Much to the chagrin of the younger members of the Johnson family, who would have much preferred to watch any number of Christmas TV specials, I spent an enjoyable Christmas Eve afternoon acting as a dictator in my own home and watching the English Aviva Premiership encounter between Northampton Saints and Bath Rugby.
The home side’s 22-13 win wasn’t so much down to the Saints’ cutting edge thrust as the totally lacklustre Bath performance, especially in a first half when they were frankly unrecognisable as a credible top flight club side. This was clearly not the kind of return that unfeasibly rich businessman Bruce Craig would have expected 18 months after buying the club.
The lifelong Bath supporter, who himself played in France with Racing Metro for five years, had galvanised the entire West Country club when he first came on board. His opening gambit had been to offer Bath Farleigh House, a delightful 17th century manor house, with the intention of turning it into the club’s administrative and training headquarters. It really was some gift. Craig was also happy to dig into his spectacularly deep pockets from the off in the quest to superannuate the Bath playing and coaching staff. Most notable amongst the recruits have been England’s skipper at the time, Lewis Moody, and coaching legend Sir Ian McGeechan. Yet so far the success that everyone so craves has been frustratingly elusive. Knocked out of this season’s Heineken Cup after a sobering thumping at the hands of Irish outfit Leinster the previous week, after the Christmas Eve debacle Bath now lie in 10th place in the 12-team Aviva Premiership, looking nervously over their shoulders at the relegation zone. They fully expected to be challenging for honours this season.
But the thing is this. What people tend to forget is that money can always buy you success in sport. But it can’t buy it immediately, no matter how much people might desire it. Science plays a part in sport, but sport isn’t an exact science. Creating team chemistry, a blend and a spirit that eventually breeds success is an alchemistic activity that requires patience and dedication, two attributes that are always in short supply in the results-dominated world of pro sport. Craig seems like a reasonable chap. He’s been on a rugby pitch often enough to understand these things. But I suspect he’s still having a terrible time dealing with what will seem to him like an interminable wait for Bath to punch their weight.
But if Bruce is feeling a bit down in the mouth this Christmas, maybe he should take a look at the investment lavished on another English sporting institution, Manchester City FC. Bought by a mind-bogglingly loaded Abu Dhabi consortium in September of 2008, the new owners ploughed eye-watering sums into the club from Day One, but have so far only reaped one tangible reward, the FA Cup that City won last season. Two and a half years for a trophy that has been seriously devalued over recent times doesn’t sound like much, does it? And to be fair it isn’t. It’s the equivalent of Bath winning the LV= Cup after 30 months. But of course that’s only half of the story. City have been building solidly and conscientiously since the takeover. Infrastructure has changed beyond all recognition. Facilities too. And an academy system is being put in place that will quickly allow the club to be self-sufficient in the future. Oh, and the team has improved immeasurably. City’s trophy cabinet might still be fairly uninspiring, but there’s nothing so certain as that the pots will arrive in good time. And when they do come they’ll be many.
Bath have the financial clout, but they don’t have the results to match. Yes, it’s frustrating if you’re a Bath fan. But despite their proud history, the stark reality is that Bath haven’t been a force in the English game for 15 years. That’s a long, long time. They’re not suddenly going to turn up at the top table and start shouting the odds. No chance. But with the kind of backing they have it’s inconceivable that Bath won’t be a major player within three years. Is it really all that long to wait under the circumstances? It doesn’t look like it to me.
There’s always extra pressure on the clubs with the bucks. They’re there to be shot at and schadenfreude is in plentiful supply when things aren’t going well. Everybody loves to cut down a tall poppy. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Bath will have the last laugh. Bruce Craig is serious in his ambitions, he has real money and he won’t be blown off course by a few stormy seas. Bath are coming and the rest of England’s rugby elite had better get used to it. It doesn’t give me an awful lot of pleasure to admit it being a Leicester Tigers fan, of course. But facts are facts. Where sport is concerned money always talks, even if it takes a wee while for its voice to be heard.