These past few years, during a time when it’s been obvious for the most part that Leeds United really did need saving, there have been more or less extravagant claims on behalf of various parties who, their supporters would have us believe, have been the saintly figures behind various rescue acts to preserve the Yorkshire giants for their grateful fans. Such claims do not hold water. The men and the motivations behind the alleged rescue operations have been decidedly dodgy, with the “rescues” invariably accelerating United’s downhill plummet, as well as emphasising their shocking loss of credibility within a game once dominated by the heroes of Elland Road.
It’s pointless going over old ground again here, save to emphasise this blog’s viewpoint that, far from “saving Leeds United”, the various incarnations of ownership since the turn of the century have had in common their gross mismanagement of the club and its reduction to a laughing stock. For most of the time since relegation from the top flight, the story has been one of deterioration and decay, a gradual and insidious loss of status and prestige, and the disastrous admission to the club of two of the biggest villains ever to sully the name of football in general and Leeds United in particular. And yet still these two characters – Bates and Cellino – have their adherents among supposed Leeds fans, people who will still try to tell you that, without their own particular conman of choice, United might not even exist. The fact is that a club of Leeds’ stature will always eventually find a saviour, just as even the darkest night ends with the rising of the sun. It was simply our misfortune that, in the decade or so after the post-Ridsdale implosion, we managed to attract two men so inimical to the true interests of the club, and the game in a wider sense.
Enough of them. It’s with much greater optimism that we now view our club as its resurgence gathers a momentum that seems set fair to become unstoppable. The change of ownership started things off in the best possible way, in that it saw the end of Cellino (albeit to some bewildering peeps of protest from some quarters). But Massimo was gone, and we had a quite different Italian in charge; one who began to do novel things like keeping promises, investing in the team, recruiting football men to do football business – stuff like that. Andrea Radrizzani has overseen, in really a very short time, a total transformation of the club, the stadium and the playing staff at both first team and also – crucially – at U-23 level, where last season had been an unmitigated farce. So, can we point at Andrea and say, “Here is the man who saved Leeds United“? There’s quite probably a case for just such a conclusion to be drawn.
But really, you have to look back further, right back to the start of the process that would eventually see Massimo move out and Andrea move in. From this beginning, everything else has flowed. It’s the catalyst for Radrizzani’s Leeds United takeover that we’re really looking for, when we seek to identify Leeds United’s actual saviour.
And the thing is, it’s such an unlikely name, a man with only the most fleeting and tenuous connection with Leeds United, when he appeared as a veteran in the white shirt during John Charles’ testimonial in 1988, playing alongside Michel Platini and helping set up a pre-Leeds transfer Ian Rush for a hat-trick against Everton. Other than this brief glimpse of magic in a Leeds shirt, our man spent most of his career with old enemies north and south of the Scottish border, earning legendary status first at Celtic and then at Liverpool, where he’d been set the unenviable task in 1977 of replacing departed Kop hero Kevin Keegan. Naturally, he went on to surpass Keegan; success and the attainment of legend status was, after all, simply second nature to him.
Yes, ladies and gentleman, I give you the true saviour of Leeds United – not Bates, not Cellino, not even (though I would willingly kiss his Italian shoes) Andrea Radrizzani. The man and the motivation behind The Italian Job, whereby one Signor was replaced by another, is none other than Scotland hero and perennial thorn in the side of Leeds United and many others, Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish, MBE. Dalglish it was who, at a social gathering before a Champions League quarter final between Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, spoke with enthusiasm to Radrizzani of Leeds United, of the size of the club and the passion of its fanbase; of how the whole place was a project just awaiting fulfillment, ready for the right person to go in and revive football’s archetypal sleeping giant.
“It was a casual chat at lunch with friends, it was my first time meeting him,” says Radrizzani. “We were talking about many things and for two minutes we talked about Leeds, the sleeping giant, the opportunity for someone coming here. He mentioned about the great opportunity if someone had a concrete project with a vision to bring back the passion. He also mentioned about how the city is passionate about the club and this is what I’m finding out.”
From this small beginning, the seed was sown that has brought us to where we are today, with Leeds United, so recently a basket case of a club, now showing the unmistakeable signs of growing vigour, health and confidence. A journey of a thousand miles, so they say, begins with a single step – and there’s no denying that Kenny Dalglish, on that blessed day for Leeds, applied the initial, gentle push that started Radrizzani off on the project he’s now conducting so well.
It’s frightening to contemplate where we’d now be, and in what sort of mood or depths of despair, if that chance meeting and casual conversation hadn’t taken place. Destiny took a hand, fate came a-calling, and when the two men met, Dalglish – a man of other clubs and different allegiances – spoke warmly of Leeds, of potential untapped and an institution of the game ripe for salvation. It was enough to set us on the road to recovery. Dalglish, bless him, was there when we needed him, and he said what we needed him to say.
At some future time when, we must fervently hope, (but now with much more confidence) we are truly back at the top table of the game – well, we’ll know that it’s our due, that we’re finally back where we belong. And in the still further distant future, when trophies are back on the sideboard and we’re stomping the fields of Europe again, it might be time for a few more statues to be erected around the fully-refurbished, highly impressive and club-owned Elland Road mega-stadium. It’s how we say thanks to our legends and our saviours, after all.
Laugh if you will, but consider the role played by Leeds United’s most identifiable saviour of recent years, think of the contribution he has made towards our recent, spectacular revival and resurgence. It’s no exaggeration to say that this man, in that one casual conversation, has made a pivotal difference to Leeds United history. It would be entirely fitting, in this humbly grateful blogger’s view, for one of those new statues – in some unspecified future year that I hope but don’t expect to see – to represent Celtic, Liverpool and, yes, Leeds United hero Kenny Dalglish.