What on earth is happening at Leeds? I was at Elland Road last Saturday among 600 Pompey fans and the change in atmosphere since last season was palpable. Last year, the atmosphere impressed with fans in good voice and scarves whirling. This year, though, Elland Road is not a happy place, evidenced by the draconian, 1980s style crowd control methods and the strangely messianic images of the club’s chairman in his seat flashed onto the big screen above our heads. It somehow felt we had intruded onto someone else’s battlefield. Ken Bates seems to be stirring up something of a furore among the Leeds faithful since somehow finding the cash to name himself owner of the club at the end of last season. In a flurry of accusations regarding, “The scaremongering arising out of the football governance enquiry” in The Guardian last May, the suggestively pictured Mr Bates did the right thing and married his name to the club. All very well and good you might think – at least he’s made an honest club out of Leeds and maybe now it will be a case of happily ever after.
Since then Mr Bates has seemed keen to stamp his authority on the marriage. He is unhappy with media intrusion into the matter and, having taken a side-swipe at the already banned Guardian’s David Conn, ’the ‘international enemy of Leeds United’ last May, in August he banned the BBC from reporting on the club. Clearly Mr Conn, the Guardian and the BBC really shouldn’t be delving into the arrangements behind Mr Bates’ ownership. Nor should they be trying to unravel the strange obfustication of that ownership before the forced marriage. Indeed, how very dare they? Speaking on Yorkshire Radio back in May, Mr Bates was insouciant about that Government thing. To him it was, ”as trivial a hearing that I have ever heard, all obsessed with the ownership of Leeds United, which of course was stirred up with people who claim to be interested in Leeds United but they are not, they are actually more interested in causing trouble. ” That’s the coalition for you – bunch of bother causers.
Yorkshire Radio is the in-house station for Leeds United. Mr Bates doesn’t talk to anyone else other than LUTV, their in-house TV channel, it seems. But don’t worry if you can’t tune in, there are transcripts of his interviews on The Square Ball and interesting reading they make. Particularly the way the interviewer acts as Bates’ straight-man when he wants to jibe at the BBC or other enemies of the ‘Republic of Leeds United.’ Causing trouble in the ‘Republic’ appears to be a cardinal sin, and questioning the chairman seems to be taken as a manifestation of that sin. So the BBC deserve all they get really, given that there is a documentary on the ownership of Leeds United due to be screened in the next couple of weeks. But Mr Bates doesn’t stop at controlling the media, he appears to be worried about the behaviour of the citizens of the ‘Republic’ as well.
There has been unrest amongst the fans of late. Leeds are a shadow of the team they were last season and, judging by evidence of last Saturday, the football has suffered due to the sale of some decent players. Unlike Pompey though, Leeds do not have a CVA to service, but some ambitious building plans. There is a raft of development at the back of the East Stand where a hotel and leisure centre is planned. Many fans feel that the money currently being used to service the club is being ploughed into this development. This, when coupled with the sharp rise in ticket prices this season, doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable conclusion to arrive at. It’s a Chelsea Village comes to Leeds idea – Mr Bates has form on this kind of thing. One might think that such a development would create income for the club in the future but such hope has been unfounded at Chelsea where the current Chairman describes the returns on such a development as ‘slim’ and, given the current economic situation, it might be a hope too far. Indeed the whole arrangement at Chelsea is now proving outdated according to recent reports. Leeds United do not actually own Elland Road, it belongs to a BVI registered company, Teak Commercial Ltd, and the club rent both Elland Road and their Thorp Arch training ground from the company for circa £2m p.a. The owner of Teak Commercial is – unknown. Teak Commercial was established on the 25th January 2005 and acquired Elland Road on the 16th March 2005. Just to remind you, Mr Bates became chairman on 21st January 2005.
Leeds fans were already protesting against Mr Bates’ economic policy in August this year, before their defeat at home to Middlesbrough. This earned them a rebuke from their Chairman who referred to them as ‘morons’. On other occasions, fans that have objected to his rule have been called ‘sick-pots’ and ‘dissidents.’ An underclass in the ‘Republic’ is beginning to form. Ticket pricing across the Championship is a bit of an issue this season across the board. We have our own problems at Pompey, where a £30 entrance fee for Category A matches is much contested as not being value for money. However, at Leeds we were charmed to be graced with the Category A status and then staggered to find we had been allocated the most expensive seating at the ground at £36 a go, £27 for concessions and £25 for children. This is for an area of the ground that Leeds have found difficult to sell to their own fans in the past – could it be that this is being regarded by the club an easy earner by allocating the area to fans who have no choice?
We did have a nice view of the refurbished East Stand though. Not such a good one of the football, which may have been a blessing, given the mediocrity that both teams served up for the majority of the match – thirty-six pounds’ worth of entertainment it was not. However, we Pompey fans must have given good value for money as there were at least four Police Officers especially assigned to film our antics. The elderly gentleman next to me was most invigorated, apparently they had also filmed him and his equally elderly colleagues getting off the Pompey coach in the car park earlier in the day. I am wondering if we were paying the price for the Manchester United fans’ behaviour a few weeks earlier as the stewards seemed highly vexed by our propensity to stand, sing and jump up and down in support of our team. They certainly seemed keen on getting as many of us out of the ground before the end of the match as they could. Six hundred people must be a difficult number to control. Chants began to swell on the lines of ‘Thirty six quid, we’ll do what we want!’ and acrimony spread as the overt filming became more obvious and intrusive. Leeds fans tell me this unsubtle method of crowd control is the norm.
It does feel as if the well-publicised trouble of the Manchester United and Leeds fans after their Carling Cup match has given the Chairman of the ‘Republic’ a good reason to tighten crowd control at Elland Road. Chairman Bates was quite incensed at this behaviour and used the usual rhetoric to declaim the perpetrators as ‘scum’ who are ‘liars and thugs’ who ‘don’t give a damn about the club.’ The behaviour of fans using the tragedies in Istanbul and Munich to taunt each other was abhorrent, make no doubt. Policing football fans is needed when they behave in this way, of course. What is interesting about Bates’ programme notes for the Portsmouth game where these declarations were printed was his reasoning. No mention of the ethics of such chanting but the question that he wanted to leave fans with was, ‘Who would want to invest in such a club? Consequently the growth of Leeds United will be much slower.’
Just to be clear, in 2007 Bates threatened creditors that he would put the club into liquidation unless he was allowed to buy it back from the administrator. Given the current pattern of investment one is forced to question whether it is Leeds United the club whose growth might be arrested or Leeds United the property asset. There are certainly issues with funding the development behind the East Stand as Leeds Council turned down Leeds United’s request for a £20m loan in August, originally secured in the event of England winning the World Cup bid and requested again despite the bid’s failure.
Awkward questions are being asked by the ‘morons, sickpots and dissidents’ as to exactly where the money is coming from for this development, rumoured to need £7m for its first stage. These are dissidents such as the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust, wonderfully-acronymed LUST, 85% of whose members said they supported the protests against the Chairman. When the club is trading in profit yet the team has declined in quality, the Chairman has sworn under oath that he has put no money into the club and seems anxious about fans repelling investors, questions have to be asked as to the financial security of the club and where the funds for the development are coming from. Short term finance has been quoted as the source and it is possible that increased ticket prices may have been needed to cover this commitment. So yet again, as in so many other cases across the Leagues, fan loyalty is leached so that an owner can profit.
Financial anxiety does wonderful things to the psyche and the events of the Carling Cup game have given Mr Bates the desire to upgrade the club’s CCTV system to ‘concentrate on potential problem areas inside the ground.’ It obviously doesn’t cover the away fans in the West Stand yet, which is just as well, since the police filming last Saturday was highly useful in proving that an ejected Pompey fan accused by a steward of assault had actually done no such thing. The claim that away fans are easier to police in this new position may well be unfounded if stewards are going to be this mistaken in future. Cardiff fans – up at the end of the month for the West Stand – may be less amenable to such treatment.
However, it seems that Leeds are equally as worried about their own fans’ behaviour in the future, despite the lack of potential fixtures against Manchester United. The club has announced ”revised measures” beginning with only season ticket holders and members being allowed in the Kop at the Cardiff City game. So not only hiked prices, but an extra £40 to become a member if you want to stand with the most vociferous and loyal of the club’s supporters, or pay up to £36 to sit in the East or West stand. A Leeds fan I know suggested that ‘The fact that this area of the ground has been the seat of the loudest, most prolonged anti-Bates chanting this season is purely coincidental, I’m sure.’ The club will have a record of all those in this area on their database and so will be able to identify any dissent or ‘thuggish’ behaviour and subject the perpetrators to sanctions as deemed appropriate. Perhaps the provision of rose tinted spectacles in the mode of Red Bull’s treatment of Initiative Violett-Weiss at SV Austria Salzburg might be appropriate.
Whatever the reason, fans at Elland Road seem to be beginning to view going to the game as a chore rather than a pleasure and, whilst we at Portsmouth only have to visit Elland Road once a year, they have to step into this world every other week. Bates is seen by many as alienating and eroding both the core and casual support of the club ‘in pursuit of perceived financial gain’, as one message board contributor succincntly put it this week. Leeds United are no longer selling out their ground – even the visit of their deadly rivals Manchester United could not fill the seats. Population of the Republic is declining as opposition to Mr Chairman Bates increases. Control the media, rigorously police the people and get rid of the dissidents … now I’m sure that rings a bell somewhere.
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