David Conn: Ridsdale left bruised but unbowed by Leeds gamble

New Barnsley owner believes Second Division club can rise again and says others should share blame for Elland Road woes
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The Independent Football

Peter Ridsdale sighed, rather than seethed, at the latest hammering from his successor to the Elland Road chair, Professor John McKenzie, who announced Leeds' record losses of £49.5m this week, sideswiping that while Ridsdale famously admitted to "living the dream", McKenzie "inherited the nightmare".

The case against Ridsdale, whose star and glowing PR have disintegrated, looks unanswerable, given McKenzie's picture of a profligate regime which took out a £60m bond, owes £21m for players signed in instalments, and notoriously spent £200-per-month keeping boardroom fish in the swim.

Ridsdale, back in football having completed his takeover of Barnsley last Saturday, did not hit back at McKenzie, but objected to the personal vilification. "I accept I made mistakes at Leeds," he told me. "We aimed to become a top club, and when we reached the Champions' League semi-final and regularly finished in the top five in the Premiership, we did get carried away.

"But I object to the heavily personalised criticism, the way I'm being demonised. I was the executive chairman and I accept the buck stopped with me. When we had to sell Jonathan Woodgate I knew the fans would turn against me and I offered my resignation.

"But, throughout, we were a plc board of five people. All the other directors knew fully what we were doing and agreed on the strategy. There was not one major aspect of expenditure which was not agreed by the board."

McKenzie himself was a director with Ridsdale for a couple of months, having joined last February, but one director was the deputy chairman throughout Ridsdale's era, and is still there: Allan Leighton. The former Asda chief executive and current chairman of the Royal Mail, said to be one of Tony Blair's favourite businessmen, joined Leeds as deputy chairman in August 1998, a month before Ridsdale became the chairman.

After quitting Asda, where he made his name and fortune, in November 2000, Leighton announced he was to offer his expertise liberally across a range of businesses, coining the phrase "going plural". He launched a website, www.going-plural.com, which offered business homilies, choice examples being "great minds think", and "always search for the jewel in the toad's head". The website is now slimmed down and invites visitors to "Ask Allan", rather than displaying all of Allan's answers. Leighton does not talk on the record about Leeds because, as a non-executive director, his responsibility was to hold the executive directors, like Ridsdale, to account, rather than talk on behalf of the company.

Leeds' rise and fall is now well illuminated, although at times more by heat than light. With the Woodgate-Kewell-Smith crop of young players coming through, David O'Leary as the manager and the fierce, Manchester United-hating ambition of the supporters, Ridsdale planned to make Leeds a new-model top European club. They finished third in the Premiership in 2000, then made the extraordinary journey to the Champions' League semi-final, eventually losing to Valencia. The trial of Woodgate and Lee Bowyer following an attack on the student Sarfraz Najeib, with Woodgate eventually convicted of affray and Bowyer acquitted, cast the first major stain on Leeds' previously consummately made-over image.

The television money from the Champions' League, plus increased sponsorship and commercial activities, boosted income by 65 per cent to £86m in 2001. They made a £4m loss after buying players, but made a £10m operating profit. The remuneration committee, Leighton and Richard North, the Britvic chairman, awarded Ridsdale a £270,000 bonus, on top of his £320,000 basic, a total package, with fringe benefits, of £600,000. In that context, it looks petty to quibble about the boardroom fish. "It's not as if the fish were secret," Ridsdale complained. "Everybody could see them. If I'd known there was going to be such a fuss I'd have paid to feed them myself."

Leeds took out their £60m bond, secured on future season and matchday tickets for 25 years, in September 2001. Nobody has suggested Ridsdale did that without board agreement, nor that the board were unaware of arrangements to sign players in instalments using the Registered European Football Finance business run by the former Manchester City full-back, Ray Ranson. However expensive it looks, the HP-type system is believed to be used by six Premier League and nine First Division clubs.

Ultimately, Leeds' policy of speculating to accumulate unravelled because the team, having topped the Premiership on New Year's Day, finished fifth in 2002, missing out on the Champions' League by one place. Ridsdale did not get his bonus but Leighton and North granted him a 15 per cent salary rise and a £383,000 package. The relationship between Ridsdale and O'Leary broke down, Terry Venables came, Woodgate was sold, Ridsdale confessed to "living the dream", Venables went.

Last season's 15th place under Peter Reid, pay-offs to managers and write-downs of players, produced the 21 per cent drop in turnover, and record losses. Ridsdale accepts there has been a disaster: "We gambled, but it did not seem like gambling when we finished in the top five five years running. We thought we would be self-financing. The safety net, selling players, fell away because the transfer market collapsed."

The concentration on Ridsdale personally misses football's structural faults which Leeds' experience highlights: the game has become a casino. Clubs earn more money the higher they go: promotion to the Premiership, finishing position, Champions' League qualification. Gambling is a rational response; are Arsenal, racking up losses and desperately seeking £400m to build a new stadium, so very different?

Leighton, paid £35,000 last year for his part-time position, is still at Leeds, letting it be known he is staying to put things right. This week McKenzie announced Leighton was putting £4.4m into the club as loans, convertible into shares, jointly with an unnamed investor via a company, ARM Holdings Group Ltd. No such company is registered in the UK and Leeds would not confirm reports that the investor is a Saudi sheikh. Leeds have new watchwords: cost-cutting, debt-rescheduling, prudence.

Ridsdale is talking in a similar vein at Barnsley, saying he has learned his lessons. The club, a Football League stalwart for 105 years, had their Premiership moment in 1997-98, redeveloped Oakwell and their academy, but were relegated to the Second Division in 2002 and sank into administration. The club, and land around it, were bought by the town's mayor, Peter Doyle, with, as it turned out, loans from the Sterling Consortium, a group of accountants who have popped up lending money to other distressed football clubs. However, the Football League never ratified Doyle's takeover because it said he did not provide sufficient information or proof of funding.

Ridsdale, desperate to be involved in football, considered Stoke, Queen's Park Rangers and Oldham before deciding on Barnsley. For all the continuing fall-out from Leeds, his deal, secured last Saturday, is regarded by Barnsley fans as a deliverance. Ridsdale has bought the club and put in around £500,000, while the surrounding land has been bought - with the prime objective of preserving football in Barnsley - jointly by the local council and Patrick Cryne, a Manchester businessman and Tykes fan originally from Barnsley.

Cryne, whose software company, iSOFT, is valued at £400m, has put his faith in Ridsdale's earnestness and experience. He reserved harsh words for the Sterling Consortium, named on company documents as accountants Sean Verity, Melvyn Laughton and Stewart Davies. Charging interest of 15 per cent on loans to Doyle, both to buy the club and bear last season's losses, their debt had swollen to £5.25m. Cryne told me he had the money last Friday, but the banks were then closing and so he was unable to transfer the money until Monday. For the weekend, Sterling charged another £7,000 interest.

"They extracted every last drop," he said. "They had their pound of flesh. It was not illegal at all, but morally it was appalling." Laughton, of Sterling, said he would not discuss details, but said: "We lend money according to legal agreements. We don't get emotional. Mr Cryne can make his criticisms, but I'm not interested."

Ridsdale is aware of the bafflement in some quarters that, while his former club can tumble into wreckage, he is welcomed into another. "I've learned from my mistakes," he said. "Here we will be prudent, grow gradually, with a strong community programme and academy, two things I achieved at Leeds. I know I have something to prove, and the only way I can do that is by focusing on Barnsley and making a success of it."

Bruised and battered, he is certain to be in for further whacks whenever Leeds shudder. Whether Ridsdale has emerged wiser remains to be seen from his husbandry at Oakwell, his new theatre of dreams.