Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani knows that this is only the beginning for his proud club. As manager Marcelo Bielsa's side continues to not only entertain in the Premier League, but, more impressively, fight for a spot in the top half of the table, Leeds are not bowing to anyone. After being absent from top flight football for 16 years, this season has been quite the return to the upper echelons of the English game.
But, despite the fireworks on the pitch, Radrizzani knows that hype can take you so far. Success, true success, comes one step at a time.
"Obviously like everybody else, I am pleased with the season in 11th place, two points behind Arsenal with a game in hand, " says the Italian chairman and executive. "And our goal is to maintain in the league and make 40 points. But to be honest, I am not surprised because I have seen how this group has flourished and developed under Marcelo Bielsa. If you look at some of the last games, where we've won against Leicester City and Crystal Palace...and even when we lose, all these players [from Leeds' squad] are essentially the same who were in the Championship. So I am very proud the way Marcelo and the team have developed in the Premier League...but we need to stay in the league for two or three years so we can consolidate...we need to be humble and focus on our daily and weekly work."
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For Radrizzani, success is also a business plan, and his plans for the future are also about the club's sustainability. In this competitive market, especially one that has struggled due to the effects of a pandemic, Leeds have sought out external investment in order to grow. This includes the influx of cash from the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, who last month, announced an increased if their ownership stake from 15% to 37%. Paraag Marathe, the 49ers exec with a seat on Leeds United's board since 2018 will become vice chairman of the club while Radrizzani remains majority shareholder. When he did an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra last summer, the Italian owner said his original investment (approximately $140m) had tripled in value.
Just like the team's mentality on the pitch, Leeds United are always looking for more.
San Francisco's added investment, however, is not just about money as this is a perfect opportunity for both sides to learn from each other. "They [49ers] are a strong brand and a strong franchise in a big market like the U.S., and they have very good experience managing a stadium and a big facility like Santa Clara," says Radrizzani. "They are very good at merchandising and other areas of the business, where I think we can get their help and advice...and I think we compliment each other well."
There are other areas that Leeds will benefit from. For example, the NFL has some of the most advanced analytical tools available in the world of sports. There are also management and coaching tools that can help transform players to become better athletes. Quite simply, it's not a surprise that the 49ers - much like the Glazers with Man United, E. Stanley Kroenke with Arsenal, Shahid Khan with Fulham, Fenway Sports Group with Liverpool and Wes Edens with Aston Villa - are all in. It's beyond an investment. American ownership is not just about beginning to pay attention to European football, it's about being fully committed.
Radrizzani welcomes it.
"It's good. I think if they come with the ambition to help the league and the clubs improve, then it's good," he says. "It's positive. I also think that it depends on case by case...and what they can bring to the club."
As much as there is American interest in the club and the Premier League in general, it goes the other way too as Radrizzani sees the growth of the game in the U.S. "I think this is where the 49ers can help too. To establish our brand from a soccer grassroots level, from a brand level and content," he says. "So there is a lot to do. We are not ready, but we are getting there, in order to be available in the U.S. with more projects. But I also think it's an interesting market to invest in American players. They are getting better and better."
Radrizzani also thinks highly of MLS -- after all, that's Jack Harrison territory -- and believes with the additional influx of South and North American talent and extra infrastructure, it can become a giant amongst domestic leagues. "It [MLS] has all the components of becoming one of the top three leagues in the world, in my opinion. It just needs a better level of players, but it's growing. We have seen with Alphonso Davies and Bayern Munich, Bryan Reynolds and Roma, Weston McKennie and Juventus...this is a very important market to look at."
But as we return our focus to Leeds United, Radrizzani knows that another major to-do on his task list is ensuring the return of Marcelo Bielsa for next season. Last September, the legendary Argentinian manager, who doesn't like to overcommit with a club, signed a contract extension until the end of the season. But the club, and Radrizzani's team, just have to wait until then to see what the future holds.
"Marcelo knows we are happy with him," says Radrizzani. "If he stays we are really delighted to continue and the players still follow him unconditionally, and that's the most important element for me to decide to continue with him. If the group is happy with him, I am also happy and we should continue. So it's up to him. We wait on his decision but in any case, myself and Victor [Orta - Leeds United's director of football] have already analyzed the options and what to do in case Marcelo does not want to be with us. We hope he will continue but in any case we are preparing the club."
But Radrizzani is optimistic about Bielsa's decision and the club's future, especially because he knows how much they still all miss the atmosphere of Elland Road, and simply can't leave a season without connecting with the fans.
"I believe this team is not finished yet, Marcelo as well. They need to come and enjoy Elland Road with the fans in the Premier League," smiles Radrizzani, most likely making a pitch to Bielsa. "It's what he deserves as a manager, and it's a unique experience and he should stay just for that, I think!"