By Steve Jennings
So it is official, Leeds United FC is up for sale a few short months after being purchased by GFH Capital (or one of their various associated companies, I get confused). Or maybe it has been up for sale long before the paperwork was signed and the Bahraini Bank officially acquired the West Yorkshire club and it is now only public knowledge because the owning company have to include this in their various financial reports? It is not unreasonable for purchasers to buy only to sell on and this happens in business every day. Only Mr Haigh and Mr Patel will know if that was always the business plan, but no doubt this latest news will prompt much speculation and innuendo on the websites associated with Leeds United and social media outlets. And, sadly, some unwarranted abuse for the two gentlemen involved.
Leeds fans must think back to the recent and very dark past. The Ken Bates years at Elland Road are the darkest in the history of our great club. Even those that previously supported Bates are now having their heads turned from hailing the former Chelsea chairman as some kind of saviour to a man responsible for taking us into administration and our lowest ever league placing, and one who exploited an army of supporters for his own gain. Now I have no problem with any clubs owners making a few quid for their efforts – this is business after all, like it or not – but as an old fashioned supporter who yearns only to see his club field a team that play with passion and commitment every match day, I do demand that an appropriate amount of business acumen and investment is placed in the core product. That is the Football team. That is where Ken Bates failed.
I do not wish to dwell on Ken Bates perceived business and media failings at Leeds United as there have been too many to apply the appropriate detail to and already much debated elsewhere. It now bores me. But I do recall a time when I wondered if Leeds United would ever rid itself of this man without being on the receiving end of some fatal damage. Bates had a stranglehold on Leeds United and was clearly getting something positive out of his ownership. This was clearly not a sense of achievement on the football field as our club were nothing short of a laughing stock in the world of Football. Bates was also subject to some personal abuse with the “Bates Out” chants getting louder and the protests gaining more momentum with every embarrassing result against opposition not previously deemed suitable to play on the same field as Leeds, with every misfiring season or promising youngster sold for an “undisclosed fee” only to be replaced by an aged loanee or free signing. Despite the insistence from Bates and his puppets that the chairman “never took a penny out of the club” I can only assume there was some significant financial gain from the obvious struggles of running the Whites? This income may have come from the various businesses associated to Leeds United that Bates created (so technically money not direct from the club) but clearly he was doing very well for his efforts. Otherwise why the hell would he bother? And Bates insisted many times he was going nowhere, again why?
Radio stations, web media platforms, ownership of the Elland Road stadium, ownership of the Thorpe Arch training facility, catering companies, hospitality suites & pavilions, talk of investment in hotels, casinos and restaurants – it all lead to a complex network surrounding our club and would make the sale of our club much more complex than other football clubs with – maybe – less history or potential. I was convinced even death wouldn’t save the fans of this man because I was certain he would have some clause so his family would gain ownership of the club. Or worst still, there was a younger version of Ken waiting to take on Daddy’s companies? A younger, fitter version with the same poor business sense and subsequent decision making abilities, vile mouth and instant readiness to highlight, target and vilify anyone that stood in their way? And with more energy to drive it all home.
In my mind the only thing that may force Bates to sell would be if the club were spiralling into the abyss as, this time, he could not blame previous chairmen or directors, the YEP, West Yorkshire Police or the bloke who cleans the East Stand toilets. The blame would be his. And only his.
Prior to Bates selling to GFH there were many companies interested in buying the club despite what he and his dwindling number of apologists tell you. Bates admitted in 2009 that a former Everton director offered £34m for the club but was told in Ken’s cuddly way to “go forth and multiply” and only come back if there was £41m in the bag. I am not in the know but have some acquaintances including the MD of one of the biggest and most famous betting institutes in the UK who opened talks with Bates about buying Leeds. Bates was an unwilling seller preferring investment (i.e. someone else puts the money up, he spends it without personal financial risk and accepts any success while blaming the investors for lack of appropriate funding if it all fails badly). Needless to say the conversations came to an abrupt end. On Friday last week I was at a family funeral and was told by my immensely successful brother-in-law that his boss had tried to buy Leeds “many times” but initial advances never progressed because the finances were “all over the place” and the structure of ownership “complex”. This same man purchased another Yorkshire club and lead them to the Premier League aided by a former Leeds employee who was his club chairman.
The fact remains that interested parties were being put off and there were plenty who fall into this category. Anyone seriously interested in buying Leeds would need a large amount of business acumen, money, tenacity, patience, vision and much more. And to be ready, no doubt, to debate the purchase publicly considering Ken’s Peter Ridsdale style infatuation with courting publicity. I doubted anyone would show interest, even a shirt wearing, season-ticket holding Leeds fan with more money than sense.
When the first rumours circulated in May 2012 that Bates may consider selling Leeds I was sceptical because of all of the above. Why would he? When, after a while, names were mentioned and confirmation that talks were being held was printed in the papers I was adamant that these developments were because Leeds, Bates and any other associated businesses must be in financial strife. And, if so, then this would only serve to complicate and ultimately prolong talks that would already be extensive just because Ken Bates was involved. If you bought a second hand car off this man you would get a second opinion. And a third. Fourth. Fifth. In fact about a dozen. Who would to buy a club up a dead end street?
All things considered I applaud GHF for pursuing the complicated purchase of Leeds United and finally acquiring the club. If they achieve nothing else they would have released the stranglehold Ken Bates had on Leeds United Football Club and every supporter that wakes every morning and thinks about the club before much else. They have listened to the fans and this is proven.
Maybe their intention was always buy to sell? Maybe the thought of running a football club long term with such demanding fans was unappealing, hence the almost caretaker ownership? Could you blame them? I will judge GFH on who they sell Leeds United to and whether the incoming purchasers have the financial clout to invest in Leeds United’s core product. Remember that, it is called the team? Those 11 players we cheer or jeer every match day.
Be careful what you text, tweet or say about GFH. When the dust settles and whatever happens has happened we may remember what GFH actually achieved and that was to rid our club of Ken Bates which we know wasn’t easy and was never going to be. I would buy both Mr Haigh and Patel a pint for doing that.