The Square Ball Week: Peter Rabbit

In 2017-18, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Peter Ridsdale used to wear the same expression in interviews, answer questions in the same tone.

Pitching at open and honest, he’d end up looking and sounding like what he was: exasperated and confused. “Yes, but,” he’d say. “Yes, but. But if you look at it the other way. That’s right, but I have to see it differently. Yes, but.” He used to fill the screen; even when he wasn’t wearing his enormous raincoat over his shoulders like the Phantom of the Opera’s cape, he was shoulder to shoulder across the old 4:3 ratio sets. With Andrea Radrizzani, in the new age of widescreen 16:9, you at least see a bit of the room behind him.

But you can see on Radrizzani’s face, and this week on TalkSport hear in his voice, the same frustration that used to vex Ridsdale. Football is not like other businesses. Football fans are not like other customers. As fans themselves, they assumed they knew what would please the fans. As businesspeople, they thought they could align team, fans and bank, to everybody’s satisfaction. They didn’t take into account how little satisfaction football gives to go round.

“I say this as a fan,” Ridsdale would say, but he was forced to balance it with, “But I have responsibility to shareholders as chairman of a PLC.” He couldn’t please them both; and if he happened to have Terry Venables sat next to him, there was someone else he couldn’t please either. No matter how he tried to explain the business situation to the fans, or the football situation to the bankers, or what the hell was going on with everything to Venables, the others would hear, and they wouldn’t like what they heard. Football has scant patience for your problems, precious little interest in your purview. Save the explanations. Just win football games, make a profit, and don’t sell Jonathan Woodgate.

Or Pontus Jansson. Andrea Radrizzani isn’t a born Leeds United fan the way Peter Ridsdale insisted he was; did he ever tell you about the time he queued for tickets for the 1965 FA Cup Final? But I don’t doubt he has fallen for the club, hard. Jonathan Woodgate once claimed his favourite teams were Leeds United, Leeds United reserves, Leeds United youth teams, Leeds United Ladies, Leeds City Boys, Leeds Chess Club and so on, and Middlesbrough, but Radrizzani was his rival at the start of the season, bringing back the women’s team and attending their training sessions, popping along to the Foundation’s coaching courses, dishing out the flags and the scarves and the salutes, as zealous as any new convert. Then he saw us play at Middlesbrough, and if he hadn’t worked it out already, he knew now: being a Leeds United fan is usually fucking rubbish.

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We’re used to that, but to Radrizzani, who built a billion-pound business selling the gloss of sport, pushing up the price of rights to broadcast all the thrills and drama of top class football, it seems to have come as a shock, and he has spent most of 2018 trying to explain it away. Hence this week, when he blamed the players for their lack of commitment and passion. “As a club we support them in everything,” he said, sounding defiant. “We gave them long-term contracts, we supported them going to a mid-season camp in Spain. We did everything they wanted,” he went on, now sounding bewildered, “but we didn’t get back their commitment, passion and the spirit.”

Throughout all Radrizzani’s interviews, since he gave the apology nobody wanted for hiring Thomas Christiansen, has run this same vein, something desperate behind the words and behind the eyes, if you can see them behind the teeth: the question he seems to be asking himself and others, ‘How can this be?’ He made every decision in good faith, he took lots of sensible steps forward, he gave the players everything, created all the conditions for success, and it didn’t work. How can that be?

The thing is, nobody cares, and the problem is, Radrizzani has fallen into the trap of thinking people should care. Like Ridsdale, he has become driven by a need for everyone to know that he did his best, that someone at least was doing their job properly. It’s a mea culpa, of sorts; Radrizzani accepts responsibility, of a sort. “I’m the first to be taking these questions about the season,” he says. “And I think there is possibility that I made mistakes, we made mistakes, the management, me for sure as the first representative of the club. We need to understand which mistakes we’ve done and to try to undo it. Me first and the rest of the management of the players, everybody, we are in the same boat, so we need to work on a solution to be a better club together.” So, there’s a possibility he made mistakes. But he’s not sure which mistakes were his fault yet, so in the meantime, he’ll point out what he did right, and hope everyone listens to him.

They listened, but they didn’t hear what he thought he was saying. As with the tweets about Wolves — “I used the occasion to raise something which nobody had given me attention about for months. Sadly, finally I got some attention” — he expected rousing support, a mandate to carry on with the good work he’s been doing, and maybe let us know if he thinks of something he could possibly have done better. But football doesn’t work like that, as Ridsdale could have told him.

“We lived the dream,” he once said, imagining himself the Martin Luther King of LS11. “We enjoyed the dream. Only by making the right decisions today can we rekindle the dream in the future. The future’s brighter for all Leeds United fans today because we took the tough decisions.” He expected that to be heard as a rallying call, for fans to get behind him and his tough decisions because they’d like some more dream, please. Instead, it was his epitaph, except he was still alive and still trying to explain exactly what he’d meant to journalists ten years later.

Ridsdale and Radrizzani are similar in that they both entered professional football at the top; Ridsdale’s previous experience was human resources and senior management at Burton and QVC, Radrizzani’s was media rights. Perhaps that lack of experience is what has led them both down the same troubled paths, although Ridsdale did have the buffer of the magical Champions League years to give him a dream to wistfully turn back to when things finally went wrong. Failure has hit Radrizzani in his first season like a truck, and not even his master’s degree in public relations — a benefit Publicity Pete didn’t enjoy — has kept him clear of trouble.

Neither has Ivan Bravo. Victor Orta and his “weapon’s grade contacts book” is often spoken about as Radrizzani’s front-line defence against football inexperience, although Orta has come to look like an entirely different sort of weapon as the season as gone on. Ivan Bravo, though, is just the military intelligence Radrizzani needs in his arsenal — he was Real Madrid’s Director of Strategy for seven years, “leading on both sports and business fronts”, during which time they broke a trophy drought of four years with back to back La Liga titles, while “solidifying its position as the world’s largest club in terms of revenues”. He has been Director General of Qatar’s Aspire Academy since 2011, and since the summer, a member of the board of Leeds United, with Radrizzani and investment strategist Andre Tegner.

Although based in Qatar, Bravo has hardly been absent. There’s no shortage of ways he could spend his weekends; Aspire own Cultural Leonesa in Spain and KAS Eupen in Belgium, so he could go and watch them; through a technical link with Aspire, his good mate Miguel Ángel Portugal is manager of Delhi Dynamos, so he could take in some Indian Super League action. Bayern Munich recently did some winter training at Aspire, so no doubt he could get his hands on some Bundesliga comps. Even so, a weekend off is something of a luxury, as this World Cup year is an important milestone in the build up to Qatar’s own in 2022. But despite all those demands for his attention, Bravo has been a regular at Leeds games this season, devoting a surprising amount of time to watching the team, at least.

Radrizzani might be entitled to expect a little more help from his fellow board member. The most striking thing about his one-to-one interviews with Phil Hay, Dan Roan and Jim White in 2018, is how alone he looks out there; again, like Ridsdale, whose solution to the hounding he felt he was getting was to make more and more media appearances, creating more and more reasons to hound him. He was trying to get everybody’s attention onto the important issues affecting Leeds United, so why, after his fifteen minute interview on national radio or television, was everybody’s attention on him?

There are some football chairmen who welcome the exposure. Peterborough’s Darragh MacAnthony loves having his say on Twitter. Simon Jordan combined owning Crystal Palace with a newspaper column, and now often works as a radio pundit. As I discussed the other week, football matches are increasingly becoming interruptions to the important matter of reporting what people are saying about football matches; as in this article, for example. ‘Stay tuned,’ commentators say, as a nailbiting match edges towards a spellbinding conclusion, ‘It’ll be very interesting to hear what both managers have to say about this one.’ What’s been the biggest football story this week, Lionel Messi’s soccer brilliance against Chelsea, or Jamie Carragher’s flobby petulance while stuck in traffic?

Glancing apprehensively from interviewer to camera, trying to mentally translate Italian thought at speed into English speech, not looking sure what the hell he’s doing in this conversation anyway, this seems to be one area where Radrizzani would be more content not to be at the cutting edge of football’s future. And yet there he is, chatting away for all he’s worth, heedless of strategy, or his strategist. A simple Skype to Qatar might do it — ‘Ivan, I’m thinking of going on the radio to criticise the players’ commitment, is that a good idea?’ ‘I dunno Andrea, is that Berardi guy still there?’ — but if Bravo has anything to contribute, he’s been keeping it well hidden.

Or maybe that’s the problem. The trouble Ridsdale had with staying on-message was that he was trying to please, or at least appease, too many people at once. The fans, the shareholders, the manager, the players, their agents, the media; by trying to prove his decisions accounted for all their interests, Ridsdale only proved that his decisions were benefiting none.

Add to that mixture a silent board member who knows everything about the business of football you don’t, whose day job involves the expenditure of billions of petrodollars you’ll never have, working on behalf of people who have power you can only tremble before, and you may find another string to Radrizzani’s bow of woe. (Ridsdale had one of those too, until he sold it to West Ham.) But there, too, lie many of Radrizzani’s advantages, and the Wolves affair might be a way of getting the go-ahead to let Ivan Bravo test Jorge Mendes’ super-agent credentials in some sort of Spiderman vs Batman fight for the most expensive Champions League loanee for the most generous terms. Then again, if Bravo was going to do that, you’d think he would have done it by now, instead of calmly sitting through defeat after defeat then playing dumb at dinner when Radrizzani asks for some wise ideas.

The wisest idea of all might be to just shut up for a while. Until the transfer window reopens, the only substantial contribution Radrizzani and his executive team can make is to prepare for the transfer window to open, to sell our bad players and buy good ones. Until that’s done, nothing Radrizzani can say about what he’s going to do, or has done, or why it hasn’t worked, or who is to blame, can help. Work in the boardroom and leave the other stuff to the fans, and don’t make the mistake Peter Ridsdale made of forgetting on which side of the plexiglass walls you sit. ◉

(feature image by Paul Kent)

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