Yorkshire Evening Post football correspondent Phil Hay gives his take on Friday’s news that Leeds United owner Massimo Cellino is reducing the number of tickets for away fans.
The cynic in you says that without the rights to the Champions League, Sky needs to find viewing figures elsewhere. Either that or someone at Sky Sports genuinely believes that the most pivotal Championship fixture on Boxing Day will involve Leeds United and Nottingham Forest.
Outside the Premier League and even within it, Leeds United deliver the numbers and broadcasters lap the numbers up. In the grim old days of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, visits to Darlington got the thumbs up from ITV no matter the alternatives or the game that ensued. Think of the demand and less about the supply.
Disruption to the club’s fixture list is a natural result and an annual process but changes this season have gone further than most: nine Leeds games chosen for television broadcasts already (11 games in) and 13 rearrangements in all, some as a direct result of Sky’s picks. No football on Boxing Day and plenty on Thursday nights, which God clearly intended.
Massimo Cellino is fighting a fight that many in Leeds would want him to take on. His own head coach was unhappy about the way in which the rescheduling of a League Cup tie at Doncaster in August caused other matches to back up. Scheduling of television games disregards the wishes of season-ticket holders, pre-arranged travel, basic convenience and many of the other things supporters consider. Welcome to England, some would say, but patience wears thin. And neither Sky nor the Football League should be surprised that it has.
What Cellino does not possess is a mandate to use United’s away tickets as leverage. He was out on a limb in assuming that the club’s support would be happy to tackle issues ruining matchdays with measures which ruin their matchdays. The frustrations often come from many angles. And now from the club itself.
It is, according to Cellino, the only tactic he has left. Aside from fixture disruption, the prime aspect of his annoyance is the fact that Leeds lose money from home fixtures broadcast by Sky. Sky pay a six-figure fee for privilege but not as much as United lose in other commercial revenue.
Cellino says he has tried to address the issue with the Football League but that the governing body will “not even reply to us.” He claims Sky told him it was “not our problem” having agreed the terms of an £88m-a-year contract with the governing body. He says Leeds - and other clubs for that matter - have no power to refuse televised dates under the terms of that contract, ludicrous though that sounds.
“It costs us money, it f***s up our list of games,” Cellino said. “We can’t say no. Sky, they could put every game for Leeds on a Thursday night and we could do nothing.”
His immediate answer is to reduce United’s allocations of away tickets to a flat figure of 2,000, the minimum which Football League clubs are required to make available to visiting sides. In context, Leeds took 3,800 for Fulham next Wednesday and 3,600 for Bolton Wanderers next Saturday. The away crowd at MK Dons last month cleared 6,000. Videos of the various goings-on are on all over YouTube and quite remarkable.
Cellino claims a multitude of rearranged matches will see a drop in season-ticket sales next summer, primarily because United’s fanbase come from all directions and will lose patience with funding wasted flight tickets and costs of that sort. In the absence of any dialogue with the Football League, Cellino’s idea is that reducing the money which rival clubs earn from United’s away following will cause grumbling en masse; enough, potentially, to make somebody take note.
In the middle of this, Leeds’ support are being let down by all sides - by a governing body which appears quite willing to take the money and allow Sky to do what it likes when it likes; by a broadcaster which does not seem to think that it has any duty to be even-handed or sensitive in the distribution of televised dates; and by an owner whose first response to the issue has been to dive in with both feet.
Cellion was unrepentant tonight. “What option would you suggest?” It is a fair question. Sky hold the whip here with the Football League behind them and the answer is not obvious unless either party feels the urge to act. But cutting United’s away crowd is trimming the one remaining beacon of the club’s past and future potential. These days it is the only thing that Leeds can wave at others and draw respect for, grudging or otherwise. Watering it down is dangerous;y presumptuous of the future loyalty of excluded supporters and detrimental in other respects. Does Uwe Rosler support this? Do his players?
If Cellino has any sense he will draw back and dwell on the matter for a while longer. He has made his point and pushed the issue out into the open, too far for the Football League to ignore. It needs to be looked at and it needs to be spoken about. But it hardly stands to reason that in finding a compromise, the people who take the most hits are the people who become collateral damage. And at the behest of their own club.