Nick Miller reports on Ken Bates's decision to ban critical supporters from Leeds United games
To put things delicately, Ken Bates's tenure as chairman of Leeds United has been interesting. It was difficult to imagine a way he could top appointing his godson's father as manager, banning journalists for having the temerity to ask whether he actually owned the club (before eventually admitting that he did) and calling Leeds fans who disagreed with his methods "morons". However, Bates arguably outdid himself in March, after a group of fans were barred from Leeds games, simply for speaking out.
Gary Cooper, chairman of the Leeds United Supporters Trust (LUST), has been as vocal as any fan in his criticism of Bates, but even he was surprised to find that a stop had been placed on his and other LUST board members' ticket-purchasing accounts ahead of the trip to Hull City. The criticism from LUST in recent months – including a protest march before their match against Brighton in February – has been long and loud, but fair. Cooper was curious as to why he was being prevented from supporting his team. When Leeds chief executive Shaun Harvey was asked for an explanation, he said: "In simple terms we are exercising our right to only sell tickets to those who we wish to do so."
Cooper provides a more detailed explanation for the ban: "The Trust has actively questioned the ambitions of the club following four transfer windows where our best talent is sold, to be replaced by loanees who simply have not performed well enough to progress us as a club. The fans are ambitious and want results on the pitch. The Trust felt the club did not share the fans' ambitions and tried to say so, but the club abjectly ignored us."
Bates used his programme notes and regular slot on Yorkshire radio to question their support of the club, which according to Cooper, "involved the disclosure of personal information". This is being investigated by the Information Commissioner. The club then placed the block on their accounts, which is still in place. When WSC contacted Leeds for an explanation, they declined to comment.
It is difficult to know what Bates hopes to achieve. He treats Leeds purely as a business, but seems to be doing his absolute best to alienate his "customers". The loyalty of supporters gives clubs a captive audience, making football one of the few businesses where owners can call their customers idiots and keep the tills ticking over. "He tries to put the blame elsewhere in all his dealings," says Cooper. "I think Mr Bates hopes to deflect attention away from himself – or the questions many fans would ask – in favour of attacking the representatives of a group now in excess of 5,000 supporters, who may ask him questions he does not want to answer."
It is classic "divide and rule" from Bates, but there is every chance it could backfire. Cooper and many LUST members have promised not to renew their season tickets for 2012-13. With this season's attendances averaging around the 23,000 mark (with notable exceptions for big games), Bates could have alienated around a sixth of his previously loyal, captive audience. They will go from being "morons" to little bags of cash disappearing up Elland Road.
The supporters' trust believe the appointment of Neil Warnock is a "step in the right direction". Even if the club fall short this year, with a promotion specialist at the helm, they will start next season among the favourites to go up. The relatively fickle nature of football supporters means that, while legitimate concerns will still be raised by LUST, the dissenting voices will be given less attention if the side is doing well.
Cooper has his hopes: "We want a board that shares the ambitions of the supporters – that works with fans and does not alienate them, that is willing to engage with the free press and does not control its output via its own media. We want to know who owns our ground and our training ground. We do not want to be cloaked in 'tax haven' secrecy and we want to feel wanted."
It is not too much to ask, one might think, but if there is one thing everyone knows about Ken Bates, it is that he is not a man to easily acquiesce to the masses.
From WSC 303 May 2012