The Square Ball Week: Look Homeward, Andrea
You can’t describe Andrea Radrizzani as GFH with a smile because all they ever did was smile.
They set their teeth to dazzle and hoped you didn’t notice where their hands were, and despite the best efforts of some meddling kids to unmask them, their smiles never left them. Not when they sold to Massimo Cellino, not when the down payments on their debt arrive in the company account.
The parallels exist, though, and they have made the recent rave of good news from Elland Road a strangely discomfiting experience for some of us who remember the blistering new dawn when Mathieu Smith’s forehead linked Jason Pearce’s long punt from defence to Luke Murphy’s late run from midfield, and our new million pound midfielder broke Brighton’s defence in the last seconds of the game and broke the desperate fast of the Ken Bates years.
There’s the first parallel. The crowd pleasing midfielder signed for more money than we’d dreamed a football club like ours could spend: for Luke Murphy, read Mateusz Klich. GFH’s next move that summer was to give Leeds United something that was witchcraft to Bates: a brand identity, expressed through an advertising campaign that linked the club to the city. At first this was a banner advertising season tickets fixed to a fence on Kirkstall Road by cable-ties — a world away from the digital advertising hoardings and new external banners Radrizzani is promising at Elland Road — but it was soon followed by adverts on buses, even a city centre shop, and Leeds no longer felt like a defootballised zone.
GFH even beat Radrizzani to the line on the links to Leeds United Ladies, who during GFH’s time had the luck of David Haigh as their chair. Radrizzani’s move has been to restore ‘United’ to the club’s name and status, repairing a link broken during Massimo Cellino’s time. It’s worth pausing here, because long time readers may remember the coverage I used to give to the resurrected Leeds Ladies FC both here and in The Square Ball.
A lot of dedicated people who gave their all to keeping Leeds Ladies alive should feel very proud that their work ensured it could be returned to its parent club at last. Unfortunately very few of those people are still involved now. In November 2015 the club made an absurd decision to promote former assistant goalkeeping coach Lee Townend, via coaching the juniors, to Director of Football, and install a coach, Lewis Atkinson, who had coached them before, through a disastrous relegation. Within weeks a tight-knit family of quality players, many of whom had committed to the phoenix club in 2014 before its place in the league had been confirmed by The FA and played friendlies that summer in borrowed kit just to keep the team alive, had left, bitterly frustrated by the behaviour of the new regime.
I’ve never seen a group of players and staff so devoted to each other and to a club as the group that, in the first season and a half after they were cut adrift from United, put Leeds Ladies back on its feet, and it was a pleasure for me to watch them home and away, recording and promoting their progress. But within a few weeks of Townend taking over, the heart had been ripped out of the club.
For the few experienced players who stuck it out to the end of the season the last straw was the County Cup Final, when the team of youngsters was effectively thrown under a bus against a superior Bradford City side. In the absence of any competent advice from the bench, the elder players who had stayed due to a feeling of responsibility to the club had to coach the sixteen year olds on the pitch with them through a 6-0 defeat. I’ve rarely seen such good footballers so thoroughly demoralised as the Leeds players, young and old, that night.
The poor reputation of the club last summer made it difficult to sign players locally, but Townend still boasted of identifying and signing a former Napoli forward with “a wealth of experience having played elite women’s football in Italy”, who Google revealed to be an eighteen year old who had spent the previous season on the bench of an amateur side in Naples. She quickly disappeared, as did the much heralded ‘three first teams’ structure, along with any players who showed any promise and got a better offer. In the games I saw them play, Leeds were set up to attempt to profit from their opponents’ mistakes, while Atkinson bellowed from the sidelines at talented but confused Estonian teenagers (“I was screaming at you to stay onside!”). After finishing 5th in 2015/16, Leeds dropped to 8th in 2016/17, five points from relegation. Off the pitch, soon after Andrea Radrizzani expressed a public interest in the club, Townend ensured his elevation to the chair this summer, and has taken the photo opportunity and the credit for reuniting Leeds Ladies with United, credit he doesn’t deserve.
A strong women’s club in Leeds is important — at the moment that club is Guiseley Vixens, clear and deserved winners of promotion from Leeds’ division last season. That Leeds United Ladies should be competitive is important, because with due respect to Guiseley, with the weight of its parent club and brand behind it Leeds United Ladies can be magnetic in a way the Vixens can’t. Hopefully Andrea Radrizzani’s interest is more than just GFH-style symbolism and he intends to give the women’s team the support it needs for promotion to the Premier League North and, beyond that, the Super League. If so, his first step should be to clear away its current management and give it new staff commensurate with the standards of the rest of Leeds United.
The firmest indication that Radrizzani’s intentions are true, that he is more than GFH with a smile, and that he is doing more this summer than picking off the easy crowd pleasing victories GFH went for, is the repurchase of Elland Road. Unless Andrea has pulled off a spectacular illusion on a par with making the whole damn stadium disappear, this was the most symbolic move of all because it moved Radrizzani beyond symbolism. Digital ad boards and some sexy European signings? Easy stuff. Repurchasing our home? That’s real.
The symbolism shouldn’t be underrated, though. There are various haunting reminders of Leeds United’s fall scattered throughout the football world that make the heart twinge: James Milner, for example, is a living, breathing what-might-have-been floating through the Premier League and Europe like a friendly ghost we’re not friends with anymore. Milner isn’t on our doorstep the way Elland Road is, though. He’s kind enough to keep a respectful distance, whereas we’ve had to bump into Elland Road every other week since the day we broke up.
Then there’s the principle. If Jacob Adler has enjoyed a more lucrative property deal in the last fifteen years, I wish he’d cut me in. Elland Road was sold for £8m, but more than £15m has been paid since in rent, and now the buyback price of around £17m has been chucked on top. Nice work if you can get it, but it was high time that particular path to profit was closed.
That leads to practicalities, that were thankfully mentioned in the club’s announcement of the purchase. “Leeds United is able to significantly reduce its expenditure as the considerable rental fees can now be directed towards the academy, the squad and improvements to the stadium,” and that was always the bottom line argument for getting this Adlertross out of Leeds United’s accounts: the club no longer has to write off its first £1.7m of the year (and rising) as rent. If just half of that is spent on the Academy between now and 2029 (when the lease on Elland Road was due to end) I wager we’ll feel the difference.
The symbolism, the principle, and the practicalities are all underscored by trust. After Ridsdale, McKenzie, Krasner, Bates, GFH and Cellino, plus the various cameos along the way (shout outs to Simon Morris and Geoffrey Richmond for a start), I am — and I feel Leeds fans should be — slow to trust. Hence this article’s opening paragraphs of unimpressed cynicism. We’ve fallen head over heels for this kind of thing before, only to realise later what we’d actually fallen for.
Buying Elland Road is different though. It moves Radrizzani from the ranks of talkers into the ranks of doers and moves his early achievements from the shallows to the depths. We have our benchmark now: when Andrea Radrizzani says something, we can expect he’ll do it. That’s one small step for Leeds fans, but a giant leap from Massimo Cellino.
To me there’s still a question of how much trust Radrizzani should be afforded now, and my answer is, despite everything, as little as is polite. Among the rewards I’ve seen suggested for Andrea are statues and the freedom of the city — that’s tongue in cheek, sure, but I suspect we’ll be back to singing the owner’s name once the season is underway — along with carte blanche to get on with running Leeds United without oversight: “There’s nothing to investigate.” That’s wrong. There’s always something to investigate, even if it only makes the investigated look even cleaner than before.
It’s been great with Radrizzani so far because the things he’s done are things we’ve wanted him to do, and that we’ve wanted someone to do for years. That doesn’t mean there will never be conflict. As I wrote back in January when I looked into his background and tried to work out why Radrizzani might want to own Leeds United in the first place, I suspect it’s a mixture of vanity (his senior business partner lives a high life co-owning Miami FC, with Paulo Maldini, in the NASL) and opportunity in the ever-changing world of broadcasting technology, from internet streaming to virtual reality, that his other business Baofong, in China, explores. Digital advertising hoardings are one thing, and being run like a ‘proper’ football club is another. But is Leeds United’s old-school identity ready for us to skip right past goal music to White Hart Lane style cheese bars and virtual reality? We might have to be ready, because Radrizzani might want to get us there first.
Then there’s the question of an endgame. It’s too early — and from the buzz of this first-hit high, too much of a bringdown — to think of life after Radrizzani, but here I am thinking about it anyway. And so is he. His grand project — of which buying Elland Road seems to be first part, but of which we’ve seen no actual details — is named Elland Road 2020. Two years after that, if Radrizzani hasn’t cracked the Premier League, he might well be off.
“I’m younger than Massimo so I will say five years is my timeline,” he said on his first press day. “If I haven’t done a project in five years, and achieved the Premier League in five years, then I’ve probably failed in my objective and it is right that someone else might try.”
That doesn’t send shivers the way GFH’s description of Leeds United did — an “asset held for sale” was what we were to them — but it does provide a reason and framework for vigilance. In a very short time Radrizzani has spent a lot of money, paying GFH into a manageable corner and splashing big on the stadium, and more seems to be flowing, as the transfer rumours are becoming increasingly bewildering, and then turning out to be real. This is the investment Leeds United has needed for years — but what are the terms? And what might that “someone else” find when it’s their turn to have a go? Elland Road is now the property of Greenfield Investment Pte. Ltd, a structure that keeps its value away from GFH, but also something we should keep in mind, against the day we might wish we could remember it.
The best thing about the people who own football clubs is that, as a fan, you don’t have to love them. That’s something Massimo Cellino, and his need to be front and centre of our affections, never respected. We do have to love the players, as is made clear by the anger-filled chasms that appear when a player proves himself unworthy of our love. But neither Salem Patel, Massimo Cellino or Andrea Radrizzani are ever going to score the vital goal that secures a title or wins a cup, so there should be no shame in remaining emotionally neutral towards the guys in the boardroom.
There is no disrespect in scepticism, either, and it’s a better level than Cellino style loyalty at all costs. It will be easier to measure Radrizzani, in the longer run, by his responses to criticism than by how he laps the plaudits. And there will undoubtedly be criticism: the appointment of Thomas Christiansen was not universally well received (Hockaday with a clue?) and each new signing is raising expectations proportional to their mystery (We’ve signed who?! They’d bloody better be good!). If we can communicate displeasure without being force fed revenge pies then it’ll be healthier all round, but in order to find out, we have to be ready to communicate displeasure, and not hush dissent out of awe that someone is actually treating the club well for a change.
None of this denies gratitude either. Radrizzani is doing good things and deserves the credit due. This week he’s made a lot of Leeds fans — me included, just in case there’s any doubt — happier than anyone in his position has for many years, and he deserves a glass raising for that. I’d even let him buy me a drink. I’ll be saving the sedan chair for Mateusz Klich, though, because even from this newly optimistic point, there is still much to be done, and there are still questions to be asked.
Perhaps I don’t know I’m born. Maybe I’ve lost sight of a year ago, when I was speculating whether we should bet on stability and keep Steve Evans, then pinning my hopes on Matt Grimes to make us forget Lewis Cook (I still haven’t forgotten Lewis Cook, although Ronaldo Vieira did his best). I’d much rather be starting next season from where we are than where we were. Perhaps I’m just of such a depressive bent that even being whacked around the face with an inflatable model of Elland Road can’t smack a smile onto my face (and picture that, it would be funny).
Or maybe I’m right, that optimism doesn’t mean you have to drop scepticism, that some good doesn’t ensure never bad, that you only have to unconditionally love a footballer or a football ground, while a football chairman gets more conditions than a prenup with the Trump of your choice.
Andrea Radrizzani has an unequivocal pass for his efforts so far, with flying blue, yellow and white. But he — and we — should understand that this is an examination that never ends, and it’s better that way, for him and for us.
Do You Want To Win?, a 364 page hardback book and DVD, are available to order here now. You can watch the trailer below.