Profile: David Baldwin – The pilot flying to the Football League’s rescue

16 September 2020

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Photo: PA Images Some might say that this, like Bradford City in 2007, and like the Football League now, is a hopeless task for David Baldwin. Is there a better man for the job? His track record would suggest not.

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Baldwin was living in retirement in Spain in 2007 when he took on a voluntary six week role at Bradford and never went back. 

Workaholic did the jobs of ‘three people’ at Valley Parade. Poached by Burnley he was named CEO of the Year in 2018 before being hired to the EFL’s top job

Baldwin and EFL chairman Rick Parry face huge challenges in keeping the Football League alive after Covid.

James Corbett corbett@offthepitch.com

In 2007 David Baldwin was living in retirement in Spain, having sold his recruitment business at the age of 32. Settling into a life of sunshine and improving his golf swing, he had earned a commercial pilot’s license in his newly found spare time, but a return to his native Yorkshire – or work – seemed far from his mind. Then, at a charity football match organised by his friend Mark Ellis, Bradford City’s 1980s left winger, he met Mark Lawn, the Bantams’ new owner and everything changed. 

City, whom Baldwin had supported since childhood, had had two memorable seasons in the Premier League at the turn of the century. But since relegation in 2001 the club had toppled down the league, through two spells of administration and successive relegations. They were about to start life in League Two for the first time in a generation and Lawn, the club’s new owner, was seeking fresh ideas to revive the club.

There was no salary on offer to Baldwin, and as well as relegation Bradford were down to just 3,000 season ticket holders in a stadium that can hold eight times as many. The club had just eight players under contract. But Baldwin said he’d be happy to help the Bantams for a few weeks to revive its commercial operations. Football ran in his blood. As an 11-year-old he was taken on by Bradford after a trial, and although he never made the grade the club had not left him. Six weeks became six months became six years. 

By his early-40s – his improbably early retirement long forgotten –  Baldwin was among the most highly respected CEOs in the Football League.  ‘It could rank as the chairman’s best-ever signing,’ wrote Bradford’s respected Width of a Post blog in 2012. 

Valley Parade Revival

Bradford, a club in turmoil for much of the noughties were on their way up. From having a negative balance sheet of £0.95 million in 2008, by 2013 it had turned around to being a positive balance of £1.1 million. At a footballing level where turnover is measured in small seven figure sums and most clubs turn a loss, this was no mean feat.

In March 2013 they became the first club from the fourth tier to ever reach a major domestic final, defeating Wigan, Aston Villa and Arsenal on the way to the League Cup final, which they lost to Swansea City. Two months later the club were back at Wembley, defeating Northampton 3-0 to reach League Two in the play offs.

He was straight as a die and called a spade a spade

"The strength of Baldwin was that he got things done and was approachable to everyone," says Jason McKeown, author of several books on City and editor of the aforementioned Width of a Post site.

McKeown encountered the "very well liked" Baldwin a number of times and says that if anything the passage of time ‘has shown even more what a great job he did.’

"What other figurehead at a football club would combine the leading of transfer negotiations with dealing with supporter ticket enquiries on the phone? At times it seemed as though Baldwin was doing the job of two if not three people.’

"Always focus on what you can improve and never be satisfied with where you are. That is the mindset of this football club," said Baldwin at the time.

Belatedly brought onto the Bradford payroll, he graduated from chief operating officer to CEO. He worked sixty hours a week, not only overseeing the club’s day-to-day operations, but seeming to involve himself in every aspect of the club’s running – from operating a personal Twitter account in which he personally dealt with supporter enquiries to dressing up as Santa Claus as part of a Christmas marketing promotion.

Turf Moor success

In November 2014 he was headhunted and hired by Burnley as COO, enjoying only their second season in the top flight since the 1970s. Although that season ended in relegation, they returned as First Division champions a year later and have remained there ever since. Baldwin succeeded Lee Hoos, who joined QPR at the end of the season 2014/15, as CEO.

With three promotions and two relegations in the space of seven years from 2009, Burnley have avoided the pitfalls of similar teams to have yo-yoyed between the Championship and top flight by keeping tight rein on its finances, spending modestly on recruitment and keeping the wage bill to acceptable levels. Wages to turnover ratio is currently 62.8 per cent and the club has recorded net profits for the past three consecutive seasons, while also investing in infrastructure. Baldwin oversaw the move of the club’s training ground to Barnfield – a £12.6 million site. In 2018 Burnley qualified for Europe for the first time in 50 years.

"He was straight as a die and called a spade a spade," says the author Dave Thomas, who has written a score of books on The Clarets. 

Tony Scholes who got to know Baldwin through his role with Burnley FC Supporters Groups, a fan liason committee, described Baldwin as "a larger than life character," adding, "You always knew where you stood with Dave."

Very open and honest with fans

"He could claim to have won promotion in his first full season at Burnley but I'm sure he would more than happy to pass the credit to Sean Dyche," he quips.
 
"From a supporter point of view, he was very open and honest with us and there is no doubt that supporter engagement was at its best when he was in charge.

Parry, with his penchant for brightly coloured shirts, and Baldwin, who is more reminiscent of the soap opera butcher, Fred Elliott, than the typically faceless but sleekly suited football executive prototype, certainly run against the grain

"He worked alongside Burnley FC Supporters Groups when they were adding the superb photographs of former players that now adorn the external walls of Turf Moor and he introduced a direct debit scheme to give supporters much better options when purchasing a season ticket."
 
"He can look back with great satisfaction at his achievements while the supporters can consider themselves fortunate that we had him with our club for five years."

Indeed recognition for his achievements already transcended Turf Moor and a successful 2018 was rounded off with Baldwin’s award as CEO of the year at the Football Business Awards. 

Football League’s ‘Odd Couple’

His straight-talking, desire to "muck in", and ability to get things done attracted the similarly direct Rick Parry when he became Football League chairman in September last year. The Football League was without a CEO since the departure of Shaun Harvey the previous spring and the organisation was directionless. A new chief executive was a priority. 

On announcing his appointment three months later, Parry spoke of Baldwin’s "deep and thorough understanding of the game in this country" and "excellent reputation and proven ability to build and grow relationships." Baldwin officially took up the job in June.

Parry, with his penchant for brightly coloured shirts, and Baldwin, who is more reminiscent of the soap opera butcher, Fred Elliott, than the typically faceless but sleekly suited football executive prototype, certainly run against the grain. But will this footballing odd couple bring the chaotic and perennially unstable Football League to heel?

Plugging the financial gap

Certainly their first months have been almost exhaustingly busy, with the fall out of Bury’s collapse, ownership scandals at Charlton and Wigan, multiple clubs facing sanctions over stadium leaseback deals and then Covid-19 bringing a part of the football economy reliant on matchday income grinding to an indefinite halt.  

Some of the worst financial effects of stadia shutdown will be mitigated by the salary cap agreed by League One and Two clubs in August. The formula is understood to be Parry’s, much of the persuasion is believed to have come from Baldwin – who acknowledged at the time the subject was "emotive." In the end the pair got exactly the number of votes it needed to pass the motion with a two-thirds majority in League One – 16 – and achieved near unanimity in League Two.

He is also co-owner with Mark Ellis of the Leeds-based Richmond International Academic and Soccer Academy, an academy that combines football with a four-year Bachelor's degree in International Sports Business Management

A deal was also reached with Sky to allow clubs to stream matches live to their fans while stadium capacities remain up to 50 per cent empty. Whether this goes close to plugging the financial gap or whether it will end largely irrelevant, the way of the unpopular iFollow streaming service, is another matter. 

Overriding objectives

The days of answering customer service tweets might be over, but Baldwin’s workaholic nature hasn’t. Even before he started work in June he was combining his role as Burnley CEO with some of his Football League duties. He is also co-owner with Mark Ellis of the Leeds-based Richmond International Academic and Soccer Academy, an academy that combines football with a four-year Bachelor's degree in International Sports Business Management. Several of its alumni have gone on to forge professional playing careers.

As well as the new role at the Football League’s headquarters, Baldwin is chairman of the Bradford Economic Partnership. Bradford is Britan’s sixth biggest city by population – larger than Manchester, Edinburgh or Liverpool – but mostly economically and culturally bypassed and forgotten, and the partnership is working towards this once proud Victorian city’s renaissance.

Some might say that this, like Bradford City in 2007, and like the Football League now, is a hopeless task. Is there a better man for the job? His track record would suggest not. Moreover, it was a struggle to hear a bad word said about Baldwin – an unusual situation for anyone involved in running a football cub for so long. The worst thing he seems to have done is his apparently unwitting involvement in the 2013 sacking of Bradford’s ‘City Gent’ mascot ‘for not being fat enough.’

With the salary cap out the way Baldwin’s "overriding objective is to get supporters back into stadiums as soon as it is safe to do so." A Covid immunisation that would allow full stadia might be beyond even Baldwin, but last week’s announcement of test events at Cambridge United later this month shows the work that has gone on behind the scenes. 

"There is no argument that attending live matches is what the League, its Clubs and fans want to see," he said last month. His biggest challenge may come in getting the crowds back.