Leeds United Begin Fightback
From the highs of the Champions League to the lows of administration and relegation, fans of Leeds United have quite literally been on a rollercoaster following their team. But after so many years of false hope and broken promises, the future looks considerably brighter for the Yorkshire club. fcbusiness speaks to the club’s managing director Angus Kinnear about how the new ownership is putting the club back on its feet and their plans for the new season ahead.
Josh Warrington made history by becoming the first man from Leeds to win a world boxing title, the IBF world featherweight title, in May in front of nearly 20,000 fans at his beloved Elland Road. For Josh is no ordinary Leeds United fan. President of the Leeds United Supporters’ Club, he was led out on his ring walk by former Leeds star Lucas Radebe to the bars of Leeds’ own Kaiser Chiefs’ ‘I predict a riot’. Josh personifies the upward trajectory of the club he holds so close to his heart.
For too long Leeds have been seemingly up against the ropes as they’ve tried to overcome the excesses of the past. Owners and investors have come and gone in quick succession, all with big dreams but false hope. But now things seem to be changing.
The 50% acquisition of the club by Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani in January 2017 before taking 100% ownership in May that year signalled the end of a turbulent period under Massimo Cellino and paved the way for a new era at the club.
Radrizzani’s takeover would give Leeds much needed stability in the boardroom and a raft of changes would signal his intent on taking them in a new direction. Key to the changes were the appointment of significant individuals which included a director of football, a director of strategy and a new managing director to oversee the direction of the club.
Having spent over 10 years at Arsenal heading their move from Highbury to the Emirates before joining West Ham United ahead of the their move to the London Stadium, Angus Kinnear joined Leeds United in June 2017, as managing director.
“During my time at Arsenal I got to know Andrea as he set up MP & Silva. When I heard he was taking over Leeds I sent him a congratulatory text and a few months later he offered me a job,” Kinnear said with a smile as he explained how he ended up in Yorkshire.
Kinnear describes himself as a ‘football romantic’ and that he was ‘besotted’ by the challenge presented at Leeds. “For me it was a fantastic opportunity and probably one of the greatest jobs in football for whoever gets it right here,” he said.
And it certainly is a challenge of significant scale. Upon his acquisition, Radrizzani, set about restoring some form and order at the club. The purchase of the stadium, Elland Road, sold to Teak Commercial Ltd in 2004, being a clear statement of intent. Another significant move was to bring Leeds Ladies back under United’s ownership after being withdrawn from the club in 2005 by then chairman Ken Bates and again in 2014 under Cellino.
The progress made by Radrizzani during his short tenure highlighted how far the club had been allowed to slide. “The size of the challenge shouldn’t be underestimated,” Kinnear continued. “Nobody thinks it’s easy and one of the challenges around the job is there’s only one metric for supporters and that’s if you go up or not. It doesn’t matter what you do from a business perspective to them.”
So what’s changed this time round, I ask Kinnear? “I think there’s a combination of Andrea taking a long term view on this investment,” he answered.
“But I think the key is having a really good medium-term plan – you can’t turn something like this around overnight. He’s taken a very comprehensive approach to getting the club back on its feet and that includes re-engaging with all the various stakeholders we have around the city.
“It’s also getting the football side of the business right whether that’s investing in the fabric of Elland Road and Thorp Arch or our work with the Foundation – if we can look at all of those bits in combination it will bring success. It’s not going to be a quick fix but if we can get all of those elements right it’s going to maximise our chances.”
A quick fix it certainly won’t be but with the steps already taken the club is seemingly moving in the right direction and, if one thing is for sure, Radrizzani has been shrewd in bringing in investors to bolster the club’s financial clout and boardroom expertise. On the 24th May, 2018 Leeds announced a strategic partnership with 49ers Enterprises, an investment entity affiliated with the San Francisco 49ers, which saw them take a minority stake in the club.
Speaking at the time, Radrizzani, said: “This strategic partnership enables Leeds United to align with and gain invaluable expertise from the owners of one of the biggest global sports entities. The 49ers are an innovative, successful organisation and we are delighted to have access to such a rich source of business and sporting expertise. This exciting partnership builds on the foundations we have laid down at the club in the last 12 months and we can assure supporters that the funds invested will go towards improving results on the pitch.”
With that investment, Paraag Marathe, whom, for the last 18 years has been a key figure at the San Francisco 49ers, where he is currently both President of 49ers Enterprises and Executive Vice-President of Football Operations, was installed on the board. The addition of Paraag on the board will bolster the club’s football operations whilst adding a new dimension to the way they approach scouting, data analytics and facilities management.
“They also have expertise from a commercial point of view,” Kinnear stressed to add. “They run one of the most celebrated NFL franchises and what they don’t know about ticketing and sponsorship and deploying technology in a stadium isn’t worth knowing.
“There’s a lot to learn across the club and at the moment were working on putting a structure in place where we can facilitate that knowledge transfer and that starts with Paraag Marathe being on the board.”
There’s a clear ambition among the club’s board to develop all areas of the business and vital to that was taking back control of the stadium and the training ground, a key pillar in their overall strategy and something that Kinnear described as giving the back ‘control of their destiny’.
He said: “From a supporters perspective it was very important emotionally because it was something that didn’t sit well with them, not owning the ground.
“What it’s done has become a catalyst for the work we want do around the stadium and in the local community. It started with us being able to invest in the facilities in the short term. If you look around we’ve upgraded our lounges, we’ve upgraded our changing rooms and things like that have already paid dividends.”
The FA gave Elland Road a vote of confidence when they selected the stadium to host England’s final international friendly ahead of the World Cup in Russia. The investment in the aesthetics of the stadium is a small part of a medium term plan which includes the development of the land around the stadium. Called Elland Road 2020, Leeds hope to secure funding to bring the club’s training and academy facilities to Fullerton Park, land that is currently used for parking on match days.
Much like Manchester City’s highly acclaimed Etihad Campus, which combines the Premier League champion’s elite training and academy facilities with mixed use community facilities, all within the shadows of the Etihad Stadium, Leeds hope to create a similar environment.
“Our training facilities are currently 35 minutes outside the centre of Leeds and what we want to do is bring them adjacent to Elland Road and create a training centre and academy which can create a development pathway for the city’s youth.
“On Fullerton Park we’re planning to have a community sports hub which would house our academy, outdoor and indoor 3G pitches, but also have a raft of community facilities such as GP surgeries, educational facilities, a gym and physiotherapy units that will be there for our elite athletes but also open to the community for the majority of the time.
“Long-term we think that that is going to be a catalyst for further redevelopment of Beeston and Holbeck. I think over the last 14 years since Leeds has been out of the Premier League, our Foundation has probably not been given the focus it deserves. We want to put our resources into regenerating the area.”
Reconnecting with the fans is vital to the success of any club and nowhere is that more apparent than Leeds. But they haven’t always got is right. A PR disaster of some magnitude, Kinnear and Radrizzani would get to understand the true strength and depth of feeling the fans had for the club following the launch of the new club crest at the beginning of the year.
“We moved quickly to say we’d listened to the fans and that we didn’t get it right,” he said. “It existed for all of around four hours. It also very, very clearly showed the scale and the passion the fans have for this club. I don’t think there’s any club in the world which would have been trending globally within the space of a couple of hours. It encouraged us around the level of fan engagement and how important the heritage and history of the club is.
“Whilst Andrea and I will never apologise for trying to push the club forward, we know that that needs to be done with the fans’ passion at the heart.”
Following the outcry, Kinnear spent a significant amount of time talking to fans and the local media, spending an hour on BBC Radio Leeds answering questions and explaining the development.
Despite that set back Leeds are on course for another year of season ticket sales reaching over 20,000 having increased take up from 14,000 to 20,000 in their first year of ownership, despite a relatively poor season on the pitch.
But in addition to building bridges with the fans a lot of work has gone in to developing relationships with the local business economy and in particular the city council.
“We’ve rebuilt our relationships with Leeds City Council and we are now working in partnership with them. Leeds is a one club city so the council should be our partners and they’ve been really helpful and supportive with what we want to do.”
Leeds have also enjoyed record hospitality sales an indication businesses are coming back and they also set to announce their front of shirt partnership which will be one of the highest value partnerships of any Championship club. They also in the process of revamping its retail offering with the addition of a city centre store and a presence at Leeds Bradford Airport complementing the revamp of the store at Elland Road.
But Kinnear’s optimism comes with a cautionary note. “We are very conscious of not over promising,” he said. “I think that’s something Leeds fans have been victims of – people promising things they can’t deliver.
“Whilst we want fans to be excited and committed for the potential for next season, because we believe we’ve got a great chance now, we also believe that this is a longer-term process and if we remain united – I think a lot of the divisions between the Leeds board, fan base and the team, have been what’s resulted in us not performing on the pitch the way we should. If we can unite those elements we’ll get there.”
Getting it right on the pitch has seen a high turnover of managers in recent years and is a problem the new owners are keen to solve.
“On the managerial front, what we’ve learned very quickly is that this is a very hard job, it’s a very big job. You have all the scale of the being a Premier League club in terms of the focus and the expectations of the city, but the Championship is a very difficult league to get out of.”
Kinnear admits that Leeds is a tough place for a young manager to cut his teeth and the appointment of former Argentina and Chile manager Marcelo Bielsa in June is a clear sign of intent ahead of the new season.
“We have a manager that has the world class credentials, the gravitas and the experience we think is needed to handle a job of this size,” Kinnear said.
Despite his international credentials, Bielsa faces a stern test in a league that is unforgiving and perhaps skewed in terms of the way teams are funded. Aston Villa’s plight after failing to reach the Premier League serves as a reminder of the challenges facing clubs in England’s second tier. Leeds knows this perhaps better than any club in that league but Kinnear is confident they have the right building blocks in place to be successful.
“What we’re focusing on is trying to be as smart as we can from a footballing side and that includes the coaching team that we hire, the huge investment in scouting, the huge investment in data and analytics and the overhaul of our medical department to make us as competitive on the pitch as possible knowing that pound-for-pound we’re not going to be able to go toe-to-toe with the teams that are coming down from the Premier League.”
Leeds has faced many battles over the years, but like Josh Warrington, finally, after a lot of hard work and perseverance, the club finally looks like it might be off the ropes and ready to punch its weight once again.
Images: PA Images