BRADFORD Bulls CEO Jason Hirst remains confident in his belief that “while he is in charge, the club will have an elite academy”.

In a wide-ranging chat with the T&A in his office at Odsal, Hirst reiterated his determination from previous statements that Bradford are fully committed to running their elite academy, despite the enormous financial pressures that brings.

He also made it clear that he and his fellow directors will never ever allow Bulls to come close to administration or liquidation again, while also discussing two of the more interesting off-season moves involving the club, in the shape of Myles Lawford and Mitch Souter.

While the IMG picture for Super League in 2025 will become clearer as the year goes on, Hirst admitted Bulls’ main priority is to win as many games as they can, and lift the 1895 Cup, in order to give themselves a chance of sneaking into the top-flight next season as one of the 12 best-graded teams in the elite pyramid.

It is refreshing to hear someone in a position of power at Bulls speak so openly, as it would not be unfair to say the club’s fans have had years of being kept in the dark, of being worried about their club’s future and of being lied to.

Even the little things, like Hirst providing me with the scoop on Tuesday afternoon that Bradford had, a few hours previously, submitted their expression of interest for purchasing the leasehold at Odsal, make a difference.

Twenty years ago, those exclusives between clubs and their local sports reporters were commonplace, less so nowadays.

I wanted to get to the heart of the pressing financial matters at Bulls, which Hirst was more than happy to co-operate with me on.

Take the academy for example, which costs £140,000 per year to run and constantly sees Bulls pushing their #NextGen fundraising initiative, to the point where some may have legitimate concerns that it might soon be no longer sustainable to run.

I asked Hirst directly whether he foresaw a scenario in the near future whereby Bulls would have to simply scrap their youth system due to it being unaffordable.

He replied: “I don’t think you can ever say never, but I don’t envisage any time soon where we won’t have an academy.

“A couple of years ago, when I first came in as CEO, I might have had a different answer for you.

“But in those 20 months since I joined, the club looks different for lots of reasons, the main one being, and this is critical to the academy, that we’ve got a stronger leadership and ownership group.

“There are individuals on the board putting their hard-earned cash into the club to help with things like funding the academy.

We’re rightly proud of our elite academy and I don’t think we always get the credit we deserve for it, whether that be from close quarters or further afield.

“It’s well documented it costs around £140,000 to run and I get fans challenging me regularly on that and ask why we, along with the Bradford Bulls Foundation, run nine teams, including an Elite Academy, instead of just ploughing all our money into the first team.

“It’s a fair question and a fair challenge, but there are two reasons why we don’t do that.

“One is that we’re a good corporate citizen and we value the local community.

“Bradfordians own and run this club, so we understand the challenges, and we want to offer opportunities to boys, girls, men and women to have a career in rugby league, professionally or, like our wheelchair team for example, on a voluntary basis.

“We want to offer the local community the opportunity to play rugby league for the Bradford Bulls.

“The second reason we do it is that we want to bring players through and develop them.

“There are a lot of overseas signings in English rugby league, from the likes of Australia and New Zealand, and people have different opinions on that.

“For me, while there’s always a place for overseas signings who add real value to the team, you’ve also got to give opportunities to young, local, homegrown talent.

“It’s about getting the balance right, which might be different from one year to the next, and for each club it differs.

“We’re committed to bringing through young, homegrown players.

“We won’t keep them all, some because they won’t quite make the grade for us, in terms of ability or attitude.

“Equally, there’ll be some young players who get approached by other clubs, and some will take the opportunity they’re offered.

“They might do that because they see that other club having a better chance of getting to Super League, or doing well in there, than us.

“But equally, they might take an opportunity at a lower level than the Championship, as they feel they’ll get more game time at that other club.”

But Hirst reiterated: “We’re committed to our elite academy, and I don’t see it going anywhere any time soon.

“But I would urge people to come and watch the players, as the attendances aren’t massive for their games, and it’s good for their development if they’re playing in front of bigger crowds.

“Equally, the more people that come to watch, that’s more money coming into the club that can be spent on the academy to make us even better.

“We’re the only part-time, semi-professional team in the country to run an elite academy and we’re really proud of that.

“It’s something everybody connected to the club can be proud of, and everybody can play a part.

“With #NextGen, that’s basically anybody who wants to support our academy can pay £10 a month, or any other amount they want to.

"That money goes directly to the academy and while I appreciate £10 a month is a lot of money to some people, it won’t be for others.

“If it’s not a lot of money for you, I’d politely ask you consider donating that £10 a month towards the academy.

“If you want to, that’s brilliant and thank you, but if you don’t, that’s fine.”

One of the best Bulls academy players to come through their system in the last few years has been Myles Lawford.

Taking his first-team chances under Mark Dunning impressively in 2022, the youngster also played a starring role in last year’s Challenge Cup win over the Midlands Hurricanes, scoring 26 points in Bulls’ 66-18 win.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Myles Lawford scored a try and kicked 11 goals from 11 attempts in this cup clash against the Midlands Hurricanes, his final game for Bulls.Myles Lawford scored a try and kicked 11 goals from 11 attempts in this cup clash against the Midlands Hurricanes, his final game for Bulls. (Image: Tom Pearson.)

But he never appeared in the league in 2023 under Dunning or Lee Greenwood and Brian Noble during their spell in charge at Bulls in the second half of last season, despite impressing on loan at Hunslet, and to the disappointment of many supporters, he was sold to Bradford’s Betfred Championship rivals Wakefield Trinity over the winter.

On that deal, Hirst told the T&A: “We would have liked to have kept Myles, however, he wanted to take an opportunity with Wakefield, as he felt it was best for his career.

“When a player wants to move on, we try and facilitate that, because we want to do right by him.

“But equally, we’ve got to do right by the club and with Myles, because he was a homegrown player, we were entitled to compensation for him.

“Wakefield contacted us and paid the compensation we were entitled to, so while we didn’t want to lose Myles, we were happy with the terms and conditions we negotiated with Trinity.

“That compensation figure will remain undisclosed and that’s the agreement with both clubs, and one that’s commonplace it’s very rare you ever get to hear a transfer fee publicly announced.”

Hirst added: “Everyone at Bulls wishes Myles all the best, and we hope he goes on and fulfils his undoubted potential.

“We still speak to him too. He came to one of our pre-season games and I chat to him occasionally.

“It’s disappointing to lose him, or any player you want to keep, but every rugby league club, or a club in any sport, loses players they don’t want to see go from time to time.

“But my predominant focus, and that of the club, is on the players who are with us, not those who have moved on.

“It’s my role, along with others, to make sure we look after the players we’ve got, that we treat them well and fairly, so we can get the best out of them.

“We’re really happy with the squad that we’ve got at the moment, both in terms of the players’ abilities and characters.”

Hooker Mitch Souter is only slightly older than Lawford, and the deal struck to bring him over from Canberra Raiders on a one-year deal for the 2024 campaign marked the first time Bulls had signed an Australian player directly from a club Down Under since Lachlan Burr joined from Gold Cost Titans in October 2016 (then left to join Leigh three months later when the Odsal outfit were liquidated).

Only a handful of Antipodeans have played for the club since then, though the likes of Jy Hitchcox, Jake Webster and Bodene Thompson had already established themselves in Super League before moving to BD6.

Therefore, it feels quite special to have Souter in the ranks, especially given his sparkling pre-season displays so far.

On that deal, Hirst said: “We actually signed Mitch before the rule changes were brought in a few weeks ago that made it easier to sign young players from Australia (whereby only playing NSW or Queensland Cup games like Souter, as opposed to NRL ones, would not hamper Antipodean prospects in their attempts to obtain a work permit).

“As a club, the likes of myself, Eamon O’Carroll, Nigel Wood and Brian Noble all have some contacts Down Under and we’re alerted to player availability over there fairly regularly, while agents get in touch too.

“With Mitch, we did a lot of homework on him, and obviously there’s a Bradford connection at Canberra, with the likes of Elliott Whitehead playing there.

“We studied videos of Mitch, while we took character references on him from players that Eamon, in particular, trusted.

“We’re grateful to a very kind sponsor in M & S Combustion for helping us financially bring Mitch across.

“Overseas signings aren’t easy because of the amount of work going into it, not just doing the due diligence on the player, but also getting the logistics in place for things like visas, accommodation, travel and their family.

“All of those things were factored in when Mitch came across, but it’s been so far, so good from him.

“He’s made a strong start, and though it’s early days in a long season, we like what we’ve seen so far.

“With the rule change you mentioned, we’re on top of that, and we do look to other countries to sign players.

“But we wouldn’t just sign an Australian because it’ll grab headlines or it’s in vogue.

“We’ll sign players who’ll make a positive difference to our first team, and if they’re from Australia, great, but if they’re from a local community club, that’s also great.”

Souter is not the only signing to catch the eye from Bulls over the winter, with many impressed by them bringing in two high-quality, experienced forwards in Dan Smith and John Davies.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Dan Smith has already made his mark on Bulls' front row in pre-season.Dan Smith has already made his mark on Bulls' front row in pre-season. (Image: Tom Pearson.)

There has been a lot of talk about Championship clubs not getting much central funding from the RFL, and with no 2024 TV deal announced for the second tier yet, how are Bulls getting on budget-wise?

Hirst told us: “Central funding is still broadly the same as last year, there’s not a lot of difference, which has meant our playing budget hasn’t changed much, though we’ll probably spend a little more this year.

“We certainly won’t be the highest spending team in the competition though, everyone knows that’ll be Wakefield, because they’ve come down from Super League, they’re still full-time and they’ve got a multi-million-pound backer.

“Our finances as a club are good, but we don’t have a sugar daddy to give us endless cash to spend on players.

“Cash is obviously important when it comes to assembling a squad but it’s not everything.

“It’s about getting the right players for the right value and we’re clear that we’ll pay for good players, but we won’t go over the value we feel they’re worth.

“If we were to do that, it’d harm our chances of signing someone else, which could be the difference between a strong 23-man squad and a strong 25-man one.

“The other reason we won’t do that is because we won’t put the club in financial jeopardy, which is vitally important.”

Expanding on that, an emphatic Hirst added: “This club has had too many administrations and liquidations.

“While I’m CEO and while the current board is in place that won’t happen.

We won’t do anything to jeopardise the club’s financial future or existence.”

One thing that helps the Bulls income-wise is regular events, with fans, sponsors and ex-players alike, at Odsal in the Southbank Stand’s Sekhon Suite.

Hirst feels the club offer a very strong off-field product, saying: “Rugby league clubs, particularly part-time Championship ones like us, especially with us running nine teams, you can’t survive by just playing 14 or 15 home matches a season.

“We’ve got a corporate hospitality facility in the Sekhon Suite and we sweat that asset.

“We’ve had a two-day training course with 50 or 60 cars this week at Odsal and this weekend there’ll be a party, whether it be for an 18th, 21st or a wedding, in the Suite.

“There’s not a week goes by when we’re not using the Sekhon Suite to bring in revenue.

“Running a part-time Championship club with nine sides, while making sure the first-team players get paid what they’re worth and wanting to be competitive at the top end of the table doesn’t come cheap.

“The owner and the board put in cash, but they haven’t got an endless pit of money, so you have to bring in other revenue streams and one of them for us is using our corporate hospitality facility for parties, meetings and training courses, things like that.”

It is not cheap getting the club up to the required standard, in IMG and the RFL’s eyes at least, for a place in Super League in 2025.

But Hirst knows Bradford don’t have to just throw obscene amounts of cash at their top-flight assault.

He said: “Winning games is the main thing we can do, first and foremost, to boost our chances of getting into Super League next year.

“We want to get into the 1895 Cup final and win it, finish as high as we can in the Championship and win the Grand Final.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Bulls were only 80 minutes away from the Championship Grand Final in 2023, which will give them real hope heading into this season.Bulls were only 80 minutes away from the Championship Grand Final in 2023, which will give them real hope heading into this season. (Image: Tom Pearson.)

“Off the field, we have to continue the great work we’re doing on social media, which is testament to the team involved in that side of things.

“We’re getting stronger with that month by month and seeing our number of followers and engagements go up on our various social media platforms.

“There’s also the work we do in the community, and with part of the IMG score being about your club’s Foundation and its turnover, we’re grateful that ours at Bulls does great work, led by its CEO Chris Chamberlain.

“The other thing we can work on is finances and making sure they’re in order.

“We are a financially well-run club and that hasn’t always been the case, but it is under the current leadership team here.”