Leeds United: Factors that turned screw on Bates reign at Elland Road

Ken Bates chats with director David Haigh.
Ken Bates chats with director David Haigh.
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So farewell then Ken Bates. Well, not quite. Chairman of Leeds United for another week at least and honorary president thereafter. That is unless GFH Capital plans to renege on its agreement or Bates no longer wants the presidential seal.

But his last home game as chairman takes place today and titles aside, Bates will soon lose his executive power. He resigned as a director of Leeds City Holdings in December and will step down from the club’s board directly. If truth be told he has been on the fringes of the boardroom for months. GFH Capital is running the show and has generally run it without him.

So eight-and-a-half years of Bates stewardship ends here or hereabouts. How will Leeds remember him? Here’s how he remembers himself: “I’ve made mistakes, I admit that,” he said yesterday. “But I’m leaving the club in much better shape than I found it.”

We should give him that. There is not so much as a lone voice arguing that anyone other than Bates or his backers were willing or able to buy Leeds in 2005. The summer of 2007 was different – a summer awash with declared bidders, most of them frustrated by the selling process – but Leeds were dead in the water when Bates first landed. Presently, the club are stagnant. Stagnant is better than dead.

History will also say that stagnant was never enough. Certainly not in 2012 when Bates finally decided to sell again. The record reads like this: five full seasons in the Championship, three in League One. Attendances ravaged and a first-team squad which looks like squads tend to when a club accepts the shilling too often. There was no repurchase of Elland Road or Thorp Arch and no Premier League football; no serious legacy to speak of beyond the club’s survival.

“I’ve not taken a penny out of the club in wages,” Bates said yesterday. Kudos for that. But certain people have done okay. Lutonville Holdings Ltd, the firm which paid £3.2m for preferential shares in Leeds in 2011, made £800,000 on its investment when GFH Capital bought Bates out. Nice work if you’ve got £3.2m to play with. And Ticketus are profiting nicely from the £5m loan given to fund Elland Road’s East Stand development. Bates rebuilt it at great expense but sadly for him the fans didn’t come. With hindsight, that project looks like the watershed moment in his tenure.

It is only through social media that we know that the first £3.3m raised from season ticket sales for 2013-14 will go straight to Ticketus, with little left over. Salem Patel’s tweet to that effect laid the liability bare. In no small way, social media is what turned the screw on Bates, a 24-hour platform for debate, argument and opposition. His style of ownership isn’t designed for this generation – one man, no votes – and his robust defence was overridden by dissent. It was not so much the public campaigns against him which made a change necessary, it was the creeping desertion of paying supporters and the rise of crippling apathy.

The assumption with Bates was that he was too institutionalised to vacate the boardroom full time. He has done this for years, but at 81 he might not miss the cut and thrust of daily combat. Or the abuse which required him to change his mobile and fax numbers. He certainly won’t miss me.

Our last conversation was an hour-long argument about something or other. In 32 years my most expensive phone calls have been made to Monaco. I don’t doubt that he believed in what he was doing, but the struggle to take people with him was obvious. The consistent downturn in crowds is all the evidence you need of that.

Bates sits on the right of football in a political sense. You could argue that in comparison, GFH Capital is wildly to the left. The Dubai-based firm has been populist and reactive during its four months as owner, doing much of what the public demands of it. Some of its decisions have been astute and in tune: lower season ticket prices with match- day prices to follow; the employment of a very suitable replacement for Neil Warnock. But on days like Wednesday, when the unveiling of Leeds’ new home kit turned the Internet blue, you half expect GFH Capital’s executives to pick up the phone and surrender to the fall-out by berating manufacturers Macron. They are more aware of the prevailing mood than Bates ever was.

To say the least, the home shirt for next season divided opinion. But a poll run by The Scratching Shed, an LUFC blog, found that 36 per cent of voters disliked the kit and 35 per cent were sold on it. The rest weren’t sure. As a more world-wise journalist than me once said, the best football club boards are those who listen keenly to their supporters but retain the conviction to make the right calls.

These comings months will be the first in which Bates does not hold sway; the first in which GFH Capital – on the assumption that the company is majority shareholder of Leeds for the duration – will take the heat for cash that is and isn’t available. In Bates’ time as chairman there was no fiercer battleground than the subject of transfer funds. For those of you who viewed him negatively, look closely for differences when the window opens.

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