The Square Ball Week: Football Is On The Pitch

In Free, Leeds United by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Tense? Nervous headache? That’s either the start of a new football season, or it’s Leeds United’s chairman doing the rounds of the media.

This never feels good. Knowing that the club’s owner is spending his day talking to senior BBC, TalkSport, Sky and no doubt broadsheet and tabloid reporters inspires the same kind of muscular tension across the neck and shoulders that watching Scott Wootton play right-back used to. What is he doing now? Why is he doing that? Why is he even trying to do this thing at all?

Ken Bates made it a weekly occurrence, faxing Ben Fry a list of questions then yelling at him for half an hour down the phone from Monaco, back in the days when we wished LUTV had the transmission issues it has now. He still does this, only it’s the fax machine at Yorkshire Radio that he aims at — perhaps they bought Leeds United’s — but it doesn’t matter so much because, as Bates himself once said, an ex-chairman is a nobody, and nobody listens to Ken Bates. Or at least if they do, they only vaguely connect his ramblings with Leeds United Association Football Club.

Massimo Cellino took Bates’ template and turned it into a form of shock art. A weekly schedule was more than Cellino could be expected to stick to, so you never knew when or where his outpourings would appear: it could be LUTV, it could be the Daily Star, it could be a documentary about rich Italians in Miami, it could be filmed in a Sardinian cafe for a local newspaper — which was where he ‘fessed up about the pie tax. It could be on secret cameras as part of a Daily Telegraph sting, it could be at a live press conference with half the country’s media there, it could be down the phone to anybody that got hold of his number.

For a while, Cellino was exchanging text messages with a Leeds fan he thought was a journalist for a local paper in Bristol. Some fans reacted with outrage when these messages were published online — there was some deceit going on — but the larger point was that Cellino had thought it was all for publication anyway. He’d cut off so many routes to the media — he was barely talking to BBC Leeds or the Yorkshire Evening Post anymore, and he got through national reporters like he got through head coaches — but he was still so desperate to be adored that he had to confide in someone, someone he thought would portray him sympathetically to the fans, someone who pulled the wool so easily over Cellino’s eyes that some of his signings, in retrospect, start to make sense.

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What Cellino wanted out of the media was clear: it was a way of generating pity from a fanbase he thought should feel sorry for him, because of the bad deal he’d made with former owners Gulf Finance House and because of the unfair difficulty of English football, and a platform for him to moan about said bad deal and difficulty.

Leeds United was like a 747, he once told ITV, or “even bigger,” and for some reason, he was trying to push it into the sky. ”Nobody’s rocking down from the plane, and helping to push the plane to make it take off,” he wailed. “I’m down there. You just try to imagine myself down on the floor on the ground, pushing this plane full of people and luggage. And I’m dying.”

This was all too hard for him, and at the start of his second season he had basically given up. “I do not want Premier League football; I wish for it,” he told Sky Sports. “I am very superstitious. If you want something in football you never get it. If you wish for something then you get it.”

Opening Twitter or flicking on Sky Sports and being presented with all this was never a gladdening moment, and it’s that conditioning that inspired slight shudders when I saw that TalkSport would soon be broadcasting an interview Jim White had conducted with Andrea Radrizzani, that the BBC’s Dan Roan already had his interview out in the world. Et tu, Andrea?

Why would Radrizzani want to put us through this? Okay, it’s the start of a new season, and interview requests will have been piling up for the new owner of one of the biggest football clubs in the country — especially given the box office the media got out of the last guy. We Investigate: Is This New Fella Hatstand Too? has a certain appeal for outlets seeking audiences. But Radrizzani, so professional and low key in his expensive glasses and well fitted waistcoats, hasn’t given much outward impression of a need to do this. Angus Kinnear and Victor Orta handled Thomas Christiansen’s unveiling; Kinnear has been the star of the social media videos to unveil new signings, and was the guest at BBC Leeds’ preseason show at Elland Road this week. Nobody has felt any the poorer for not seeing Andrea Radrizzani front and centre — given prior experiences, it’s been quite a relief.

Those prior experiences may still be at the root of the reason. Thanks to his predecessors, Radrizzani is at the helm of a ship known for its madcap captains, and if that’s what the world expects — another season of clickbait headlines demanding that you all just look at Leeds United right now, cos you definitely don’t wanna miss this — then it’s part of Radrizzani’s role to nip that image in the bud. Here in Leeds, and among Leeds fans, we can see the difference, but out in the wider world, all that’s known is Leeds have been bought by ‘another Italian’, and all they’re asking is, ‘Is he as crazy as the last one — and is that unknown manager going to last?’

“Rebrand,” is something Radrizzani often refers to, and rebrand is what this is, as much as hanging banners in sight of the M621 and the hills beyond. I wonder how many children on the hills of Wortley will be opening their curtains in the morning and gazing down at the stadium in wonder once a fifty-foot Doukara has been placed in their view. Radrizzani needed to do this to let the world of football beyond West Yorkshire know that there is a new sheriff in town — as Cellino once put it — but that this one knows his shit.

To that end, these interviews have not been especially revealing; Radrizzani is cool with the media, sober and calm, sticking to his talking points. The messages were clear. He’s pleased with the reception from supporters. This summer has been two months of very hard work, to lift the quality of the environment and of the team. This is a long-term project, so if promotion isn’t achieved immediately, the project will be refined and the club will work even harder until promotion is achieved — “We have a good example that Brighton did in the Championship, built over the years and finally reached the Premier League, so this should be our model.” Football clubs need to be careful not to overspend, especially in the Championship, because it’s a loss-making league; but right now Leeds United are in a phase of necessary investment to improve the club.

Despite his moderation, the targets are ambitious: Radrizzani expects a play-off position this season, as an improvement on the last, and then what will be will be. Along the way, he wants Thomas Christiansen to play exciting football: “For me the pressure is positive, and this is what I’m trying to bring to the manager and players. They need to live this [pressure] with joy to the game, with fun for the game, but also we need to deliver some good results … Christiansen has similar ideas to play offensive and try to win the game, and that is what convinced me to have him on board.”

Amid the well prepared and well trained talk, that sounds like it was honed at umpteen international sports media conferences and trade shows, Radrizzani does let go with a few ‘tells’ that give away more of the character behind the persona. On his launch day back in May, there was a tendency in his interviews to talk too long on one subject, and to sound less sure of himself the more he kept speaking; perhaps a symptom of the linguistic gap. With Dan Roan, the opposite was true: the interview nearly concluded without Radrizzani getting one of his main talking points across.

“But the future,” said Roan, “You’re clear, is bright for this club.”

“Yes,” said Radrizzani. “Very clear.”

“Andrea,” said Roan, wrapping up the interview, “Thank you so much…” but Andrea interrupted.

“No, very important,” he said, as if asking Roan to wait a minute. “I already committed with big investment in region of £100m, so I’m here for good, and I want to bring this club back what it deserves.”

That ended up being the headline of the whole interview: that Radrizzani had invested £100m in Leeds United. And it was clearly something that Radrizzani had wanted to get across, getting it in before Roan turned the tape off. And in keeping with the perennial question when Leeds United’s owners have approached the press with a list of talking points, it’s worth asking, why?

Why was it important that Radrizzani placed a figure on his investment so far? I don’t think any fans have questioned the level of financial commitment — buying back Elland Road answered much of that on its own, and the investment in the squad, set against the inflationary parachute payments and Neymar world in which Leeds United operates, has been healthy — if now eased by getting a fee in for Charlie Taylor, and given that additional centre-halves and left-backs could still be useful.

But the only question around Radrizzani’s financial commitment I’ve had is about whether he can afford it, and if not, who might be helping him. This week Leeds signed midfielder Ouasim Bouy and loaned him straight to Spanish second division side Cultural Leonesa for the season, the first player to have overtly made that double move, but not the first to have been rumoured. The link between Leeds and Leonesa is Ivan Bravo: as well as sitting on United’s board, he is director-general of the Aspire Academy for Sports Excellence in Qatar, which owns Cultural Leonesa outright, where Bravo is also vice-president. Leeds United’s involvement in Aspire’s network of clubs — they also own KAS Eupen in Belgium, and have ‘strategic agreements’ with Independiente del Valle in Ecuador and Delhi Dynamos in the Indian Super League — isn’t clear, but Bravo’s status as a board member at Leeds has always suggested more involvement than a simple advisor on football.

Aspire is tasked with raising the technical ability of players trained in Qatar, and by extension the state’s prestige as a sporting centre ahead of hosting the World Cup in 2022; not an easy task, given the publicity given to the conditions of workers on stadiums for the tournament, or the recent blockade by other Middle Eastern countries, punishing Qatar because they believe the state harbours terrorists. Many observers are suggesting that Neymar’s megabucks move from formerly Qatar Airways-sponsored Barcelona to Qatar-owned Paris Saint Germain is an exercise in prestige rebranding, a way of repairing damage to Qatar’s reputation, for which money is no object.

Whether money is no object for Andrea Radrizzani is a different matter. He’s reported to have netted about £350m from the sale of sports media business MP & Silva, the company where Radrizzani made his name and fortune, and while it’s not impossible that he has the personal means to invest nearly a third of that amount straight into Leeds United, all that putting a specific figure on his commitment did was keep the question of exactly what he’s worth and how up in the air. After all, this time around we don’t have a website telling us he’s one of the ten richest rappers in the world, like MC Cellino.

The other little giveaway was an insight into a harder edged management style that may lie behind the warmly smiling media figure. Will Leeds United be promoted this season? asked Jim White.

“With my motivation and hunger, definitely if I could play we would be promoted,” answered Radrizzani, chuckling. “But no, I can’t play.” Then he stopped chuckling. “But besides the joke, I think also indirectly is a message to the players and the coach,” he continued. “To believe in the impossible.”

The message, though indirect, was clear: if Radrizzani, who can’t play football, can believe that his motivation and hunger could overcome his ability and make him part of a promotion winning team, then the players and coach have no excuses. They have the football quality he doesn’t. If they don’t succeed, it must be for some other reason. And if that other reason is a lack of motivation, hunger and belief, then that will be unacceptable.

It’s an admirable management style, and hopefully the public glimpse reflects the private man. An emphasis on giving quality people the infrastructure — he uses that word a lot — and environment to succeed, asking only that they bring the motivation to achieve, underlined with a statement that if they won’t do it, he’ll bloody do it himself, because he’s not asking anybody to do anything he wouldn’t try himself. That’s demanding, but it’s a compelling deal for the right people, and Radrizzani believes he has been bringing in the right people. And his tone — and that indirect message — suggests there will be hell to pay if those people don’t step up. Good.

The final detail is in the last line: “Believe in the impossible.” Radrizzani referred a couple of times to the romantic victory of Leicester City, and how even though Leeds are at a financial disadvantage compared to parachute paid clubs in the Championship, they can bridge the gap by performing on the pitch, and believing in themselves.

“I don’t want to create an illusion in the fans — we need to be realistic about where we can be this year,” Radrizzani told Jim White, calming expectations about his project. “But football is on the pitch,” he added, “So everything can be possible.”

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“Football is on the pitch, so everything can be possible.” That’s as beautiful a way of introducing a new season as any, and I’m as grateful to Andrea Radrizzani for that as I am for the two months of hard work that mean we’re approaching the new season with optimism, and as I am that he behaved himself properly and didn’t spill fag ash all over Jim White this week. The football will be on the pitch on Sunday, and Radrizzani will be in the director’s box, and let’s hope that means that all will be coming right with the world. ◉

(feature image by Lee Brown)