Andrea Radrizzani’s deal is fully approved and represents a clean slate, even if control of Leeds United is not his alone – at this moment in time at any rate. Phil Hay reports.
It took seven months or thereabouts for Andrea Radrizzani to talk Massimo Cellino round but his purchase of a 50 per cent stake in Leeds United must feel like the start of a longer game. There is scope for a full buy-out of Cellino this summer. There is scope for Leeds United as a club to grow far beyond their current size. And growth is what Radrizzani stakes his reputation on.
It was there in the statement announcing his investment at 3pm today. “I’m making a long-term commitment to Leeds United and will work to bring stability through ongoing investment,” he said. “I aim to bring sustainable growth.” Football club ownership is a new playground for him but Radrizzani comes to Elland Road with a background in relevant businesses, a specialism in sports media rights and, according to one source at United, “very powerful contacts”. The story goes that Kenny Dalglish gave Radrizzani the idea of investing in Leeds over lunch.
In that respect, he should arrive in the boardroom without the star-struck demeanour Gulf Finance House and their hapless men always carried. He is free of the baggage or the fights that weighed down Cellino as he tried to persuade the Football League to approve his takeover in 2014. The League did background checks on Radrizzani once negotiations moved forward and it established before Christmas that nothing in his background would contravene its Owners and Directors Test.
Radrizzani’s deal is fully approved. He represents a clean slate, even if control of Leeds is not his alone.
His share purchase agreement with Cellino gives Radrizzani an option to take the 60-year-old’s remaining stake at the end of this season. The exact terms of that deal will be reviewed then and most likely dictated by United’s league status. Cellino had himself owned 100 per cent of the club for less than six months since acquiring GFH’s minority shareholding in September but GFH’s overdue exit made a future sale of the club more feasible and less complicated.
Cellino, who is absent on his traditional Christmas trip to Miami, came as close as he will ever come to admitting today that running Leeds alone amid a flood of problems, controversies and criticism was no longer realistic. It is almost impossible now that he faces an 18-month suspension imposed by the Football Association, due to start in 26 days’ time. “I have worked hard for the past three years for Leeds United,” Cellino said. “We are a massive club. I feel the only way we can get better is for me to bring in a new partner.”
It was not quite goodbye and the Italian is renowned for finding new leases of life but Radrizzani is locking himself in at Elland Road. He spent 14 years building MP & Silva, the global media rights firm, into an asset worth around £500m. It drew serious Chinese investment last year, at a time when Cellino and Radrizzani were first speaking. Much as the Italian spoke of seeking “ongoing investment” it would be a surprise to see him pursue any attempt to ‘flip’ the club – GFH’s entire modus operandi. “I won’t do anything that will put the club’s future at risk,” Radrizzani said.
To Cellino’s credit, he did not involve himself at Leeds with the intention of profiting from a quick re-sale. He merely bought the club blind without any due diligence and compounded inherited nightmares with many created by his own idiosyncrasies. But those who know the accounts at Elland Road say they are vastly improved from the appalling numbers GFH left behind. Leeds breached Financial Fair Play (FFP) limits in Cellino’s first January transfer window but have been compliant ever since. They are compliant still and free to do business in this window. Radrizzani will see numerous commercial opportunities at Leeds, avenues the club have never exploited properly, but he is investing his money with Leeds on the way up. Elland Road saw its first sell-out since 2011 in November and has drawn more than 30,000 on two occasions. The pup GFH sold Cellino has grown some teeth in two-and-a-half years.
So, too, has United’s squad and their management team. The bonus for Radrizzani, who sat with Cellino and and watched Leeds capitulate to Queens Park Rangers on the first weekend of this season, is that Leeds are dabbling in a promotion chase for the first time in a long time. They have not been so well placed in the Championship after 25 games since 2006. There is an evident need for capital investment in the squad, to convert loans into permanent transfers and to recruit the players Garry Monk wants before this transfer window closes, but Radrizzani’s investment was lined up with a view to helping in both the short and longer term. His statement today had to make some mention of Monk and the support of United’s head coach was unambiguous. “I’m very impressed with the job Garry has done this season,” Radrizzani said.It quelled any thought of him copying Birmingham City by wading into Elland Road and doing what City’s trigger-happy owners did to Gary Rowett last month. Monk looks safe, as he ought to be.
In the weeks to come Radrizzani said he would attempt to speak with “Garry and the team; the club staff at Elland Road and Thorp Arch; supporters’ representatives; former players and media.” The idea of reaching out it is a far cry from the reclusive approach taken by Cellino this season; an approach which, everyone at the club agrees, has not done Monk or his players any harm at all. While Radrizzani meets and greets, Cellino will fly back from the USA and prepare an appeal against the ban imposed on him by the FA for his part in agreeing an illegal payment when Leeds sold Ross McCormack to Fulham in 2014
Cellino is hopeful of reducing both his ban and the £250,000 fines imposed on him and United but a suspension in some form is expected to stand, forcing Cellino to resign from the club’s board and cut his ties with Leeds in the interim. Radrizzani will hold the reins before long, albeit while Eleonora Sport Ltd retain Cellino’s stake. Today’s deal had the smell of an initial investment teeing up the full McCoy.
There will be questions for Radrizzani, as there are for any owner: how much did he pay for his shares, what sort of money can he actually bring to the table and, most significantly, how will he and Cellino divide power. This, for now, is a 50-50 split of shares but people will look for signs of Radrizzani’s influence taking hold. And as football goes, he will be judged strictly on his record. But Cellino touched on something relevant in his own statement today, welcoming 42-year-old Radrizzani to Leeds. “Andrea is young and brings a new energy with him,” Cellino said. Just like Monk, just like a youthful chief executive in Ben Mansford and just like many of the players who are whipping up United’s season. Radrizzani’s investment is an injection of fresh blood at boardroom level. And the time feels right.