An unproductive season for Leeds United has been a season of progress for the Leeds United Supporters Trust.
When the club’s laboured Championship journey began in early August, the Trust had 324 paid-up shareholders, a drop in the ocean of Leeds’ domestic and global support. Their target for the 2011-12 season was to breach four figures and lay claim to 1,000 members.
According to LUST, the organisation’s membership at the last count stood at almost 5,500, a fivefold increase on their own projection and big enough to establish them as the fifth largest supporters trust in England.
“It’s a huge increase,” says Trust chairman Gary Cooper. “I can’t say we expected it.”
The climate in Leeds has provided optimum conditions for LUST’s growth: a city immersed in frustration about the state and future of its only football club.
Leeds portrayed themselves as Championship promotion candidates before this season began. After their final match against Leicester City on Saturday they will finish somewhere between 10th and 15th. Not good enough, the table says, echoing the general view of United’s squad when the term began.
Protests against the board at Elland Road first took place on the second weekend of August but LUST came to the fore in January, a month which saw the sale of club captain Jonathan Howson and ended the reign of Simon Grayson as manager.
It was also the period when United’s threat to the Championship’s top six began to diminish at a destructive rate. Popular though the appointment of current manager Neil Warnock was, it could not change the calibre of the squad he inherited.
LUST published a long vision statement in January, calling for a concerted effort on the part of United’s directors to improve the potential of their team and placate disillusioned fans. A protest march before Leeds’ 2-1 defeat Brighton on February 11 attracted an estimated 800 participants.
Leeds’ chairman, Ken Bates, was unimpressed, saying: “The only impression they are making is a bad one. That is externally from would-be sponsors and maybe investors. Who would want to get involved in a mob like that?”
Cooper’s view is different. “January was the time when our membership really grew,” he says. “The numbers went through he roof. We issued our vision statement and it struck a chord with other supporters. The protest march showed that our concerns were shared.
“Jonny Howson left and Simon Grayson was sacked, or dispensed with to use the club’s words. We also came under attack from Mr Bates but I hope people can see that the Trust are a credible, open organisation who aim to provide an independent voice for Leeds United supporters.
“It’s become apparent this season that an independent voice is more vital than ever. There’s a feeling of disillusionment out there and a deteriorating relationship between the club and the fans.
“A large part of what we want is a move to make supporters feel more valued and more involved – to stop people losing faith.
“We had 324 members at the start of the season and our aim was to reach 1,000. Breaking through the 5,000 barrier shows the strength of feeling and, I think, a level of agreement with what we’re doing.
“This isn’t about trying to cause trouble. It’s about trying to make Leeds United as successful as they can be, on and off the pitch.”
One other reason for the increase in LUST’s membership is a change in their rules passed last year, allowing fans to join for free. Previously members were required to pay for shares.
Cooper claims that in spite of the change the number of shareholders within the Trust has more than doubled but allowing free membership was a risky strategy, he says.
“Our treasurer was worried,” Cooper admits. “The Trust need funds and we need to balance our books. Paid membership has always been the basis for Trusts in England and across Europe.
“But we consulted Supporters Direct and decided to change our constitution.
“We felt that free membership was a way of making us more open and democratic.
“I accept that the size of your membership is more credible when people pay to be members but our view was that any Leeds United supporter who wanted a say, who wanted to support or challenge what we were doing, could do so regardless of money.
“We still have shareholders and their number has almost trebled since membership became free. Shares give you the right to vote at our annual general meeting but every member can voice their view on the issues we promote.
“At the moment it’s our intention to support fully the calls from Neil Warnock for investment in the team. His appointment was a positive move.
“We were also encouraged to hear Robert Snodgrass questioning the club’s ambition at a recent (Lorimer’s Bar) function. We share their opinions and we’ll do all we can to pressure the board into listening to those who know.”
Dialogue between Leeds and LUST is yet to reach a productive stage. Comments about each other have been spiky and made from a distance. Cooper and a number of LUST’s other board members, of which there are 10 (each elected to serve for three years), claim to have been blocked from buying tickets for United’s away matches.
Speaking after the protest before Leeds’ defeat to Brighton, Bates said: “They have nothing to offer and they make no contribution.
“They’re a very small bunch; self-appointed, self-important people who are an irritant to the overwhelming majority of Leeds fans.”
LUST will be active during Saturday’s meeting with Leicester but more passive than they were in the hours before the Brighton defeat.
A smaller march is planned ahead of kick-off and members of the Trust will take to the upper tier of the East Stand, using facilities which were improved last summer at a cost of around £7m. United have committed money earned through season ticket sales for the next two seasons to pay back a loan used to fund the project.
“We’ll be marching on Saturday but it’s not a protest,” Cooper says. “It’s a bit of fun at the end of a tumultuous season.
“The Trust’s members will be in the East Stand, making full use of the facilities and making sure we’re in a position to comment on them accurately. And naturally we’ll be supporting the team.”
The question for LUST is what they hope to achieve in the long-term, beyond the immediate concerns of how successful United’s team are and how well their supporters are treated.
Other Trusts have campaigned for active involvement on their club’s board. Cooper is sceptical about that idea but supports legislation brought in by Europe’s governing body, UEFA, which will require all clubs to employ a supporter liaison officer next season.
The officer must “regularly attend meetings with the club’s management” and “ensure a proper and constructive dialogue between a club and its fans”.
“It’s a case of each to their own,” Cooper says, “but I’m not in favour of supporter representation at boardroom level.
“What I favour is representation of supporters at an appropriate level and I’m all for UEFA’s idea of liaison officers.
“If the head of (LUST) was appointed to the club’s board then that would be me, but Leeds are a multi-million pound business and I know nothing about running a multi-million pound business.
“I don’t have the right to that sort of involvement.
“But I know what it means to be a Leeds United supporter and I know how Leeds United supporters feel. I understand their grievances and frustrations.
“We’d like the club to take them on board.”