London (AFP) – The San Francisco 49ers have a “blueprint” to share with Leeds United on how to revive a storied club, says Paraag Marathe — a man with a foot in both camps.
Marathe is the new vice-chairman at Elland Road after the NFL franchise increased its stake in the three-time English champions to 37 percent last month.
The club, managed by Argentina’s Marcelo Bielsa, have made an eye-catching return to the Premier League following a 16-year hiatus.
Leeds, who were a dominant force in English football in the late 1960s and early 1970s, went into freefall after being relegated from the top-flight in 2004, tumbling down to the third tier before a decade spent languishing in the Championship.
Marathe, who is president of 49ers Enterprises, said he had his eye on investing in the club even before Italian Andrea Radrizzani took control in 2017 as it had “great bones”.
“I felt they had great potential and had fallen on hard times and had had multiple owners,” he told AFP in an online interview from his office in California.
Marathe has been at the 49ers for two decades and said the five-time Super Bowl champions could use their expertise gained in rebuilding the franchise to help the Premier League club.
“We have gone through the process of being the club that was underperforming with a dormant fan base,” he said.
“We also had such great success in the 80s and 90s through Joe Montana and Steve Young and we fell on some hard times.
“We have revitalised the franchise, we built a new stadium and restored our on-pitch performance.
“We have lived through it and we can impart our knowledge. We built a playbook and we have a blueprint we can share with our counterparts and friends over at Leeds.”
Marathe said it was not all one-way traffic, with Leeds executives able to share good practice on fan experience on visits to the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium.
– ‘Vision’ –
He said he was struck by Radrizzani’s leadership style, describing him as somebody with “great vision and leadership”.
“He is one of those guys, and there are not many of them walking this earth, who are going to succeed or die trying,” he said.
“People follow that certain leadership style.
“You pick up followers and belief and confidence and certainly the club has followed in his footsteps. Coach Bielsa has the same mindset.”
The 49ers are one of a number of American concerns that have invested in English football clubs including the Fenway Sports Group at Liverpool and the Glazers at Manchester United.
Marathe said the 49ers were taking a long-term view.
“We were not just looking for an investment opportunity,” he said. “It was not just something to buy low and sell high. We feel we are in for the long haul.
“Because we wanted to do it we are passionate about it.”
He said he was as passionate about Leeds games as 49ers matches, which is not music to the ears of his wife Jennifer.
She now loses him and their young daughters Juniper and Maren — wearing Leeds strips — to even more matchdays sat in front of the television.
“I want to win but it is not about the level of investment,” he said. “I am passionate and care.”
Leeds, in the north of England, also proved an attractive lure because it is a one-team city with a large and loyal fan base.
“What has hit me hard over the last few years is Leeds is part of everybody’s family,” he said.
“It is like a little brother or little sister where you love to love them and you love to hate them.
“You protect them when they are down and praise and support them when they are up. They are part of each neighbourhood, household, community.
“That is very different to US sport — you love your team but it is not woven into the fabric of who you are based on where you were born.
“English football is the next level of loyalty.”
This tribal passion was brought home to him when he wore a Leeds shirt to a London pub along with a fellow 49ers executive.
Halfway through their cocktails the waiter came over and told them their food had been cancelled, their drinks were on the house but they should leave as their shirts could stir emotions.
“That taught me, wow, how deep football loyalties are,” he said. “I cannot even wear a Leeds shirt in a London pub.”
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