Festival of acrimony

In the blue-and-white striped corner, Dave Allen; fresh out of the blue corner, Ken Bates. Graham Lightfoot reports on a ding-dong of a contest for ownership at Hillsborough

You can say what you like about Ken Bates, but he certainly draws the media in like wasps to a jam pot. His recent interest in buying into Sheffield Wednesday has meant that once again supporters can read about their club in the national press. For the past four years the club have slowly disappeared from main-stream media coverage. Languishing in mid-table in the Second Division there is no certainty that their matches will even get a few lines in the broadsheets’ divisional round-up column these days.

The present club chairman is Dave Allen, the owner of A&S Leisure (six casinos and the Owlerton grey­hound and speedway stadium) and himself a multi-millionaire. Allen seeks to plot the Wednesday’s re­­covery by cutting the players’ wage bill and by selling the leasehold of the club’s training ground for housing to reduce the overall debt of well over £20 million. He is every bit as hard-nosed as Bates. The clash between these two personalities has already led to some colourful exchanges. Speaking of Bates’s offer to put at least £10m into the club, Allen said: “All we have is a lot of huff and puff, and I have to say the man is economical with the truth. I have to settle the staff down on a daily basis now because of his comments.” Bates in turn criticised Allen for refusing to allow the club’s bankers, the Co-operative, to talk to him: “What have they got to hide? Is there a black hole at Wednesday?” The two men’s similarity means that there is no chance of them ever working together.

Of the three main supporters’ groups, the Wednesday Independent Supporters Association is the only one that questions Bates’s past business record. WISA chairman Barry Birks feels: “Allegations about Ken Bates have been raised in investigative articles and books. If some of these articles are true, we should be wary.” Bates’s suggested creation of a Chelsea Village-type development has raised a few eyebrows. For all its qualities, north Sheffield is not the King’s Road and the idea of a “Wednesday Village” smacks rather more of financial machination than the provision of Sheffielders with lifestyle choices.

Bates’s view to buy at Hillsborough has led to some unlikely alliances. Seemingly never one to court the supporters’ opinions in previous existences, he has the backing of the Wednesday Shareholders’ Association and the Owls Trust. Indeed the latter appeared side by side with Bates at his recent press conference in Sheffield, a move that left the present chairman apoplectic. When Allen and his directors bought the 36 per cent shareholding of the club from venture capitalists Charterhouse, they donated 9.6 per cent to the Owls Trust. This gesture was not totally an altruistic one, as it allowed him to avoid making an offer to all of Wednesday’s shareholders. Now the Owls Trust is bringing those shares to the table alongside Bates and Allen is livid, remarking: “The Owls Trust? They’re the most untrustworthy people I have ever come across.” In response to this, the trust’s chief executive John Hemmingham has replied: “When we accepted the shares that were given to us by the club, we made it clear that it had to be on a no-strings-attached basis. Our only aim is to help the club.”

If Bates, with the backing of the two shareholding groups, calls an extraordinary general meeting of the club, one wonders whether Allen and his board can survive. Despite his own investment into the club (which includes signing Adam Proudlock from Wolves and paying for Mark Robins’ wages out of his own pocket, not to mention a loan of £2.5m to secure the club with the Co-operative Bank), Allen’s vision is one of sound business principles. When supporters are asked to choose between sound business principles or wild talk of a £10m investment into the team, potential manager name-dropping of Glenn Hoddle or George Graham and a return to the Premiership to challenge for that fourth Champions League place, then there really is no contest.

At a time when Wednesday can boast an average gate of around 22,000, higher than cross-city rivals who are chasing promotion to the Premiership right now, one can begin to see the attraction for Bates. The majority of Wednesday supporters attend Hillsborough more as a matter of pride than in expectation of any entertainment these days. With the season petering out into irrelevance, Bates has probably timed his assault to perfection.

From WSC 207 May 2004. What was happening this month