The Nick Townsend column: Publicity Pete has learned his lesson yet still he dreams
Ridsdale is overseeing the rise of Cardiff after a spell at Barnsley but it is the débâcle at Leeds for which he is still remembered
Sunday 06 April 2008
It was October 1998 when we first met; when a successful businessman and ebullient, newly elected football chairman articulated his vision for Leeds United in a London hotel. Peter Ridsdale had just responded to George Graham's return to London and White Hart Lane by promoting the Scot's loquacious young No 2, the former Arsenal centre-back David O'Leary, and for a time that chairman was like a Wii at Christmas. Everyone wanted one like him.
Football chairmanship, like politics, is about the qualities of judgement and instinct, but it is also subject to that great dictator of fate, events. Ultimately, these would end up conspiring against him.
"At Leeds, success came too easily," he says now. "There were times when I thought, 'Do we want another striker?' I'd say, 'Why not? Let's sign another cheque'. Why? Because the manager [O'Leary] thinks we'll be even better with another striker.Never mind that we didn't sell one, too. 'You want Robbie Fowler?' We got Robbie Fowler. No problem. And we ended up with six strikers.
"I didn't say 'No' often enough," he admits. "But those are the lessons you learn in life from making mistakes. What wasn't right was those decrying me who said I should never work in football again."
We met again in London last week. Not in Cardiff, where Ridsdale is chairman of the Welsh capital's Championship club, even though it is Wednesday, when his manager, Dave Jones, and players – including that self-same Robbie Fowler – are making themselves available to the media ahead of today's FA Cup semi-final.
The man who earned the name Publicity Pete at Leeds chooses not to be there, despite the interest in him as a character who was, briefly, chairman of Barnsley, Cardiff's opponents. It has been a tortuous journey, albeit in part of his own making, from Valencia in 2001 and the second leg of that Champions' League semi-final, the zenith before the start of the decline, to today's contest at Wembley. But he will take his seat in the Royal Box manifestly wiser. "At Cardiff, we've had three years of problems, and now suddenly it's going well," he says. "But I think every day, what happens if this, or that, goes wrong?"
Cardiff have just won a court case over a £24 million loan secured by the previous chairman, Sam Hammam. Losing it would have meant Cardiff going into administration. So you can understand Ridsdale's trepidation after events at Elland Road. "If you Google me on the internet – I don't, because I'm not that egotistical – you'll probably find it takes 1,200 pages to find anything nice about me," he says self-mockingly. In brief, the admired elements of his chairmanship at Leeds (including his handling of the fallout from the Bowyer-Woodgate court case and the murder of two supporters in Turkey) were undone because he allowed his dreams, like some kind of opiate, to dull his business acumen.
He has returned to Elland Road twice, both times with Cardiff, since resigning in March 2003. "It's a weird feeling, rather like going back to a house you've sold and finding that someone else is occupying it," he says. "But I don't look back with bitterness. There were great highs, too – and some great learning experiences whichI'm trying to put into practice at Cardiff."
He might have said, "Hi, my name is Peter, and I was high on ambition", for he has since confessed to his flaws (albeit implicating other members of the Elland Road gang in the process). Today, he is a little like an addict who has become a drug counsellor. Yet his reputation precedes him, and many in South Wales were initially reluctant to accept him.
The construction of a 30,000-capacity stadium, to be ready for the start of the 2009-10 season, and the stabilisation of the club financially have tended to allay their fears that a Jonah had arrived in Wales.
"I didn't choose to return to football," he says. "Sam Hammam asked me for my help. I thought naïvely that I could work below the radar and concentrate on the business side. But Sam went, and investors said they would only continue if I stayed on as chairman. What do you do? Walk away? I've got something to prove to myself, as much as anything."
So this is primarily about reinventing himself? "I don't feel that the way I was publicly treated when left Leeds fairly reflected what I did in my five-and-a-half years there. Does that mean I'm taking the chance to set some of the record straight? Yes, it probably does. Does it mean that I'll be happier to walk away, leaving a gleaming new stadium and a club that's thriving? Yes, it does."
There was still antipathy towards him as recently as last October. "This was a club that was almost in liquidation, a team that had not been in the top flight for 46 years, and yet was holding its own in the Championship, yet supporters were still calling, in a fairly vitriolic way, for Dave Jones's head – and if Dave didn't go, for my head. Personalisation of the hate from Cardiff fans – a very small minority, I should stress – resulted in things being said that nobody should have to read or hear.
"At one stage the police were called in, and they arrested somebody for the threat against me personally. However, to be fair, the council and business community have been fantastic and the majority of the supporters, apart from early scepticism, and one or two idiots since, have given me the benefit of the doubt.
"I believe they understand I'm trying to put something in place for future years, when I won't be there." Which suggests a time limit on his involvement. "My job will have naturally concluded when the stadium opens." He pauses. "However, if someone turns round then and says it'd be better if I stayed, I'd think about it..."
Although he believes that Cardiff "will have a Premier League football team – and be able to maintain it there", he, more than most, can appreciate the potential perils of running a football club, and why the increasing financial disparity between the Premier League elite and the Championship makes that a daunting challenge.
"You get a minimum £35m if you're promoted to the Premier League, plus two years of parachute payments of £11m even if you are relegated," he says. "Compare that to us. We only turn over between £8m and £10m a year, depending on how successful we are in the FA Cup.
"I just don't think that's good for football; that clubs are forced into this inappropriate way of chasing the dream to the point where they can put the whole future of the club at risk because they overspend.
"I'm lucky. I've learnt my lessons at Leeds, and therefore no matter how much our supporters stamp up and down and scream and shout, I will not spend money I haven't got."
He adds: "The sad thing about the FA is that they don't show leadership in terms of the game as a whole. They're not imposing a financial structure which has sensible differentials between the Premier League, and Championship, and Leagues One and Two, which allows football to flourish."
He also criticises the Wembley project. "Would I have built it? No, I wouldn't. Why? Because it means there's not enough money going to grass-roots football. There's no way, with the current financial distribution, that we'll end up with a national team that will succeed on the world stage."
But he will be happy to pitch up there today? "Sure. I'll enjoy the day out. But it's like being invited to a stately home for a Christmas banquet, and then returning to your tent because you've got no money." Which, as those Leeds supporters who once revered Ridsdale would be sure to remind him, is a bit like life at Elland Road sincethe millennium.
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