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Friday, Feb. 7, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Woodgate latest casualty in ongoing fire sale by Leeds


LONDON -- Little over a year ago Jonathan Woodgate was public enemy No. 1 in English football following his conviction for affray after an attack on a student, Sarfraz Najeib.

Christopher Davies

The Leeds United defender was given 100 hours of community service, told he would not be considered for England's 2002 World Cup squad with some observers calling for Woodgate to be sacked by his club.

Last week Woodgate went from zero to hero following his £9 million transfer from Leeds to Newcastle. In his first public statement since walking out of Hull Crown Court in December 2001, Woodgate, at a Newcastle press conference, apologized and said he wanted to learn from his mistakes.

Woodgate was forgiven. Leeds was heavily criticized for selling a crown jewel and suddenly a player who was the butt of so much negative comment was held in high esteem.

"I'm no racist," said Woodgate who was part of the assault that left an Asian student with horrific injuries. "I'm black and white."

The last comment was presumably a clumsy attempt at comparing the racist statement with Newcastle's colors -- where are the spin doctors when you really need them?

On the other hand Lee Bowyer, who was cleared of all charges relating to the attack, recently joined West Ham yet continues to be vilified by the media and opposing fans.

Bowyer, who has convictions for possession of cannabis and an incident in a fast food restaurant that saw a chair thrown through a window, would probably not be first choice on many lists for a godfather or role model.

He also appears to be guilty of goodness knows what by association but the law of the land found him not guilty of any charge connected to the assault on Najeib and therefore Bowyer has nothing for which to apologize.

However, the court that is the tabloid jungle has dictated that Woodgate (guilty of affray) is forgiven as he's apologized but Bowyer (not guilty) is still persona non grata.

Maybe if Bowyer apologized for something he did not do he, too, would be welcomed back into the fray.

One way or the other Leeds continues to be the main talking point in English football after the sale of Woodgate (dubbed Woodgategate) which left manager Terry Venables "feeling like a patsy" because the deal was done behind his back and against his wishes.

It was a decision made by Leeds United's PLC rather than the football club and while it has been denied, sources claim the Elland Road club would have gone into administration had Woodgate not been sold.

Peter Ridsdale, the Leeds chairman, is known as Father Christmas at the club because of the contracts he has agreed to and there is no doubt the Yorkshire Santa has been generous to both players and directors.

The average pay at Leeds last year was £164,000 compared with £140,000 at Manchester United. Leeds and Newcastle both employ around 320 staff yet Newcastle's wage bill is half of that of Leeds.

In the two-year period 2001-2002 Ridsdale earned £983,000 from Leeds which isn't bad for a company which didn't win anything and made a £34 million loss on a turnover of £81 million.

The average salary of a director at Leeds for the fiscal year 2002 was £197,000 compared with £173,000 at Manchester United so coupled with the spend, spend, spend policy of recent years perhaps it was no surprise the PLC decided it was time to save, save, save.

Ridsdale said Leeds over-extended itself, particularly, when it was in the Champions League a couple of years ago -- £94 million spent on new players since December 1998 with £64 million recouped.

The lack of success plus the collapse of the transfer market has left Leeds desperately needing to reduce its £77 million debt, so Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Keane, Lee Bowyer, Olivier Dacourt, Robbie Fowler and Woodgate have gone, which has brought in much-needed income and significantly reduced the payroll.

Terry Venables, the target of much criticism a couple of months ago, has come out of the mess smelling like roses, winning the sympathy vote from the fans who wanted him sacked not long ago.

Ridsdale admitted Venables was misled but the manager will probably carry on until the summer and then take stock of his situation.

The chairman pointed out, rather insensitively, that he was elected by the board and not the supporters and one suspects that however many apologies Ridsdale may give, they will not be sufficient to appease the fans who are sick and tired of the car boot sales at Elland Road.

Barcelona's spending since Joan Gaspart took over as president in the summer of 2000 makes Leeds seem almost Scrooge-like.

The Catalans have splashed out £150 million on 16 new players over the last two and a half trophy-less seasons, none of whom has made a significant impact at the Nou Camp.

Coach Louis van Gaal was sacked last week and in came Raddy Antic, the Serb who once played for Luton Town, scoring the extra-time goal at Manchester City in the last game of the 1982-83 season which kept the Hatters in the old first division.

Upon the final whistle, Luton manager David Pleat ran jumping and arms waving across the Maine Road pitch to hug Antic, which remains one of English football's finest video moments.

When Antic was last coaching in La Liga he was with Real Oviedo and he brought in a "world class" English striker -- in fact, so keen was Antic to obtain the player he threatened to resign if his wish wasn't granted.

So in came Stan Collymore formerly with Wolves, Stafford Rangers, Crystal Palace, Southend, Nottingham Forest, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Fulham, Leicester and Bradford.

Collymore played a total of 80 minutes for Oviedo before suddenly announcing his retirement from football at the age of 30.

So six weeks after Collymore's much heralded arrival in Spain he was gone. Antic should last a little longer at Barcelona but perhaps like Venables, a former Barca coach, The Man Who Signed Collymore will also be looking for another job this summer.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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