Home comforts

As Leeds have lurched from crisis to crisis, outsiders have wondered why fans have not become more militant. For Duncan Young, it’s because there’s no question of a move from Elland Road

As this summer’s Leeds United pantomime ran its course, I was increasingly confronted by passionate supporters of other clubs, incredulous that Leeds fans have not risen in righteous anger and deposed Ken Bates, or at the very least made a stand against him. How much humiliation would it take before we finally seized control of our own destiny rather than accept a constant diet of wailing and gnashing of teeth?

Examples of success for fans elsewhere were readily offered. The campaigns in question seemed typically to be triggered by actual or threatened removal of home matches from an area. Charlton supporters resolved to get Back To The Valley, AFC Wimbledon fans would not follow their commercial entity to Milton Keynes, Wrexham had no idea where they were supposed to be going and Brighton balked at the prospect of playing in Portsmouth or Gillingham. These campaigns sometimes evolved into battles for the ownership of the club itself, but it was the geographical upheaval that caused the initial rush to the barricades.

Whatever else has been thrown into turmoil, Leeds still play at Elland Road and, as far as anyone outside the inner sanctum knows, have the option to remain as tenants there for around 20 years. Ownership of the ground itself was relinquished in November 2004 as Gerald Krasner and his board scrambled to meet repayments on loans they had used to snatch the club away from administration following our first dalliance with oblivion the previous winter. It only became clear two months later that soon we might not be playing football anywhere.

Many find it hard to understand why, unlike Sheffield Wednesday’s followers, we didn’t form a backbone of ­implacable ­opposition to the arrival of Bates, a pariah to many. The short version is that he took control less than a week after anybody had any idea he would be coming and by that point we were in a new ten-day countdown to probable liquidation, given that we had precious little left to sell. Bates’s appeared very vividly to be the only game in town and in the immediate aftermath things did seem to improve, up to the play-off final against Watford. And despite the wretched performance that day, Ken kept making robust statements about our prospects until the closing weeks of last season, when once again debt seemed to engulf us from nowhere.

The financial implosion under Peter Ridsdale has left everyone since dealing with the fallout. Irreversible damage was done before we were aware there was really a problem. That gaping hole already dwarfed anything a supporters’ movement might hope to repair by itself. Fans have searched long and hard for evidence of who to hold responsible as events have unfolded, or even to discover who is essentially backing the club now, but the answers seem to get further away with each new twist and turn. The sheer number of characters, mistakes and misfortunes over recent years has left us punch-drunk and desperate for hope.

The popular mood is one of deep animosity towards the chairman who has overseen relegation to the lowest point in the club’s history, the deduction of 25 league points (ten last season, 15 this) and a new salvo of high-profile embarrassment. However, our sensational and complex decline has served only to reinforce a collective instinct to back the team in the face of all-comers, internal or external. Ken’s known bidding rivals in the summer were not plainly preferable, and his predecessors piloted the club to near destruction, so as we trawl new depths there is no appetite for the kind of high-risk confrontation that ultimately succeeded at Brighton, but demoralised the side of 1997 to within a whisker of Conference football.

Those trying to organise opposition have met with widespread resentment, either because they are seen as distracting the team or because their ersatz status as media spokespersons irks supporters who have historically resisted delegating responsibility to a single voice. An uneasy truce prevails. The abandonment of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ court case dashed the idea that Bates might be compelled to retreat through the kind of awkward revelations that emerged from Wrexham’s legal proceedings. The much reincarnated club now appear administratively secure and supporters, still smarting from the Football League’s reprimand, are generally resolved either to wait Ken out or give him a final chance to come good. Staying away still feels too much like giving up.

From WSC 248 October 2007