Why Peter Ridsdale deserves another chance
On an eventful Thursday, Plymouth Argyle announced a number of personnel changes. King Herod is the new boss at the youth academy, Harold Shipman takes over as club doctor and Alan Carr comes in as strength and conditioning coach.
What?!? Ridsdale has been handed another football club's biscuit tin? Is that the sound of irony dying I can hear?
Erm...maybe, but here's the thing. I don't think this is such an apocalyptic appointment. In fact, I don't think Ridsdale is that bad.
There, I've said it but before you start waving garlic and crossing yourselves furiously, let me explain why football's most controversial executive deserves a more balanced hearing, balanced being the key word here.
I should probably begin by stating my starting position.
A record-breaking fee for Rio Ferdinand was typical of Ridsdale's recruitment policy at Elland Road
To me, Ridsdale was a sharp-suited cross between Icarus and a wrecking ball. Any press speculation linking him to my club would have had me erecting barricades.
That is still the effect he has on many. I know articles mentioning twitter irritate those who have resisted the micro-blogging bug but Argyle's new football consultant was "trending" all Thursday, making him one of the 10 most mentioned topics in the UK. The message boards were pretty riled too.
But in doing this job I've learned three lessons that have made me reappraise beliefs I previously took as articles of faith.
The first is to take people as I find them and not as press clippings or saloon gossip advertises them. The second is to never completely trust anything that anybody tells me. And the third is that football makes almost no sense as a proper business.
So caveats stated, let's return to Ridsdale.
A life-long fan, the former Top Man executive joined the Leeds United board as executive chairman in 1997. Champions under Howard Wilkinson in 1992, the Yorkshire giants enjoyed fluctuating fortunes over the next five seasons but Ridsdale's arrival coincided with the emergence of a promising team of largely homegrown talent.
Control of that team was in the hands of another seemingly talented youngster, David O'Leary, the former Arsenal defender who finished his playing career at Leeds. Overseeing all this was Ridsdale and a board of directors that would not have looked out of place in most FTSE 100 companies. Leeds United looked like a club prepared to take advantage of English football's boom. They so nearly did.
Given that the man himself took 356 pages to justify his actions, this is not the place for a forensic retelling of the Great Elland Road Debt Experiment but suffice it to say Ridsdale, his fellow directors and O'Leary availed themselves of every financial instrument the City of London could provide and thoroughly enjoyed the ride right up until the moment they ended up face first in a fence.
Top of the Premiership on New Year's Day 2002, Ridsdale's United would never have it so good again. The wins dried up, off-field scandal destroyed morale, O'Leary flapped and all that debt started to bite. They had forgotten the small print: the value of your investments can go down as well as up.
But was it all Ridsdale's fault? After the official confirmation of his (unpaid) role at Argyle, I asked him if he understood why many fans are, well, a bit frightened by his "baggage".
"People are very quick to talk about the downsides," he said.
"I was chairman of a club that went to a Champions League semi-final and was fifth in the league. Did I make mistakes? Of course, but who hasn't?
"Sometimes people talk about the baggage as if it's the only part of the story. There's much more to it than that. I've worked hard, I've got lots of good contacts and I've done lots of things well."
A qualified mea culpa, then. But let's remember that balance. There were good times and he did not act alone. His mistakes were typical of the time and in many ways Leeds United paid the price for all of football's sins.
But Leeds is only part of Ridsdale's story. After Elland Road, there was a brief interlude at Barnsley, where he rescued an ailing club only to leave abruptly when rising debts again forced a change. That, however, brought him to Cardiff City and the second act in his dramatic career.
The Bluebirds were struggling when then-owner Sam Hammam called in Ridsdale to get the club's new stadium project moving again. Negotiations with the council over planning had got bogged down and the club was slowly dying in its dilapidated Ninian Park home.
Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock enjoying the good times at Cardiff City in the Ridsdale years
The real problem, though, was Hammam (and the Byzantine complexity of his business empire) and it took his departure and Ridsdale's elevation to chairman in 2006 to make the move to the Cardiff City Stadium a reality.
Before we get to the "downsides" of Ridsdale's Welsh adventure, and you know they're coming, we should also mention the fact that Cardiff City have spent the last few seasons knocking on the Premier League's door and went to the FA Cup final in 2008, losing, somewhat ironically, to Portsmouth.
Sadly, there are a few items in the debit column, none bigger than an embarrassing episode a year ago. The club's "golden ticket" scheme was supposed to guarantee supporters a two-year price freeze on their season ticket if they renewed early. The money raised would then be spent on the promotion push. Already enjoying their new home, the fans loved it and renewed away.
The precise chronology of what happened next is still sketchy but it soon became clear the "golden ticket" money (and sums hastily raised by other means) would have to be spent on a £2.7m tax bill that Ridsdale had allowed to accumulate. At a stroke, all credit he had accrued in getting the stadium built evaporated.
By the time he left Cardiff in May 2010, the club had survived four winding-up petitions, lost a play-off final and racked up millions of new debt. That he had successfully found new Malaysian investors to take that debt on, the stadium is lovely and the team are still contenders is almost forgotten.
So would it be fairer to say Ridsdale's record at Cardiff City was mixed as opposed to bad? His take on it is typically bullish.
"When I came to Cardiff City they had substantial debts, no money and were fighting relegation. When I left they had been to an FA Cup final, had a new stadium and played in a play-off final. So I'm very happy and relaxed about my record there," he said.
So where does that lead me and "Rids"? Well, so far I don't think he has lied to me.
Everything he has said about Plymouth Argyle (and a couple of other clubs) has come to pass. He has also been nothing but approachable and friendly.
Clearly, he has a Machiavellian streak and he is perhaps a little bit too comfortable with risk. He is also, at heart, a businessman with an eye for an opportunity.
But he does care about his reputation and I think he sees Argyle as a win-win situation. Save them from the undisputed mess they are in and he might repair his CV a little - he will also be well placed for any Home Park renaissance.
I appreciate this blog reads a bit like a longer version of Fighting Talk's "defend the indefensible" round but I am inclined to give Ridsdale one more chance to do something unequivocally good in football. Getting Argyle out of their current predicament would be a fine start.