

While best known for his connection to rugby league, Irvine is an ardent football fan who first played the sport while growing up in his hometown of Bathurst in country NSW. The 44-year-old is relishing his time working in the beautiful game in England.

“I went and played football in Germany when I was kid at 14,” he said.

“I played for Bathurst 75 Football Club and in the NSW State League from 16 as a first-grader and a reserve-grader. I know football, it’s always been in my blood since I was six years old.

“I grew up in Australia watching coverage from England on SBS of FA Cup finals and the like. It’s always been a passion of mine. Although my other passion, having been born in Cronulla, was the Sharks, I always had that love of football and playing football.

“So when I finished with the Sharks it was a pretty natural move for me to come over and get involved in football. I’ve really enjoyed the industry, it really puts in shade the size and population and commercial strength of football in this country compared with anything AFL or NRL or union or cricket does at home.

“It just pales in significance and I really love that big show. It’s fantastic. The principles at lower league level are very much the same.”