Evening Standard

'I'm not sure whether I'm good for Leeds these days,' says Preston chairman Peter Risdale. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Peter Ridsdale will not be at Emirates Stadium tonight to see Leeds play Arsenal in the FA Cup. Just as well for Leeds given that, since leaving the club in March 2003, his record is: watched five, lost five.

“I’m not sure whether I’m good for Leeds these days,” says Ridsdale.

Leeds fans concluded long ago that Ridsdale was never any good for their team, holding him responsible for the disastrous slide from Champions League heights to League One anonymity. But, since leaving Leeds nearly nine years ago with the club £79million in debt, the former Elland Road chairman has reinvented himself as the man clubs in trouble turn to.

And, as soon as I raise Leeds, he is quick with his defence. “I’m sick and tired of taking the stick for it,” says the 59-year-old. “Leeds were a public company with some top businessmen on the board and every decision was signed off by the whole board. The strategy worked for the period I was there. I was chairman from 1997-98 for five full seasons and we never finished outside the top five of the Premier League. We got to the UEFA Cup semi-final and the Champions League semi-final, losing to Valencia in 2001.

“The week after I left we went to Charlton and won 6-1 in the Premier League, three or four weeks later went to Highbury and beat Arsenal 3-2. In that squad were Paul Robinson, Nigel Martyn, Scott Carson, Danny Mills, Gary Kelly, Ian Harte, Dominic Matteo, Lucas Radebe, Eirik Bakke, Nick Barmby, James Milner, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Alan Smith, with Aaron Lennon coming through as a young lad.

“How did that team get relegated? Fifteen months after I left, Leeds got relegated and suddenly it’s Peter Ridsdale’s fault. It is a myth that we overspent. Leeds United’s spending was fine as long as they stayed in the Premier League. Without relegation they would have been able to carry on with the debt of £78.9m which was on a structured 25-year basis. There was a very deliberate attempt by the people who allowed that club to decline to rubbish me and make this the Peter Ridsdale show.”

But, surely Peter, a gold fish bowl in your Elland Road office with fishes named after players did make it a Ridsdale show? He adds: “The reason it was there was I had been in the rag trade and a lot of the Chinese factories and companies have goldfish because they think it’s good luck. It was a bit of fun. It cost £200 a year in a business turning over £80m a year. Have you been to the PFA headquarters in Manchester? What have they got in the reception? A goldfish tank. Does anybody say anything about that?”

In this rewriting of history Ridsdale admits to only one error. “My biggest mistake was when Terry Venables was appointed in 2002,” he insists.

“David [O’Leary] left in the summer and I thought I’d got Martin O’Neill but Martin didn’t join. Steve McClaren was my choice. The board went for Terry Venables. I should have resigned. We were fifth in the Premier League and, had I left then, I’d have been a hero. History would have seen me in a completely different light.”

Instead, matters came to a head the following January when Jonathan Woodgate, Robbie Fowler and Lee Bowyer were sold while Olivier Dacourt was sent on loan to Roma ahead of a permanent move that summer. The departure of Woodgate to Newcastle for £9m angered Venables, who had been assured the centre-half would stay if Fowler was sold.

At a press conference to address the issue, Ridsdale talked of how the club were now only valued at £15m on the stock exchange and that no Champions League football for two seasons meant they had missed out on £30m.

Ridsdale then made his much quoted remark about Leeds living the dream.

Now he says: “What I actually said was, ‘We lived the dream. What we now have to do is to make sure we take the right business decisions so we can live the dream again. And that is to make sure the club lives within its means.’ That was the right thing to say.”

The fans turned on Ridsdale and exactly two months after that media address, he was gone from the club.

“I was getting tremendous personal abuse and I went to the board and said, ‘I’ve had enough.’ I should have seen it out. I honestly believe, had I stayed, Leeds wouldn’t have been relegated. Since then I’ve been pilloried, presented falsely as the man who ruined Leeds. That still hangs over me.”

This has made him bitter. For Ridsdale believes he has not got the credit he deserves for his work elsewhere post-Leeds, starting with Barnsley, who he bought just five months after leaving Elland Road. He says: “Barnsley were about to go out of business, they’re thriving. Cardiff City were about to go out of business, they’re thriving, with a new stadium. Plymouth Argyle should be dead. We’ve kept them alive and we’ve got new ownership and they are now financially stable.”

Last month, he was appointed chairman of Preston, where his job is to reorganise their finances and get them back to the Championship from where they were relegated last season. Leeds fans may find this astonishing but Ridsdale says with pride: “I love working in football and I’m good at it.”

There is a touch of irony here. Ridsdale came into football by accident. “My company, Top Man, sponsored Leeds, a club I happened to be a fan of and I was offered a seat on the board. But, after what happened, I found it very difficult to get a real job in a normal business. The job offers I got were in football.”

So, if Ken Bates, the current Leeds owner, rang, would he go back? “I wouldn’t. You don’t go back in life.”

Ridsdale treads carefully about Bates’s stewardship of Leeds. “I’m not first on his Christmas card list,” he admits.

At Leeds, Bates put the old club into liquidation and started afresh. Ridsdale recalls having a similar discussion when he was reorganising Cardiff’s finances. He says: “I didn’t believe it was right and it hasn’t been necessary.”

And, bitter as he feels about unfairly carrying the blame for Leeds’s fall, it is still the club’s result he looks out for first. He says: “I want Leeds United to succeed, I’m a Leeds lad.”


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