Leeds United: ‘GFH should apologise to fans’ - Haigh

David Haigh chats to then-manager Brian McDermott in 2013.
David Haigh chats to then-manager Brian McDermott in 2013.
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He was at the heart of Leeds United during arguably the most turbulent period in the club’s troubled recent history.

David Haigh’s 16-month spell at Leeds, including nine months as managing director, saw the club regularly plunged into acrimony under the ownership of Bahrain-based owners Gulf Finance House.

Former Leeds United managing director David Haigh

Former Leeds United managing director David Haigh

And after returning to the UK following nearly two years in prison in Dubai, where he was convicted of taking more than £3m from GFH using false invoices, the 38-year-old was only too keen to offer his opinions about his time at the club.

Mr Haigh led the negotiations on behalf of GFH with former owner Ken Bates in 2012, and was involved in the failed bid by the Sport Capital consortium to buy the club before it was eventually sold to current owner Massimo Cellino last year.

GFH remain minority shareholders at the club, and own close to 20 per cent, with its directors Jinesh Patel and Salem Patel still on the board.

But according to Mr Haigh, who was been in a bitter dispute with GFH since his 2014 resignation, the remaining members of the firm “need to get out for the future of that club”.

The thing that went wrong while I was there was that I fell out with GFH and there was a lot of debt.

David Haigh

He added: “I want to see GFH gone from Leeds and investing in England”.

Speaking to the Yorkshire Evening Post from a hotel in central London, Mr Haigh defended his role at the club during a period where its actions generated widespread opposition from supporters.

But he admitted: “The thing that went wrong while I was there was that I fell out with GFH and there was a lot of debt.”

He said: “I tried my best. Anyone that was there will know, I worked my arse off for that club, including at the end putting things on my personal credit card.

Salem Patel and David Haigh, pictured in November 2012..Picture by Simon Hulme

Salem Patel and David Haigh, pictured in November 2012..Picture by Simon Hulme

“I was passionate about that club, I think I did some very good things. What the fans need to remember, and I will do some questions or an event in the future, is that I did not have the backing of the shareholders.

“When I look back at what we achieved, I think I reached out on social media to people, we tried to get people a bit more involved in their football club, to make them feel like it was their club again, and to make it more fun to come into the stadium.

“We had a fantastic manager in Brian McDermott. I wanted to keep him on, I would have kept him on for longer, I think he was building something good with the young kids there. I think he should have been given more time.

“At Sport Capital, when I was looking at that with [Enterprise managing director] Andrew Flowers, we were going to extend his contract, that was the plan, we were going to give him longer, because we believed in him. I still do, and he is doing well where is now.

“I feel I did quite a lot of good things at Leeds. We were in the play-off places, which is the highest outside the Premier League that we have been for a very long time.

“We had full stadiums, we had the highest opening attendance record while I was MD, we kept our talent, our good players like Sam [Byram] and Alex [Mowatt], we didn’t get rid of them, we kept Ross [McCormack].

“We kept the players we wanted to and brought more in. I think it was proving to be good. Had Sport Capital taken over, I think we would be in the play-offs now, because I know the plans we had, and we would have bought the stadium by now. That was the plan, the notices were done. It is a great shame what happened.”

GFH drew the ire of fans with a perceived lack of investment throughout their ownership.

They were accused of having little interest in football and only buying the club with the intention of selling their stake for a profit.

Things came to a head on ‘Mad Friday’ in January 2014, when current owner Massimo Cellino sacked manager Brian McDermott, despite not having yet bought the club.

Later, players’ wages for March were late, as GFH and Cellino haggled over funding with Cellino’s takeover still subject to Football League approval.

By the time their majority stake was sold, millions of pounds of debt had been loaded onto Leeds United.

With this in mind, Mr Haigh says he believes GFH owe supporters an apology for failing to be honest with them or senior club officials over the investment they were willing to put in.

But does he? “If people think I genuinely did wrong, then fine, no problem.”

The former solicitor, from Cornwall, was convicted in 2015 of ‘breach of trust’ by a Dubai court for taking millions of pounds of GFH’s money and transferring it to himself. He continues to protest his innocence and plans to appeal.

Mr Haigh resigned as managing director of Leeds United in April 2014, three days after the takeover by Italian businessman Massimo Cellino. Divisions between the two led to threats from Cellino a few days earlier that he was to be dismissed.

Mr Haigh is reluctant to criticise the current Leeds owner when asked to assess his regime, though he suggests the club is a “millstone round his neck at the moment”.

“He had a difficult situation to deal with, and it has not been easy,” he said. “Leeds has issues that needs to be dealt with, and I think Massimo has found that as well. What can be said is that the club is moving along. It is a difficult question to answer because I haven’t been able to see everything.

“I think he has faced great challenges, which a lot of fans won’t realise. When you buy something new like that, and you have all the passion that he had at the beginning, and I know he had passion because I was there with him for the first few months.

“We lived next to each other in Leeds. I saw that passion and saw that ability, that is why I wanted him in Sport Capital.”

Despite his experiences at the club, Mr Haigh insists Leeds United remains “unfinished business” for him as he ponders his future.

He said: “I am going to work in financing sports clubs and various other things. I am going to expand Sport Capital in terms of financing deals, and financing sports clubs and things like that, as well as doing a lot of human rights work, to raise the profile of the awful things that go on in places like Dubai and Bahrain and places like that.

“I have got to fight my legal cases, so I will be busy with that, but Leeds to me, however long it takes, is unfinished business. It’s an amazing club, it needs to be not where it is.

“I know why we haven’t been able to get there, we have had bad owners basically, who buy it for the wrong reasons, I am not including Massimo in that.

“But it now needs that big push. If you have clubs like Burnley going up and down in the Premier League, why is Leeds still where we are?”

Could he see himself back at Leeds United? “I would only go back if I was one of the owners and we all had enough money to invest the amount that is needed without borrowing to be able to buy the stadium, to be able to invest in players, to have a steady three to five year plan for promotion.”

In response to Mr Haigh’s comments, a spokesman for GFH said: “Mr Haigh is simply referring to his time at Leeds United as a means of diverting his attention from what this case is actually about – his embezzlement of GFH’s funds for his own benefit.

“He is a convicted fraudster, and is subject to freezing injunctions which he has never applied to have set aside.

“As far as his time at LUFC is concerned, Mr Haigh says a great deal. It is to be noted that he did not resign and raise any of his concerns during his time in office.

“Mr Haigh has repeatedly presented himself as having led GFH’s involvement in LUFC. He now alleges that GFH should apologise in some way for this involvement. The world can draw its own conclusions.

“GFH is proud to be associated with LUFC. It remains a significant shareholder in the club. It has stuck with and supported the club, unlike Mr Haigh who resigned as Managing Director shortly after Mr Cellino bought a majority interest in the club.”