One advantage of Peter Ridsdale and Graham Westley being together as chairman and manager respectively of Preston North End is that they may only end up annoying each other and messing around with only one club. I recognise that will not have brightened the day of any Lilywhites fans. And I can only apologise. There aren’t many football clubs who deserve those two, and certainly not a club steeped in history such as North End. I am prepared to give Westley the benefit of some doubt. It is fifteen years since he undertook his first managerial role in senior football at the club I support, Isthmian League Kingstonian. And maybe he has improved with age.
About Ridsdale, there is less doubt. As I have written before, Ridsdale isn’t primarily known as “PR-Pete” because of his initials. And he was up to his old tricks in London’s Evening Standard newspaper last week. He became North End chairman last month. He had significant spells at Barnsley, Cardiff City and Plymouth Argyle. But his “exclusive” interview with the equally self-regarding Mihir Bose in the Standard was still about bloody Leeds United. For those too young to remember, Ridsdale became Leeds chairman fifteen years ago. Within three years, Leeds were challenging for domestic and European titles. Within three more years, they were in administration. And now Ken Bates runs the club.
Even judging by those bare bones of the story, you’d think Ridsdale would rather talk about anything but Leeds. After all, he could point to some successes at his three subsequent clubs – although others could point to some failures and then some at Cardiff and Argyle. But Leeds it was. Because, you see, it wasn’t his fault. It all went wrong after he left, thanks to a board who “allowed the club to decline.” The position from which they declined was “a debt of £78.9m.” But, Ridsdale notes, “it is a myth that we overspent.” What constituted “overspent” isn’t properly pursued by Bose, who focuses instead on Ridsdale’s headline-grabbing – but largely irrelevant – hiring of goldfish for his office. Ridsdale notes that the Professional Footballers Association HQ has “a goldfish tank” in its reception and nobody says “anything about that.” They might if the PFA were £79m in debt.
The curiosity of this interview is that you sense Bose doesn’t believe what he calls Ridsdale’s “rewriting of history.” Yet he doesn’t challenge it, either. Ridsdale claims there was a “very deliberate attempt… to rubbish me and make this the Peter Ridsdale show” (and the irony of Ridsdale complaining about that should not be lost on anyone). However, he provides, and is asked for, no evidence of this, simply adding that Leeds were relegated “fifteen months after I left and suddenly it’s Peter Ridsdale’s fault.” This is Ridsdale at his disingenuous best. Fifteen months, as managers such as – to pick two examples purely at random – Peter Reid and Phil Brown can testify, is a long time in football. However, Ridsdale left in March 2003, with Leeds slipping in the league but safe from relegation, which meant that their relegation in 2004 could not have been any sooner after Ridsdale’s departure.
Ridsdale’s attempts to distance himself from Leeds’ slide beg the question, if he wasn’t responsible for any of it, why was he paid £645,000-a-year as chairman? The answer is, of course, because of the responsibility attached to the role. This is exactly what Ridsdale has refused to take since leaving Elland Road, although he never refused to take that salary and hasn’t offered to hand it back since. Bose failed to pull him up on this. And Bose failed to challenge Ridsdale’s continuing belief that “he has not got the credit he deserves for his work elsewhere post-Leeds.” Bates’ attempts to blame Ridsdale for Leeds’ financial troubles under his own ownership were as grubby and misleading as you might expect from the old twister. But otherwise, Ridsdale has “got” plenty of “credit” for this work “elsewhere.”
Cardiff City’s current Malay owners spent last season dealing with Ridsdale borrowings. Plymouth staff were largely unpaid in 2011 while Ridsdale alone legitimised Cornish businessman Kevin Heaney’s inadequately-funded bid for the club…and was not unpaid. So his claims of success there are hardly the whole story. Yet he remains regularly employed. He may have “found it very difficult to get a real job in a normal business” but he is hardly alone in that. Of course, he may not have noticed the recession, given the money he’s been on in football. So he may not realise how lucky he has been. He got the Preston job because he has “re-invented himself as the man clubs in trouble turn to,” thanks in no small part to interviews like Bose’s in the Standard.
Last summer, he was invited to address a “corporate recovery and insolvency conference” – because of his reputation as a solver of such problems rather than their cause. One imagines the fee could be classed as “credit.” And the presenter on Preston local radio station RadioBee was surprised to hear me criticise Ridsdale’s financial record during an interview on the day he joined North End. “Surely we have to give him the benefit of the doubt”, I was informed. That there is any doubt is a testament to “PR-Pete’s”… PR. Many fans speak only ill of Ridsdale. And to be fair, that is not the whole truth. But it is far closer than his own version in the Standard: “I’m good at working in football.” Bose suggested that might be thought “astonishing.” On that, at least, Bose was right.
If self-important psychobabble is your thing – and Ridsdale is away addressing insolvency conferences – Westley is your man. Yet when he joined Kingstonian as a player in March 1988, he was a hit. He scored the winner on his debut and wowed punters with the best Cruyff turn you were likely to find in the Isthmian League at the time. In 1988/89, Westley top-scored as Ks finished sixth in the league, their highest placing since the mid-sixties. Ks were even better in 1989/90, but Westley lost his place through serious injury and had to content himself with scoring half-a-million goals for a title-winning reserve side when he recovered. He was soon grabbing headlines in the business press instead, transforming his family’s modestly-successful facilities management firm into the immodestly-successful facilities management corporation AIMITA. AIMITA stood for “attitude is more important than ability,” a piece of psychobabble from the same school as “there’s no ‘i’ in team” and “if I say something which sounds profound but is actually meaningless, I might sound less like a vacuous prick.” Or did I make that last one up?
Having sadly had to give up playing at 28, Westley tried his utterly self-confident hand at management taking over at a struggling Kingstonian in January 1997. His first matches as boss hinted at things to come – a 4-4 draw followed by a 3-3 draw. Results veered from a 5-2 win to a 5-2 defeat – within seven days of each other – via a 3-2 win at Yeovil which was the eventual champions’ only home defeat all season. Genuine relegation concerns were banished in this on-field frenzy. But Westley’s off-field frenzy was more disturbing. Addressing supporters on coaches to away games with team and club news was informative and innovative (which Westley himself might have termed “innoventive” – one of AIMITA’s companies) although some fans called it “intrusive” on valuable drinking time. And with his parallel business career flourishing, Westley felt able to attempt a brash revamp of the club, suggesting a name change to Kingston Town, to identify itself more readily with the town of… er… Kingston, and a kit change from red-&-white hoops to all-red, a “New Labour-style” modernisation.
It was thinking as muddled as his team’s form. Ks’ name and kit, whilst both undeniably old-fashioned, were its main source of what someone like Westley would enthusiastically vaunt as “brand” or “market” recognition. Yet he suggested these distinctive, marketable characteristics be abandoned for both name and kit conformity. It inevitably offended traditionalists and could scarcely be justified even on his own terms. So unfortunately for him, his AIMITA mantra was to prove all too true. His ability to persuade people of the need for this new, modern Kingston was trumped by their attitude to them, which was “f**k off.”
In February 2002, Westley approached Ks again, armed with more crackpot “innovention.” In the intervening five years, Westley had become an annoyingly successful football manager and had “re-branded” Conference club Farnborough Town, changing the club colours from blue-&-yellow to red-&-white stripes. He overcame the force of Boro’s tradition as the club, only formed in 1967, barely had one. And he overcame opposition from the club’s ownership by becoming the club’s ownership. Ks, meanwhile, had replaced Westley with non-league legend Geoff Chapple and won promotion to the Conference, consecutive FA Trophy finals at Wembley and a place in the draw for the FA Cup’s last-16 before collapsing into administration in October 2001. Westley approached Ks’ administrators with the idea of merging Ks and Farnborough to form “Kingston and Farnborough United” (KFU), a new “super-club” playing at state-of-the-art facilities near the A3 linking the two towns.
Westley’s economic logic was not unsound. Neither club were “big enough to survive in the Conference” on their own. “Both have tried and nearly gone under in the process,” he added, correctly. However, the rest of his logic outdid even his previous muddled thinking. He cited Rushden and Diamonds as an example of what could be achieved, which proved unwise in hindsight. But he also said “imagine if Manchester hadn’t United all those years ago,” which was nonsense. He suggested the clubs were “in closely located, growing towns… i.e. the same conurbation,” which was wrong on more levels than should be possible in thirteen words. He clearly chose business studies ahead of geography at school, otherwise he might have spotted the 28-mile distance between the towns – Liverpool-to-Manchester is 33 miles, which reveals the extent of this folly. He also suggested a merger of the club’s kits, which would have formed a Croatian-style checked shirt and prevented the merger on fashion grounds alone. He suggested that KFU initially play in Kingston…or Farnborough…or alternate between them, depending on which day of the week you asked him. And he garnered virtually no support for his plans, from club fans or directors or shareholders or league administrators.
But apart from that…
Preston fans may have much to fear, therefore. Yet fans may have much to look forward to, if the two can concentrate on what they are good at – Ridsdale at PR, Westley at football team management. All it takes is some self-restraint and humility and… ah… hang on… Still, I’ve been wrong before about crisis-clubs and I could be wrong again. For Preston’s sake, I hope I am.