Ridsdale finds inner strength amid the pain

Leeds United chairman has 'grown up' with experience of the Galatasaray incident and George Graham's defection
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This evening, in the intimidating San Siro stadium against mighty Milan, Leeds United need merely a draw - merely! - to secure passage into the lucrative second phase of the European Champions' League.

This evening, in the intimidating San Siro stadium against mighty Milan, Leeds United need merely a draw - merely! - to secure passage into the lucrative second phase of the European Champions' League.

But this story begins on Tuesday, 24 October. Leeds have just drawn 1-1 against Barcelona, for whom Rivaldo, agonisingly for the home crowd, equalised in the fourth minute of injury time. Afterwards, in the bowels of the stadium, a snowy-haired old fellow in a natty camel overcoat asks a doorman if he can pop into the Barcelona dressing-room to say hello to the players. The doorman says no. The old fellow doesn't press the point, just hangs around looking bemused and slightly disorientated. Someone goes to fetch the Leeds chairman, Peter Ridsdale, who puts his arm round the old fellow and says of course he can drop in on the Barcelona players if he wants to. The doorman then stands sheepishly aside for Ridsdale ... and Bobby Robson. Ridsdale has sorted things, as is his wont.

He is, after all, a highly accomplished businessman, trained in the dog-eat-dog world of retail. In Istanbul six months ago, however, he confronted a crisis for which his business career can hardly have prepared him, when two Leeds fans were murdered on the eve of a Uefa Cup match against Galatasaray. Yet Ridsdale emerged from that tragedy with his reputation, if anything, enhanced. So in his unpretentious office across the road from the Elland Road stadium, I ask him to recall the events of that awful night, and its aftermath.

"We were on an island in the middle of the Bosphorus, where Galatasaray officials were hosting a dinner, when a phone call came through from our undercover police saying that there had been an incident and at least one Leeds supporter was dead. I insisted on going straight to the hospital. It was chaos. Nobody appeared to be in charge, and there were some very stressed and emotional Leeds supporters there saying one of their group had been killed. That was Christopher [Loftus]. Kevin [Speight] was on the operating table but I saw him and felt sure he wouldn't survive. The hospital had no blood, there were cats walking around, it was shambolic. My gut reaction was to cancel the match, but Uefa's advice was that there were already so many of our supporters in the city, it might make things worse."

Instead, on Ridsdale's orders, further planeloads of Leeds fans were turned back, and flights yet to set out were cancelled. Throughout the following day he handled the inevitable media stampede with admirable composure, although he was feeling anything but composed, especially when the match kicked off. "I thought their supporters behaved appallingly. They were goading us almost as if they had got one up on us by killing two of our supporters. I felt a mixture of disbelief and fear. I have never been as fearful in a football ground."

Oddly enough, the most frightened I have ever been at a football match was at Leeds United v Everton, circa 1979. Nobody died, but the hostility of the home fans verged on the hysterical. Ridsdale acknowledges that Leeds have "had a problem" in the past and insists that the club is moving heaven and earth to change things.

"That is why we have 59 people banned from the ground, more than any other club. We insist on a ban being imposed if someone is ejected, even though it's not mandatory. We are trying desperately hard to set the right standards and I think we deserve credit for what we have already done. We also have the best community scheme in the country, with over 600 people a week here doing literacy and numeracy courses, on a voluntary basis, because we want to put something back."

Two Leeds players, meanwhile, stand accused of putting something else back into the community, namely fists. The arrest of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate was an embarrassment to the club, to say the least, although Ridsdale dismisses suggestions that the pair should have been suspended pending the outcome of their trial.

"They are innocent until proven otherwise and I stand by them unequivocally, although I have been fairly categorical about the implications of one or the other being found guilty of grievous bodily harm with intent. If that is the case I can't believe they will ever play for this football club again."

Which would, of course, be calamitous for them and none too wonderful for the club, as they are both fine players. And English to boot. Indeed, anyone interested in the fortunes of the national side - not least Sven Goran Eriksson, of whom more later - should take heart from the rise and rise of Leeds United. Four promising young Englishmen - Bowyer, Woodgate, Paul Robinson and Alan Smith - contributed to Saturday's thrilling 4-3 defeat of Liverpool. And four others - Michael Bridges, Danny Mills, Jason Wilcox and Darren Huckerby - are injured, along with two established internationals, Nigel Martyn and David Batty.

Who, I wonder, does Ridsdale credit with the emergence of a young Leeds team, tipped for greatness by a fairly authoritative judge in the form of Sir Alex Ferguson? "I think it should be partly credited to Howard Wilkinson," he says. "I also think that Eddie Gray and Paul Hart, who is now at Nottingham Forest, were responsible for nurturing them.

"But had David [O'Leary] not taken over, the likes of Woodgate, Smith, McPhail and Harte would not have come through when they did. He took the gamble. Although it should also be remembered that David has spent £46m gross on players since he took over. He has a vision of people he wants to play for this football club, and the players he has signed, like Michael Bridges and Eirik Bakke, fit the pattern. He is very careful, arguably over-cautious, in making sure that they will fit into both the team and the lifestyle."

It was, in hindsight, a felicitous day for Leeds when O'Leary's predecessor, George Graham, left to take the Sugar shilling at White Hart Lane. Yet it didn't seem so at the time, especially for Ridsdale, as he had persuaded his fellow directors to meet Graham's rather steep salary demands. "I sat with George in his conservatory and he said that if we gave him what he wanted he would sign for three years. And 12 months later almost to the day, he left. That's when I grew up as a chairman, because I naïvely believed he meant it. I felt very let down and embarrassed."

As a member of the Football Association's international committee, incidentally, Ridsdale felt similarly stitched up by Kevin Keegan. "I thought Kevin owed it to his employers to give them time to agree the method by which his resignation was announced. At the very least I would have expected him to sleep on it after the disappointment of the Germany game, allowing us to have a conversation on the Sunday. So I was very disappointed with the timing and manner of his decision."

As for the Leeds succession, Ridsdale, following Graham's departure, immediately offered the job to Graham's assistant, O'Leary. He declined, but took temporary charge while a game of cat-and-mouse unfolded with Martin O'Neill, then at Leicester City. In the meantime, Ridsdale consulted the players, all of whom pressed strongly for O'Leary. "Except David Hopkin, who said: 'We're just the players. You're the chairman, it's your job to appoint a manager.' He was right. And I could see David was enjoying it, so we went back to him."

The rest is history but also the future, because O'Leary, in his mock-naïve-I'm-just-a-humble-backwoodsman-trying-to-do-a-job manner, stands poised to establish Leeds as a genuine force in Europe as well as the Premiership. And if he can keep the squad together, Leeds fans sniff a return to the glory, glory days of Don Revie. Which will thrill Ridsdale, because that is pretty much where he came in.

"I started coming here in 1962, and from the time I was 10 or 11 I used to go to away games, too, on my own. Imagine that now?" What, I ask him, were the highlights of those early years? He smiles. Rapture. Like all football fans of his generation (he is 48), he loves being invited to wax nostalgic.

"The game against Sunderland when we won promotion in the 1963-64 season. And I was at Old Trafford in our first season up when we won 1-0. Bobby Collins scored, but I didn't see it because of thick fog. That was quite a season because we finished second to Man United on goal average and reached the FA Cup final. I queued all night for my Cup final ticket, and got it at three the following afternoon." He pauses. "My hero, believe it or not, was the much-maligned Gary Sprake." Blimey! Talk about dropping a bombshell. Which Sprake, of course, probably would have done. Ridsdale, though, is having none of it. "I thought he was a great goalkeeper, and still the best catcher of crosses I've ever seen. I never saw him punch the ball. A few people, but never the ball."

Ridsdale's popularity with the fans, rarer than a natterjack toad among football club chairmen, is built on fond reminiscences like these. "They know I have stood with them at Plymouth Argyle on a Tuesday night, and that if we lose I feel the same pain. There are times, though, when you must take a balanced view, like the business last year with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

"The fans didn't want him to leave, but as a chairman you have to think about the pay structure and the dressing-room spirit. Although there are some myths about the pay structure here. Our highest-paid player now earns four times more than the highest-paid player when I became chairman [in June 1997]. We have moved to accommodate the changing dynamics of the game, otherwise we couldn't keep players like Harry Kewell."

A fit Kewell would be worth tens of millions in the transfer market, but what of the transfer market? Does Ridsdale think it will survive? "I think some form of transfer system will survive, where compensation is paid equal to the expired portion of a player's contract. Besides, the critical thing for me at the moment is to sustain a team that, year in year out, can get into Europe, and the rewards from Europe outweigh the risk of paying too much for a player.

"For smaller clubs, though, it would clearly be an absolute disaster to lose the transfer system. I have never known a legislative change in any democratic society, opposed by everybody, and yet it could still happen, destroying an industry that touches millions of lives."

As his colleagues in the FA's higher echelons would doubtless testify, Ridsdale is a formidably eloquent campaigner. He is presently trying to persuade them - and, less easily, the stuffed shirts at the Football League - to reform the system whereby youngsters cannot join a football club unless they live within 90 minutes of the training ground.

"Clubs must work together to set up satellite academies," he says. "Otherwise they cannot sign the schoolboys they want, and that's why they are increasingly looking overseas." He opposes a county cricket-style capping on foreign players, though. "I'm totally against it. Artificial markets shouldn't exist. It's like stopping an American film star from appearing in a British film. Why shouldn't he?"

Why indeed? And why, for that matter, shouldn't a Swede become England coach? Ridsdale was instrumental in Eriksson's appointment and duly wrote an article defending it in the Independent on Sunday. "I am sure that supporters of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal are not at this moment bemoaning the fact that their managers are not English," he wrote.

Ditto the supporters of Leeds United. The more so if things go well at the San Siro tonight.