Football: Ridsdale swears by a force with no name

INTERVIEW: PETER RIDSDALE: chairman of passion and prudence has impressed with his handling of a club crisis.
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Way back in the days of black and white TV, there used to be a programme called Take Your Pick in which contestants had to survive a minute of quick-fire questions about themselves without saying "yes" or "no" to the compere, Michael Miles. It was infuriatingly difficult, and most heard the gong within seconds. Peter Ridsdale has had to endure the same kind of quiz this past week, dealing with numerous enquiries about the football manager he is determined to appoint, but without actually uttering his name. It was 26 minutes into our meeting at the Langham Hotel, in London, before the Leeds chairman actually referred to his quarry, and that only because the conversation turned to the question of his age, which happens to be 46. "Funnily enough, I'm 10 days younger than Martin O'Neill," he added, unprompted.


Until then, and indeed afterwards, like an MI6 officer he had referred religiously to "Our Man", the one, you understand, at present to be found in the Land of Limbo, located somewhere between Yorkshire and Leicestershire, where the normally garrulous Ulsterman has been maintaining his own relatively quiet counsel.

Admittedly, a hint of his identity might have been gleaned from Ridsdale's appraisal of the man with no name. "He's done it the hard way, got an outstanding track record and, if he hadn't, his current club wouldn't be trying so hard to keep him," enthused the Leeds chairman. "He took a non-league side and got them into the Second Division. In his present role, he got them promotion in his first season, won the Coca-Cola Cup, and managed them in Europe. The way he appears to have been so loyal to his employers is also to his credit."

Finally, by Friday, O'Neill's name was being freely mentioned in despatches. But you could hardly blame Ridsdale for his prudence. After all, it ill- behoves a man to insist on abiding by the rules when it comes to the annexation of his own manager, then conveniently ignore the Premier League regulations when attempting to procure his replacement.

He may be regarded somewhat dismissively by some supporters as a "suit", and indeed is a fierce advocate of the principle of football clubs being run by Plcs, but inside there is a young lad, waving his rattle and wearing a white rosette, who thrilled to the exploits of Hunter, Bremner, Clarke & Co and, as a 13-year-old, queued all night in a sleeping bag outside Elland Road for tickets for Leeds' first FA Cup final appearance in 1965. "I was a season ticket holder from the age of 10, when Don Revie had just taken over as player-manager." Short of having "I love LUFC" on the back of his skull, his support could not be more tangible.

"As a boy, I used to play in goal and represented my county," recalled Ridsdale, who lives near the village of Kirby Lonsdale, on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales with his second wife Sophie and their two children. He also has four sons by a previous marriage, all Leeds fanatics. "Gary Sprake, despite all the criticism he got because he was prone to mistakes, was one of my very early heroes." It was also, presumably, warning enough that it is all too easy to throw the ball into your own net when under pressure - something he appears to have remembered as Leeds chairman, and in business, too, having risen from working in personnel for a Leeds car retailers to chief executive of the clothing chains Sock Shop and Jumpers. There has been no evidence of woolly thinking on the way up.

Since succeeding Bill Fotherby in June last year, he has become the acceptable face of football chairmanship, both from the perspective of the stands and in the City. It has endowed Ridsdale with a credibility which allows him to relate comfortably to Leeds supporters, and explains why he left his seat in the directors' box during what proved to be George Graham's last domestic game at Tottenham a fortnight ago to quell the antipathy towards the manager among a disenchanted group of the visiting faithful. "Stand up if you want the truth" and "Judas" was the general tone of the discontent which flowed in the direction of their then manager. "I want Leeds to win every game, whatever the circumstances, and I felt that there was too much abuse being directed at individuals," explained Ridsdale. "I wanted them to set to one side other issues around that day and get behind the team." They duly acquiesced.

His rapport is demonstrated by the fact that during the last week he has received 1,000 letters from fans, 90 per cent of them approving of his handling of the crisis, containing all manner of names and advice, inevitably including those of Gordon Strachan and David O'Leary - who will remain in charge with Eddie Gray until a replacement is found. "You have to assimilate all the information; whether your decision reflects what people are telling you is another matter. But you ignore external influence at your peril."

Once an acceptable offer arrived from Alan Sugar - said to be in the region of pounds 3m - regarding compensation, Ridsdale finally accepted that Graham was a lost spirit. "Right up until that point, deep down and very naively, I thought we could persuade George to stay," he admitted. "I tried hard to keep him. I offered a few other things, including Director of Football, which he turned down, and then it became clear that he wasn't prepared to stay." Ridsdale denied that funds for players was an issue. "George made that comment on several occasions, but the truth is the Board never denied him a penny to spend on players. He spent pounds 14m in less than two years. Nobody could criticise our resolve in supporting the manager. We will continue to do that, within the realms of sensible trading, because we believe we should be challenging for top honours."

Graham departed south without rancour on either side, the first in a line of dominoes which look set to fall until somebody recruits from within their club. "People come and go in companies," shrugged Ridsdale. "Who knows when you might meet up with someone again. Life's too short to start getting into emotional arguments."

The rules which exist about the poaching of managers mid-season have never prevented an ominously fishy smell emanating from some chairman's pockets. If you remind Ridsdale that many would regard the whole Graham deal as squalid, he looks perplexed. "There was no point in my getting into a debate about how things were conducted, because it was irrelevant. The key thing was - did George want to stay? The answer was no. You have to be pragmatic. That's what life's all about. Otherwise you get uptight, you get heart attacks and you're not here anymore."

Hence, he hopes that "the club concerned" now will take the same benign view despite his initial rebuff, even though he is aware that they do not appreciate Peter the Wolf lurking avariciously at their door. "I have spoken to their chairman, asking for approval to speak to their manager. He said he would have preferred me not to ask, but at that stage was 'not in a position', to quote him, to give me his approval. I expected that. But, to my knowledge, our man has not killed the speculation. Until he talks to us, or says he'll stay, there will be continued uncertainty." He added: "I like to get things done quickly if it is possible to do so but I am a realist. There's no point in getting excited about things outside your control."

Between us lies his mobile phone, but there is no call to suggest that Leicester have relented. Not this day, anyway. Ridsdale is prepared to wait as long as it takes. Just as he had in that sleeping bag all those years ago. "If anyone had told me then that one day I would become chairman I'd have laughed at them," he reflected. "Even becoming a director was the ultimate dream. I didn't believe anything was possible beyond that. In those days you needed very big personal pockets and mine were never of the depths of a Jack Walker. But things have changed fundamentally. Clubs used to be personal fiefdoms, run by a dominant personality who made all the decisions unilaterally. I am merely a servant of the shareholders. Clubs are better for that because it does mean that decisions taken are considered rather than emotional. The more Plcs there are, the more it puts the brakes on top clubs getting bigger and the small ones smaller. Now you have to sell to generate funds and that gives more clubs the opportunity to compete. There's more an air of realism in income and transfer fees."

And in managers' pay? Graham, it was said, was Britain's highest paid, at over pounds 1m a year. "George was very well paid, but we believed that having one of the best managers in the country, it was right to do so," Ridsdale insisted. "We believe the manager is the most important, not the chairman, the managing director, not even the players. The right one creates the right environment and signs the right players."

Prematurely grey, Ridsdale otherwise shows few of the signs of wear that football has a habit of exacting on the furniture of some chairmen's features. "I only get emotional when we score a goal or let one in. I'm not easy to live with if we lose, but it's the same if we have had a bad week in retail sales. I think my wife probably feels that it takes up too much time, and the emotion doesn't justify the fact that it is only a game. But I'm sure 35,000 people every Saturday would do my job tomorrow."

If you ask Ridsdale if he had ever contemplated having a supporters' representative on the Board, he tells you that Leeds did between 1985 and 1992. "But now when people ask me that question, I just say, 'We do have one. Me'."