Ken Bates calls them the “vociferous minority” and they were there again at Elland Road on Tuesday, demonstrating against Leeds United’s owner.
Bates did not attend the club’s defeat to Hull City – he has not attended any of their games since the win over Wolves on the first day of the season - so the protest missed its intended target but news of these things always reaches him. The independent view of West Yorkshire Police was that 800 supporters or thereabouts took part in the demonstration.
In terms of organisation and scale, it was similar to the protest held before last season’s home defeat to Middlesbrough, a protest which marked the start of mobilised opposition to Bates’ ownership of Leeds. At the time he described it to me as “water off a duck’s back”, the work of the “vociferous minority” he so often speaks about. “I’ve been listening to complaints for 50 years,” he said.
That conversation took place 13 months ago; a long time in the life of a professional football club. Yet nothing in the period between the demonstration pre-Middlesbrough and the protest staged on Tuesday night has altered the view of those who want a change in the management of Leeds. The complaint today is as it was back then: that the board at Elland Road are failing to attack the Championship with the ambition expected of a club with United’s stature and income. Whatever its merits, their blueprint has come to be seen as a stagnant strategy.
I shared that view a year ago and I share it now. The signs which warned that United’s squad was under-equipped for the 2011-12 season are evident again, in the eyes of the public and the club’s own manager. Simon Grayson was wary of talking candidly while he remained in employment at Elland Road but Neil Warnock has no compunction when it comes to speaking his mind. “We’ve got a good team,” he said after Tuesday’s defeat. “We just don’t have a good squad.”
It might seem and sound like deja vu but there is a fundamental difference between the situation now and the situation as it was in the autumn of 2011. When I interviewed Bates last year, his response to the protests was to say that no-one was willing to “put their hand in their pocket” and pay to take control of Leeds. In other words, there was no alternative to him. But by his own admission that is no longer true. There is an alternative and the protest against him on Tuesday night took place in the knowledge that Bates has a way out if he wants one. “Proposed new investment” as he put it – a takeover to you and me – is at his fingertips.
Bates’ programme notes ahead of the game against Hull were as close as anyone at Elland Road has come to cutting to the chase and outlining the situation surrounding the attempt by a Middle Eastern consortium to purchase his majority stake. They nevertheless fell a long way short of full disclosure. The news was not especially good, talking of a deal “progressing slowly” and of documents which have “not been finalised between the lawyers.” It struck a different tone to the quiet optimism of the source who told the YEP that “significant progress” was likely this week.
The pertinent question is not what might happen to Leeds if and when the takeover goes through. The question for Bates is what will happen to the club should the takeover fall through. If the general assessment of Warnock’s squad proves to be accurate and promotion asks too much of his players, where will the money come from to address the shortcomings? Or is it now accepted that Leeds will enter each season with the challenge of punching above their collective weight? Is there scope in the accounts to level the disparity which exists between the budget given to Warnock and those available to other managers in the Championship?
At present additional funding is unlikely to come from gate receipts at Elland Road. The attendance for United’s loss to Hull was 19,750, a crowd far below the level on which Leeds traditionally budget. Only two of last season’s attendances were smaller than that, one at the end of January and the other in April at a time when United’s pursuit of the play-offs had given up the ghost. No league attendance in the 2010-11 season dropped beneath 20,000. You suspect that smaller turn-outs await unless the club are given a shot in the arm.
Falling attendances can be attributed to several things – high prices, the recession, an economic climate which makes football difficult to afford. But no-one inside Elland Road on Tuesday could fail to feel the disillusionment that occupied most corners of the ground. There is frustration in spades but apathy too, to a degree which Warnock can no longer control. This season was meant to be his crowning glory and it may yet be but the wry smiles that creep in during every pre and post-match press conference suggest nagging doubts about the likelihood of promotion. He looks like a manager staring down the barrel of the improbable.
Injuries have stabbed him in the back repeatedly but clubs with a transfer policy as reactive as United’s leave themselves prone to that.
Warnock had no money to spend in the last fortnight of the transfer window so he came into September with the intention of using the emergency loan market to fill any hole in his squad. When it came to filling the hole left by Ross McCormack last weekend, he discovered that no suitable players were available or none that he could afford to sign. So while Cardiff hold Craig Bellamy in reserve and Hull name Nick Proschwitz on their bench, United’s manager falls back on a squad which was arguably too small in the first place. “There is no point in making signings for the sake of doing so,” Bates explained on Tuesday. Hence why Warnock wanted a full complement of players on United’s books before the end of August.
The perception of the relationship between Warnock and Leeds is that he has shown more urgency than the club in his effort to make good this season. At a time when Leeds need more urgency than ever, Bates is talking about a takeover deal “progressing slowly” and a loan market which might offer nothing more than a chance to “make up the numbers.” It does not breed confidence about the possibility of a telling response.
Bates has two ways of breathing life into Leeds – either find the funds himself to bring Warnock’s squad up to strength or take the money on offer from the consortium who are refusing to pull back from the negotiating table. There is a third way, of course, which is to ignore both options and do nothing but a decreasing number of supporters will stand for that. Nor are they likely to show any more patience for a takeover process which has gone on long enough.
It is Bates’ belief that protests and demonstrations are an obstacle to external investment at Elland Road. There is no reason why they should be. All they tell potential buyers is that they are bidding for a club with supporters who care. It is a preferable scenario to buying a club whose supporters don’t.
And as for ‘Bates Out’? That crude message has been countered in the past by the valid question of who would replace him. Now that willing buyers are at the table, the crowd have another horse to back. That so many fans seem willing to twist on a faceless and unidentified consortium says everything about their confidence in the current board. As the Leeds United Supporters Trust say in the advertisement which presently hangs from a lamp post outside the East Stand, it is time for change – either with the way this regime is run at Leeds or with this regime as a whole.