Jon Lansdown on buyouts, budgets and why Liam Manning can raise the bar at Bristol City

Bristol City chairman Jon Lansdown has indicated a sale, or partial sale, of the Robins remains in the future for now as the family search for the “right partner”, three years after Steve Lansdown first announced his intention to seek outside investment.

Lansdown Snr’s involvement with City dates back to 1996 and has personally spent around £250 million to meet various financial obligations but in April 2021 told 3 Peaps in a Podcast, “we are actively looking for other investors to come into the football club to expand our brand and grow the club.”

The Football League was hit hard by Covid-19, as the transfer market collapsed and it all became too much for some with a number of current or recent fellow Championship clubs sold since: Hull City to Turkish media magnate Acun Ilicali, Southampton to investment firm Sport Republic, and in the cases of Leeds United, Ipswich Town, Birmingham City, Huddersfield Town, Norwich City and West Brom to American investors.

City are established as a solid Championship outfit and are preparing for a 10th-straight season in the division but with their highest finish having been eighth, their lowest 19th and an average placing of 14th during that span, there is a growing frustration from fans of patiently treading water for a promotion bid that will never materialise.

The concept of a succession plan has long been mooted as Steve Lansdown’s position has become far less public-facing than before, since he passed his 70th birthday, but City remain very much under the stewardship of the family.

Steve Lansdown has called Guernsey home for several years now, and such are the family ties to the area and the work they’ve done in modernising Ashton Gate and building the High Performance Centre to carry the club through the 21st century, they don’t want to threaten that by seeking the wrong kind of investment.

Everton are a case in point with the proposed ill-fated takeover of 777 Partners on the brink of collapse after a deal was agreed in September as the US-based investment firm have called in bankruptcy specialists. Meanwhile, League One Reading continue to be beset by penalties for various irregularities by the EFL as owner Dai Yongge has presided over catastrophic financial losses.

“You've got to find the right partner, is the key from my point of view and if there’s someone who just says, ‘right, I want to buy a football club’, well there are lots of football clubs for sale, because of the finances, the lack of help and whatever else,” Lansdown told Bristol Live, with reference to the financial impact of Covid-19 and continuing arguments around the redistribution of Premier League revenues. “You’ve got to get someone who buys into what this is, and also it depends on what position they think your club is in.

“We’re in a very strong position now for someone to come in and have a push, we’ve got a very strong base from which to do it from, but at the same time, we’re not just going to hand it over to anybody because we care about the place. It’s making sure, as much as you can, it’ll get looked after, at whatever point that happens.

“It’s not like we’re saying we’re going to get rid of something now, it’s just at some point you have to look at succession planning, and that could take however long it takes, especially if you’re looking for the right partner.

“It’s not like, right, we’re looking for investment, it’s going to be sold tomorrow, it’s ‘guys, we’re open to this, this is what we are’. Obviously we’ve talked to loads of different people but even if you do find someone who’s right on both sides, it still takes a long time to go through the process. It’s not something I’m expecting an imminent update on.”

Evidently the Lansdowns are being especially selective over who next takes the club on, whether that be due to the sources of the money from the proposed investors, their own plans or because they would ideally like to retain a stake in the club that some interested parties may not be willing to leave for them.

There have often been discussions around exactly what a takeover would look like given City fall under the overall Bristol Sport umbrella alongside Bristol City Women, Bristol Bears and Bristol Flyers, but Jon Lansdown told BBC Radio Bristol earlier this month that wouldn’t be a problem, as such, should someone just want to buy the football club independent of the rest.

“For me, it’s someone who comes in and helps you take it to the next level, right? That’s financially, expertise-wise, it’s just got to be somebody who’s the right fit. You’re looking for a partner, for want of a better word, who can help push the club to the next level, however that might be,” Lansdown added.

“It’s something I care about. I wouldn’t want to see what we’ve built taken down. I’m not naive, it depends who comes in. You might have someone who says they want to be with you on this journey, you might have somebody who says ‘I want it’, and then it’s a question of how do you manage that?

“You want someone who gets it for the right reasons, who understands the community element, and everything else. You want someone who has similar values as you so you’re either leaving it in good hands or partnering up with somebody who will work.”

In the here and now then, City are through the challenging financial landscape of Covid and although their losses published for 2022/23 stood at £22.2m, it’s been a steady reduction from the record high of £38.4m for 2020/21 and with the wage bill also being incrementally reduced, there’s a feeling the worst is behind them.

In tandem, and those within the club very much insist it’s through design and judgement rather than fortune, the Robins are preparing for arguably one of their most settled off-seasons for some time. Previous summers have either been dominated by the amount of senior figures out of contract and/or the prospect of a big sale or players wanting to leave.

With the exception of the uncertainty around Tommy Conway, as he enters the final 12 months of his deal, and the decision to release Matty James, there seems to be a distinct lack of drama around the next three months. At this stage, anyway, given it’s not always sensible to forecast due to the potential for the unexpected.

Lansdown, though, does subscribe to the theory that the club, as a whole, feels more settled having come through the “financial reset” as dubbed by former CEO Richard Gould before he left last year for the ECB.

“We’re well-positioned in the sense we’re stable, we have a lot of players under contract that we want under contract,” Lansdown said. “We’ve had the last few years of getting things back under control.

"With the academy, we’ve got players coming through that system and you can see a really strong pipeline of opportunity on the way - we’re not going to rely on it but you can see there are more experienced academy graduates in the team who are playing a lot, which is great.

"You want your blocks of academy graduates getting older and becoming the regulars of the team in the future. We’ve had four academy debuts and two Football League debuts, so there’s always that progress.

“Performances are improving, (and) you can see from a head coach point of view, we have shown improvements certainly towards the end of the season. So with an off-season you can look positively forward on that and then you’re trying to add to it with good recruitment.”

That recruitment will largely be focused on the top end of the pitch this summer, given City were a top six side defensively last season and a bottom half-quality one in an attacking sense, with head coach Liam Manning declaring his desire for a striker, playmaker and a winger.

All are positions which tend to be on the upper end of the scale when it comes to the transfer market, as opposed to last summer when the Robins were mainly shopping for defensive-minded players, but Lansdown insists City are in a financial position to move early in the market and not have to wait for a sale before trying to secure a target.

As was the case last summer when Rob Dickie, Ross McCrorie, Haydon Roberts and Jason Knight were all signed prior to Alex Scott’s £25m sale and Lansdown, slightly intriguing, has indicated those signings were made irrespective of what would happen with the England Under-21 international who was eventually sold to Bournemouth after the season had kicked off.

“There’s always flexibility, even if you look at last summer,” Lansdown said. “It was overshadowed by Alex but we did a lot of business early not knowing Alex was definitely going, so that puts you in a really good position.

“If you’re in a position to identify exactly who you want and you can do it at that point, it puts you ahead of lots of clubs, so it’s a really good time to be organised enough to know exactly what you want and identity who you want to be able to physically do it makes a huge difference. And that’s something I will always try and push for.”

Lansdown is understandably reluctant to give away figures, given that would very much show City’s hand in transfer negotiations but estimates, based on historic data, the budget Manning and technical director Brian Tinnion has been permitted to spend this summer would roughly rank “around 10th-12th”, with the frustration that due to the delay over the discussion around Premier League redistribution, Championship clubs are effectively down £3.5m each from financial forecasts earlier in the season.

If accurate, that would place City pretty much exactly where they finished in 2023/24, in 11th, and so to bridge the gap between mid-table and top six, they have to be smart with their recruitment, seeking value and potential upside from the individuals brought to BS3, but also there is strong focus on the head coach to out-perform his budget.

With the three clubs coming down from the Premier League and Watford and Norwich City still in receipt of parachute payments, there will be a natural imbalance and an uneven playing field in the second tier but there is still a confidence the Robins can make the jump, without overspending and running financial risks later on down the line.

“We have a very set way of what we’re looking for, in terms of what type of player we recruit in the first-team and what they can do as a minimum physically and athletically and therefore you’re looking for the same in the academy,” Lansdown said.

“Having that focus is absolute key if you want to be one of those non-parachute payment teams, without a huge push or taking a risk that could come back and bite you to get over the line.

“From our point of view, not a lot has changed in terms of our philosophy. We may have gone not away from it but had a go in terms of signings and bigger wages [summer 2019 in which City broke their transfer record and swelled the wage bill to more than £30m] but then you have the back-end of that because the transfer market fell away and I still don’t think it’s fully back in that sense.

"It’s therefore, how do you get that back in order to get that right? For us, we still want to recruit younger players. I certainly think the way we play is suited to younger players in terms of a high-energy game with physicality.”

Nobody in the hierarchy is going to say it but a large part of this probably influenced the decision to sack Nigel Pearson in October. Ultimately, there was a feeling he had hit a glass ceiling in terms of what he could do with this squad but, more crucially, the budget afforded to him.

The theory seems to have been, without investing heavily, were City going to vastly improve under the 60-year-old's guidance? Clearly there is a confidence that Manning can get more out of not just this squad, but those graduating from the academy and whatever recruitment he chooses to make, so a top-10 budget can become a top-six team, now he's got his feet under the table.

“The way he handles himself, his attention to detail, the work rate, how he is with the players in terms of individually - you can see individual improvement as well as team improvement,” Lansdown said of Manning. “And it’s difficult when you’ve joined, having not managed in the league in a really busy campaign. We have been playing a game every 3-4 days, in reality.

“You can see an improvement after our last international break where we’ve had a couple of weeks (training). So you like to think, okay, well if we’ve got six weeks to really set it, how much are you going to improve? And that’s with any player or coach adjusting to the division and once you’ve seen four, five, six months, you’ve seen everything you need to see, so therefore you’ve got a real chance to then hit the ground running next year.”

Because of the popularity of Pearson and the bewilderment from sections of the fanbase following his dismissal, further frustrated by the various proclamations from above as to what was expected of this team, external pressure on Manning was almost instantaneous once a bad run was experienced.

City’s five defeats from six prior to the March international break didn't create a particular pleasant atmosphere around the club, as the FA Cup win over West Ham, victories in the league against Middlesbrough, Hull City and Southampton were seen as outliers not signs of a brighter future.

Internally, however, the pre-Easter wobble, particularly in the three straight defeats to QPR, Sheffield Wednesday and Cardiff City was maybe not expected but at least anticipated, and having emerged through it to end the season, Stoke-aside, with a flourish as they went seven games unbeaten, it was all part of the development arc.

“We’ve watched football long enough to know we’ll have ups and downs," Lansdown said. "We’ve beaten some of the top teams, in the FA Cup as well, and then we’ve followed it up by struggling against teams at the bottom. How would you take that? Well, if you see everything else that’s going on and the improvement, you go ‘great, we can beat the top teams, should be easier to learn about to beat the bottom teams'.

“If you can do the harder bits, you should be able to fill in the other bits - I’m not saying they’re easy, but some are harder to achieve than others. You want to see all the signs and in a perfect world everything clicks together and you’ll be fine but lines of progress are never that straightforward.

“Your only concern is keeping your people on the right path because everyone’s human, they need help right through good and bad times. That’s all you want, to give them the confidence and help to get things back on track.”

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