Peter Ridsdale: Football's white-knuckle gambler is back in the goldfish bowl

Luck ran out for Leeds Utd's former chairman. But now he's stemming the losses at his new club, aiming for the Premiership and vowing to prove his critics wrong
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The Independent Online

Peter Ridsdale is getting a new car. The former Leeds chairman, now presiding over an on-field and off-field revival at Championship pace-setters Cardiff City, is trading in his Range Rover for a diesel-engined BMW. He hopes this way to cut the hefty fuel bills from his regular 248-mile commute from his Lancashire home to south Wales.

The silver-haired executive has not always been noted for such parsimony. His spell at Leeds United will be remembered as a story of ruinous financial speculation.

Ridsdale's Leeds spent way beyond its means in a vain bid to create a team capable of challenging for the top honours in Europe. Although the club did reach the semi-final of the European Champions League in 2001, it was relegated from the top flight of English football in 2004 after racking up serious debts and being forced to sell off its best players.

One of the main reasons for Leeds' financial meltdown was the decision taken by the club's board to borrow £60m against future gate receipts, reckoning on the club repeatedly qualifying for the Champions League - a feat it failed to accomplish.

By some mysterious alchemy, the large goldfish tank that Ridsdale kept in his office at Leeds became a symbol of the sport's cash-guzzling extravagance.

"We were turning over £86m a year," he recalls with resignation and a hint of bitterness. "We had a goldfish tank in my office and in the boardroom, which combined cost just over £200 a year. It's like, excuse me - go to the PFA headquarters, what have they got in reception? They have got a goldfish tank."

In an industry where top players are now paid over £100,000 per week, you see his point.

In any case, the way in which Ridsdale was hung out to dry at Leeds - he left in March 2003, a year before the club was relegated from the Premiership - has evidently left him with a hankering to restore his management reputation.

His role at Cardiff "does give me an opportunity to show a number of people that I can actually manage a football club," he says. With both a vital financial restructuring package and a long-awaited new stadium deal close to completion, and the club mounting a sustained promotion challenge in spite of a drive to cut costs, it is starting to look like redemption may be within his grasp.

If he does pull it off, restoring the Welsh club to financial health would be a real achievement. When he arrived, on a three-month basis, in spring 2005, he says the wage bill alone was 110-120 per cent of turnover. Losses were running at "anywhere between £7m and £9m" a couple of years ago - "which was how the [unsustainable £24m] loan note debt was built up in the first place". This year, wages should be down to about £5.4m from around £9m in 2004-05.

Asked about the prospects of breaking even, he says: "We should be there or thereabouts... If we carry on as we are going currently, we would make a profit."

But there is always the risk that clubs promoted to the Premiership will overspend. Would promotion prompt Cardiff to mimic Leeds by embarking on a high-risk, high-cost push to establish themselves alongside Manchester United and Arsenal? After all, though Ridsdale freely admits to mistakes, he doesn't accept that the strategy during his time at Leeds was fundamentally wrong-headed.

"Given the information we had and the environment in which we were operating, I can see why we did what we did," he says. "Now I would probably be far more cautious. But (at Leeds) we were in a big city with a big club, with plc shareholders who were saying, 'You've got to be up there at the top - mid-table is not acceptable.' And I had some very experienced City people around me."

But Bluebirds fans already bracing for a white-knuckle, death-or-glory ride to European football and/or ignominy can probably open their eyes. This time around, their chairman seems resolved on a more "gradualist" approach.

"I think the key with Cardiff City is that it is a big enough city, with a big enough catchment area and a new stadium, that it ought to have a Premier League football team," he says. "And therefore the first thing to do is to get there, and the next thing to do is survive.

"If we don't survive, we'll make sure we have enough money through the Sky TV money and the parachute payment [paid for a limited period to relegated clubs] to have a very, very good chance of going straight back.

"What we won't do is put in the sort of contracts that cripple you if you get relegated. We have already built into a number of our new players' contracts what they get if we are promoted and also what happens if we are then relegated."

With a difference of perhaps £30m a year in the respective income streams available to Premiership and Championship clubs (Cardiff's annual turnover is somewhere between £8m and £9.5m), it is hard to think of another industry where income can fluctuate so wildly based on factors outside management control. Does Ridsdale never feel the urge to move to a less testing business?

"Well I would if somebody offered me a job in that business," he retorts. "People seem to see me as a football person, despite the fact that I've done a lot of other things in life." Some of these other roles have been related to retailing.

Football's so-called "bung" culture has been much in the news of late. With his record of wheeling and dealing as Leeds assembled one of the country's most powerful squads - he even claims the club had "too many good players" - how serious does Ridsdale feel the problem is?

"Everybody tells you it happens," he says. "I did report to the FA that I had on at least one occasion been offered a bung, but again it's my word against somebody else's.

"I have never taken a bung, nor would I... You talk to anybody in the game, they will tell you I'm straight. And I am. It's the only way I can sleep at night.

"I don't think the bung culture is as widespread as people say. But it clearly does exist. How do you prove it? I don't know."

In view of that marathon commute, it seems apposite to ask the Cardiff chairman how long he expects to stay at the club that, ironically, played a part in Leeds' decline by knocking them out of the FA Cup in 2002 with a famous third-round victory.

He replies: "I have been asked to commit to a minimum period - essentially to get the club into the situation where it is in the new stadium and all this is sorted out, and then who knows what will happen?

"I'm enjoying it. I don't particularly enjoy being away from home most of the week, but I do enjoy the job."

It sounds like the new diesel will soon have plenty of miles on the clock.