Peter Ridsdale: 'You can't succeed in life unless you have failed first'

Brian Viner Interviews: Struggling Cardiff's chairman is still optimistic and ambitious, despite some dark days at Leeds
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Peter Ridsdale, the chairman of beleaguered Cardiff City and formerly the chairman of beleaguered Leeds United, will not let football matters dilute his Christmas cheer next week, no matter how Cardiff fare against Sheffield United tomorrow. He will spend the day at home near Lancaster with his wife Sophie and their two daughters, Charlotte and Olivia, and says his loved ones deserve to have him there in full cracker-pulling, novelty hat-wearing mode. After all, it is Olivia's 10th birthday on Boxing Day and she has already pointed out that her daddy won't be there when she wakes up; he will be on his way to watch Cardiff at Watford.

As he drives down the M6, Ridsdale might be forgiven for reflecting that he has hopped from the frying pan into the fire. At Leeds United the dream of Premier League and Champions League success turned not so much sour as rancid and two of his players went on trial for grievous bodily harm, not to mention a near-fatal plane crash, and the murder of two of the club's supporters in Istanbul.

Ridsdale thought he had seen it all at Leeds, and yet he hadn't.

Cardiff have a 24m debt dating from before his time which the creditor, a mysterious company called Langston, wants back. The original loan involved a Swiss bank, money paid through Panama and an address in the British Virgin Islands: exotic stuff for Ninian Park. But Ridsdale could do with less exotica and more transparency. He knows nothing else about Langston, whose demands might yet be settled in court. A date has been fixed for March, and if the case goes against Cardiff, bankruptcy will ensue.

Whether Ridsdale will deliver his promise of a new stadium for Cardiff City is therefore a less pertinent question than whether there will be a club left to play there. On top of which, Cardiff's fortunes on the field have been less than spectacular this season, with pressure mounting on Ridsdale to sack the manager, Dave Jones. This he has resisted, insisting that Jones is the man to take the club forward. "We have sold 14m worth of talent over the past two years," the chairman says. "I can't think of any other manager who would have done that without wincing, but Dave hasn't winced. He's just got on with it."

It's worth adding that informed opinion says Ridsdale, too, is the best man for a difficult job. A prominent sports writer on a Cardiff paper assures me that he has done "magnificently" in trying circumstances.

We meet in Ridsdale's relatively modest office at Ninian Park. The last time we talked, I rather provocatively remind him, we were in his extremely swish quarters at Elland Road, a few hours before Leeds drew 1-1 with Barcelona in the semi-final of the Champions League. That day, seven years ago now, I was there to talk to him about the extraordinary success he seemed to have made of Leeds United. On this occasion it is to talk about his book United We Fall, all the royalties from which are going to St Gemma's Hospice in Leeds. "I am very keen that nobody thinks I'm lining my pockets," he says. "The only benefit I wanted was an opportunity to tell the truth."

The truth, if such it is, makes genuinely compelling reading. Ridsdale pulls no punches, except those he was instructed by his lawyers to pull, and damns some famous football men. He also owns up to becoming "naively intoxicated" by success, although anyone expecting one long mea culpa will be disappointed.

"It's easy to lash out at me," he says. "But I was on the board from 1987 to 1997, and from 1997 to 2003 as chairman. In my time as chairman we never finished out of the top five, we were in Europe five years running, we reached two European semi-finals. And then of course there were the trials, the murders, a plane crash. The book's about all of that, but also about some of the things that happen in football clubs that people never find out about. No other business prepares you for the things you put up with in football."

Such as corrupt agents, one of whom he names in his book? "Well, anyone who's negotiated with a footballer knows that the first thing you need is an agent. The agent knows what others are earning, and can put the salary proposal into perspective, whereas players don't have any idea, because they don't tell the truth to each other. Almost all the agents I've dealt with have been straight, but football, like a lot of industries, always has people at the fringes who aren't honest. I was in the fashion business for years, and there were always rumours about buyers taking perks to order more stock from a supplier. In football, don't forget that for every dodgy agent you need a dodgy executive. Are there deals I raise eyebrows at? Of course. Players you've never heard of come in from South America, commanding a massive transfer fee, play for five minutes and then you never hear of them again. Maybe that's just bad management, but it begs questions, doesn't it?"

Returning to the question of Leeds, Ridsdale disclaims responsibility for the club's relegation from the Premier League in 2004, 15 months after he had left. "In October I went to see Cardiff City play at Anfield in the Carling Cup," he says. "We are only one division apart, yet we get 1.7m out of the TV rights, and they get a minimum of 35m. In the context of Leeds, the strategy there was right as long as we stayed in the Premier League. Look at that team I left behind. The week after I resigned, they beat Charlton 6-1 away. Three weeks later they went to Highbury and won 3-2. How could that team get relegated? I do think that there were some poor football management decisions after I left, which contributed to relegation, but that just seems like sour grapes."

A deep sigh. "What I'm saying in the book is that I'm honest, I'm hard working, that we made lots of mistakes, but we did a few things well too, and I don't think I deserved all the abuse I got. David Mellor, a man I'd exchanged Christmas cards with, wrote that if I had anything about me I would go into a darkened room with a pistol and a bottle of whisky. I still find that astonishing. What did I do? I tried to do a decent job with four other colleagues on the board."

Did he, at any time, consider what we might term the Mellor option? "It did go through my mind, yes. I thought about what would happen if I did it. And there were some very difficult low points, like 12 months after I'd left when a man in a suit, on a train from Euston to Lancaster, grabbed hold of me and started punching me, saying 'this is for what you did to my club!' That story's not in the book. But what do you do? You either put your life back together, or you don't."

It is by no means only Leeds fans who have demonised Ridsdale. "Even at the FA Cup final this year I got terrible abuse," he adds. "It's interesting. In America they say you can never succeed unless you've failed. They see it as part of the learning curve. Here we have a culture where the minute you show signs of weakness they want to grind you into the dust. People have said I should never be allowed to work in football again. Why? I never did anything dishonest. Yes, I made mistakes, but does that mean I can't have a life any more? The desire to humiliate is quite eerie. And you can't respond. If you do it's in all the papers."

The book is his eloquent response, but in responding he also implicates others in the decline of Leeds United, not least Terry Venables and David O'Leary. How, I wonder, does he square everything he's just said to me with the possibility that football chairmen might read what he says about O'Leary losing the respect of the Leeds dressing room, among other damning observations, and decide not to employ him?

A small smile. "Well, a lot was written about me, implying I was dishonest. Nobody stood up for me, and I had to work hard to find people who would give me a chance again. If by telling the truth that gives others problems..." the smile has faded now "... well, I'm not going to be blas and say I don't care, but that's part of telling it how it was."

United We Fall: Boardroom Truths about the Beautiful Game by Peter Ridsdale, published by Macmillan, 18.99.

Board games Ridsdale's mixed record of success

* Leeds United chairman (1997-2003) Borrowed 60m in gambling on Leeds qualifying for the Champions League. Claimed club's demise had nothing to do with him, despite leaving them with 103m debt

* Barnsley chairman (2003-04) Credited with saving club from relegation. Lost revenue from ITV Digital collapse

* Cardiff City chairman (2005-) Recruited to help build new stadium

What they say...

"I now feel compelled to defend myself against this deranged man. It's a smear campaign"

David O'Leary, Nov 2007

"At Cardiff he has a wide and far reaching brief. I believe he is the perfect person for the job."

Sam Hamann, May 2005