Televison cameras picked up Peter Ridsdale slumped in his seat during Leeds United’s match at Goodison Park, to where travelling fans had brought banners reading, among others, “Lies United” and “PLC = Pathetic Leeds Chairman”. In view of the fact that he is receiving advice from PR expert Max Clifford, he might have unveiled one of his own: “Blame Liverpool”. If it hadn’t been for the latter’s cave-in over the last few fixtures of 1999-2000, Leeds wouldn’t have finished third and qualified for the Champions League, with all the unfortunate effects it has now brought.
At the time no one criticised the Leeds board and their now beleaguered figurehead Mr Ridsdale for sanctioning a loan of about £60 million, negotiated against future gate receipts and to be repaid over 25 years. Far from it. Leeds simply followed the most common advice offered to football clubs by pundits and supporters: they spent big. David O’Leary was allowed to bring in players that weren’t really needed – Seth Johnson arrived for £7 million, while a total of £23 million was spent on Robbies Keane and Fowler who joined the four other strikers in the first team squad. Those figures don’t include wages, of course.
We are required to admire managers who make active use of the chequebook. O’Leary’s predecessor as Leeds manager, George Graham, has not been in work since leaving Tottenham in April 2001. Having been on the payroll of three major clubs over 12 years, it’s fair to assume that he isn’t short of money. However, Graham has repeatedly said that he would return to management if approached by a club “whose ambitions matched mine”. Kevin Keegan made similar noises on taking up his job with Man City, whom he threatened to walk out on recently when it seemed that a boardroom rift over the club’s spending policy might scupper the signing of Robbie Fowler.
Discussing Liverpool’s recent slump on Football Focus, Mark Lawrenson claimed that Gérard Houllier, who has spent £107 million, over £60 million net of sales, in five seasons in assembling the largest first-team squad in the Premiership, needed to “buy players” during the transfer window.
Conversely, woe betide any board of directors who commit the cardinal sin of modern football in appearing to show a lack of ambition. The sneering tone of much of the criticism aimed at West Brom this season has centred on the notion that they are happy just to have a season in the Premiership; Jason Koumas aside, they haven’t spent money, therefore they don’t deserve to stay up. The same voices raised in criticism of West Brom have also been quick to praise the ambitions of Birmingham City, who brought in six players during the transfer window. But Birmingham, like Middlesbrough and Blackburn, are being bankrolled by wealthy individuals.
No doubt West Brom fans have been frustrated by their club’s parsimony, but in view of what has happened to Bradford City, who were plunged into administration this season as a consequence of rash spending, it would be insane for them to take a similar gamble on Premiership survival. The one glimmer of sanity is that the achievements of Charlton, who kept their heads in their first season up and have carefully balanced their spending since, are now being held up as an example by some, including QPR manager Ian Holloway in the interview in this issue. They accepted relegation as an occupational hazard rather than a calamity to be avoided at all costs, and reaped the benefits.
Leeds supporters are in open revolt and their chairman and manager don’t seem to be on speaking terms, but impending relegation is one thing Leeds don’t have to worry about. Even after the sale of Jonathan Woodgate they are hardly down to the bare bones. The 16-man squad for the recent match with Everton included only two players without full international caps, one of whom, Paul Robinson, is likely to play for England against Australia later this month.
Leeds reached the last four in Europe without gambling the farm. Ridsdale clearly made decisions then which were not in the long-term best interests of the club. He carries the greatest responsibility, but only those supporters who would have been content for him to keep his wallet in his pocket when Liverpool failed to stumble in 2001, denying Leeds another Champions League season, can call for his head with an entirely clean conscience. Sympathy is surely dependent on those concerned, from the stands to the boardroom, learning hard lessons.
That seems unlikely to happen in the case of the manager; even though he was only a late arrival at Elland Road, after the financial wreckage strewn through Terry Venables’ career no one should shed tears over his “plight”. One of the ironies of the story is that not only will his usual coterie of media mates spin on his behalf, but he is all but unsackable because Leeds do not have spare cash with which to pay him off. It’s an ill wind.
From WSC 193 March 2003. What was happening this month