Leeds United’s accounts for the 2018/19 season have the hashtag nofilter honesty of a celebrity posting on Instagram in the third week of coronavirus lockdown to ask if they should, relatably, shower.
It’s the unvarnished view of the football club as what it is, and it’s a relief to find that it’s a real football club. Or it’s as close to one as a posed bedhead selfie, or a 28 page pdf, can be. We can strip away the artifice and be real with each other as long as we remember that nothing that you’ve downloaded from the internet is ever really real, even if, or especially if, it came from Companies House.
Seeing just might be believing this year, though. Reading Leeds United’s accounts used to be like diffusing a booby trapped house, Companies House the one place on the internet Massimo Cellino couldn’t upload a photo of his daughter’s cleavage to hide behind. It was in company accounts that Gulf Finance House’s blather about long term football strategies was contradicted by Leeds United’s listing as ‘an asset held for sale’; under Ken Bates, we searched in vain for Simon’s famous pot of transfer funds, finding instead mortgages, inter-company loans, construction costs and legal bills. The executive summary would always claim that Leeds United’s principle business was being a football club, but in the pages that followed football looked like an afterthought.
The hope of Andrea Radrizzani’s first season in sole charge, and the pleasure of his second and third, has been the restoration of the club’s mission to win football games. Anger closed upon Bates, GFH and Cellino because they reneged on the deal at the centre of every football club: that fans buy tickets and merchandise, owners and sponsors invest, the manager spends the money on players, and the team tries to win as many matches as it can.
It was extraordinary to watch, during the Bates era in particular, as fans defended the spending of their season ticket money on hotel plans and libel defences, and Leeds United strayed further and further from that simple expression of itself as a club with a football team. And we shouldn’t underestimate how difficult it has been to make Leeds feel like itself again. In many ways, a hotel complex was easy to sell to supporters because of the perception that bricks and mortar mean guaranteed returns on investment. The perception of Paul Heckingbottom was that we’d have been better off spending £500,000 on Barnsley Travelodge.
Radrizzani had to wander in that slagheap wilderness for a while, and hand in hand along the beach with the delightful but flummoxed Thomas Christiansen, before finding a strategy that worked: scrawling ‘Marcelo Bielsa’ on a whiteboard and, well, there it is, that’s the pitch. He might have been struck by luck, Victor Orta plucking up the courage to blurt out his dreams, but most Championship promotions are either built on parachute payments or fortune cookies. In recent seasons none of Huddersfield, Norwich or Sheffield United have worked to blueprinted plans you could copy, although they had in common strong coaching and over-delivery. One sip of Bielsa’s Kool-Aid was enough to realise he was the passport to the Premier League, and if getting him was lucky, backing him was smart.
The accounts show that Leeds went all-in on Bielsa in his first season, both on his wages — which ended up financing a training facility for Newell’s Old Boys — and the training facilities at Thorp Arch. This season they’ve gone even further, supporting Bielsa with all the club has to give, or per the Championship’s rules, is allowed to give. Whether it’s wise to spend so much money on a football manager and a football team is open to debate. But it’s what a football club exists to do. The numbers might be eye-watering, but the 2018/19 accounts show Leeds United Football Club being a football club. It might have cost a lot of money to wake up like this, but it looks a lot more appealing than the days of putting lipstick on pigs, or Steve Evans.
But failure to win promotion in Bielsa’s first season has left Leeds spinning donuts in the Football League’s car park, with a boot full of cash pivoting on a handbrake of financial regulations. The squealing of tyres in this case is the squealing of Radrizzani’s frustrated tweets.
The distorting effect of parachute payments, the aching inequality of broadcast income compared to the Premier League, and the strangling effect of Profit and Sustainability rules make the Championship an intensely cruel thwarter of sporting ambitions. It builds its broadcast product on the tantalising proximity of the Premier League, encouraging its teams to strive for gilded promotion by paying ever more exciting players higher wages, raising the standard to the level of a second Premier League and making the television deals — theoretically — more lucrative; then, by underselling those deals and enforcing unrealistic Financial Fair Play regulations, it snares the clubs who try to win and starts grinding them out of business, some quick, some slow. Only three teams a season can be promoted, but nobody knows how the remaining 21 will survive.
I’ve no sympathy for Derby County but the absurdity of their position is that, while allegedly living outside the rules of the of the Championship, they have been living within the means of their owner; their punishment could be a points deduction leading to relegation that would put the long-term future of the club at greater risk than if Mel Morris had just been able to invest in the club, instead of seeking out loopholes to put his cash through. Football League clubs have needed protection from rogue owners since the days when Bradford City went into administration, or Leeds United went into administration, but the person who was in charge of those clubs when they went into administration, Shaun Harvey, did nothing while in charge of the EFL to help Bury or Bolton, while clubs in good financial health now look at their finances and wonder, who will protect them from the EFL?
Leeds have complained noisily while playing by the rules, and I wonder about the internal strife. Andrea Radrizzani’s true nature seems more easily found in his ready to risk-it-all January enquiries about Zlatan Ibrahimovic than when he’s biting down that desire to insist on frugality. The call to Zlatan feels like the act of a frustrated teenager searching the internet for FIFA cheat codes, and came six months after the end of the recently published accounts, when defeat to Derby in the play-offs must have plunged Radrizzani into similar despair. Angus Kinnear’s wry vow not to dick about with the play-offs made the documentary, but the cameras might have captured more drama further down the corridor, Radrizzani spinning his rolodex, howling into his phone at anyone who might put him in touch with Messi.
Unlike Victor Orta, Radrizzani tends not to leave trails of smashed up executive lounges, so we can only guess at his emotions on the night of the play-offs. And why would we do that? Each of us had enough turmoil of our own without worrying about the owner, presumably jetting into the sunset with a bottle of scotch on his private plane.
Perhaps we can try seeing his angle now, by comparing Leeds United’s financial situation with Everton’s. Average attendances at each club in 2018/19 were around 34,000 for Leeds, 39,000 at Everton. Gate receipts at Leeds were £12.6m, at Everton £14.2m. Commercial revenue at Leeds was £27.1m, at Everton £40.8m, a gap Leeds are working hard to close. Broadcasting income for Leeds was £1.5m. At Everton it was £132.7m. That gap is scarcely believable, especially when you compare win percentages: Everton won 39.5% of their games, Leeds won 54%. Where are the rewards?
They were in Radrizzani’s hands at 8.25pm on 15th May 2019; the repayment of his loans, the windfall of broadcasting income, the key to bigger sponsorships and investment partners. By half past nine he was staring down future balance sheets at another season of operating losses north of £36m, on top of the £36m spent to get this far and fail.
It reminds me a little of Eric Cantona’s wondergoal against Chelsea in April 1992, when his third goal added a spectacular gloss to a lead built by Lee Chapman and Rod Wallace. When Cantona juggled the ball into the penalty area and smashed it into the Kop goal, Elland Road erupted, and as the crowd around him sang ‘Ooh ah Cantona’ chairman Leslie Silver realised he had no choice but to make the striker’s loan move permanent. “That goal just cost me a million quid,” he observed.
You wonder why he or Radrizzani would want to put themselves through it, when a flick of a boot can cost a million, when a defensive lapse can snatch £130m out of your hands and place a bill for £70m in its place. You’d be safer buying shares in a hotel. Then you imagine being the person who can say they brought Cantona to Elland Road and made all the fans happy. Or imagine how you’ll feel when Leeds are promoted, and think about multiplying it by whatever factor you would feel from pulling off the most daring, lucrative, audacious and difficult business deal you can think of, while 40,000 cheer. We can sympathise with Radrizzani’s experience of the hollowing loss to Derby, but set it against how he’ll feel when those bills are torn up and a wallet stuffed with £132m is dropped in his lap. That’s promotion the way an average fan will never experience it, and you have to assume it’s why Radrizzani is here.
That’s the tension that always exists between fans and owners: that we never fully understand each other’s experience. Radrizzani is unappealingly spiky when criticised by fans, because he feels the extent of his financial investment into Leeds should protect him. But fans will always argue that their emotional investment is worth more.
The truth is we’re symbiotic. Would Radrizzani have become financially involved if there wasn’t the alchemical emotion at Elland Road to make more of his money than mere gold? And would we have been so emotionally invested in the last two seasons if Radrizzani hadn’t returned to earth from his Zlatan missions and written the cheques when Marcelo Bielsa asked?
The fight over who wants this more, who deserves this more, and who will gain from it more, which is always present when the accounts get published, can be the starting point of an accord when a football club is being run as a football club. Fans and owner are investing different resources, but we’re investing them in the same thing: that Leeds United will, with our help, win lots of football matches.
The time to appreciate this harmony may be brief. Andrea Radrizzani gave himself five years to get Leeds promoted, and I suspect also set a budget he was prepared to lose; two seasons of Bielsa may have used that up sooner than planned. Bielsa won’t stay for more than two seasons in the Championship, and the coronavirus has flown what was a now-or-never season away with Peter Pan to the second star to the right, straight on till morning, to a Neverland where it might never grow up.
Graphics showing future development around Elland Road include vague tower blocks of uncertain intent; the constant background noise of investment from Qatar may eventually divert that principal activity away from football to suit the purposes of a distant state. Everton’s income is attractive but the Premier League isn’t all its cracked up to be: being a football club cost them £160m in wages, helping to turn their £188m turnover into a £112m loss.
We should have learned enough from Leeds United’s history to know that football is fleeting, and to enjoy what it gives us when we can. Covid-19 has replaced certainty with hope, but when Norman Hunter has recovered and watching football at Elland Road again, we should be glad for the great football team he and we’ll be watching, Pablo Hernandez and Jackie Harrison drawing patterns across the pitch, not the shadow of a hotelier’s crane. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)