TWELVE MONTHS ON: Whites MD David Haigh tells Phil Hay he is happy with how things have gone so far at Leeds United but there is a lot more work to do
The best 12 months of his life, according to David Haigh, which probably explains the sudden urge to give himself up to Leeds United for a good while yet.
A year ago to the day, Haigh saw GFH Capital’s attempt to take control of Leeds come to fruition and the time since then has gone in a blur. The evidence of how much he has warmed to the club can be found in his on-going attempt to buy it.
Haigh remembers a time when he had a handful of Twitter followers; family members mostly. These days he counts them in hundreds of thousands. The profile given to him, GFH Capital and the other men behind last year’s takeover can only rise again when he pulls of his purchase a 75 per cent stake with a different consortium.
It was widely claimed that GFH Capital bought Leeds 12 months ago with the sole intention of ‘flipping’ the club – selling it quickly for an immediate profit on the £22m it paid to United’s previous majority shareholder, Ken Bates.
As it turns out the private equity firm is about to relinquish a controlling interest after its second Christmas with United, just as the accounts of GFH Capital’s parent company suggested it would. But Haigh – Leeds’ managing director and deputy chief executive of GFH Capital – says he is proud of the changes at Elland Road in the company’s spell as owner. In his opinion, the takeover achieved what it set out to do.
“It doesn’t feel like 12 months,” he said. “It literally feels like yesterday. It’s all gone remarkably quickly but we’ve done an awful lot in that time.
“Some people said we’d sell the club in a day. On day one, I remember people saying we’d only bought the club to sell up. The stories were phenomenal. But we didn’t.
“We set out what it was we wanted to achieve and we’ve done all of that.
“There’s still more to do and there always will be more to do, even if we get to the Premier League. But judge us on what we said we’d do.”
GFH Capital was cautious with its promises when it came through the door. Promotion from the Championship was mapped out as a two or three-year plan, even though Leeds were listed as an asset ‘held for sale’ before the end of 2013 in Gulf Finance House’s accounts. The timescale made sense in view of the position Haigh and United’s other new directors, Salem Patel and Hisham Alrayes, started from and moreso when Leeds changed manager in April.
What the firm guaranteed – and where its delivery has been most convincing – was re-engagement of supporters and a break from the insular, combative ways of the regime it bought out. Crowds are up this season and season-ticket prices down. Supporter and community initiatives have been weekly, sometimes daily, events, a purposeful attempt to rebrand a club who were inexplicably under-promoted in their own, one-club city.
“We’ve spent a lot of time bringing fans back, making sure Leeds are visible again in Leeds, Yorkshire and the wider world,” Haigh said.
“I think a feelgood factor is critical. Football’s about having fun. We want people to enjoy themselves at Elland Road and think ‘that was a great day.’ Brighton (on the first day of this season) was one of those.
“The campaigns we’re doing in terms of engaging the fans are all about making Leeds United accessible and getting people back into their club. Because we as owners are merely stewards here.
“I’ve been to matches in the past year when it wasn’t fun. It felt like you were going out of duty. Before a home match now I walk around the ground and speak to people and you can sense the feelgood factor. It’s coming back and you can see that in the attendances. But of course it’s the football that everyone comes to watch.”
The development of United in footballing terms under GFH Capital could be best described as a slow-burn. But in Brian McDermott they have a manager who is happy to live with that. His squad has changed at a gradual pace and the forthcoming transfer window will place United’s board under the usual scrutiny with McDermott’s stock increasingly high, but McDermott himself promotes the idea of steady, sustainable progress.
Since his appointment in April he has asked for as much investment in infrastructure as he has investment in players. A new astroturf pitch is about to be laid at Thorp Arch, the latest change to United’s training ground.
But Leeds are sixth in the Championship and the table is begging the club to give McDermott everything he needs in January. It is, as Haigh admits, all about the football.
Leeds made a splash in July when they paid £1m for Luke Murphy, the most expensive signing completed by them since Richard Cresswell in 2005.
It was a deal that McDermott pushed for tirelessly and support of his board at that stage pointed to a strengthening of commitment behind the scenes.
“When we signed Luke – the biggest cash signing for years – it showed that when Brian identifies someone he thinks will drive us forward, we’ll support him,” Haigh said. “We’re lucky because Brian’s very good at that. He tells us the players he’s looking at and we discuss budgets. We do that daily.
“We will support him and we have done already. Look at the players we’ve brought in but also the existing ones who’ve we’ve extended their contracts. We’ve supported Brian.
“We’re fortunate to have him and we’re very pleased he’s here. We’re sixth in the league and we’ve been in and out of the top six quite a bit this season.
“We should be very proud of that. I’d love to see us promoted this season but I’m also realistic.
“Brian’s done an amazing job of building the team and it would be fantastic if we get promoted. I hope we do. But I think it’s not realistic to expect it this season, bearing in mind that we’ve only had Brian since April.”
It is a thankless task asking for time in Leeds.
Supporters of the club have been listening to pleas for patience for years, many of them hollow. Haigh stated as far back as the summer that he saw next season as a more likely time for promotion but the investment he intends to bring to Elland Road either this side of January or early in the new year should help.
His consortium – including Andrew Flowers, the managing director of United’s shirt sponsor, Enterprise Insurance – have agreed the purchase of a 75 per cent stake from GFH Capital, subject to Football League approval. GFH Capital is to stay on as a minority shareholder with Haigh retaining his position as managing director and Salah Nooruddin continuing as chairman.
Haigh was recently rumoured to be planning to run for election to parliament as a Conservative candidate in the 2015 General Election, a story he denied, and his bid for major equity in Leeds will commit him heavily to his post at Elland Road.
“I don’t intend to walk away,” he said. “I’ve done too much work here in the last year.
“The takeover took nine months to complete and I’ve been coming to Leeds almost every weekend during that time.
“I’m looking to buy a flat and I intend to stay.
“Sometimes decisions are tough and the medicine can be hard to swallow but that’s what you need to do.
“We want Leeds to be sustainable and we want to make sure the club is looking after itself so that in the future we don’t have to worry about things like administration.
“You make business decisions sensibly and you make sure you do good housekeeping. It might mean it takes a little longer but we’ll get there. We’ll get to the Premier League.”