Success, phone-ins and Radrizzani: it's all relative!
Being a football fan is a funny thing. There are unwritten rules about who you can support, and this means that you can’t just choose the best team. Becoming a football fan means adopting an identity, but it’s often one that’s forced upon you by geography or family - not wholly unlike many other aspects of identity I suppose. Anyway, usually you support your local team, or the one your mum and dad support. And that means there are still people in this world who support Sunderland, despite the best efforts of the club and board to dissuade them.
Whether it’s Arsenal fans more recently or Moyes-era United fans bombarding the phone-ins, there’s always a backlash from fans of teams outside the Premier League, or even those in the lower reaches of the top tier. The accusation goes something like this: ‘I’d love to be where you are! I’d love to play the top teams in Europe every year! I’d love to go to a stadium like the Emirates!’
The thing is though, everyone has their own team and is somewhat blinded by that. If everyone was objective about their own good fortune in supporting a certain team, no one would watch football. It would lose everything. Success is relative to the standards fans have come to expect, and the standards they’re held to by others in the pub, the workplace or the playground. And anyway, it’s not really my point here. I want to talk about my club now, enough of the rest of you.
I’m a Leeds fan so I’ve experienced both highs and lows. Given my age I experienced the former far too briefly. As for the lows, Leeds don’t even really get mocked any more. We’re just irrelevant, which is infinitely worse. Regardless, I’m writing following the news this week that Leeds’ Chairman Andrea Radrizzani’s company Eleven Sports have won the rights to show La Liga games in the UK, prompting speculation they will also try to bid for the Premier League rights too.
There’s been a variety of reaction to this from the fan base – ranging from hope that this empire will translate to success on the field, to indignation that the club still has a £15,000 wage cap while the owner spends freely on other projects. I think this second one misses the point a bit. Radrizzani is a business man, and it’s basically coincidental that his business is sport, and in this case football. He bought back the stadium, an appreciating asset, but has spent cautiously on more ephemeral assets on the field.
As I’ve already written about, this relentless move towards a potentially successful but ultimately callous running of the club leaves me deeply uncomfortable. Bates and Cellino were probably crooks, but we all knew that. What we have now is the club run absolutely as a business by a man who appears to have little regard for anyone else. He appears to have little regard for the concerns of Leeds fans, as shown by his determination to push ahead with the Myanmar tour. He appears to have little regard for football fans more widely as he enters an already crowded sports broadcasting market. I’m no expert in football streaming rights, and maybe in time his digital-only approach will lower prices, but his track record doesn’t fill me with hope.
This approach does seem, over the long term, to promise success for the club. But at what cost? I’ve seen lots of Liverpool fans write in recent weeks about how much more their success means coming from a manager and a team who get it. They get the club, the city and its people. Maybe I’m just being misty-eyed and gullible, and they’d be happy with a Jose Mourinho managed side led by Wayne Rooney up top if it got them into the Champions League final. But I don’t think so. And I think I feel the same way about Leeds.
My point is that being a football fan is a funny thing. Leeds are still quite bad on the field, but operations behind the scenes seem strangely Machiavellian. When, and if, that translates onto success on the field then I’ll have a real quandary. Right now though, I think I preferred Leeds when things were just chaotic. That opinion falls at a strange intersection of my moral qualms about bzness and my lowered expectations for a team who have now been outside the country’s elite for 15 years. But I think it also says something interesting about how success isn’t everything. Success is relative, to you and to your team.