Leeds United writing on the wall and self-inflicted popularity wounds led to Elland Road change

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Andrea Radrizzani did not always read the room at Leeds United but his sale of the club to 49ers Enterprises shows he read the writing on the wall.

This was not how the Italian wanted to leave Elland Road, now a Championship venue once again as it was when he took full control in 2017.

What he wanted was to go down in history as the man who led the club back to the Premier League. That much he made clear, on the record, in 2019. And by achieving that goal Radrizzani put himself on track for two unspoken but just as obvious goals. Buying Leeds for £45m was a gamble, but a clever one at the time because anyone managing to wake the sleeping giant was in line for a huge potential pay day. Leeds United in the Premier League was worth maybe 10 times more than Radrizzani initially paid for it.

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What helped boost the value even further than top flight status alone was commercial revenue that Radrizzani set out to supercharge to record levels. To do so he harnessed the historical stature of the club, its fervent fanbase and the almost mythical aura of Marcelo Bielsa. Tickets sold out, repeatedly, and everyone wanted a piece of the team in white playing beautiful football.

Although some at Elland Road were reticent when it came to Radrizzani's desire to have the club's promotion charge documented for Amazon Prime, the end result and what it did for the club's brand proved it to be another of his calculated risks worth taking.

Leeds were back in the big time, making a big noise and justifying an increasingly big price tag. With 49ers Enterprises growing their interest and their stake with obvious designs on an eventual takeover, Radrizzani stood to make big money. That had to be in his mind in 2017 and promotion made it a perfectly plausible outcome. A top 10 finish in that first year of top flight football gave it the look of a safe bet. That was as good as it got. In hindsight, that was a good time to go.

The other goal, one that at times made itself known to his detriment, was that he plainly wanted to be loved. Why else would a club owner put themselves front and centre with the cameras rolling, or linger around the tunnel area near supporters on matchdays, within audible selfie-request distance? Why else would they subject themselves to Twitter's wild west lawlessness and brutality?

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ERA OVER - Andrea Radrizzani's sale of Leeds United to 49ers Enterprises showed that the Italian read the writing on the wall and knew change was inevitable. Pic: Getty/Oli ScarffERA OVER - Andrea Radrizzani's sale of Leeds United to 49ers Enterprises showed that the Italian read the writing on the wall and knew change was inevitable. Pic: Getty/Oli Scarff
ERA OVER - Andrea Radrizzani's sale of Leeds United to 49ers Enterprises showed that the Italian read the writing on the wall and knew change was inevitable. Pic: Getty/Oli Scarff

Why else the many interviews and public statements, when some other owners are so seldom heard from? Sitting down to speak to not one but two of a large media organisation's top journalists, one of whom boasts followers in seven figures, said that this was a man who wanted an audience. He wouldn't be the first football club owner so minded and he won't be the last.

Leeds fans were not always a willing audience. Making them happy wasn't easy, for promotion was a monumental achievement that required a huge amount of collective hard work, but keeping them happy was and is like wrestling with an octopus, as 49ers Enterprises will themselves discover. Radrizzani's presence on Twitter markedly reduced during difficult times and there was a sense, among supporters, that he would pop up whenever there was something positive to attach himself to.

It never felt all that well advised to engage on Twitter regarding transfer business and though his intentions may simply have been to placate, mollify or inform, the Adam Forshaw and Bamba Dieng Tweets were deep, self-inflicted wounds to his popularity. The swiftly deleted 'JKA' utterance on the bird app was either an attempt at humour or a sign that he too had come to view that particular transfer as an abomination. His subsequent 'JFK' Tweet held the look of a clumsy cover-up attempt from a man who realised a little too late that the room had been read incorrectly. And boy did the room let him know.

There was another side to his relationship with the fans that rarely sat easy and that revolved around what felt like a refusal to give in to vociferous kit design and colour demands. When the yellow kit so clamoured for at long last arrived, it was not exactly one for the purists. And yet they always flew off the shelves. Even when he knowingly did not deliver what sections of the support said they wanted, the sound of tills ringing suggested he maybe knew best on some things.

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Where his tenure fell away, to rob him of a bumper sale and hope of wholescale popularity and appreciation among fans, was in the club's decision-making over the last 15 or so months.

Owners ultimately take the blame when managerial appointments do not work out but as CEO Angus Kinnear once put it, that very scenario reflects a collective failure. Jesse Marsch was Victor Orta's project. The recruitment for the American was specific but, as events of last season have proved, more miss than hit.

As the project fell apart - Orta departed on the eve of Leeds appointing Sam Allardyce as their third 'permanent' head coach of the season with just four games remaining - Radrizzani appeared to be cutting himself somewhat adrift. A direct message, sent to a supporter during that awful game at Bournemouth, decrying the general situation but taking responsibility, was evidence enough of that.

Relegation was the paint, just about still in its pots. A subsequent revelation from The Athletic of a proposal to use Elland Road as collateral for a loan to buy Sampdoria prompted the fanbase to take up their brushes and daub a very clear message to Radrizzani that the time was nigh. There was never to be any coming back from that.

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It has been said that the sale process and the week immediately prior to the first announcement of an agreed deal was an emotional one for Radrizzani, who never in a million years would have planned this for a farewell party. He wanted Premier League status, he talked of famous European nights at Elland Road and he dreamed of leaving on his own terms. The temptation must have been there to stick it out and go again until the top flight made top whack possible once more. It might have been overwhelming.

Radrizzani, however, accepted that it was over. He and supporters have not enjoyed the easiest of relationships and have not parted fondly. They will not recall the last two seasons of his era with much of a smile. Even the promotion they celebrated now carries an asterisk, due to last season's drop. But they will always have Bielsa, and that is written on walls across the city.