It’s been quite a week for fans of European football, thanks to the Super League fiasco. I can’t work out whether the fact that I’d already planned to review a book about the business of football before that story broke was prescient or predictable…
The Super League proved to be anathema for most football fans, as are the group of clubs owned by Red Bull, the development of which is analysed in Wings of Change by Karan Tejwani. Yet again, this is a book brought to market by Pitch Publishing; I must be one of their best customers at the moment!
Tejwani looks at the three clubs bearing the branding of the famous energy drink, which are based in Leipzig, Salzburg and New York. He describes these clubs as “despised, and rightly so” early in the text, which is an oddly old-school position to take for a young writer. When I read that, I was concerned that Wings of Change would be a demolition of the multi-club model deployed by Red Bull, rather than a proper exploration of whether the approach taken by the energy drink had any value at the game’s highest level.
Fortunately, this book mirrors the evolution of Red Bull’s clubs, in so far as it is more nuanced than the black and white way many football fans (me included) sometimes approach matters of club ownership.
No-one needs to read this book to learn that much of Red Bull’s initial approach to football was driven by marketing. That’s why, after buying and renaming SV Austria Salzburg, there was an insistence that the club had been founded in 2005, not 1933. The colours were changed from violet and white to the red, white and gold of Red Bull. Many of Austria’s fans voted with their feet and formed a phoenix club, but Red Bull Salzburg have blazed their own trail, winning 11 Austrian Bundesliga titles and 7 Austrian Cups.
A similarly blunt approach was taken in the USA, where the New York / New Jersey MetroStars were bought out, rebranded and their colours changed. Thanks to the play-off format favoured in Major League Soccer, the Red Bulls have never actually won the MLS Cup awarded to its champion, although in 2013, 2015 and 2018, they did win the Supporters’ Shield for the “best regular season record” which, in old money means “winning the League”.
And then, in 2009, came the big one. RasenBallsport Leipzig (the German FA wouldn’t allow ‘Red Bull’, so a name was invented for abbreviating to ‘RB’) was formed in 2009 when the playing rights of a fifth-tier club, SSV Markranstädt were purchased. A multi-sport club, Markranstädt formed a new football section with the players Red Bull didn’t want, dropped a couple of tiers and worked their way back to their original level.
The purchase of Markranstädt’s place in the pyramid is covered in the book, but as a transaction, rather than the first evolution of Red Bull’s approach to football. RB Leipzig was the first time the company took on a football club without dropping itself into the top flight; the German side won four promotions to reach the Bundesliga. Initial progress was made in predictable fashion: spend a load of money on experienced players with a track record at higher levels, then steamroller the rest of the division.
Except… it didn’t work out quite like that. Leipzig got bogged down in the Regionalliga Nord for a few seasons, before winning back-to-back promotions. Then, there was a couple of years in the 2. Bundesliga before reaching the promised land.
It’s here that Wings of Change comes into its own. Leipzig’s case of ‘second season syndrome’ triggers a rethink at Red Bull HQ and much more emphasis is placed on developing players as opposed to acquiring players. Having a network of clubs who can work together to develop talent comes into its own when there is a genuine focus on youth, especially when that is underpinned by a specific playing philosophy.
Tejwani sets out that, with Ralf Rangnick overseeing them, the Red Bull clubs forge a consistent way of playing and place a significant emphasis on bringing players through the ranks. Coach development also becomes a focus, the career of Jessie Marsch being an example. Having won Supporters’ Shields in MLS, Marsch – a young, globalist American – moves to Leipzig as an assistant to Rangnick. This allows him time to learn German and adapt to European football before moving to Salzburg, where he won titles and made waves in the UEFA Champions League. Similarly, the examination of Julian Nagelsmann’s development as a coach within the Red Bull group is excellent.
Although it was written before the Super League farrago (and published in November 2020), Wings of Change is thought provoking; readers might wonder if groups of clubs under common ownership are set to become more common in the future. Until I read this book, I had no idea that Red Bull had a nursery club in Austria’s second tier in addition to their ‘big three’, but I was aware of the City Football Group, where Manchester City acts as a fulcrum for a global network of teams. Indeed, the ‘Hudson River Derby’ in MLS pits the New York Red Bulls against New York City FC, who wear sky blue shirts.
There is a lot to like about Wings of Change. It is an easy read and covers the three main clubs in Red Bull’s orbit in an even-handed manner. I learned a fair amount from the book, too and it gave me food for thought. At the same time, this book made me feel old. I’m 41, while the author is 22 and there are clearly differences in the way we look at the game, the way we write and the language we use. That’s not a criticism, more an example of how both language and football evolve. RB Leipzig put themselves on the right side of history by distancing themselves from the Super League; Tejwani’s book suggests they might be in a better position during the present than a lot of ‘traditional’ clubs. I didn’t expect to take that from this book; given that RB Leipzig were, almost improbably, one of the good guys in the Super League debacle, they may become on of the next generation of superclubs. I wouldn’t have thought that, until I read this book.
I always recommend Stanchion Books at the end of these reviews because I like backing the ‘indie’ bookshop where I can, but you could always go to the Wings of Change page on the Pitch Publishing website if they’re out of stock; there are various links to order it there.