Peter Ridsdale: Chairman Turned Repeat Offender
Cardiff City are due in court in a couple of weeks fighting off a winding up order, and the man in charge is a rather familiar one to supporters of Leeds United and Barnsley. Mark Murphy reports on Peter Ridsdale’s repeated misdemenaours and finds a predictable and depressing set of themes.
Of all of football’s recent winding-up petition sagas, Cardiff City’s has had the most soap-operatic plot twists. And at its centre, where he likes to be, is chairman Peter Ridsdale. Ridsdale had reinvented himself as “the good guy” during his first two years in Cardiff, some achievement after his reputational suicides at Leeds United and Barnsley, even if made a little easier by Sam Hammam, the Wimbledon ex-supremo, being his predecessor and combatant. His third year should have seen all his hard work come to fruition with a new stadium and all its attendant financial benefits. But he’s blown it. He has misled Cardiff supporters about the club’s finances. And this has now crossed over into outright mendacity, according to those fans, as Cardiff have until February 10th to pay their taxes and save their soul.
When Ken Bates blamed Ridsdale for the financial woes which forced Leeds into administration in May 2007, he had a willing audience. And even those of us with no time for Bates had to think twice before seeing through the diversionary tactic it so clearly was. Ridsdale had, of course, personified everything that was wrong with the football boom which straddled the millennia on the back of various club share flotations and exponentially increasing broadcast deals. “Living the dream”, Ridsdale’s “play it again, Sam”, entered football’s lexicon, and it didn’t mean anything remotely dreamy, being more like the “six weeks of madness” which Bradford City chairman Geoffrey Richmond cited as beginning their long financial descent, and if Ridsdale was the personification of this, his ‘goldfish’ were also a monument to ruinous success. £20-per-month. Hired…yes…HIRED.
Bates took Leeds into administration without taking any of the blame. Leeds former legend and current director Peter Lorimer even lauded Bates, twelve months before Leeds went into administration, for overcoming all the Ridsdale-era problems and being “twelve months ahead of schedule in terms of his plans for the club.” It mattered not a jot that Ridsdale was right, later in 2007, to say: “I suggest you examine the creditor’s list when they went into administration in the summer and tell me how many of those creditors were there when I was, and you will find it was very, very few.” Yes, the very, very few” included “very, very” expensive ones like Danny Mills and his £217,000, even though he hadn’t kicked a ball in anger for Leeds for years (ever, some would say). But Leeds owed £35m when Bates took them in and out of administration – in his own inimitable way. And “very, very few” of those millions were Ridsdale’s.
There was only £1m, but precious little mitigation, at the end of Ridsdale’s ill-starred year as Barnsley owner and chairman. His successor chairman, Gordon Shepherd, was quick to praise Ridsdale’s “great job”, just before noting that “there are areas where we have spent too much” and also “areas where we have not raised enough”, yet, by 2007, Ridsdale was embarking on a chairmanship of Championship club Cardiff which would turn them from the financial basket case created by Hammam into FA Cup finalists and promotion challengers in a potentially lucrative new stadium. Thanks to Hammam, this journey was an exacting one. And Ridsdale emerged as something of a hero for fighting off the claims – both monetary and political – of “Langston Corporation”, an international organisation of mystery, ‘represented by’, but otherwise nothing whatsoever to do with Hammam. Hammam turned from hero to candidate for the freedom of Swansea as the Bluebirds’ rise from English football’s third-tier to the cusp of the Premier League left £30m debts. Administration and near-certain relegation back to the third-tier was only averted by a £500,000 loan from the players’ trade union, the PFA.
So desperate were Cardiff that Hammam recruited Ridsdale to obtain alternative funding and drive a new stadium project that, as in so many of these tales, was seen as the “solution”, if the club could survive that long. Ridsdale’s legacy (i.e. Ken Bates at Leeds) was still fresh in many minds. But he was still able to (obtain) significant local authority financial backing, which had been previously withheld because Hammam wouldn’t reveal any important detail of ‘Langston’, to whom Cardiff owed £24m of their debt. By January 2007, with Hammam off the board and Ridsdale on it, Cardiff problems seemed to be dissolving. Eight months later, they weren’t. “Langston”, still cloaked in near-anonymity (Hammam bizarrely claimed he “didn’t know” who he was actually representing) demanded immediate repayment of their loans, or Ridsdale’s resignation. Administration loomed as this repayment was miles beyond Cardiff’s capabilities. Ridsdale insisted the money was due, but not until 2016 and after a lengthy, painstaking, mind-numbingly detailed legal proceeding, Ridsdale’s view prevailed, to a hero’s welcome.
The repayment schedule was agreed last autumn, with the whole thing outed as a clumsy power grab by Hammam, who even had the nerve to ask for a board place back, said Ridsdale in November. By then, however, few people could be sure that was true, as Ridsdale had, allegedly, spent as much of 2009 battling with the truth as he’d ever spent battling Langston/ Hammam. The hero has turned villain again for some, as Cardiff’s, and Ridsdale’s own, finances have been shrouded in murk, and Ridsdale’s reactions have ranged from the childish to the churlish to, for some, the downright mendacious. Cardiff’s financial results for 2007/08, the year they reached the FA Cup Final, were published in May and revealed £1m+ trading losses. But Ridsdale side-stepped criticism by embarking upon a worldwide hunt for investment, for which, he hoped, the new stadium would be a “springboard.” In June, the News of the World ran a story saying that Ridsdale’s consultancy firm, WH Sports Ltd, had gone bust owing £374,000 to the “taxman.” Ridsdale technically worked for the firm when Hammam brought him to Cardiff. And the accounts revealed that the club paid them £1.3m until Ridsdale became a direct Cardiff employee in 2007/8. Ridsdale called the story “misleading” as the firm had closed down when the Cardiff consultancy ended. He didn’t deny the debt, though, claiming “all creditors will be paid.”
So, the following week, the paper ran the story again. Ridsdale this time claimed the firm’s liquidation was only because the Cardiff consultancy had ended and that it was a “Member Voluntary Liquidation”, i.e. the company was solvent, just no longer needed. However, Ridsdale had signed a sworn affidavit that a “Statement of Affairs for the Company”, which showed it to be heavily INsolvent, was a “full, true and complete statement.” Just like, as it turned out, the News of the World’s story. This had no direct impact on the club but, as Ridsdale continued discussions on new investment and the Langston repayment schedule throughout the summer, so his credibility came under increasing question. There had been slow progress on investment talks – reported interest from “lifelong Bluebirds fan” David Sullivan had to be furiously denied, in the absence of tangible news.
By the time the (considerable) shock of that had subsided, Ridsdale was on BBC2, at half-time during Cardiff’s early-November fixture with Notts Forest, telling the watching dozens of imminent Malaysian investment, as he stood alongside one Dato Chan Tien Ghee, a Malaysian “property tycoon” who was to be its source. With the Langston negotiations nearing conclusion, Ridsdale was painting a rosy financial picture, which was somewhat undermined by the South Wales Echo’s 26th November headline: “Taxman takes Cardiff City to court.” The Echo told the story in a standard manner. HMRC were serving the club with a winding-up petition over unpaid tax and were giving Cardiff 70 days to come up with the cash. They outlined the doomsday scenario of official receivership in about three-dozen words. They quoted Ridsdale at length (“speaking from Malaysia”) claiming that HMRC were just “rattling our cage” and, descending into legalese, that he expected the judge to say “Cardiff City have been good boys.” And they quoted a financial expert agreeing with Ridsdale over the cage thing, noting that the Football League, with their trademark drive and initiative, were “monitoring the situation.” Ridsdale sniffed: “You can ask all you want but I’m not going to tell you how much.” And the following day declared: “What you have published is despicable and I won’t be talking to anyone at the South Wales Echo again.”
Ridsdale’s ego had clearly been punctured by the clearly non-despicable story coming out on the day that Dato Chen joined the board and invested a reported £200,000 into the club, and he announced in mid-December that agreement had been reached over Langston debt repayments, while the winding-up petition was dismissed by the High Court on December 16th, which led him to comment triumphantly: “This puts any doubts that anybody had about the future of the club behind us.” It didn’t. Reports suggested the tax bill had been paid. But a tax repayment schedule had merely been agreed, Ridsdale not so quick to accuse the papers of despicability this time. And the News of the World helped see in the New Year with the headline: “Cardiff must pay tax bill or face going bust.” The story claimed unpaid tax ran to £2.7m and that Cardiff had missed the first repayment date, 22nd December, less than a week after Ridsdale’s triumphalism. His response was to claim that “some of the information” could only have come from “stolen” documents, an effort to discredit the paper and/or its source which inadvertently confirmed that the story was true.
Fans began to demand “answers.” The Supporters Trust called for an EGM of shareholders, confident that disaffection was general enough to get the shareholder support required. The BBC confirmed Cardiff would return to the High Court on February 10th under a threat of being wound-up. And the Echo detailed Cardiff’s financially grim reality, noting for the first time that the costs of “fitting out” the new stadium had “spiralled” from a forecast and budgeted £3.5m to “£7-8m.” The solution had become the problem. Ridsdale maintained his superficial confidence with stories of potential buyers for the club sprinkled around the local press, about which new board member Dato Chen will have had a view. An innovative-looking season-ticket scheme, persuading fans to renew early specifically to fund January transfer window expenditure, had raised £3m, with the enticement of a refund if promotion was won.
Then, this week, the bombshell. There was no investment. The stadium did cost millions more than forecast and, we’re awfully sorry, but “investing in new players in the transfer window…will not be possible…in the absence of new investment. Whilst we apologise for this, we do not apologise for ensuring that the viability and financial health of the club is the ultimate priority.” A mea-not-very-culpa, as a friend of mine described it. Fans’ reactions have varied between “Ridsdale out” and “Ridsdale must go”, with words like “betrayal” and “lied to” in common usage. The BBC website illustrated its story with a picture of Ridsdale, holding his head in his hands – which was about right.
Little credibility now attaches itself to Ridsdale, just like when he left Leeds and Barnsley – his early promise buried in debt and alleged deceit. Fans’ money might save the day on February 10th, and many would not have objected to them being used in that manner per se. But they feel duped, with numerous Ridsdale quotes from the scheme’s launch confirming that view. Ridsdale’s days as the good guy are over. He’s never recoiled from suggestions that the stadium was his “project” so he can’t credibly distance himself now. He has failed to bring in long-promised investment. And he didn’t. He may not resign over this. But if he does, he will remain a “fit and proper” person to run another club. And if he could get two football jobs after Leeds – hired goldfish and all – there’s surely others waiting for his magic touch. Clubs would, of course, be advised to avoid him. He would be advised to avoid them, too.