With impeccable timing Panto villain Peter Ridsdale, the man who caused a decade of intense sufferance to the fans of my club, Leeds United, has appeared in the wings of Preston North End to a cacophony of hissing and booing. His unnerving grin and devils eyes pierce through the dry ice. Children thrust their heads into their parents laps amid a valley of tears, while Mum laughs at the inevitability and Dad playfully lobs a half-eaten hot dog at the stage.
Yes, it’s that time again. Peter just doesn’t know when to give up, and, ignoring for one minute his past with Leeds, you have to admire his tenacity and willingness to face a challenge.
On Tuesday of this week, Ridsdale appeared from nowhere as Preston North End’s new Chairman. I say nowhere, because owner Trevor Hemmings was expected to replace the departing Maurice Lindsay with someone from within his business empire. As an owner of over 100 racehorses and two Grand National winners, Hemmings is familiar with what it takes to find success. However, it is perhaps his other well known pursuit, that as a philanthropist towards charitable causes, that is more comparable with his reign as Preston’s owner.
Preston are a club clearly on their uppers. The disastrous reign of one Darren Ferguson is something the club has yet to recover from and manager Phil Brown has had to manage the shock of relegation by off-loading a series of high paid stars, not least goalkeeper Andy Lonergan to Leeds.
That Peter Ridsdale is the answer, would beg most football fans to seek despairingly for a credible question. But while Preston fans recoil in horror at the thought of ‘Publicity Pete’ at the helm, maybe all is not lost? It may be tempting to buy a copy of Ridsdale’s book ‘United We Fall’, change a few words and attempt to fool your fellow Preston fans into thinking you are a time-traveller from the future, with an almanac charting your clubs impending misfortunes. But this isn’t necessarily going to end the same way. You see; Peter’s learned a few things in recent years.
It is true that Ridsdale was a popular figure for many years at Leeds. He was a Leeds man, a local businessman and a genuine Leeds supporter. He showed compassion with the fans by supporting David O’Leary in promoting youth players like Alan Smith and Jonathan Woodgate, he provided funds to buy back local hero David Batty, he showed empathy and class when Leeds fans Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight were murdered in Istanbul. He actively sought young, English footballers of the highest pedigree amid the birth of the Premiership’s raging influx of foreign mercenaries. Leeds as a club were only going in one direction, and for once, that was up.
It may be tempting to buy a copy of Ridsdale’s book ‘United We Fall’, change a few words and fool your fellow Preston fans into thinking you are a time-traveller from the future, with an almanac charting your clubs impending misfortunes.
I recall the day we signed Rio Ferdinand and paraded him on the pitch at half time of a Super Sunday game on Sky. We chanted Ridsdale’s name; we actually chanted his name. Deep down, the more reasoned and coherent of us were wondering where this £18 million was coming from. Did we really need him? Were we running before we could even crawl?
I don’t need to trawl through the details of what happened next; suffice to say Ridsdale borrowed £60 million guaranteed against future gate receipts, on the assumption that Leeds continually qualified for the Champions League, a flimsy premise that even the Cincinnati Kid wouldn’t have a sniff at. The domino effect, admittedly accelerated by the mis-management of O’Leary and Venables, rank bad fortune, and the antics of Bowyer and Woodgate, saw Leeds £103 million in debt by the time Ridsdale resigned as Chairman in March 2003. Pretty soon that decline gained dogged momentum and within four years the club were in the rancid pit of League One for the first time in their history.
What rankles with Leeds fans most, and what possibly clouds theirs and most football fans perception of what Ridsdale has done since, was his baffling insistence, to this day, that he played little part in Leeds decline.
Even yesterday he was quoted as saying "I'm very proud and satisfied with my CV in football - I've been in football 24 years. In the five years I was at Leeds we were never outside the top five of the Premier League. It went sour after I left and I can't affect things once I've left a football club"; a classic case of seeing gold in a big, steaming pile of shit.
My four year old daughter is not stupid enough to leave a tap running, walk away and plead innocence when the bathroom is flooded ten minutes later. She wouldn’t do it in the first place, but she certainly wouldn’t expect me to think she wasn’t fully responsible. It is a blatantly simple concept of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’. To suggest the subsequent regimes at Leeds inherited a prosperous club with a clean slate and not an evacuated corpse, rotten to the core is blinkered lunacy of a level that should only result in sectioning.
Of course there were other personnel and factors involved in the decline, but it was Ridsdale’s sudden and unnatural retreatment from being the very public focal point steering the ship, that rendered his comments laughable. On the day we sold Jonathan Woodgate, possibly our most prized asset at the time, Ridsdale famously attempted to placate Leeds fans and suggest a collective responsibility, with the comment that we had ‘lived the dream’. Even without the knowledge of subsequent events, that didn’t sit easy with me at the time and it certainly doesn’t now.
Even yesterday he was quoted as saying "I'm very proud and satisfied with my CV in football." A classic case of seeing gold in a big, steaming pile of shit.
As fans, we have to put our faith in the Chairman. We have no choice, they are in the position looking at the books, making the decisions. If the Chairman thinks Leeds can afford Robbie Fowler, Robbie Keane and Seth Johnson, we have to believe we can, because the Chairman is in a position of trust and responsibility. Would any fan knowingly encourage the Chairman to gamble the very existence of their club on a Champions League qualification, if they knew the real facts regarding the vacuous foundation of the finances? In this case, Ridsdale had painted himself as ‘one of us’; a fan, we trusted him to manage our club. He made decisions we could not possibly influence, so we didn’t ‘live the dream’ Peter, you did. We never dreamt this.
Most Leeds fans would advocate Ridsdale being banned from football forever more following his ‘monopoly money’ approach to running a football club, but sadly, there are no regulations to prevent his ongoing involvement. It may appear that Ridsdale lurched from one financial disaster to another, but looking at the facts, he does appear to have learnt something from his hideous mistakes at Leeds, even if he won’t admit them himself.
In a short reign at Barnsley he steered the club through difficult financial waters and introduced new owners that have since stabilised the club. At Cardiff, in his own words yesterday he “…arrived with an antiquated Stadium and the club almost on the verge of administration and took it to an FA Cup final and a Play-Off final with a brand new stadium and new owners.” We’ll ignore for a moment the five winding up orders the club somehow survived in the meantime, and the mis-information that Ridsdale was forced to apologise for when retracting a promise that season ticket funds would go towards player purchases in January 2010. Following that, Ridsdale appeared again at troubled Plymouth last year and played a part in guiding them through administration and into the welcoming arms of new owners.
So while Ridsdale may appear to be universally unpopular in football, probably for his indelible association with Leeds, he does appear to have some pedigree in assisting insolvent clubs, as long as he wasn’t responsible for them becoming insolvent in the first place. He must gain some personal satisfaction from performing his ‘magic’ within this depressing, sinister and deeply inglorious corner of the football world.
Preston fans may wonder what they have done to deserve this, and they may also wonder whether a 14th position in League One is sufficiently bad to warrant ‘Red Adair’ Ridsdale’s uncanny ability to turn water into wine. But believe me, the man has ambition if nothing else, just be careful what you wish for, because a couple of years down the line he may lay the blame at your feet as the ‘exit’ door rattles behind him.
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