Leeds United takeover: Now prove this deal was worth waiting for - Hay

Elland Road.
Elland Road.
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Chief YEP football writer Phil Hay has his say on the Leeds United takeover.

GFH Capital envisaged sailing into Elland Road on the crest of a wave. By the time its takeover crossed the line, the company settled for being afloat. Deal done – the phrase you thought you’d never read.

These processes have a habit of burning the candle low, physically and metaphorically. When Ken Bates first led a buy-out of Leeds United in 2005, days after Sebastien Sainsbury abandoned his ill-fated takeover, terms were agreed with the clock ticking past 2am. On Tuesday night, he and GFH Capital shook hands an hour-and-a-half before midnight; a late conclusion to a timeline which seemed to be never ending.

In all, more than 170 days have passed since Leeds announced in May that investors were at the table with a serious proposal to buy the club. Ninety two have passed since those buyers were named as GFH Capital, the little-known private equity firm based in Dubai. The company delivered as it said it would, but not before time.

“Today has been a long time coming,” said GFH Capital’s Salem Patel. It has indeed. And so GFH Capital acquires a club who are 18th in the Championship, financially fragile and estranged from thousands of supporters who once paid religiously to enter Elland Road. It is the first step on a long road but a first step all the same.

This, you realise, is not merely about the season at hand, much as Neil Warnock wants the takeover to help. It is a matter of United’s future as a team, a club and a cultural emblem. Signing players is not the half of it. Leeds need players as they need the exposure of the Premier League but they might settle first for attacking the apathy and disillusionment which has spread through Elland Road like a disease. The masses who follow United genuinely adore their club. They would like the chance to be proud of it too.

At a cost of some £52m, GFH Capital has burdened itself with that responsibility. It is good to see them on board. Judged on merit, as Bates himself has been, but judged over time too, the way new owners deserve to be treated. United have suffered acutely during seven months of negotiations and neither side was blameless but time and progress always heal. There is scope enough to forgive and forget, provided GFH Capital is as good as its promises.

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We will wait, for example, to see if this multi-million pound buy-out brings Elland Road and Thorp Arch back into United’s possession. Aside from the symbolic significance of such an agreement, both properties under private ownership have sucked more than £2m a year in rent from the club’s accounts.

We will see, too, whether GFH Capital has the funds available to allow Warnock to act like a top-end Championship manager in the January transfer window, rather than sit idly by while coaches around him pay the going rate for available players. The singular point of seeking investment was to find buyers who were able to do what Bates and his board could not. Even the seller in this deal would not dispute that Leeds are tied in knots.

One promise already is open to question – the insistence that Bates would sever all ties with United once GFH Capital’s buy-out went through. Perhaps aware of the prevailing wind in Leeds, the firm were adamant about that. But although the 80-year-old will relinquish in full his 72.85 per cent stake – and thereby, you assume, all long-term influence in United’s business operation – he will remain as chairman until the end of the season and become club president next summer. Following in the footsteps of the late and distinguished Lord Harewood, it is not an insignificant role.

GFH Capital initially favoured the idea of a clean break but they are understood to have relented to Bates’ desire to remain in touch with a club where he first became chairman more than eight years ago. A source at GFH Capital admitted yesterday that the compromise over Bates’ position was “fundamental” to ensuring that its takeover went through. There were other investment options available to Bates, though none as far down the line.

Some form of transitional period is plainly necessary. United are a complex club and a complex business and it should help GFH Capital to have Shaun Harvey, the existing chief executive, present and able to show them the ropes. Harvey is expected to remain in his post for the foreseeable future. As a firm, GFH Capital has no expertise in the management of professional sports clubs or any knowledge of how English football is administrated.

Bates said that he wanted GFH Capital’s learning curve to be “as smooth and as easy as possible”. Perhaps he can help with that.

Many supporters would prefer to see him gone and see him gone yesterday. The issue for GFH Capital is ensuring that a former owner in the background does not hinder its strategy or planning. But if United begin to thrive under GFH Capital and Bates’ presence proves immaterial –or non-obstructive – then to dwell on it would be petty.

GFH Capital must learn quickly to engage with the club’s wide-reaching support – those who question them as well as those who support them blindly.

Bates recently brought the Leeds United Supporters Club back in from the cold. It would do no harm to make peace with the Supporters Trust either. They don’t need a say in the running of the club, they merely need their voices to be heard.

Bates claimed yesterday that “nothing will change” as a result of this takeover. On the contrary, everything must change – the outlook, the ambition and the optimism of a club who have lived without those three crucial traits for longer than they should have done. GFH Capital promise a new dawn – best of luck!

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