Phil Hay: A renewed sense of motivation at Leeds United Supporters Trust?

Elland Road.
Elland Road.
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The Leeds United Supporters Trust found its niche in 2012. Membership soared to almost 10,000 as the group and its chairman, Gary Cooper, went head-to-head with Leeds United’s then owner, Ken Bates. From the Trust’s perspective they look like halcyon days.

LUST’s free members now total 6,500 but registered shareholders – those who pay subscriptions for voting rights and the right to seek election to the board – have fallen to around 200. Since Bates sold Leeds to Gulf Finance House, the Trust has struggled for relevance and profile against a backdrop of financial pressure and changes at the top of the organisation. Its current chairman, Michael Green, does not deny that LUST has “declined”. “But I think we’re coming out of that period,” he said.

On Saturday at Leeds Civic Hall the Trust will hold its annual general meeting and name six new board members. For the first time in six years a ballot will be needed after nine shareholders put their names forward for election. A lack of interest in previous years saw many board members elected unopposed and several of the 12 available seats left empty. This ballot has generated a renewed sense of motivation to make the Trust work as body which can promote the needs of Leeds’ wider fanbase.

LUST are not the only vehicle for supporter representation. The Leeds United Supporters Club, a social organisation more than a political one, retains a membership of thousands. Leeds Fans United (LFU) was formed last year with the stated intention of raising funds to buy a minority stake in the club. LFU has an accord with the Trust and executive Sharon Reid will speak at Saturday’s AGM. Recently-formed Time To Go Massimo, meanwhile, is campaigning solely for the removal of owner Massimo Cellino from Elland Road but few groups have had more momentum behind them than the Trust garnered four-and-a-half years ago.

Green took over as chair of the Trust in 2015, replacing Paul Keat who in turn had succeeded Cooper less than 12 months earlier. Neither have been able to promote the Trust’s brand in the way that Cooper did. “It’s clear that the Trust aren’t the only game in town,” Green said. “It’s got no right to be the only game in town. There are other groups and we accept that. But what we want to be is an organisation which is bold and brave in standing up for supporters in a complex environment at Leeds United. And let’s be honest, it’s been a complex environment at Elland Road for 15 or 16 years now and that’s still unresolved.

“Is the Trust attracting less interest than it did during the time of the Bates march? Yes, by definition. Was Gary’s profile bigger than mine or Paul’s? Yes, by definition. Situations like 2012 and the years building up to it meant the Trust could make a call to arms very successfully. After Bates sold the club, interest may have waned.

“It’s clear that the Trust has declined but I think we’re coming out of that period. And I think the Trust’s board should be congratulated for continuing to stand up on issues like stability and ownership during a very difficult period. We’ve had to work hard to stabilise ourselves.”

Green blamed some of LUST’s problems on a “systems failure” which meant subscriptions from many shareholders went unpaid and some shareholders were lost. Revenue dropped as a result. Green will run through LUST’s accounts at Saturday’s AGM and insisted the results would show “a big turnaround of the tanker.” “It’s still going to take some time for the Trust to stand comfortably on its feet,” he said, “but I think the shareholders will be happy with the financial situation.”

Jon Howe, a life-long fan and a well-known author on Leeds United, is one of those standing for election this weekend.

His view of the Trust is that of a group which “lost its way” but which, with fresh blood and new ideas, could strike a better relationship with United and improve dialogue about supporter issues.

“People have got a perception of what the Trust is or was and we need to change that,” Howe said. “Results (on the pitch) always help but it feels like we’ve got a very divided fanbase at the moment and we need to break away barriers. There are some very forward-thinking people who are going for election and some fresh ideas or fresh opinions would help.

“My way of looking at it is that you represent the fans by trying to make contact with the club but there are barriers on either side. We need to reach out to the club and talk to them properly about things that effect us. It’s about trying to make football the best experience possible. We need more of a relationship with the club’s Supporters Liaison Officer (SLO). I know we’ve got one but I don’t really know who it is.”

Many English teams, in line with instructions from UEFA, employ dedicated SLOs. Fiona Hanley occupies that role at Elland Road. But those members of staff are yet to gain the prominence or the gravatus of their counterparts in Germany, where SLOs have been part of the furniture for decades. “Fans in Germany mix with them, drink with them, raise all sorts of issues with them,” Howe said. Bundesliga clubs are obliged to employ two SLOs full time.

Leeds and Cellino made a sudden move to engage supporters groups last October, inviting them to a meeting at Elland Road to discuss Cellino’s plan to cut ticket allocations for away games to a flat 2,000. The unpopular idea was a protest against Sky Sports’ heavy coverage of United’s fixtures but after listening to opposition, the club’s owner changed his mind. In the days that followed that meeting, Cellino and LFU fell out over an offer by the Italian to sell LFU his shares in the club.

Contact since then has been minimal and Cellino’s relationship with United’s support remains fractious but Green said the Trust, despite its criticisms of Cellino, were willing to engage.

“The theme of the Trust’s views is about change at the club and stability,” Green said. “That’s quite clear. Some of Massimo’s actions we find to be problematic and some we find to be unwanted. We don’t want to see any more of things like the South Stand idiocies where stewards were separating Leeds supporters. But the Trust is always open to contact, as long as the club treat the support with respect and don’t simply pursue their own agenda. We’re open to dialogue. What I’m not clear about is how open Massimo is to dialogue.”

Green’s own position as chairman of LUST is contentious. By his own admission he has “attitude and baggage”; an opinionated fan who has never been slow to speak his mind and berate other supporters on social media. Recently he was accused of blocking another shareholder’s election to the board in 2015, an allegation he denies.

Green said he took on the role reluctantly in July of last year because there was “a job to do and the Trust was in trouble.” “I’m socially aware,” he said. “I’m aware of things I’ve been associated with. Back in July (2015), nobody else wanted the job. That was a truism. But I’m happy to stand on my record.

“If the board and the shareholders don’t want me to do the job now then they won’t find me standing in the way of that. If there’s somebody on the board with drive, judgement and strategy then I’d be the first to say that that person should lead the organisation.” Within the Trust there is genuine hope that having lost its way, it will find it again.”

The full list of shareholders seeking election to the board is: Tracy Barnes, Dave Carrington, Emma Carrington, Jon Howe, Chris Hunter, Ian McMullen, Ben Tomenson, Steve White. One name witheld on request.