Eighteen months after selling Chelsea, Ken Bates has kindly stepped back into the game to save Leeds – though strangely, as Duncan Young explains, not everyone at Elland Road is happy.
The outgoing board at Leeds United moaned about the complexities of doing a deal to safeguard the club, yet within days snatched at Ken Bates’ offer ahead of two other bewildered consortiums who were poised to make bids after painstaking analysis of the books. As the dust settles only one person has resigned, citing the complete irresponsibility of it all. John Boocock, chairman of the supporters’ trust, clattered Ken from behind and, sensing the exile that would follow, carried on straight down the tunnel as his senior colleagues lined up to disassociate the trust from his views.
Fellow fan representative Simon Jose showed his dissent in the Guardian: “Like a South American coup, Bates was whipped into office… Let’s all throw our flat caps in the air and buy some tripe fer whippet.” But, as founder of Leeds’ independent fans’ association he could afford to shrug at official disapproval, unlike Ray Fell, chairman of the official supporters’ association, whose gambit was: “We have no agenda, we simply want to hear what Mr Bates has to say and we’ll take it from there.” Mixed reactions from a growing multitude of spokespeople to a deal no one outside the board fully understands neatly exemplify the confusion that has paralysed 30,000 regular home fans and many more around the world. Uncertainty about how bad the situation really was and who exactly was to blame meant that fans never united to oppose one group or focus on one issue and, as a result, a lot of planned protests have been lacklustre or fizzled out altogether.
Despite Bates’ reputation and lengthy association with a club reviled in Elland Road chants, Norman Hunter spoke for many fans after the recent defeat at Derby by saying: “The club have to be delighted Ken Bates has come in. There was an awful lot of talk about other people coming, but nobody’s turned round and put their money in… If he can bring us anywhere near the success he brought to Chelsea, well, I’ll be absolutely delighted.” Many supporters go further and believe that there's now not much wrong with a club that can soon be up there challenging for Europe again, when the reality is more likely to be multiple seasons in the Championship.
It’s the man who bought an ailing club with a large, enthusiastic fan base and supplied it with trophies that Leeds fans are focusing on, not the one who piloted Chelsea towards a worse financial abyss than the one Leeds themselves have plunged down. Bates would argue that he left Chelsea with assets worth a quarter of a billion pounds. At Leeds the stadium and training ground are already in hock, to keep the club trading.
The reported £10 million invested by Bates and his consortium has kept the Inland Revenue quiet for a while, but on its own it would probably only fund current operations for a few more months. Bates is clearly revelling in his new chairmanship and has astutely tied the selling board into the club for years to come. He acknowledges the need to reduce operating costs still further and launched a broadside at the 900-plus complimentary tickets provided for each home game, though nobody is certain yet whether he is targeting corporate, charitable or “club family” freebies.
Unsurprisingly, a proposed “Leeds Village” regeneration of the rundown area surrounding the ground, echoing Chelsea Village, heads plans to generate cash for the football operation, but a queue of creditors – including former staff and players and the (currently unidentified) new owners of the ground and training facilities – will also have calls on whatever funds gradually become available.
Rumours abound that Dennis Wise will be offered the manager’s job, but any setbacks for such an obvious appointee would surely undermine Bates’s own position. If Gordon Strachan, still hugely popular at Leeds, finds south coast life too convivial and Iain Dowie keeps Crystal Palace up, Kevin Blackwell might get longer than many imagine to prove Bates wrong about former goalkeepers as managers.
“We already have the postwar record for debutants,” says Blackwell, warming to the prospect of some money to spend on a side who were 19th in December. “So if we have a few more it doesn’t matter. We might as well go for the record right away and make sure that no one can catch us.”
From WSC 217 March 2005. What was happening this month