Andrea Radrizzani’s ‘alternative strategy’ already bearing fruit for Leeds United with purchase of Elland Road

Andrea Radrizzani with former owner Massimo Cellino. PIC: Simon Hulme
Andrea Radrizzani with former owner Massimo Cellino. PIC: Simon Hulme
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Sold in desperation in 2004 during a process which deserved far more scrutiny, Elland Road spent almost 13 years serving its private owner.

There was no tangible benefit to Leeds United of a decade and more of expensive tenancy. The £8m raised by the board who cashed in on the stadium barely touched the sides.

As Andrea Radrizzani parted with around £20m to end that arrangement yesterday, it occurred that Leeds have been in a hand-to-mouth state ever since. The club paid upwards of £1m in every year of their lease and had seen their rent rise incrementally to £1.7m.

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Coun Judith Blake has welcomed Andrea Radrizzani's purchase of Elland Road. PIC: Simon Hulme

Coun Judith Blake has welcomed Andrea Radrizzani's purchase of Elland Road. PIC: Simon Hulme

Leeds are emotionally tied to Elland Road, their home for almost a century, but the ground has been a drain; costly to use and a sad example of the club’s inability to shake off third-party influence.

Radrizzani’s purchase of the ground through Greenfield Investment Pte Ltd, Leeds’ new parent company, is the most significant tranche of owner investment the club have seen in recent memory.

To walk around Elland Road and Thorp Arch is to wonder what the 15 years prior to his arrival did for the club. In less than two months as chairman, Radrizzani’s success in reclaiming the deeds gives his tenure all the credibility it needs.

Football is a different game altogether, less predictable and less easy to dictate financially than the acquisition of property, but Radrizzani has freed himself from the scepticism which owners of Leeds automatically attract. The financial implications of buying Elland Road mattered to him, a way of maximising Leeds’ spending power, but the deal was a matter of integrity.

Today is an important day in our history and a proud day for me and my team.

Leeds United owner, Andrea Radrizzani.

Massimo Cellino promised to purchase the stadium in the week after his takeover in 2014. Radrizzani, just five weeks on from acquiring Cellino’s shareholding, was not far off that ambitious timescale.

Other owners talked about Elland Road, an easy way of winning the public’s enthusiasm. Radrizzani’s money delivered it.

The process was not as simple as the Italian made it look. Jacob Adler, the Manchester property owner who bought both Elland Road and Thorp Arch from Gerald Krasner’s consortium in November 2014, is understood to have been a reluctant seller; understandably keen to retain an asset which had more than paid back his initial £8m outlay.

Leeds and Radrizzani had a legal option to reclaim the deeds, a clause agreed at the time of the original sale, but were not about to be handed Elland Road on a plate.

Massimo Cellino

Massimo Cellino

Radrizzani was nonetheless aware of the need to fulfil the promise he made last month by guaranteeing that he would secure ownership of the ground before the summer was out. Some of those close to him were honest in warning about the damage to his reputation if it proved to be hollow.

Speaking after yesterday’s announcement, Radrizzani said: “Today is an important day in our history and a proud day for me and my team.

“When I met with management and supporters during my first few months at the club the purchase of Elland Road was very high on their list of priorities and I’m delighted to be able to announce that we have completed that process.”

Greenfield, the investment vehicle managed by Radrizzani’s company Aser, is the official landlord of Elland Road in its capacity as 100 per cent owner of Leeds.

The YEP understands that Greenfield will charge Leeds no rent, removing the annual bill of £1.7m and, in United’s words, allowing the club to invest the money in “the academy, the squad and important improvements to the stadium”.

A statement said buying the ground was Radrizzani’s “top priority” after becoming sole owner of Leeds last month.

Renovation of Elland Road is already under way, on a smaller scale at present than the expansive plans which Radrizzani has for the land around the stadium. The club are replacing the old and past-its-best roof on the West Stand and upgrading corporate facilities and the tunnel area. They intend to re-brand the outside of the ground before the new Championship season starts, brightening up a venue which has a tendency to look tired.

Elland Road’s raw atmosphere is part of its appeal but Radrizzani was open in admitting when he first invested in Leeds that he found a business trapped “in the 1970s”.

The date in Radrizzani’s mind is 2020, the year in which he hopes a wider strategy for developing the Elland Road site will come to fruition. Much of the land around the stadium is council owned and the 42-year-old has been courting the local authority since his arrival in Yorkshire, attempting to consolidate a relationship which has been brittle for years. It was telling that yesterday’s club statement included a comment from council leader Judith Blake, applauding the purchase.

“As we prepare for the new season to begin in August, I very much welcome the intent being shown by Andrea to move the club forward with real purpose and ambition,” Blake said.

Radrizzani’s redevelopment plan – branded by him as ‘Elland Road 2020’ – includes the construction of a new training ground away from Thorp Arch. Adler continues to own the expansive complex near Wetherby and Leeds have no right to repurchase it after a shorter buy-back option elapsed in 2009 while Ken Bates was chairman.

United failed to raise £6m at the time and the council refused to cover the shortfall, citing concerns over a lack of transparency surrounding the club’s ownership structure.

Leeds, whose lease on Thorp Arch runs to 2029, are keen to rid themselves of the £600,000 rent and want to base their players closer to the city centre. It is an altogether more complicated ambition than buying back Elland Road but a genuine one all the same.

Preston North End on August 12 will be Radrizzani’s first league game as outright owner of Leeds. It will also be United’s first league fixture in a ground which is technically their own since a 2-1 defeat to Burnley on November 3, 2004.

Over time Leeds should feel the financial benefit of negating a yearly rent which would have bought Mateusz Klich from FC Twente last week but the reaction to yesterday’s news was not about finance. It was about the aesthetic appeal of a club on their feet, an owner who walks the walk and the simmering belief that Leeds won’t retreat from a step forward so big.

An “alternative strategy” was how Krasner described the original sale of Elland Road, painting it as an necessity which safeguarded Leeds future.

In light of the past 13 years, yesterday’s announcement is exactly that.

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