Feeling Sorry For Leeds United...

For the majority of football fans, it's not easy to feel sympathy for Leeds United. But even the cold-hearted amongst us can spare a thought for the truly shafted...

Last Updated: 12/03/13 at 14:56 Post Comment

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One of the hallmarks of football fandom is to feel hard done by. 'Why does our club always put us through the mixer?' if we win a close game, 'why can't we play like this every week?' if we win well and 'you're not fit to wear the shirt' when we lose. If every team played at the level at which they supposedly 'belonged', the Premier League would have more than 30 clubs.

But fans of Leeds United have more reason than most to feel that they deserve a little break. Fully discussing their economic apocalypse would take weeks rather than paragraphs, but it must be remarked that the financial fumbling of Peter Ridsdale almost ruined one of the country's largest clubs. It would appear that Ridsdale could only organise a drunken night in a brewery if he lavishly overspent in the process. He is currently banned from being the director or involved in the management of any UK company until April 2020.

However, Leeds' infamous decline is thankfully a thing firmly left in the past. It is now close to a decade since they were relegated from the Premier League, and five years since they slipped into League One, their lowest ebb since formation in 1919.

It may seem illogical, but since leaving administration Leeds immediately gained that clichéd tag of 'sleeping giant', for this was a club with a huge amount of potential. Leeds is an urban area of over 600,000 people, a city with just one football club. Elland Road holds close to 38,000 and during their first season in League One had an average of 26,000 for every home game. Most importantly of all, they were now debt-free.

And yet despite this, Leeds have regressed since promotion. Despite having stable finances and a matchday revenue higher than almost every other side in the division, they have laboured and become something approaching stagnant. After narrowly missing out on the play-offs in 2010/11, they then finished 14th last season. They now sit in mid-table once again.

Whilst many fans lay the blame for the current form at the feet of manager Neil Warnock (who will almost certainly depart at the end of the season), there is another more powerful influence at Elland Road - that of Ken Bates. His presence as chairman (and now President) may be conducted from his tax exile in Monaco, but that does not stop supporters from being impacted by his actions and words.

Firstly there was the question of ownership upon the takeover, and the identity of Leeds' true owners was kept a secret for almost six years by Bates as chairman. When finally forced into revelation by the Football League, Bates' explanation merely muddied the waters: Leeds United was owned by Leeds City Holdings, who were owned by Forward Sports Fund (owned by Bates), who were owned by three trust funds, who were owned by a Swiss trustee named Chateau Fiduciare. Modern football, eh?

In truth, Leeds fans probably couldn't care less who owned the club, as long as they were prepared to spend money on the squad, crippled by under-investment through the necessities of administration. But under Bates, this has not happened. Leeds have spent £2.3million since they were promoted to the Championship in 2010, and players have instead been recruited on loan or free transfers. That may not seem an insignificant total, but in that time they have allowed Robert Snodgrass, Luciano Becchio, Jonny Howson, Jermaine Beckford, Max Gradel and Bradley Johnson to leave, doubling that expenditure. Those players constituted the nucleus of a squad, and have handicapped campaigns for promotion. Instead, the club have borrowed £5million against advanced season ticket revenue to improve the conferencing and hospitality facilities at the ground.

It is Bates' attitude that makes him most unpopular. He was found guilty of harassment of former director Melvyn Levi through the method of public attacks using the matchday programme and radio station. When the supporters' trust (LUST) protested about Bates' stagnation of the club, they were met with the following response, again via the programme:

'I'm saying I'm unimpressed by the demonstrations of a few morons on Saturday and ain't going anywhere soon. Some fans may not like me, or agree with me, but you're stuck with me.' Who needs PR when you have power?

The BBC and Guardian are also banned from Elland Road, but the biggest kick in the teeth for fans has been the rise in ticket prices. A standard season ticket will cost you just shy of £600, a total 'beaten' by only Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs in the entire country.

With all that in mind, one can understand the relief of fans when GFH capital finalised a takeover of the club in December. Bates reportedly made £52m out of the deal. Initially it appeared that GFH would make improvements at Elland Road, and they certainly talked a good game, but (and pardon the phrase) it has been all fart and no sh*t.

There have been improvements. Reduced ticket pricing schemes have been initiated, the BBC have been allowed to return and they have even initiated in communication with fans. But, and it's a huge 'but', they have continued to employ Ken Bates, now in a presidential role. Quite why GFH felt the need to associate themselves with the former Chairman by placing him in a Presidential role is not evident, but seems a bizarre decision, particularly after his disagreement with supporters' groups. Surely they should have looked to cut ties with a disenchanted past?

Now, as seemingly ever, Leeds supporters are left wondering 'what if'. Their owners have made it clear that they would welcome outside investment into the club (whether this is because they do not possess the required capital is unclear), and again promotion looks out of reach. There have been reports that GFH are intending to sell off the club at a quick profit, but last month rejected an offer for majority stake from a Yorkshire-based consortium. The club remains in limbo.

And still Bates is at the club.

All Leeds United fans want is to have their club performing to the best of their ability on the field. All they want is to lose their current tags of 'selling club' and 'sleeping giant'. All they want is to have an owner that loves the club and shares their ideals. All they want is a club of which they can be proud.

To me, that should be the least we should expect from our football club. But, like Leeds fans, it seems all we can do is hope and dream. Because what we want doesn't really seem to matter.

Daniel Storey - he's on Twitter.

Many thanks to Leeds United blog Through It All Together for their assistance.

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