Exclusive interview: Leeds United chairman Andrea Radrizzani on Bielsa, transfers and the season ahead
In no time, Bielsa replied and asked for a meeting. Radrizzani went first to Argentina, beginning a conversation which Orta and Angus Kinnear, Leeds United’s director of football and managing director, continued through May and half of June. It was a risky process and not only because of the seven-figure salary on the table: weeks spent working on a contract which could have fallen down over technicalities or at the whim of the Football Association’s work permit panel.
Stung twice by two fledgling managers last season, Radrizzani took the plunge and tried to punch above his weight. “The moment he asked to meet with me, I took the plane,” he says. “I went there and to see if we could get along well. He’s a very straightforward person and an ambitious manager, because he took a challenge that’s not easy. I was happy to see someone very meticulous with the job, a hard worker, big on the details. The real job starts tomorrow. We will see.”
It starts against Stoke City, Leeds’ first game of the new season, and Radrizzani is pleased to have a new hand on the tiller. In May, after the club finished 13th in the Championship, he decided that this season would not be left to Paul Heckingbottom, Bielsa’s predecessor, and sacked him after four months in the job. In trying to repair what he called the “mistake” of appointing Thomas Christiansen last summer, Radrizzani made another and wasted Â£500,000 by hurrying through Heckingbottom’s arrival from Barnsley in February. A decaying campaign died rapidly under Heckingbottom, with little in the way of optimism to cling to.
“Paul came in a difficult moment,” Radrizzani says. “We were losing game and points and getting a distance from the play-offs. I wanted to try to give a shock to the team and stay around the play-offs. It didn’t work but not all for his fault.
“I think Paul could have a good career as a manager because he’s direct, ambitious and motivated. Probably he needs more time to grow. But at this point we can’t wait for someone to come here and form himself, with all respect. It was the same with Thomas.”
His remarks about Heckingbottom are not unlike the comments made about Christiansen when the Dane was dismissed and Bielsa - the exceptionally experienced, inspirational Argentinian - looks like the penny dropping at the third attempt. “When I decided to change Paul, I didn’t have any doubt that I wanted to have a manager with charisma and leadership which everybody else in the organisation would follow,” Radrizzani says.
So what target for Bielsa, considering that two managers paid with their jobs for the failings of last season? “Not to be sacked,” Radrizzani jokes. “But the reality is that if we are Leeds, we need to compete, which means in the top six teams at the end of the season.”
In their defence, Heckingbottom and Christiansen might ask what even a man with Bielsa’s reputation would have done with the squad they were given. Radrizzani concedes that the responsibility for last season “should be shared” and blame attached to recruitment. Leeds, he says, spent more than Â£20m on the players they signed, only to finish in the bottom half of the table and find themselves paying off or auctioning a number of them this summer. They are also redressing the mass signing of development-squad players which strained the wage bill further. Since May, a change of strategy at Elland Road has been obvious: not a single signing arriving from abroad and two - Barry Douglas and Patrick Bamford - who have torn up the Championship before. “We invested more than Â£20m on 13, 15 players and they didn’t achieve a good result,” Radrizzani says. “We had to change this.”
What didn’t change was the recruitment department itself. Orta, Leeds’ Spanish scouting chief, has become a lightning rod for criticism of mistakes in the transfer market, the point of blame for so many outside the club. Despite misplaced expenditure last season, Radrizzani was and still remains entirely supportive of him.
“Everybody can do mistakes in my organisation, including me,” Radrizzani says. “As far as they do their best and have passion, they are fine to learn from mistakes. Unless it’s his desire to leave, I will not have any doubt about that. I trust him and Angus. This summer has been more rational than the last one. We knew what we had to do.
“How much money lost last season? The frustration is a lot. But in the end I agree with Victor: they are not good or bad players. I can name someone like (Jay-Roy) Grot (now on loan with VVV Venlo in Holland). He’s a very good talent but he’s young and the jump to play in a stadium of 30,000 people every week is not easy to take. I hope a player like him can come back stronger and be part of the future.
“It was not wrong decisions in terms of picking bad players. Maybe we picked players who at the moment cannot be part of this project. The pressure is very high. We can’t wait 10 years.”
That urgency was shown in some of the players who Leeds went after in this transfer window. The club spoke at length with Abel Hernandez - a free agent after declining a new contract at Hull City - but could not afford financial demands which amounted to more than Â£100,000 a week all-in. Radrizzani says there were concerns about the Achilles injury Hernandez suffered last season and earlier this week, the Uruguayan signed for CSKA Moscow.
Matej Vydra was next on the list as Leeds, in Radrizzani’s words, looked for “a striker with goals and proven experience in the Championship, and a striker who could be a sign of intent and ambition beside the manager.” Radrizzani says a fee was agreed with Derby County but that talks over personal terms came to nothing. Leeds, in any case, were not convinced that Vydra was as interested in the transfer as an alternative like Bamford. “No doubt Vydra is a great player but we want to have players who feel it’s special to wear the white jersey,” Radrizzani says. “He didn’t show it. He could think it but if he doesn’t show it with action, it’s difficult.”
More frustrating again was the failure to sign Florian Jozefzoon, the Dutch winger who left Brentford for Derby last month. “We received the contract from the club (Brentford) and we had written approval from the agent. Then, on the way to the medical check here, they change ideas and go to another club. Honestly, I’m happy he didn’t come here. Good luck to him but we don’t want people like this.”
The ability to approach players like Hernandez and Vydra was helped by an investment of around Â£10m made in Leeds by 49ers Enterprises, the investment branch of the San Francisco 49ers NFL Franchise. Radrizzani sold a 12 per cent stake in the club in return for that money, promising the cash would be directed into the first team.
At the time of his first investment in 2016, Radrizzani spoke of pursuing a five-year plan at Leeds: of buying back Elland Road, building a new training ground in the city centre and sticking with the project unless five years elapsed without promotion. Both he and the 49ers have denied that the recent investment could be the first step to a full buy-out - “the only reason someone would take over is because I’m failing,” Radrizzani says - but he learned a hard lesson in football club ownership last season, falling well short in the Championship and wading through various PR scrapes.
Is the same enthusiasm still there? “I’m more rational, a bit more nervous now, but I have faith,” he says. “I know it (promotion) will happen. I don’t know when, but it will happen.
“If I don’t go up after a few years then I’ll sell because it means my cycle is done and someone else should do it. It’s a loss-making league and it’s not fun to put money every year into a business that loses money.
“The club needs money always in this league. In the last 12 months we made a lot of investment in the first team and youth team but still we can’t reach break even in this upcoming season. We still need resources.”
No head coach at Leeds has ever cost more money than Bielsa, the highest paid manager in United’s history on a two-year contract worth more than Â£2m annually. Meticulous is the word most often used around Bielsa but the 63-year-old can be volatile and his last job, at Lille, was a costly experiment all round.
Radrizzani believes he can keep Bielsa happy. “We need to be honest with each other,” he says. “I’ve been honest about the financial need of the club from day one and the risk that we might consider selling one or two players. He’s been honest with me, asking for what he needs to deliver - certain kinds of players.
“The leader is an important role. Players are important but if you don’t have a good leader, you lose investment in the players. It (Bielsa’s salary) is not really a gamble. It’s a sign of ambition and stating our intent to play a role in the league.”
Bielsa’s appointment has created outward belief that Leeds will. So much of it often proves to be blind but no-one does faith like Leeds United and in that spirit, Radrizzani is hopeful. Leeds have signed five players, three on loan from the Premier League, and the Italian insists the “priorities have been accomplished” in the transfer market. “We maybe have one or two more positions where we need. It also depends on opportunities we have in the market.”
He is tired of being asked if this is the year and admits to feeling a touch of nerves with tomorrow’s game against Stoke approaching. “Last year I just felt excited.” But is he genuinely confident? “In everything I do,” he says. “If it doesn’t happen this year, it’ll be next year. Or the next one.”