Monday 3 August ~
It is often said that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. That, however, has never been the way Ken Bates has done business. Back in 1985, as owner of Chelsea, Bates famously proposed electrified fences as a way of curbing violence on the terraces at Stamford Bridge. Since then he has publicly attacked the likes of Martin O’Neill (“I'm surprised Martin O’Neill actually knows a word as big as cretin”), Claude Makelele (“Who does he play for? I've only ever heard of his brother, Ukulele”).
It is fair to say he has upset a large number of people within the game – and arguably even world Christianity in his comments following his ousting from the Wembley Stadium construction project (“Even Jesus Christ only had one Pontius Pilate – I had a whole team of them”). And controversy has extended into Bates’s business dealings. His murky financial history has been given lengthy treatment by Tom Bower in his excellent Broken Dreams and subsequently by the Guardian columnist David Conn, both of whom have shed light on the complex legal gymnastics at the heart of some of Bates’s business interests.
Yet despite all of this muck-throwing nothing has ever stuck to Bates. That was until last month, however, when one diplomatic faux pas too many left the Leeds United owner not only short of friends but short of cash too. A court ordered him to pay damages and legal costs totalling over £1.5 million to former Leeds shareholder Melvyn Levi, having unleashed a spate of accusations against him in the club’s programme notes.
In the weeks since it has remained unclear what impact the case will have on Bates and on the club. Prior to the verdict opinion among fans was divided, with Bates loved and hated in equal measure for his loose-tongued approach to public relations. There are many who regard him as nothing more than a bully who has failed to arrest Leeds’s decline. By the same token there are supporters who appreciate his matter-of-fact, blue-collar approach to boardroom dealings, and are grateful to him for what they perceive as rescuing the club from insolvency.
Recently much of the talk in fan forums and the local press has revolved around the threat to potential transfers posed by the cost of the libel action. With another season in League One ahead supporters fear that money earmarked for investment in the club’s promotion challenge will instead be siphoned off into the pockets of solicitors. This may yet force Leeds to sell some of their most valuable assets – rumours of a big-money move for England Under-21 midfielder Fabian Delph are rife – which would also threaten promotion chances. The blame is laid squarely on the shoulders of Bates, who according to Levi could have settled out of court for a fraction of the eventual cost.
But fans are also angry with Bates for dragging the club’s name through the mud. The use of Leeds’s matchday programme to pursue a personal vendetta and the airing of the club’s financial dirty laundry in public (something which has become an annual tradition since the Ridsdale years) have pushed many into support for a fan campaign entitled “Love Leeds, Hate Bates”.
Whether such a movement will force out a man as thick-skinned as Ken Bates remains to be seen. In any case, he would have to find a willing buyer for a third-tier football club. But having had his fingers burnt in court, Bates may at least think twice next time he thinks about picking a fight through the press. James Appell