Finding a voice

If it all becomes too much, what can Leeds fans do? Rob Freeman looks at how they could really give Ken Bates something to think about

The past four months have probably been the most turbulent in Leeds United’s history: relegation to the third tier for the first time, a very messy administration, a transfer embargo lifted days before the beginning of the season and two sets of points deductions, meaning that at the time of writing they have a 100 per cent record, but are four points adrift at the bottom.

Similar situations have been faced by other clubs. In a lot of cases, fans of those clubs have used the circumstances to join together and make a stand. Where other clubs’ fans have felt forced into more extreme reactions under far less provocation, so far the response from the Leeds support has been muted.

Brighton fans waged a long campaign against Bill Archer and David Bellotti, after their Goldstone Ground home was sold with no replacement lined up or even planned, meaning that the Seagulls were forced to ground‑share 70 miles away at Gillingham for two seasons.

Wrexham’s fans, aided by their new supporters’ trust, lobbied the club’s administrators. At the time, then-majority owner Alex Hamilton had sold their Racecourse Ground to another company that he owned, with the intention, it was alleged, of capitalising on the land value. He had already given the club their 12‑month notice to leave, while he was still chairman. The fans argued that, as a result, he was not suitable as chairman or majority owner of the club. The administrators subsequently went to the High Court to overturn legally the sale of the ground.

In both instances and more, fans arranged a number of protests as a means of raising the profile of the club’s respective plights: peaceful pitch invasions; releasing black balloons or holding up red cards at televised games; marching through the town; even turning their backs on the game at set points of matches. All simple and, while on their own they will not change the status quo, they got media attention. Sometimes raising the profile is a bigger and better step to take than direct action.

This was certainly the case at Brighton in 1997, when more than 8,000 attended the first Fans United day. Supporters of other clubs were encouraged to show their personal allegiance, as well as their support for Brighton’s cause. Since then Chester, Wimbledon, York, Macclesfield, Wrexham and many other clubs have benefited, not just from a financial point of view, but also from attention to their individual plight.

Leeds fans have at least made a start, with the flowers, shirts and scarves laid at the feet of the Billy Bremner statue. This received a lot of attention in the national media, even being included in the TV news reports about the exit from administration and the subsequent 15‑point penalty. Whether the protest was against the people who run the club, or the way the fans felt the club were being treated by the League, is unclear. In terms of the points deduction, it seems a lot of fans are pointing the finger at the League and claiming unfairness, rather than at club officials who have broken the rules.

If Leeds’ crisis continues, they could choose the biggest sanction any group of disillusioned fans can take by staying away, either through boycotting selected games, or permanently. Fans of Enfield set an example when chairman Tony Lazarou sold their ground without attempting to find a permanent home of their own. Enfield Town, have since overtaken the original club in the non‑League pyramid, on the long road to reclaiming the position they held in the 1980s when they were one of the best semi‑pro sides in the country. They paved the way first for AFC Wimbledon and also FC United of Manchester and (the short-lived) AFC Barnsley. All were created in protest at the direction their club were taking; whether moving 70 miles; being saddled with debt as a means to fund a takeover; or, in the case of AFC Barnsley, incurring financial problems that might have caused them to fold.

From the Leeds fans I have spoken to, forming a new club appears to be the most unlikely action. Not only do they feel that the club is both bigger and more important than any chairman or owner, there is also a feeling among some of them that they don’t want to be seen as following in the footsteps of the hated Man Utd.

Whatever action Leeds fans take – if any – is obviously down to them. However, as long as they hand over their cash to the current regime, they can chant “get the Chelsea out of Leeds” as loud and as often as they like. It will be water off a duck’s back to the current chairman, who will continue to claim it’s a “mindless minority who do their silly chants” and that the majority of fans are behind him.

From WSC 248 October 2007