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How 49ers' parallels with Leeds United run deeper than financial ties

How 49ers' parallels with Leeds United run deeper than financial ties

The parallels weren't lost on Paraag Marathe.

Marathe, the president of 49ers Enterprises and the 49ers' executive vice president of football operations, officially joined Leeds United's board in May 2018 when the NFL franchise's investment group purchased a stake in the English soccer team. It had been 26 years since Leeds last won the title in England's top division and 14 since they had been relegated from the Premier League.

The 49ers could relate, considering they were 23 years removed from their last Super Bowl at the time.

"We would often talk about how it's a very similar story in terms of [Leeds having] such a decorated past," Marathe said of the newly-promoted Premier League club last week in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area.

"Obviously, the club had fallen on some challenging times for almost 20 years and gone through multiple ownership groups, multiple coaches, lots of players in and out and hadn't yet gotten back to where they belong. But the brand was still there."

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

The 49ers have long had an interest in international soccer. Levi's Stadium has hosted club friendlies and competitive international fixtures alike, and the team joined the San Jose Earthquakes on the FIFA World Cup Bay Area Host Committee, which pitched FIFA and U.S. Soccer on naming the region one of 10 in the United States that will hold games during the men's World Cup in 2026.

But 49ers Enterprises' stake in Leeds United, reportedly worth around 10 percent of the club, is the 49ers' most important tie to the beautiful game. It took on newfound prominence earlier this month when Leeds secured Premier League promotion, as one of England's most storied clubs returned to the top flight for the first time since 2004.

"[There's] something special and there's something, certainly, that is a sense of pride in being a part of getting a club back to where they belong," Marathe said. "It's something that outlasts our investment, that will outlast my career, that will outlast, hopefully, my lifetime."

Marathe and the 49ers had arranged a "strategic partnership" with a prior Leeds United ownership group in 2014. Andrea Radrizzani assumed full control of the club in May 2017, but Marathe's relationship with Leeds' chairman pre-dated Radrizzani's ownership. Marathe said he had previously "hit it off" with Radrizzani after connecting through a mutual friend, even hosting him on a tour of Levi's Stadium in 2014 or 2015.

Radrizzani didn't know of Marathe's own ties with Leeds when they first met, and Marathe couldn't have known Radrizzani would purchase the club. "It kind of came full circle," then, once Radrizzani did, and Marathe reached out about the 49ers becoming more involved.

Marathe said the 49ers had visited a lot of prospective soccer clubs when they looked into investing, but Leeds stood out all along. Only 12 English teams have won more major domestic and international trophies than them, for one, and Marathe said the club's social-media engagement and season-ticket base were both far greater than other clubs in the Championship, England's second division. But, Marathe said the 49ers' first visit to the city spoke for itself.

"There's one club that their fans and supporters get behind, and you just feel it when you get there," Marathe said, referring to Leeds United's unique status as a club with no in-city rival. "I remember this very vividly because ... before we met anybody, we already felt there was something special brewing here. They just needed to get back to where they belong."

[RELATED: How 49ers' Leeds 'learnings' can help in unprecedented year]

Leeds United have done just that since Marathe joined the club's board, narrowly missing out on promotion last season before winning the Championship earlier this month. Marathe said he and the 49ers are "helping and advising wherever we can," but he repeatedly credited Radrizzani, director of football Victor Orta and head coach Marcelo Bielsa for the club's achievement, noting that it's "their show."

Now, the 49ers want to take the partnership to the "next level," according to Marathe. Leeds eventually playing pre-season friendlies at Levi's Stadium is a possibility, as is even more "information- and idea-sharing," he said, even noting that Leeds' return to the Premier League means the club "today is almost like where we were" when the 49ers first built Levi's Stadium. Marathe even told The New York Times in a story published Friday that the 49ers "are absolutely hoping to" increase their stake in the club. 

Still, the 49ers' financial investment has become an emotional one for Marathe and others in the organization. He was there when Leeds lost to Derby County in the promotion play-off semi-final just over a year ago, saying he was "depressed" ordering midnight takeout after driving back to the city. Marathe even compared the "painful" feeling to his when the 49ers lost Super Bowls XLVII and LIV, and it's easy to see why.

Leeds United won a club-record 28 games after missing out on promotion a year ago, guided by a singular focus to return to the Premier League. That sounds a whole lot like the 49ers' Super Bowl-or-bust mentality after losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in February.

"Coach Bielsa stuck through it, and they stuck to their game plan," Marathe said of Leeds' season. "They stuck to the blueprint that got them to almost getting promoted last season, and they stuck with it and they dominated this year as a result."

49ers' Nick Bosa says benefits of healthy offseason will show on field

49ers' Nick Bosa says benefits of healthy offseason will show on field

Nick Bosa was voted the best rookie in the NFL last season.

The 49ers’ defensive end is approaching the 2020 season with even-bigger expectations for himself.

“I’ve got some pretty concrete things that I’ve been focusing on,” said Bosa, the consensus NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and chosen as the overall Rookie of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America.

Bosa registered nine sacks during the regular season with a total of 80 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. He added four more sacks in three postseason games.

Bosa came to the NFL with a reputation as an advanced technician. This season, he believes he will be better prepared mentally to become more of a down-to-down force.

”Last year, I didn’t really know what was going to work and what wasn’t and what was my go-to,” he said. “So just coming into games with a better plan of not wasting any time out there because you only get so many opportunities and you want to get those big numbers and help your team as best as you can and get the ball out. You have to come in with a plan and not waste any rushes.”

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Bosa said he has spent the past six months working on a couple of new pass-rush moves. Even before the draft last year, Bosa spoke about a cross-chop move that Aaron Donald has perfected on his way to becoming arguably the league’s best defensive player. Bosa has also been considering adding a spin move to his arsenal.

Bosa said he also has worked on making better use of his hands to ward off pass-blockers and get to the quarterback more effectively.

“I win a lot at the top of my rush, but a lot of the times I get washed by the quarterback or I don’t pose enough space and finish the plays, so that’s probably been the biggest emphasis for me,” he said. “And I’ve been working that in walk-throughs and drills all (off)-season.”

Bosa faced a number of obstacles as he prepared for his rookie season a year ago. He underwent core-muscle surgery that ended his final season at Ohio State after three games. Bosa spent months rehabbing and traveling the country to meet with teams during the pre-draft process.

After the 49ers selected Bosa with the No. 2 overall draft pick, a hamstring strain during the offseason program sidelined him until training camp. Then, early in camp he sustained a high-ankle sprain that kept him out until Week 1 of the regular season.

[RELATED49ers' Bosa 'not going to blame the ref' for big Super Bowl no-call]

While the 49ers and the rest of the NFL canceled on-field work this spring, Bosa trained daily with his brother, Joey, and he believes he enters his second season much better prepared than a year ago.

“I think I’ve gotten all of the benefits and I’m feeling it out here in these workouts, in these runs we’re doing,” he said. “I feel like I’m, by far, in the best shape that I’ve ever been. I don’t look much different because we don’t train to body-build. We train to play football, and I think it’ll show.”

49ers' Nick Bosa 'not going to blame ref' for big Super Bowl no-call

49ers' Nick Bosa 'not going to blame ref' for big Super Bowl no-call

Third-and-15.

Three words that will forever be linked to the 49ers’ inability to close the door on the Kansas City Chiefs in the middle of the fourth quarter of their Super Bowl LIV loss at Hard Rock Stadium.

Third-and-15 conjures up a bunch of “what-if” scenarios. The 49ers led by 10 points. They'd lose the game by 11. That play on third-and-15 gave the Chiefs a chance.

It took a while for Tyreek Hill’s downfield route to develop. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes needed time in order for Hill to fool 49ers cornerback Emmanuel Moseley into believing his destination was the deep middle of the field. Mahomes had just enough time to allow Hill time to break his route back outside.

What happened at the beginning of the play made the 44-yard pass completion possible. Rookie defensive end Nick Bosa appeared to beat Kansas City left tackle Eric Fisher with an inside move. But Fisher steered Bosa clear of Mahomes with his right arm wrapped around Bosa’s right ribcage.

Months later, does Bosa believe he was held on the play?

“I’ve gotten that question a bunch,” he said with a laugh during a video call with Bay Area reporters.

“I don’t like thinking about that game very much, but I have gone back and watched up until the fourth quarter and, um, was I held? I mean, it comes down to the opinion of a human being. So that’s what refs are. They’re human beings. So if they think it’s holding, they think it’s holding. It could’ve been holding. It could’ve not been holding. It just depends on what he thinks.”

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Referee Bill Vinovich did not reach for his flag, and the play stood.

Bosa did not have a chance after Fisher got his arm around him. Meanwhile, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who lined up inside of Bosa, was a split-second late in getting to Mahomes.

“I’m not going to say that’s the reason we lost the game because there were plenty of opportunities where I could’ve done better,” Bosa said of the no-call. “I could’ve done better on that move on third and 15. I’m sure Buck is kicking himself. He thinks he could’ve done better on the wrap and gotten there a little quicker. I’m not going to blame the ref, by any means.”

Buckner is now with the Indianapolis Colts after the 49ers traded him for a first-round draft pick that was used to select his replacement, Javon Kinlaw. Buckner is the only defensive starter who does not return for the 49ers this season.

[RELATED49ers' Bosa expects Kinlaw to 'kill it' in rookie season]

All the holdovers will use third-and-15 as “good motivation,” said Bosa. After all, his rookie season fell just short of the ultimate prize.

“First year, you get there and you’re seven minutes away and a nightmare of a situation happens,” Bosa said. “So you could bet we’re going to come back pretty strong this year if we’re able to get 16 games in and the playoffs.”