Professor: 'I couldn't just walk away'

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The Independent Online

No more than two years ago, he was the consummate ringmaster, a man in charge of a profusion of talented acts, including his manager David O'Leary and high-flying performers like Rio Ferdinand, Harry Kewell, Jonathan Woodgate, Mark Viduka and Alan Smith, who captured our imagination and who promised the earth. Instead what happened was a spectacular fall to earth. And there was no safety net for Peter Ridsdale who, in April this year, departed, leaving behind a club with £80m debts.

Undaunted, he has pitched up this week no more than 30 miles down the M1, having acquired Barnsley, a club in administration, for a reported £5m. There he hopes to polish a damaged reputation by utilising his special style of chairmanship. Meanwhile at Elland Road his successor John McKenzie attempts to continue reparations of the club Ridsdale loved and lost. In many ways, it all serves as a microcosm of the parlous state of the national game - yet reminds us that, once smitten, few are immune to its allure.

Ridsdale concedes that he has learned from his mistakes. McKenzie is determined that Leeds, under his stewardship, won't make any more. From now on, prudence and austerity rule. The new man favours loan deals. He has agreed that manager Peter Reid can spend, but only on a sell-to-buy policy. "Certainly, if there was a specific transfer that Peter needed, we'd find the money for him - though obviously not one costing £10-15m."

Ridsdale, the man who, famously, had a £240 goldfish tank installed in his office, and McKenzie, who took Ridsdale to task for it, suggesting it was evidence of the previous regime's profligacy, could scarcely be more contrasting characters. The former, always a persuasive and passionate man, is very comfortable in a public role. McKenzie, an academic with a breadth of business expertise, is dry and precise. Life in the goldfish bowl doesn't come easy to him.

The principal difficulty McKenzie has inherited is a £60m bond, the equivalent of a 25-year mortgage. As our business section revealed last week Leeds are already paying around £4.5m annually in interest. That increases to more than £7m once repayments start next year. McKenzie, an economics professor, is working to postpone that initial period by three to five years before repayments start.

"To agree a £60m mortgage in order to improve facilities, or to do something on which you will see a long-term return, is one thing; but to use it to buy three or four players probably was a risk investment," is the assessment of McKenzie, who is also critical of what he describes as the "hire purchase" method by which certain players - including Viduka and Dominic Matteo - were bought. The overall effect, when results did not achieve the anticipated European qualification, was increasing financial difficulty.

Leeds reacted by starting to sell players to service debt, although once agents' and other costs, particularly relating to loans, were taken into account, there was frequently considerably less income from the sales of players including Ferdinand, Woodgate and, of course, Kewell, than may have been expected. "It's a bit like getting new credit cards in order to pay off your last credit card," says McKenzie. "You end up with more and more debts and end up with fewer and fewer assets. It is an unnacceptable way to run your own life, let alone a business."

He adds: "I don't challenge Peter's good faith at all. Nobody wants to settle for mediocrity, do they? I think he had huge ambitions for the club. But it was a high-risk strategy. Once we'd started off on this investment trail, we'd have had problems even if we'd retained our place in the Champions' League. The money differential between that and the Uefa Cup is huge, £12-15m probably."

Can McKenzie ever reduce the deficit to manageable levels? "I hope we're going to sort it out," he says, "though it may take a year or two. What we can't do is stutter on from one crisis to another." He has reduced costs and is attempting to widen the club's fan base worldwide, to improve sponsorship and sales of merchandise.

He has a particular knowledge of the Asian market. While the chairman accepts that Manchester United already have a strong foothold there, he argues that "the best place to put your antique shop is next to another antique shop".

Now 65, he occupies a position that he will happily trade for a stress-free retirement with wife Ann, with whom he lives in Ilkley, once his work is complete. The Kewell affair, during which he revealed that his move to Liverpool involved a £2m payment to the player's agent, was his worst week. "It was hard on my wife and family. They wanted me to walk away, but somebody has to do it. Somebody owes it to the fans."

Not all the supporters, however, have been convinced by his appointment of Reid on a permanent basis. "I think he's a great manager of people and that's clearly what we need," argues McKenzie. "Some call us 'the odd couple' because we come from different backgrounds, but I have absolute trust in what he's trying to do. He has absolute trust in me and recognises that it's no good asking for the moon at this time." As long as Reid can continue observing Leeds' remaining stars, you imagine he will be satisfied.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in a distant football galaxy, the Second Division, Ridsdale starts anew, searching for evidence of superior life-forms on planet Barnsley.

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