Eighty years old in December and as full of fire as ever. The average octogenarian strolls down the slow lane with a walking stick and a pipe. Ken Bates won’t be joining them soon.
“Still going strong,” he says. “In fact, I intend to walk behind you at your funeral.” How soon that event comes might depend on the content of this article.
As interviews go, there are easier discussions to stage. Leeds United’s chairman arrives at Thorp Arch with a smile and a handshake but the questions in waiting are not typical of the first week of a new season. Negative would be one description; necessary another. This game of opinions so popular in Leeds has generated many in the dead months of summer.
We start at the top by discussing the squad at Elland Road, altered since May by the departure of five senior professionals and the arrival of four. There is a busy train of thought which says Leeds have invested less in their playing resources than they needed to, or less than they might have done. That particular complaint lands naturally on the desk of United’s chairman and majority shareholder.
“Here’s what we do,” he says. “Every year we look at our income and work out our costs for 17 different departments. We also set aside a contingency for emergencies and such like. Then we give the rest to Simon (manager Simon Grayson) and say ‘spend it on players’.
“If he wants to buy a player for £5m then that’s up to him. But it might mean that he’s only able to pay his other players three quid a week. So the budget is his and he invests the money as he sees fit. The decisions are his.”
The obvious response is to ask whether that budget could have been bigger; whether Leeds are in a position to throw more money at their squad than they do at present. The club made £3m in profit during the last financial year and have made a seven-figure gain in three of the last four. Several teams in England are worried by bankruptcy but Leeds are not one of them or even close.
When Bates purchased a controlling stake in United in April of this year, he acquired one of the few clubs whose operations consistently make money. On that basis alone, it is to be expected that their expenditure will be scrutinised. Since he became chairman in January of 2005, that scrutiny has been fierce and consistent, coming most recently from the Houses of Parliament.
Parliament’s concern is the ownership structure of Leeds in the aftermath of their insolvency in 2007. Locally, debate rages more intensely about the strength of the squad as it stands, three months and five days after United finished seventh in the Championship.
Bates concedes that “it might look as if we’ve not been very active” but he hotly disputes the suggestion that the club have set aside too little in transfer funds or enforced too low a wage bill to make something productive of this season.
“Our wage bill is one of the highest in the league,” he says. “I’d estimate that it’s in the upper levels of the top six and only lower than two or three clubs – West Ham for example.
“But I’m told that Leicester City, for all their billions, have imposed a wage cap, and their owners have said that they simply won’t spend more than ‘x’. FIFA are implementing rules on financial fair play and clubs are starting to realise that they have to live within their means. We already do that and it’s how any successful club should operate. It’s a proper financial system which is starting to catch on.
“At the moment we’re spending as much (on players) as we can afford. If we spend any more and lose money then who covers that?
“Take Alan Smith – we spoke to Newcastle about doing a deal with him and were told that we’d have to pay £1m in wages over the next year. People say £1m isn’t a lot of money but I say to them ‘you put the money up then’.”
I make the point that almost 11,000 fans have paid hundreds of pounds for season tickets and that last year’s average attendance cleared 27,000 (Bates, true to form, knows the exact figure).
“But the income from season tickets only covers half the wage bill,” he says. “That’s the reality and it doesn’t even touch the day-to-day costs of running the club.
“A lot of what we’re doing is about the long term. I’ll be dead by the time half of the kids in the academy come into the first team so it would be easy to say ‘b***** the academy’. But many years down the line it’s something that the club will benefit from, just as it’s benefiting now. The squad’s got a lot of home-grown players in it – Jonny Howson, Ben Parker and Aidan White. We had another debutant (17-year-old left-back Charlie Taylor) playing against Bradford in the Carling Cup on Tuesday night. So the investment is clearly paying off.”
Bates expects the same to be true of the work carried out recently on Elland Road’s East Stand, as yet to be completed. Council documents set the likely cost at £7m. In his midweek programme notes, Bates stated that the outlay on the East Stand would amount to £300,000. Either way, it has been a contentious talking point since work began to renew the structure in the first week of May.
The reconstruction to date is part of a more expansive plan of regeneration which, much like Bates’ project at Chelsea, will in theory turn the East Stand into a commercial venture.
Those who rail against United’s owner have taken to signing ‘build us a team, not a hotel’, in reference to the stadium’s future blueprint. They also make the point that Leeds are extensively developing a property they rent. Bates neither understands that argument nor accepts it. He claims that the facilities in the East Stand’s upper tier were “some of the worst I’ve seen” when he became chairman six-and-a-half years ago.
“Here’s the thing about the East Stand,” he says. “The extra income it generates will more than pay back the money we’ve spent to do it. Then that income is always there. We’ll also have a museum and facilities which I think the fans will appreciate.
“Believe it or not I want them to have a pleasurable experience when they come to games at Elland Road. It’s why we’ve made so many changes to the ground. But it’s important to have income streams that are safe or guaranteed, whatever happens on the pitch.
“We got a crowd of 38,000 for our FA Cup tie against Arsenal but a lot of those people were nowhere to be seen when we got 17,000 for a league game against Hereford. The average crowd last season was higher than that but the point I’m making is that you can’t rely entirely on money which is dependent on last week’s result.”
Last week’s result is nevertheless what matters to the average supporter, if marginally less than tomorrow’s. United play Middlesbrough at Elland Road this weekend with the wounds of a heavy defeat at Southampton – their first league game of the Championship season – relatively fresh. Bates was criticised by the crowd at St Mary’s and again on Tuesday during Leeds’ Carling Cup first-round win over Bradford City. His treatment tomorrow on his first matchday appearance at Elland Road since the end of April remains to be seen. He does not look ruffled or unduly concerned, describing chants in his direction as “water off a duck’s back”.
“I’ve been listening to complaints for 50 years,” Bates says. “When I took over at Chelsea I got a huge wad of letters attacking the previous bunch who’d been in charge.
“The secretary at the time said ‘chairman, we get two types of complaints. When we’re losing, the manager needs to be sacked. When we’re winning, the tea tastes like p***’. But the chairman and the board of a club are there to be criticised; players and managers are there to be praised. It’s always been that way.
“I also remember what Freddy Shepherd once said: directors are there to direct, managers and there to manage, players are there to play and supporters are there to support.
“I’m still here and the reason I’m here is because no Yorkshireman was willing to put his hand in his pocket in 2005 or 2007. If it wasn’t for me, there wouldn’t be a football club at all. The people complaining are a vociferous minority.”
In answer to the matter of whether further signings are likely before the end of the transfer, Bates says yes. Among the club’s targets, he explains, are Premier League players or “near Premier League players” – players, in effect, who Leeds intend to sign on loan.
“We can’t afford to sign them outright, pure and simple, so you look to sign them on loan instead,” he says. “That type of deal tends to happen towards the end of August when Premier League clubs pick their 25-man squads and know who’s staying and who can go.”
A fair riposte is to state that United’s record in the loan market during Grayson’s time as manager have been decidedly mixed. Deals to take Barry Bannan and Jake Livermore from Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur respectively did not appear to assist Leeds greatly in the final weeks of last season.
“I wouldn’t disagree about them,” says Bates, “but it’s easy to be clever with hindsight and it doesn’t mean that loans don’t work. A lot of the more successful clubs in the Championship last season used them to get a better standard of player.
“It might have looked as if we’ve not been very active, but there’s an awful lot going on which the supporters never see.
“We thought we’d signed Lee Bowyer, who would have been an excellent signing, but he’s got two children and a long-term partner and he lives in the east end of London. So he joined Ipswich out of respect for his family. We spent a month working on a deal and that’s the way it goes.
“But it’s worth pointing out that the transfer window is still open and there are players out there who Simon is looking at. We haven’t finished yet.”
Which all leads round to the issue of most immediate importance: is the squad, as it stands or as Bates expects it to stand on September 1, capable of holding sixth place or better in the Championship? Moreover, is that the benchmark of United’s board and a fair target for Grayson?
“I’d be disappointed if we didn’t finish in the play-offs,” Bates says. “There’s no reason why we can’t. I’ve got faith in the players and a lot of faith in the manager.
“I hear fans saying that the wage bill isn’t big enough, or we don’t spend much money, but how would they know how big our wage bill is or how much we spend?
“Take a look at Simon’s record – in his first season, the play-offs. In his second, promotion. In his third, seventh place in the Championship. Does that look like a manager or a club whose budget isn’t big enough?
“The way we run the club is for the good of the club, as time will tell. We’re financially secure and upwardly mobile.”
It’s Bates’ opinion and he’s sticking to it.