The past is the past. So say the banners which began appearing in Leeds a fortnight ago. An optimistic message or two fingers up at the old regime? Either way, Leeds United are actively attempting to leave behind many years of disillusionment.
The grinding noise at Elland Road this summer was the sound of the club shifting into reverse gear and backing out of the policies, attitudes and idiosyncrasies which defined the days before GFH Capital monopolised the boardroom. Personnel, ticket prices, the contentious matter of radio rights; United’s owner has played to the crowd and met them halfway on virtually everything. It is democracy in action after so many years of totalitarian rule. Or so it seems.
GFH Capital spent enough time buying Leeds to appreciate the many gripes surrounding the club it inherited – too many gripes to list. Season ticket costs were cut and 12,000 have sold, a marginal increase on last season but an increase still. Matchday prices froze and the introduction of concessions for students and young adults reconciled the oft-neglected next generation. Declaring Brighton on Saturday as a Category C fixture, meanwhile, must have caused palpitations in Monaco. Category C was for traditionally a once-a-year treat – like romance on your birthday, only saved for a frosty night in February.
GFH Capital has gone further still. Last month it resolved another historic complaint by returning matchday commentary rights to BBC Radio Leeds, a three-year contract for which the BBC is understood to have paid a six-figure sum. A club shop of sorts will open in Leeds city centre for a month tomorrow, six years after United closed the doors of a store on Albion Street. The 21st century has been an insular and isolated period for Leeds. Active marketing in their own backyard was the biggest open goal going.
United’s owner has converted several of those since December, not least by removing from influential positions the people most associated with the man they bought out. Ken Bates stepped down as chairman on June 30 and was ousted as president last week. Shaun Harvey, his loyal chief executive, went with him. Technical director Gwyn Williams departed with the bath water. The less partisan among us stepped back and asked where knowledge of English football’s rules, regulations and machinations would come from among a board of Salah Nooruddin, David Haigh, Hisham Alrayes and Salem Patel but the recent appointment of Paul Hunt as acting CEO – an ex-employee of Leicester City, Wigan Athletic and the circus that is Blackburn Rovers – provides some necessary expertise. Hunt will earn his money again.
Because behind all of this is the football. And here you wonder. Increasing United’s presence and appeal has been GFH Capital’s strength but transforming the squad who threatened to leave the company with a League One club last season has not. Leeds have had their moments – specifically the £1million signing of Luke Murphy which caused as much surprise across the Championship as it did locally – but their manager, Brian McDermott, is being short-changed. Neil Warnock thought he had it bad last summer, a period in which he signed 11 players. McDermott to date has signed three, half the number he asked for when last season finished.
Nothing – not bravado, PR or promises of support – speaks louder about a club’s financial state than the way it operates in the transfer market. There is patently no money at Elland Road, or not enough to allow McDermott to do his thing without first worrying about a swollen wage bill; balancing the books, as the saying goes.
Since the arrival of Noel Hunt on a free transfer on July 3, McDermott has been under pressure to reduce the size of the squad left to him by Warnock. The “fourth signing” he spoke about after United’s pre-season friendly at Farsley – three-and-a-half weeks ago now – has been at the mercy of outgoing deals. In a similar situation last month, McDermott forced the issue by persuading his board to find the money needed to sign Murphy from Crewe Alexandra but his demeanour and comments over the past 10 days suggests that Leeds will not bend again. One out, one in is United’s policy – with a squad who, Steve Morison aside, have failed to attract a serious approach all summer.
The situation reflects poorly on GFH Capital, though the company would make two arguments – firstly that it is an investment bank, seeking investors for United. And secondly, that it’s strategy is designed for the medium term. You might laugh at that when you recall the negotiations that took place over the sale of a majority stake to local businessman Steve Parkin but the start of July came with signs of a hardening of GFH Capital’s commitment. The idea of flipping Leeds quickly no longer seems viable. This is GFH Capital’s gamble and its responsibility, perhaps for longer than they anticipated.
Its only means of supporting McDermott adequately was through money drawn in from outside sources. United have a big turnover by Championship standards – £30million plus – but their expenditure is higher than it has been for years. Some £3.3million was used – or wasted, depending on your point of view – to pay off the loan which funded the redevelopment of Elland Road’s East Stand in 2011. That equates to 6,500 season tickets at £500 a go. There is no official figure for the current size of Leeds’s wage bill but certain people within the club suggest it is somewhere in the region of £15million. United under Bates rarely paid excessive salaries but the wages of their senior squad were not inconsiderable either. There are players on £12,000 a week with no obvious place in McDermott’s team and nowhere else to go.
McDermott is not unaccustomed to penny-pinching. Reading were held up as an aggressive, ambitious Championship club but they were not shy in selling McDermott’s better players. His most expensive signing – centre-back Kaspars Gorkss – cost less than Luke Murphy. But there is patience in Reading which does not exist in Leeds. McDermott learned that when United were roundly booed by 1,700 away fans after their pre-season defeat to Walsall on July 20. His neck is on the line here and he would doubtless prefer to risk a thousand cuts with his own squad around him.
For him and GFH Capital, decisive progress – promotion to you and me – seems destined to take time. McDermott has three years on his contract and can hardly promise to crack a resilient nut overnight. David Haigh, meanwhile, said last week that the Premier League could realistically be reached within two years. That suggests next season rather than this.
They have settled many grievances, Haigh and his colleagues, and tackled problems others would not. They have listened to popular opinion and embraced it. But in this sport and this business, owners live and die on one thing. As the Americans might say: it’s the football, stupid.