In his final exclusive interview, Leeds United chief executive Shaun Harvey told Phil Hay that good housekeeping would underpin a return to the Barclays Premier League
On the day when Ken Bates first became Leeds United chairman, the club held 14th position in the Championship. More than six years later and with near-perfect symmetry, Leeds lie 13th in the same division; a comparison which lends itself nicely to the subject of progress at Elland Road.
In plain footballing terms, Leeds are as they were midway through 2005: a second-tier team with the stated aim of winning promotion to the Premier League. It is as a business where the differences are most pronounced and most supportive of the Bates era, creating what his chief executive, Shaun Harvey, calls a “great record”.
United were laden with debt seven years ago, enough to drag them into administration in 2007. In the four years since, the club have posted repeated and often sizeable profits – £4.5m, £15,000 and £2m. The accounts for the most recent financial year are as yet unpublished, but Bates expects them to show an overall gain of £3m. Leeds are no longer the money-losing entity they were for much of the past decade.
The financial results make impressive reading and buck the trend of English football but it is going some to describe United’s progress as a football team as extraordinary. Relegation from the Championship was followed by three seasons in League One, the first time Leeds had competed at such a low level of the Football League. Automatic promotion drew a necessary line in the sand, and a seventh-placed finish in the Championship last season was creditable if, ultimately, disappointing.
In the city, there is a tangible sense of impatience about an exile from the Premier League which is now into its eighth year, and United are not oblivious to accusations that they, as a club, prioritise the health of their business over the strength of their team. It is a claim which Harvey strenuously denies.
“We’ve got two clear objectives,” he said. “One is to get the club playing at the highest level – ie the Premier League – as quickly as practically possible. The other is to make sure our success is supported by a business which is healthy, profitable and doesn’t rely on third-party support.
“If you take a step back, I’d suggest that our objectives are exactly the same as the objectives of our fans. Most of them would want a successful team and a club who are financially secure in the long term. The only difference between the board and the fans is over how we should achieve those aims.
“We maintain a realistic budget and I’ve no doubt that our strategy will work. I’m not saying it might work; I’m saying that it will. We’re properly run, we operate at a profit and ultimately big clubs will always be big clubs. We might not get into the Premier League overnight but it’s going to happen and, when it does, we’ll go into the Premier League as a sustainable club.”
The mention of third-party support raises the topic of major external investment, of which Leeds – to the naked eye – have seen little since 2007. Substantial investment is widely seen as a path to a stronger playing squad, though Harvey said Leeds would continue to work towards a profit regardless of any injection of funds.
Bates has spoken many times of potential investors on the horizon and Harvey admitted that, in the aftermath of United’s insolvency, talks have taken place with a number of interested parties without success. He is still of the opinion that external investment is not pivotal to the strategy of United’s board, but rather a means of quickening the club’s progress.
“We already have a plan to achieve our aims and a plan which we know will work,” Harvey said. “Investment would simply help us achieve them. Without investment it might take longer.
“As a board we’ve always said that we’d welcome investment, and that remains the case today, but it has to be right for us and right for the club. We’ve had any number of people approach us, some credible and some less so, and nothing’s come to fruition as yet. No-one has come up with a proposal which felt acceptable to us, but I remain confident that investment will be found.”
When it comes to investment, many supporters wonder why it proves so elusive. Are rich individuals reluctant to deal with Leeds? Harvey’s view is that many potential investors, particularly those who live in the city, are scared off by the implication of having a say in the club’s operations.
The board at Elland Road witnessed protests against them before Leeds’ 1-0 defeat to Middlesbrough on August 13, and criticism of Bates has been audible among sections of United’s support.
“Part of the reason why people come forward and express an interest in investing is because one of Leeds United’s biggest assets is our fans,” Harvey said. “But there are also times when the fans don’t help. When people see protests and unrest it makes them think twice about getting involved.”
I make the point that the first organised protest took place less than two months ago, against a board who have been in place for several years.
“I’m talking about general disharmony,” Harvey said. “Whenever there’s disquiet or a feeling of unease, it’s very difficult to persuade people to come on board.
“I know of local businessmen who wanted to get involved but didn’t want the aggravation or the attention they’d get. Somebody once said to me ‘I’d like to invest but my kids go to school in Leeds.’ It can put people off.
“We don’t get everything right as a club, but the staff here genuinely care and they’re some of the best in the country. I want people to realise that what we’re doing is in the best interests of Leeds United and trust us to make it pay off in the long term. We believe in our strategy.”
Part of the disquiet Harvey talks of was caused by a lack of clarity over United’s ownership structure. Many months of questions over who precisely owned Leeds – a matter which attracted the attention of the Houses of Parliament – led to a sudden development in April when Bates acquired a 72.85 per cent shareholding in Leeds City Holdings Limited, the firm which owns Leeds United Football Club Limited.
Previously, the majority stake in Leeds was held by The Forward Sports Fund (FSF), an offshore company registered in Nevis. The identity of FSF’s beneficiaries was never revealed and the announcement of Bates’ buy-out came with limited details. His payment to FSF was described as an “undisclosed sum”. The issue will be examined again in a forthcoming BBC documentary, due to be screened next month.
“For a club in the Championship, we get an excessive amount of media coverage,” Harvey said. “The club are now owned by Ken Bates and that’s been approved by all the relevant footballing authorities. From our point of view, they’re the only people we need to satisfy.”
Harvey, meanwhile, is happy to accept that present-day Leeds United are a reflection of the current board. The name of Peter Ridsdale, the former Leeds chairman blamed for the club’s spectacular collapse, continues to be mentioned in unfavourable dispatches but Harvey increasingly sees Ridsdale as an irrelevance; a legacy with which Leeds are no longer seriously burdened.
“The only legacy of the Ridsdale era is that we’re no longer a Premier League club,” he said. “To some extent you could say that the fact we don’t own Elland Road or Thorp Arch and are required to rent both properties is down to what happened while he was chairman, but a different board sold them. Ridsdale isn’t relevant to what’s going on here now.
“We’re following our own plan and the aims we have are clear.
“A main part of our objective is to get into the Premier League. Achieving that is down to us and our strategy.”
There is, I suggest, a possibility that the strategy won’t work. “It will work,” Harvey said. “Clubs who make best value of their financial resources are always going to do well over time.
“In the four years since administration, we’ve posted a profit every single year and we’ve claimed a higher final league position season-on-season.
“That’s a pretty good record and it doesn’t suggest that we’re going in the wrong direction.”