From West Yorkshire to San Francisco Bay…

Here’s the thing about supporting teams in 2 teams different sports located at opposite ends of the globe- you don’t expect their worlds will collide! This morning I awoke to find they had, with the announcement the San Francisco 49ers had entered a ‘strategic partnership’ with Leeds United, buying a 10% share of the Championship club.

Growing up in Yorkshire in the 1980s one of the TV highlights of the week was Channel 4’s American Football show on Sunday evenings. As the sport became a craze, like most kids at school I had to choose which NFL team to support- whose pennant would adorn the bedroom wall alongside the Leeds United scarf? I chose the San Francisco 49ers, mainly because I thought the gold helmet looked good and Joe Montana was the coolest sounding name I’d ever heard.

Leeds’ 1992 League title win remains my greatest memory in sport but 3 years earlier I had a moment that ran it a close second: the 49ers were in the Super Bowl (their third/ my first), I stayed awake ’til 4am, no mean feat for a 13 year-old to watch Montana guide  the Niners to a dramatic last-ditch win.

The partnering of these 2 clubs is strange- at first glance they could have been put together on a blind-date, so who are these strange bedfellows and what are they looking to gain?

Leeds United- A beginner’s guide for Niners fans

Leeds United first came to prominence in the late 1960’s & early 70’s under the guidance of legendary manager (Head Coach) Don Revie, they won 6 major trophies in as many years, including 2 League titles, 1 FA Cup and reached the European Champions League Final. But Revie’s departure saw the club enter steady decline and they spend much of the 1980’s in the second tier of English football.

In 1990 they won promotion back to the top division, won a third League title in 1992 and were one of the original members of the re-branded Premier League. The turn of the millennium saw another brief period of success, the highlight being a run back to the Champions League semi-finals but financial mismanagement on a colossal scale saw the club relegated back to the second and briefly third tier of the English football pyramid. Last year new hope arrived when the club was bought by Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani. He began by buying back the club’s iconic stadium (previously sold in 2005 as part of the financial meltdown) signing their young players to long-term contracts and set a target of promotion back to the Premier League. However success on the pitch proved harder to find and Leeds finished the season a middling 13th in the Championship, “7-9 bullsh@t” as Jeff Fisher would say.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Semi Final First Leg - Leeds United v Valencia
Leeds line-up for the 2001 European Champions League Semi-Final

San Francisco 49ers- a Beginners guide for Leeds fans

The Niners were long-standing NFL under achievers until 1979 when new owner Eddie DeBartolo hired visionary Head Coach Bill Walsh who in turned signed young quarteback Montana. In 1981 they guided the Niners to their maiden Super Bowl crown and by 1990 they’d won 4. In 1994 under the guidance of Walsh’s heir George Siefert and new QB Steve Young the Niners won their 5th Super Bowl but it proved the end of the dynasty.

Super Bowl XXIV
49er Legends Joe Montana & Jerry Rice at Super Bowl XXIV back in 1990

Since then the Niners have struggled, their only return to the Super Bowl coming in 2012.   New hope arrived last year in the shape of new Head Coach Kyle Shanahan & General Manager (Director of Football) John Lynch who signed a new QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo’s arrival came too late to save the 2017 campaign but he guided the team to 5 successive wins giving cause for optimism for the 2018 season.

Who gets what?

As part of the deal 49er executive Paraag Marathe becomes a Director at Leeds. Marathe’s role in San Francisco is contract negoiation and he recently secured Garoppolo’s services for the next 5 years with a long-term deal. Marathe and Radrizzani are long-standing friends so the reasoning behind the partnership starts to make some sense.

The Niners have allegedly paid around £10million for a 10% stake and Marathe has been quick to point out he won’t be a silent partner and that this will be a long-term project. The 49ers are however not intending to buy a majority holding and Radrizzani is not intending to relinquish his controlling share.

What are the Benefits?

Leeds get a major boost to their transfer kitty. Last season showed the club are some way off being promotion contenders. Many fans criticised the recruitment policy of Director of Football Victor Orta. In my opinion it’s not a case of Orta’s signings being bad (although Goalkeeper Felix Weidwald looks a mistake) more that areas of the team he neglected to address that caused problems. Leeds desperately need a dominant centre-half to partner World Cup bound Pontus Jansson, a prolific forward to replace Chris Wood and an experienced goalkeeper to replace Rob Green. Radrizzani isn’t short of cash but has already invested heavily in the club and it’s hardly surprising he’s been looking to bring more funding on-board.

Andrea Radrizzani is attempting to revive Leeds United

If Leeds’ get the short-term benefits the 49ers get a potential long-term return. Investing in clubs in the Championship is a buy low strategy with the hope that a swift promotion to the Premier League will bring an enormous return. This weeks play-off final between Fulham & Aston Villa (that decides who takes the last place in next season’s Premier League) is worth a reported £170million per year to the winner.

But it’s a risky investment, the Championship has consistently proved to be a unpredictable division, teams need to have the ambition to improve their squads but promotion isn’t guaranteed: just ask Leeds’ local rivals Sheffield Wednesday who lost in the play-offs 2 straight seasons before suffering a poor 2017-18 campaign and are now back to square one.

But it’s the longer-term benefits that offer major incentives for both parties. Whereas most Championship sides simply hope to get into the Premier League and survive, Leeds if and when they get there will expect to thrive. In the first 10 Premier League campaigns Leeds finished in the top five on seven occasions, their fan base is enormous swelled not just by their history but rare status of being a big city club with no cross-town rival, if they can re-establish themselves at the top table they’d be expected to occupy a permanent seat.

Both teams inevitably see this as a chance to extend their global brands, Leeds were very quick to put 49er shirts on sale in their club store. At present The Bay Area does not have an MLS franchise and whilst nobody expects one just yet when the time inevitably comes could we be seeing a San Francisco United team playing in a familiar looking all white strip? It worked for Manchester City in New York, but of course such ideas remain maybes for if & when Leeds return to the Premier League.

Leeds Goalkeeper Bradley Peacock-Farrell models a Niners jersey at Elland Road

Back in blighty Shaid Khan’s proposed purchase of Wembley Stadium is seen by most as stage 1 of relocating his NFL Franchise to London whilst further down the M25 Tottenham’s new stadium already has a contract to stage NFL games into the next decade. With the NFL’s UK market expanding the Niners it seems feel the need to plant their flag in the ground somewhere further afield and Yorkshire could be a smart choice. Besides Leeds United the area supports numerous succesful Rugby League teams (most notably the Leeds Rhinos) and plays host to the world-renowned Yorkshire County Cricket Club, interestingly Marathe wouldn’t rule out the possibility when asked of the 49ers playing at Elland Road.

On a personal note this a strange turn for me, for the people of San Francisco I advise you go onto Youtube and type in ‘Mark Viduka vs Liverpool’ for an idea of what Leeds United hope to become once again and if you live in Leeds and get asked what number Jimmy Garoppolo wears- he’s number 10!

Jimmy Garoppolo- the Niners great hope

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