It’s in the nature of earworms that they always return just when you feel sure that, at last, you’ve shaken them from your head. “Hey, I just met you, and this is… The Final Countdown! Der ner ner ner… Freed From Desire, Mind and Senses… She’s a Maniac, Maniac on the… Drinks Are Free, Fun and Laughter… ” – argh. You free yourself after hours of repetitive torture, and finally you feel free, you’re walking on sunshine, (woah-oh!), but then you hear something entirely unrelated – Shrewsbury’s football team, for example – and boom, it’s right again. That song you thought you’d never hear again is back from the dead: “Bates Out! Bates Out! Bates Out!”
That might have been its last spin. I’m writing this on Tuesday evening, so whenever it is you’re reading it, you know more than me. Has he gone, then, at last? Can we bury that song now? Or do we still need it for a while longer?
It won’t be needed for long, I feel sure about that. Leeds United crossed a line this summer, and we left Ken Bates languishing on the other side of it. He might physically go for another week, a month, a year, but Bates is history as far as Leeds are concerned. The moment the takeover talks were confirmed – or, as the club had it, “talks regarding investment” – Ken Bates was out.
The excitement was the most obvious thing. Why were Leeds United Supporters’ Trust suddenly bombarded with questions about what they knew? Why were Leeds fans begging journalists to let slip some nugget of information? Why were people trawling Twitter for clues, translating video interviews from the Arabic, sharing photos of foreign cars spotted in Beeston?
Was it because everyone was desperate to be told that there was no takeover, and Bates was staying?
Maybe in Ken’s world, but not in ours. The Bates In/Out hokey-cokey that became a crescendo of disputes over the last season split the fans in the stands, in the pubs, on the internet; everywhere there were Leeds fans there was an argument about Bates. But at the first hint that he was going, the jubilation was practically universal – just the thought of starting the new season without Ken Bates as owner of Leeds United had everybody – okay, bar, I’m sure, a few curmudgeonly holdouts – giddy.
Whether the takeover would materialise or not seemed like a silly question to me. All you had to do was look at the reaction to the news that Ken might be going, and then imagine what it would be like this season if he stayed. Is anyone prepared, after this summer, to shrug their shoulders, whistle ‘C’est la vie,’ and let Leeds United carry on as we were?
Right now as I type, though, as far as I’m aware, Ken Bates is still in possession of that 72.85% of Leeds City Holdings, that he bought in 2011 for persons unknown for an amount unknown, and that makes him the majority owner of Leeds United Football Club. He still has the bits of paper that count in his grip, and we’re no wiser about when he’ll let go, or who’ll take them off him.
To my mind, it doesn’t really matter.
The rampant thirst for information this summer has concentrated on those two questions: when will it happen, and who will it be? Considering that for the first six years of Bates’ chairmanship he refused to tell anyone who the actual owners of our club were, it feels weird to make the identities of the new owners such a focus now. Whoever they are, I’m comfortable with the assumption that they’re not going to be as bloody minded or as secretive as Ken Bates, and will actually tell us something about who they are and what they want with us. I can’t imagine we’re going to have to go through the rigmarole all over again, of journalists knocking on doors in Switzerland, of having questions being asked in Parliament, of TV documentaries, of outraged fanzine articles and blogs.
If it turns out that they are as bloody minded and secretive as Ken Bates, well, luckily we’ve been through it all before so we know what to do. We go through the rigmarole all over again, of journalists knocking Swiss questions in Parliament about TV’s outraged fanzines etc etc. Likewise, if it turns out they’re a bunch of nogoodniks with evil intent, we’ll just have to deal with that too. Millionaires – or, if you’re an optimist, billionaires – rarely come without some sort of blemish, and after all, this is Leeds we’re talking about. This is Leeds United, formerly Leeds City, 108 years old, and we’ve only been allowed to enjoy a handful of Christmasses so far. Another kick in the bollocks is another kick in the bollocks, and if that’s what we get, that’s what we get.
Nobody, unfortunately, can tell Ken Bates who to sell to. If it was that easy we could have done it years ago, and saved ourselves from division three and all the other nonsense. You need a willing buyer, and a willing seller – or, at least, a begrudging seller who knows his time is up. Bates will go and then we’ll see who we’re left with: friend or foe, fish or fowl.
This is where, to my mind, Leeds United Supporters’ Trust have done some great work this year, even if it’s often been misunderstood. I help LUST with their press statements, so I see them from a closer angle than many do, but you don’t need a close view to see that suggestions that the takeover result will ‘define the Trust’ are wide of the mark. LUST helped the takeover happen by making of themselves a well organised group with a lightning rod chairman in Gary Cooper, a hard working board, and a lot of support; and by responding directly to Ken Bates’ suggestion that if they want investment in Leeds, they should go and find someone to invest, by doing exactly that. They found several people, in fact, who were happy to talk to LUST about what Leeds United could be in the future, while Bates griped on about disappearing Sheiks and tight Yorkshiremen.
LUST’s major achievement, though, has been in building the relationships that Ken Bates has singularly failed to build, and at times has seemed to wilfully destroy, during his seven and a half year reign. Where Ken Bates can’t claim, in the face of the anti-Bates chanting heard at away grounds all over the country, that a majority of our 9,000 season ticket holders support his ownership, LUST have over 7,000 fans who have willingly signed up to back them. Where Ken Bates’ lack of attention to football drove players to distraction waiting for decent contracts, and eventually from the club, LUST have had dialogue with senior players and released a statement on their behalf calling for the club to change, and appointed Nigel Martyn as their Honorary President. Where Ken Bates was fighting West Yorkshire Police in court over their costs, LUST were working with them to organise the logistics of a peaceful protest march, carrying out a football policing survey to see where matchdays could improve. Where Ken Bates has accused Yorkshire businesses of not supporting the club, LUST have discussed the future of teh club with local business people who want to work with Leeds United, but not with Ken Bates. Where Ken Bates was lambasting the council for not funding a buyback of Thorp Arch, LUST were signing up Council Leader Keith Wakefield as a Trust shareholder and welcoming his public support. Where Ken Bates was dismissing the Parliamentary commission into football governance and barking in his programme notes about expenses, LUST have gained the public support of local MPs Rachel Reeves, Greg Mulholland, Fabian Hamilton and Hilary Benn. Where Ken Bates has banned BBC Leeds and The Guardian from Elland Road, LUST have stepped in to provide the media with a fan’s perspective of Leeds United.
In short, where Ken Bates has fucked up, LUST have swept up. Leeds United Supporters’ Trust have got the keys to the city; all Ken Bates has is the keys to Elland Road. And he doesn’t even own them.
While everyone’s focus has been on the takeover and the Trust’s role in it, LUST’s focus has been on what comes after a takeover, and their role in that. Their work means that whoever owns Leeds United after Ken Bates will simply not have the option of continuing in Bates’ style of ignoring LUST, or, by extension, ignoring the fans. LUST can’t and don’t claim to represent every Leeds fan, but they represent more than 7,000 and growing, and are seen as a viable organisation by UEFA, Leeds City Council, West Yorkshire Police, local MPs, local businesses, former players, current players… the list goes on. It even reaches to Shaun Harvey, who attended LUST and the Football Supporters’ Federation’s joint event last week to discuss stewarding issues face to face with Leeds fans, even while the block he placed last season on LUST board members ticketing accounts remained in place. The takeover might be the biggest news of the last seven years at Leeds. But the changes in the representation of Leeds fans that LUST have been working to bring about could have the biggest impact.
Because it shouldn’t be forgotten, with all the clamour to know about the date, the time, the press conference at 1pm, that the announcement of a takeover will itself change nothing at Leeds United. LUFC will have new owners, but we will still have all the same problems we had yesterday. We’re still 16th in Division Two – the alphabet dictates the first part, sure, but the scant regard paid to football in recent years has led to the second. Our best players still play for Norwich, and our squad still looks threadbare in a division which Wolves and Bolton are set to dominate. Our manager, while he’s a canny bugger, is here for one shot at promotion and then he’s off, and we still don’t have a plan in case he fails – or in case he succeeds. The highly questionable hotel and casino schemes are still on the drawing board, threatening to burn through millions more of our ticket money. Those tickets are still among the most expensive in the Premier League, let alone the Second Division. There is a lot to do to undo Bates, and if he hasn’t left a kipper or two behind a radiator somewhere in Elland Road, I’ll be amazed.
So this doesn’t stop when a takeover happens. It starts. Because getting Bates out changes one big thing, and that’s that it gets Bates out, and makes solutions to all our problems possible. One argument against anti-Bates songs was that he wouldn’t bloody listen anyway, and it was a good argument. With him gone, though, the clamour for change at Leeds United needs to become louder than it ever was – because now we have got a chance of being heard. Now we’ve got a strong supporters’ trust, with a vision for an ambitious club. Now we’re soon to have new owners who will, I hope, prove willing to listen. Now we’ve got a chance, at last, of having the Leeds United we want.
Because let’s not forget who Leeds United really belongs to. The takeover will be a takeover of some pieces of paper which give their bearer certain privileges and liabilities with regards to the bank accounts of a football club. It won’t be a takeover of Leeds United, because that’s ours, yours and mine. Ken Bates didn’t own us, the people who step into the Chairman’s Suite after him won’t own us, and the people who follow them won’t own us either. Leeds United chairmen are temporary, but Leeds United fans are permanent. After nearly eight years under Ken Bates, while attendances have dwindled and fans have have walked sadly away, it feels like a lot of us have forgotten what it is to have Leeds United as an integral part of ourselves, and for us to be an integral part of Leeds United. A takeover gives us a chance to close that gap. A takeover gives us the chance to takeover, and to take our club back.
From The Square Ball magazine 2012/13 issue one.