Even when Qatar Sports Investments’ conversations with Andrea Radrizzani were sending up white smoke signals, despite never passing the conversation stage, and a section of fans were on private helicopter watch at Leeds Bradford Airport, the 49ers were sitting quietly at the table with their feet tucked firmly underneath.
Even at that stage, the feeling at Elland Road was that if anyone was likely to take the club off Radrizzani’s hands, it was the 49ers and not QSI.
Last week the financers behind the NFL franchise upped their stake at Leeds again, to 44 per cent.
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It’s three and a half years since they dipped a toe in the water with an initial buy-in that netted them 15 per cent of a Championship club. They, like Radrizzani, saw the potential, although they waited until some of that was realised with a promotion to the Premier League, before increasing their level of financial investment.
It was midway through the Whites’ stellar first season back in the top flight that the 49ers bought a further 22 per cent, announcing it with a personal letter to Leeds fans from 49ers Enterprises president Paraag Marathe, in the pages of the Yorkshire Evening Post. Both he and Radrizzani held court with the media to explain their relationship and Marathe, as he has done since 2018, went to great lengths to make clear it was the Italian’s vision and plan they had fallen in love with and into line with.
Although the very eloquent Marathe has spoken extensively about his involvement in Leeds and the possibilities of the future, the 49ers have obviously wanted to tread lightly. He has said nothing out of turn, not really ever provided a great deal of detail on his and the 49ers’ daily input at Elland Road or what their future intentions are. No toes have been trodden upon, no egos dented.
Less than a year after that last increase, the 49ers have bought a little more of the pie. This time, there was little fanfare. Radrizzani’s partners appear content to tuck their feet a little further under the table quietly, but it does feel like their involvement is only leading towards one thing – full control.
Why else would they have traversed the Atlantic in the first place? Why else would they have invested to this degree, undertaken so many fact-finding missions, explored how they could augment and develop Elland Road and brought Peter Lowy, billionaire Westfield heir, to the table with them?
His involvement is intriguing but his boyish enthusiasm for the club as a lifelong fan – he wandered onto the pitch late last season and looked around the old stadium mouth agape - explains why he would want to be part of it. His presence could be a reassuring one, not just from a financial point of view, but because while the 49ers have always made soothing noises about understanding and retaining the authentic Elland Road atmosphere and charm, they are still newcomers, still getting to grips with the history and culture after all they do fall into the bracket of ‘American owners.’
Supporters at other Premier League clubs owned by US billionaires have had cause for complaint, whether that be a lack of engagement, the price of supporting, a failure to understand the club culture or the cynical power-grab of the swiftly-aborted European Super League.
Manchester United fans have protested against the Glazers, Arsenal fans have protested against Stan Kroenke and John W. Henry felt the need to issue an apology video to Liverpool fans after their protests in the wake of the ESL debacle.
The 49ers should not be unfairly tarred with the brush used to paint other US investors in the top flight, not when they’re yet to put a foot wrong. They will, by now, have an idea of what will and will not fly at Leeds. If their intention is to take over from Radrizzani, who will one day walk away with a considerable amount of money and a place in history having transformed the club’s fortunes and led them back to the Premier League, they know they have to prove they get Leeds.
Radrizzani has not always got it right and it is unusual to hear quite so much in public from a Premier League owner, but fans get a level of accessibility with him and the open-door policy led by CEO Angus Kinnear. They seem engaged and broadly in tune with what supporters want to see and hear.
As they have discovered, an engaged and on-board Leeds fanbase is a powerful thing, an ingredient for commercial and sporting success.
The best course of action for the 49ers while Radrizzani remains majority owner, is to listen carefully and learn. The time to talk will come and when it does, detail, substance and ambition will all be required. This current act will be a hard one to follow but it will come as no surprise if the next players to take the stage are already in the boardroom.