In a wide-ranging interview, Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani talks to Phil Hay about Thomas Christiansen, recruitment, the role of Victor Orta and what can be salvaged from the current campaign.
January was a long month for a Leeds United owner: out of control on the pitch and somewhat out of touch off it. Andrea Radrizzani looked on with creeping disatisfaction until his hand was forced by the spiralling mood at Elland Road.
The situation came to a head last Saturday as Leeds capitulated to Cardiff City and Radrizzani’s patience with Thomas Christiansen ran out. Radrizzani had considered sacking Christiansen at the beginning of January but held off as senior staff convinced him to give the Dane a little more time. “On Saturday we touched the bottom,” Radrizzani said. “It was a shame. I would have taken the decision earlier but after Saturday no-one could convince me.”
Christiansen was Radrizzani’s first pick as head coach after the Italian’s buy-out of Massimo Cellino last summer; a young but obscure manager who took the job on the strength of a league title with APOEL in Cyprus and a winning interview with Radrizzani in Madrid last June. To the sceptical eye, Christiansen was a risky choice in the dog-eat-dog world of the Championship. Ultimately Radrizzani agreed, seeing a manager for whom the job at Leeds was “a little bit too big.”
A number of factors undid Christiansen before his dismissal on Sunday night. Leeds were without a win in six league games and seven points shy of the play-offs. Their previous five games had brought four red cards, something Radrizzani blamed on Christiansen’s failure to transmit adequate leadership.
“The red cards are something we are analysing in terms of taking disciplinary sanctions to the players,” Radrizzani said. “Even more we will be stronger. The players need to control themselves and they need to have respect for this club, the jersey, the fans and their team-mates. The club gave everything to them in terms of new contracts, comfort, support, facilities. We did everything to make them feel that they are in a big club and now they need to step up.
“But my personal view is that some of this situation is linked to frustration with results. Something was wrong inside the team. Technically, mentally, something was wrong.”
Christiansen won six home games in 15, in contrast to Leeds’ laudable record at Elland Road last season (the most victories in the Championship, under Garry Monk, since the days of Howard Wilkinson).
There is no problem in the structure. Victor is not interfering in the management of the football side. His main activity is to focus on the football structure, including the academy, and improve it with signings.Andrea Radrizzani
The irony for Radrizzani is that last summer he incentivised away wins, surmising that an improvement away from home would open the door to promotion. On Saturday, as Cardiff eased to victory, Elland Road voted with its feet by emptying in the second half and berating Christiansen for withdrawing Pierre-Michel Lasogga, Leeds’ German striker, while his side were 3-1 down.
“I think they’re right,” Radrizzani said of the crowd. “If I’m a Leeds United fan and I pay for the ticket I can’t watch a show like last Saturday. Last Saturday we touched the bottom.
“We backed him and very strongly after a long negative series (of results in October and November). Personally I defended him and supported him in front of all the players before the game against Middlesbrough. He deserved it and we believed in his quality because at the beginning of the season we were playing smooth football, with good results.
“I don’t understand if that kind of football was coming from the technical skill of the staff or the enthusiasm of the beginning, or a little bit of everything. I don’t know. What I know is that that time was good to support him and stay together. This time was the point of no return. There is enough time to make this season positive. Now or never.”
The prevailing view outside Elland Road is that Christiansen should not take the fall alone, or not without some introspection elsewhere. Leeds’ transfer policy has come to the fore in the past month, criticised for being inadequate and failing to provide any discernible improvement on last season’s results, despite the signings in Radrizzani’s first summer as owner running well into double figures.
Radrizzani disagrees. The 43-year-old said the financial situation when he bought out Cellino was one of a projected annual loss between £7m and £9m, irrespective of player sales. Turnover has increased by several million this season, helped by large attendances and the sale of more than 20,000 season tickets, but Radrizzani said the wage bill had also jumped by £7m.
It is true, nonetheless, that a top wage of £15,000 a week is modest by the highest standards of the Championship. Does it not need to increase to make promotion possible? “On our side, for Leeds, we’ve achieved already the top of our budget in terms of salaries,” he said. “We should actually cut some for next year because we have probably too many players. My idea for the squad is 20 players plus four or six coming from the youth.
“The financial condition of the club did not allow us the possibility to buy top, mature players for the Championship in England because the prices are too high. This year it was necessary for us to have international recruitment. There was no other way we could have players with the quality of Samuel Saiz or Gjanni Alioski from the local market. We follow the strategy because we don’t have any other choice but from now on we will be far more focused on the domestic market, particularly the young players.”
Leeds paid £3m for Adam Forshaw last month and £2.5m for Tyler Roberts. “He (Roberts) was considered to be one of the best talents in the country,” Radrizzani said, “and he’s with us for many years.” So have the transfers this season been satisfactory? “For me, yes. We were in a different situation this year because we overloaded the club, both in the first team and in Under-23s, with a lot of foreigners. Now we will have to select more and see who deserves to stay – build more quality and be more competition.”
Transfers at Elland Road are the responsibility of Victor Orta, a Spaniard who rarely speaks publicly and retains an enigmatic persona. He was cast as trouble and a nuisance at Middlesbrough, where he worked as head of recruitment before Leeds took him on as director of football before the start of this season. Reports locally accused him of undermining Middlesbrough’s season in the Premier League.
Leeds’ form and the perception of signings failing to make an impact is encouraging the view that Orta is a problem at Leeds. “I don’t accept that,” Radrizzani said. “I’m very happy with my management, both Angus (Kinnear, Leeds’ managing director) and Victor. I’m happy with the players. If we should crucify everyone for a mistake, this club would never go where it should go. Continuity is very important. We have an example at Brighton. That is my model, my model to follow.
“There is no problem in the structure. Victor is not interfering in the management of the football side. His main activity is to focus on the football structure, including the academy, and improve it with signings.” Will Paul Heckingbottom, Leeds’ new head coach, allow Orta the same influence? “Paul is quite happy.”
Heckingbottom took the job as head coach on Tuesday, challenging himself to make a play-off campaign out of a season which is limping along. Radrizzani, after seven months as owner, was philosophical about their chances but adamant that promotion was still on the agenda. “We don’t ask him that,” he said. “He gave himself already the target because he’s ambitious. He believes himself that it’s possible and I think it’s possible. But if we perform like the last month there is no chance.
“It’s not the end of the world if in my first year we’re not in the play-offs. What’s important is that we have foundations and we understand which players deserve to stay here and be part of the group, part of the dream. It’s normal. It takes time.”