GFH Capital’s first three months as owner of Leeds United brought scepticism on itself.
The company’s employment of a new public relations manager earlier this week was an admission of that. Hearts and minds matter in football and GFH Capital has won too few of either.
Still, they ask for balance in this business so here we go. The confusion of the past 10 days notwithstanding, GFH Capital’s sale of a 10 per cent stake to Bahrain’s International Investment Bank (IIB) is in line with its stated strategy of management and ownership at Elland Road. This is what it promised to do. In his first interview with the YEP, Salem Patel – the GFH Capital and United director – said: “The way we typically work is to identify a project, then bring strategic investors with us. But we’ll not be selling 100 per cent. We’ll maintain a shareholding in this club.”
This is no defence of GFH Capital or no outright defence at any rate. Take the deal with IIB, agreed on Thursday and bringing about the addition of the bank’s chief executive to the board of United’s parent company. To the naked eye, IIB is a clone of Gulf Finance House; a Bahraini investment bank with the same ideals and a similar resume. It is owned in part by Abu Dhabi’s wealthy Al Fahim Group and its website talks in hundreds of millions of dollars, but the bank posted a loss in 2011 and made £5m in 2012. There is no detail about what it paid to GFH Capital or whether it invested hard cash into Leeds as part of the deal.
So you might ask, in the context of nurturing an English football club, what IIB is bringing to the table. You might also ask whether enlisting a cast of thousands in the boardroom – a cast which can only grow as chunks of equity are sold – is conducive to harmonious management. GFH Capital is naive if it cannot understand why these points are being raised. But the company – or its parent firm, Gulf Finance House – paid £21m for a seat at the table so establishing a strategy is its prerogative.
From the outside, Elland Road has become a mass of contradictions. You have an owner which talks as if it plans to run the show long term but which is also discussing the sale of a 51 per cent stake to Steve Parkin. You have accusations that GFH Capital will bail out at the earliest opportunity but certain club-related decisions which show foresight: an overdue reduction in season ticket prices and a concerted effort to tie a large swathe of the club’s under-18s team to professional contracts.
Leeds have wasted their time with numerous ill-equipped teenagers in the past decade but pockets of this talented youth team squad are worth protecting. Whether GFH Capital has actively pushed the policy is difficult to say but the firm is not opposing it either. This is, apparently, the first year in nine when all of United’s second-year scholars have signed professional forms.
But the academy is the academy and, according to Neil Warnock, few of those prospects other than Chris Dawson are likely to supplement the first-team squad next season. It is also true that for too long Thorp Arch has had an unfortunate Capital habit of developing players for more wealthy clubs. Caring for the academy is one way for GFH Capital to fight its corner but neither a raft of newly-signed junior pros nor lower season ticket prices have bought it grace.
If GFH Capital or Gulf Finance House do intend to sell a majority stake and retreat into the background then none of this matters to them. They won’t be compelled to answer for events that occurred on their watch. But the press release which came with the announcement of IIB’s investment was fairly explicit – GFH Capital has invested around £10m in Leeds and plans to retain a “significant part” of its equity. It was an attempt to deny that an exit strategy was already under way.
On that basis, the appointment of the club’s next manager is critical. It is imperative for GFH Capital that it not only recruits a suitable and progressive replacement for Warnock but is seen to be recruiting the manager it wants. There is no obvious sign of movement on that front and no real explanation for why Nigel Adkins, the recently-appointed Reading boss, was allowed to drift towards the Madejski Stadium when Leeds were patently interested in employing him.
That interest was not one-way. Adkins liked the idea of returning to the north of England and trying his hand at Elland Road. He wanted reassurances about United’s future stability and financial strength but what would it say about the club if GFH Capital was unable to give him that? All we know is that United’s admiration for Adkins and his willingness to talk never translated into formal discussions. There can only be two reasons for that. Either GFH Capital has other ideas and another candidate in mind or it was in no position to make Adkins an offer.
We should not pretend that Adkins is Allah or the only qualified option out there. But he rates as a successful coach with a track record at the right levels of English football, and clubs like Leeds overlook people like him at their peril. They do so too in the knowledge that scrutiny of their next appointment heightens as a result. This is GFH Capital’s big call, the decision which will underpin a word more important than investment, equity or strategy - credibility.