Revealed: NFL-led plan to put Leeds United back among European football's elite

Luke Edwards
·8 min read
Paraag Marathe has great vision for Leeds - Getty Images
Paraag Marathe has great vision for Leeds - Getty Images

Paraag Marathe has a message for Leeds United fans and a warning to the rest of English football: returning to the Premier League is just the beginning.

Marathe, the president of San Francisco 49ers' investment arm, is currently in negotiations with Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani over increasing the American Football franchise's stake in the club, which currently stands at around 10 per cent.

While he acknowledges that the 49ers want more of a say in how things are done at Elland Road, he is adamant this remains a partnership alongside Radrizzani, not a takeover.

In his first major interview with British media, Marathe also revealed:

  • His belief that Leeds can challenge for regular European qualification without resorting to "an open chequebook"

  • His fierce opposition to the 'Project Big Picture' proposals which sparked civil war in English football last week

  • How he assisted Radrizziani in the process that led to the appointment of Marcelo Bielsa

Marathe is currently in negotiations with Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani over increasing the American Football franchise's stake in the club  - Getty Images
Marathe is currently in negotiations with Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani over increasing the American Football franchise's stake in the club - Getty Images

Marathe, president of 49ers Enterprises and Executive Vice President of Football Operations, is well qualified to advise on how Leeds reach the next level. In a 20-year assoiciation with the 49ers, he has helped transform them from a side struggling to recapture their halcyon days of the 1980s — when they won four Super Bowls — to runners-up in last year's showpiece.

He sees parallels with Leeds' renaissance after a 16-year absence from the top flight. “Leeds had fallen so far and so hard, down to the second and then the third division, yet the fans had shown such tremendous passion - I had never seen anything like it,” said Marathe, who has been the driving force behind the NFL franchise’s interest in Leeds and sits on the board at Elland Road.

"It looked like one of those dormant brands you look at and wonder what is possible. I see a similar trajectory of improvement for Leeds as we had at the 49ers. Success hasn’t been achieved yet, this [promotion] is just the first step on the journey. Now we need to make sure they are sustainably competitive in the Premier League.

“We can help the club stay there and to compete to [qualify] for the European championships [competitions]. That’s the goal. I don’t want to call it a chip on my shoulder, but I have the same emotional connection to getting Leeds supporters what they deserve."

Some will be suspicious, American involvement in Premier League football, whether it is the Glazer family at Manchester United, Stan Kroenke at Arsenal, Randy Lerner at Aston Villa or Ellis Short at Sunderland, has not tended to end happily. But behind the slick corporate language, there is substance and, more importantly a proven track record.

Marathe revealed the entire management and coaching team of the 49ers have become Leeds fans, streaming every game. They even have a dedicated WhatsApp Group. In his office, all Leeds' fixtures are on the wall alongside the 49ers.

“It’s on and off the pitch,” explained Marathe. “We are in a different life cycle as a club. We have just been to the Super Bowl and we have been through a lot of change and growth and improved into a multi-billion-dollar asset on and off the pitch. I think there is an opportunity for Leeds to matriculate to that level as well.

“There are so many learnings we have had at the 49ers over the last decade and more that we can export over to Leeds and help them in all sorts of areas, whether it’s sponsorship, ticket sales, fan engagement, digital marketing and all those things.

“Also, on the pitch, looking at different tools to help measure performance and look at recruitment. We almost missed a generation of Leeds fans, a whole group of fans who missed the competitive experience of playing in the Premier League. I don’t want to let that happen again."

Marathe’s fascination with Leeds goes back several years but was only made possible after he was introduced to Radrizzani through a mutual friend months before the Italian bought the club back in January 2017.

“I reached out,” Marathe revealed. “It was probably two or three ownership groups back, GFH Capital, and we formed a strategic partnership and everything… that deal never materialised. Actually, it was quite fortunate for me that it didn’t, but that sort of showcased my interest in Leeds.

“Fast forward two or three years later and I was introduced by a mutual friend to Andrea. It was before he had purchased Leeds and the friend just said we seemed like mutual-minded people and may share a professional kinship, so why don’t you get together?

“I think it was about six to nine months later that he purchased Leeds. I called him up and said I’ve been interested in this club for a long time and I’d like to get involved.

“Andrea has such vision, it is something I admire about him greatly. He’s one of those guys with such tremendous will power that he sees something [he wants] and he is either going to succeed or he is going to die trying. But people follow that, they admire that.”

In English football, there is only so much you can achieve without money - and Leeds spent almost £100 million in the last transfer window developing the squad that won promotion last season - but Marathe talks about developing the club in a "methodical" way, rather than with an open chequebook. “You can throw money at a problem and sometimes it works short term, but it doesn’t lead to sustained success," he said.

He was also appalled by 'Project Big Picture', the proposal developed by his fellow Americans - Liverpool's John W Henry and Manchester United's Joel Glazer - to effectively gain control of the Premier League.

“I’m trying to think of the best way I can answer this," he said, when asked directly for his verdict on the plan. "What I am a fan of is anything that promotes a meritocracy. A fan of anything that lets the best club win and the best club be in the position they can achieve.

“Don’t let that be because someone has more power than everyone else and can make unilateral decisions that aren’t in the best interests of everybody, that aren’t done in a democratic way. I struggled with that a little bit."

Marathe is aware that Leeds are unlikely to gatecrash the top six at the first attempt, even if they have made an  encouraging start, sitting 10th after five games ahead of Saturday's meeting with Aston Villa.

But he is also conscious that there is a potential to Leeds well beyond the reach of most other newly-promoted clubs.

“One of the things that attracted me to Leeds is it is a one-club town, in the third largest metropolitan area in the whole of the UK," he says. "We did look at other Premier League clubs, but we just felt Leeds had such a big opportunity. Forty years ago and 20 years ago they were the talk of European football and attracted fans from the USA and all over the world.

“A silly story I shall share, John Lynch, our general manager, was not much of a European football fan but he had a Leeds United sweatshirt when he was growing up as a kid because a relative had bought it for him. It has that global recognition already. The opportunity isn’t to make this club incrementally better, it is to make exponentially better.”

As with everyone associated with Leeds, Marathe feels the most important part of the project, at this stage, is manager Marcelo Bielsa. Although he is keen to stress that credit for the appointment is due to Radrizzani, his advice on the process of appointing the Argentine was crucial.

Marcelo Bielsa is one of Leeds' biggest assets - Shutterstock
Marcelo Bielsa is one of Leeds' biggest assets - Shutterstock

“We had put a process together in the selection and hiring of our head coach Kyle Shanahan [at the 49ers] and that has gone tremendously well. We looked at certain things, identified certain traits and went through a process that were good indicators of success for a head coach – things like leadership, vision, personality. Then we interviewed and measured candidates measured on those traits.

“And, yes, I shared all of that with Andrea and in detail as to what the secret sauce was for us, but I know Andrea was absolutely committed to bringing in Bielsa.

"Bielsa is focused and committed to his beliefs in what he wants to do. He is very similar to Andrea. Leadership doesn’t always need words, it needs action, it’s about following the North Star sometimes and Bielsa has been Leeds’ North Star.”