Who Owns Leeds United? How Football Documentaries Should Be Made

By on Oct 13, 2011 in English League Football, Latest | 11 comments

Many years ago, I listened to prize-winning author and ultra-famous Arsenal fan Nick Hornby reading extracts from the book which made his name, Fever Pitch. And the reading was a disappointment. Hornby was good, but just not as funny as the voice, indeterminate and certainly not my own, in which I’d read the original. The same disappointment arose when listening to speeches by Guardian journalist David Conn. Conn is a decent speaker – even when “10-minute” speeches to Supporters Direct conferences exceed half-an-hour, but his words spoke louder from the page in the voice inside my head. This I know to be unfair, after watching the long-heralded documentary Who Owns Leeds United, which aired on October 10th in the BBC’s Yorkshire and Lincolnshire area. For the core material of the programme overpowered concerns about presentation, and the presentation itself was of a standard to which all football documentaries should aspire.

The twenty-nine minutes on Leeds’ recent ownership history focused its attention, for reasons lawyers may be best-placed to describe, on the club’s current owner, Kenneth William Bates. Conn told the story of their ownership, since the departure of former chairman Mr Peter Ridsdale esq, with a refreshing clarity. And while the story contained nothing new to close observers of Leeds since 2004 – which would include many readers of this site – it would have provided valuable insight to those new to it. Conn took us methodically and simply, though never simplistically, through Leeds’ tale of financial woe, beginning with Ridsdale “living the dream” at the start of the century. “It is generally accepted that the Peter Ridsdale was financially disastrous for the club,” Conn noted. This isn’t, of course, accepted by Ridsdale himself in his current energetic efforts to re-write this part of Leeds United’s history. But this was a documentary didn’t get side-tracked on such side-issues – unlike me.

The tribulations of the “Yorkshire Consortium” of local businessman who in 2004 tried, and failed, to repair the financial damage done by Ridsdale, were faithfully recalled by then-chairman Gerald Krasner. Eyebrows may have been raised when insolvency practitioner Krasner stated that the consortium “were not rich men,” having claimed his Leeds chairmanship to be a “labour of love” for which he would normally have charged “a lot of money,” – many BBC Iplayer viewers in the Plymouth area would know roughly how much per hour he may have meant by that. But the documentary was honest enough about the consortium’s failings, even in its rush to get to the star of its show, Bates, the “unlikely guardian angel from the tax haven of Monaco.”

The documentary was at its most revealing and disturbing at this point, with two stark, black-and-white photos of a younger Bates. The second was demonstrably Bates, though with dark hair. The first showed a clean-shaven, portly yet kindly-looking face, peering innocently out of a car window; proof that the camera may not perpetually tell the truth. Bates’ “colourful” business history was given a brief, wilfully disrespectful airing – “wheeling and dealing… he dabbled in ready-mixed concrete”, as dodgy-sounding a business CV as you could write, bang-updated by the addition of 21st-century business bêtes-noires, “property and banking.” Author Tom Bower, who devoted thirty-three pages of his book Broken Dreams – Vanity, Greed And The Souring Of British Football to Bates, gave us his précis of Bates’ 23 years at Chelsea, buying the club from bankruptcy and selling it just before it became bankrupt again. “Not a great achievement,” he noted.

In a warning to fans currently protesting against Bates for developing Leeds’ Elland Road ground rather than the team, Bower said Bates, while Chelsea chairman, “redeveloped the ground and earned a lot of money for himself from it.” And he added that he didn’t think “selling (Chelsea) to a Russian oligarch was a great service to the fans,” which is not a view held by everyone with Chelsea allegiances – not yet, anyway. But the idea of Bates as self-serving twister was established. And Conn warmed to that theme immediately. Newspapers heralding the “Bates Era” at Leeds in January 2005 “suggested Bates had personally taken over Leeds. But Bates denied being anything more than the “UK representative” of an indeterminate entity called ‘Forward Sports Fund’ (FSF), which had actually ‘bought’ Leeds.

With heavy emphasis on the words “overseas” and “tax haven,” Conn showed how difficult it was to demonstrate whether Bates was lying… or even telling the truth, for that matter. Economist John Christensen cited a purely hypothetical example of “someone who’s resident off-shore, say in Monaco.” Tax havens weren’t just havens from tax: “Professionally we call them ‘secrecy jurisdictions,’” he told us, adding emotively that “money-laundering and bad activities” could be going on “because we can’t find out who actually owns the club.” The secrecy of Leeds’ ownership, it was implied, also cost the club a £25m loan from Leeds City Council, and seconds of airtime later Conn added that “just two-and-a-half years after Ken Bates took over Leeds, the club was effectively bust.” At which point the documentary played the “small business” card.

Conn interviewed Stuart Russell, whose ‘small’ firm Russell’s Patisserie, was owed £2,700 by Leeds. Not “a lot of money in the big scheme of things,” Russell himself noted, “but you have to make a lot of rolls to make £2,500.”  So, a third of the way into the documentary, Bates was already established as a secretive failure who took Leeds into administration. This was the cue for a topical dig at the ‘Football Creditor’s Rule’ which ensures that usually highly-paid players get all their money out of an administration process, while Stuart Russell “got back a cheque for just under £50.”

“Incidentally”, said Krasner, pretending the thought had just come to him, “a football manager is not a football creditor.” So Bates’ first Leeds manager, Kevin Blackwell, was left to scrabble for a small fraction of the, ulp, £993,332 he was owed. But two organisations stood to lose much more, “obscure off-shore companies called Astor Investment Holdings and Krato,” which had apparently loaned Bates’s Leeds £15m. Astor and Krato were quickly linked to “tax havens” and “closely-guarded” secrecy, just before Krasner explained that they insisted “that the person who has lost them that money be allowed to buy back the club,” as they told administrators, KPMG, that they would waive their bumper debts if, and only if, Bates remained “in charge” at Leeds, on behalf of… well, no-one, exactly, seemed to know. “Just to repeat,” added Conn, directly addressing the many viewers who had just shouted “Eh?” at their screens, “the investors who lost a staggering £18m under Ken Bates still insisted that he remain in charge.”

The viewer was then taken on a European tour of companies and court cases to determine why Astor and Krato were so keen to get Bates back in charge. But even high court judges couldn’t find out ‘who’ let alone ‘why.’ Bates, of course, was “the most obvious person… to clear up the mystery.” The documentary had already shown him saying that “the one condition they made of coming in was that they did not want any publicity or their identities being disclosed.” But this was immediately followed by an “incredulous” Krasner saying Bates “didn’t even know who he was working for,” inviting the viewer to ask how, then, did Bates know what they were thinking?

As the documentary-makers strongly suspected, Bates wasn’t about to answer their questions, claiming in an e-mail worthy of a school exercise book belonging to “Ken Bates, Class 2D, aged seven,” that he found the BBC (the “Bloated, Biased Corporation”) “thoroughly untrustworthy.” Further examples of Bates’ literary skills were cited; his reference to Leeds fans as “morons” (comfortably refuted by fan representatives’ concise, well-informed contributions to the programme) and his likening, in the official club programme column, of Leeds United to sex, in a passage which would have had any children reading the programme asking “what does that mean, Daddy?” Daddy, of course, wouldn’t have known, as what Bates wrote was, in fact, nonsense. But, as Lee Hicken of the Leeds United Supporters Trust pointed out: “there’s usually something in there that will offend someone.”

Conn then turned to the football authorities’ regulations “designed to make sure that the people who own clubs are upstanding,” having just established that Bates was pretty far from “upstanding.” We were the taken on another tour of ignorance, as it was revealed that the Football League and the Football Association had declared Leeds’ owners to be “fit and proper” without ever knowing who they were. Nobody from the League, “including its chairman Greg Clarke, was prepared to talk to us on camera,” Conn added, implying that not even Clarke could defend their (in)action in public debate. The League instead provided a statement which said little more than that Leeds’ owners were fit and proper because the club said so, to which the most reasonable retort can only be, “Right, so who are they, then?”. And they couldn’t say what the club said because it was confidential.

They, and Bates, would like to file such matters under ‘history’ now that Bates has bought the majority, controlling shareholding in Leeds – via “an obscure company based in (a) tax haven”, Conn added, probably unnecessarily by this stage. But even this apparent clarification raised more questions, as “just at the point when the riches of the Premier League were out of the club’s grasp,” – i.e. just as the club’s market value plummeted – it was put up for sale by FSF. This was yet more anti-logic for newcomers to the story to ponder, before being told Bates was the buyer, having been about the only person who seemed to know the club was for sale.

Viewers were left to draw many of their own conclusions, not least on how Bates could redevelop Elland Road without apparent reference to its owners – a “company based in (a) tax haven,” as Conn noted “while we’re at it.” But the documentary transcript was much longer than other recent football documentaries of comparable length. It never felt too rushed to understand. And the right interviewees made the right points at the right times. And whilst the title’s eponymous question was never going to be answered – unless an anonymous source dropped the answers through David Conn’s letterbox in a brown envelope – it never felt like the piece of failed investigative journalism it technically was. 

Of course, seasoned observers already suspect who has beneficially controlled Leeds United since 2005, whether they have (exacted) that control directly or through, shall we say, ‘related’ individuals. But the point now is to force the football authorities to guard against a repeat – in that sense, the documentary was well-timed, coming hours before the government’s response to the parliamentary select committee’s report on ‘football governance.’ It is small wonder, on the basis of stories such as this, that even a government naturally inclined towards a laissez-faire attitude towards governance in so many areas of life is taking such a hard line on football at the moment.

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    11 Comments

  1. I disagree, I think the documentary taught us very little that was not already public knowledge and incredibly biased. The fact that Leeds are now operating at a profit, just in time for the “financial fair play” initiative was glossed over quite successfully I noticed.

    Ben

    October 13, 2011

  2. I agree with most of what you’ve written. In totality, it was a pretty devastating critique of Mr Bates and his time with Leeds. Substantially, most of the content was already in the public domain, mainly thanks to David Conn’s earlier efforts. But put altogether in on package, the sleazy regime at Elland Road was exposed to a much wider audience. Conn is a breath of fresh air in British sports journalism.

    Scottydog

    October 13, 2011

  3. I thought it was rubbish I expected something more gritty, a bit like the Roger Cook reports of old. Don’t get me wrong David Conn might be a nice chap but he doesn’t seem ruthless enough. I thought the content was old news just recycled once again. All this negative media attention is making the club a laughing stock, and as soon as we can get back to concentrating on supporting the team (which isn’t as weak as some make out) the better. The last thing we need is all this negativity getting to the pitch and affecting the players.

    chris

    October 13, 2011

  4. The programme was a huge disappointment, and told us Leeds fans, well the anti-Bayes, none happy clapping fans, nothing we didn’t already know.
    I know the programme was specifically about ownership of Leeds, but Conn failed miserably by not at least mentioning the other gangsters that own football clubs in England and elsewhere.

    LeedsHipPriest

    October 13, 2011

  5. How documentaries should NOT be made is to decide the conclusion then cherry pick information and opinion, and present a selective interpretation of them, to give the impression that conclusion has been reached.

    Cobbling together a load of information and opinions that were mostly if not entirely already known, and asking some questions in an important manner so as to suggest they’re important questions (but not actually answering them), isn’t much by way of ‘investigative journalism’. It’s more like the use of licence payers’ money to pursue a vendetta (and how nice for Conn that the licence payers paid for his unnecessary jolly to Geneva). Although Conn’s vendetta is apparently against Bates, it seems he won’t mind if Leeds Utd is damaged as he pursues it.

    Whatever Bates’s wheeling and dealing, however sharp his business practice, he’s done better for the club than Ridsdale or Krasner did; their policies sent it towards it’s destruction.

    LeedsForLife

    October 13, 2011

  6. It seems that Ben and LeedsForLife would be happy for Satan to own Leeds Utd so long as the club is successful. Maybe he already does!

    Mick F

    October 14, 2011

  7. I’d be more interested in who owns Elland Road and Thorpe Arch and who owned the investment trusts that would only write off their loans if the FSF bid fronted by Bates won…..

    These are the thoughts of my anonymous friend from Switzerland. I detach myself from these comments completely…..

    Krasner sells ER and Thorpe Arch to an offshore company who leases them back to Leeds United. That company is happy because they have assets that are rising in value and are generating a profit. And continues to do so today. However, where would they have been had Leeds United disappeared? They rely on Leeds paying rent and have no guarantee of developing the land….

    Krasner sells Leeds United, which is  already insolvent to Ken Bates who fronts up an offshore company. The ownership is confidential. Bates probably pays nothing because the club has no real assets and lots of creditors. 

    However, it was still generating underlying profit due to parachute payments and matchday revenues.

    But, everything it was generating was servicing the debt. Plus the parachute payments were to disappear. The debt wasn’t reducing so technically Leeds United were still insolvent unless it made an quick return to the Premier League and started generating more income again. 

    Somehow, Ken manages to convince 2 investment trusts to provide loans to Leeds United to keep the business afloat even though the business is in a win or bust position. They know the club is insolvent if it doesn’t go up and they will have to write off these loans if Leeds United go out of business. 

    These 2 investment trusts are now the biggest non-footballing creditors. Overall debt levels don’t change, but they are probably much more lenient towards Leeds United than other creditors…..because  my friends view is that Ken is in fact providing the loans. 

    By the way, financing a business through loans/debt is more tax efficient than injecting capital. So what actually happened is that Leeds United purposely keep debt high and shareholder capital close to zero so ken has a business that is extremely tax efficient. Plus, being the biggest creditor means the loan providers have a big say in what happens to the club should it become insolvent. We’ll come back to that. 

    Plan A 
    Ideally for Ken, Leeds United go straight back up to premier league, income goes up significantly, he keeps debt financing the club through loans that he probably provides, he starts generating interest on the loans  and Leeds United breaks even again so doesn’t pay any tax!!!! 

    So he now has a profitable investment and one that has gone up in value because it is back in the premier league. a massive ROI whichever was you look at it. 

    Regardless of whether he keeps Leeds United or sells, they still owe him money through the loans and he didn’t pay any money for the club so makes a huge profit…

    Plan B
    Leeds don’t go up, they lose the parachute payments. Ken is pissed cos he hasn’t made his quick return, but he is reducing the cost base in line with loss of income, obtains another injection of friendly debt to keep the business solvent and creditors happy. He’s not making a profit, but he still had an asset that can generate underlying profits if costs are well managed and if he gets promoted the jump in income will achieve the same result as per plan A in the end.

    Plan C
    So worst case scenario for Ken is that Leeds are relegated again and really are now insolvent. This happens…. 

    However, the loan providers have now become the biggest creditors.

    So Ken now has put Leeds United into administration because we can no longer service the debt due to loss of  income. To come out of administration all footballing creditors need to be paid in full – lucky them!  

    The administrator then has to get the best deal for all the non-footballing creditors.. 

    If someone comes in and says we will pay the creditors 10% and another says 9% then it’s obvious that the best deal is 10%!!

    However, the biggest creditor by far is the loan provider. The administrator is duly told  that the loans will be written off by this creditor, but only if Leeds United is sold to FSF, not anyone else. 

    Therefore Ken has effectively bought the club through writing off the loans he provided, forming FSF and bettering any rival repayment rates to other creditors. Some of these creditors are told they can continue to supply the new Leeds United to if they back the FSF bid. 

    To beat his bid  someone would have to come in and agree to pay all the creditors including Ken at a higher rate!   

    For anyone that hadn’t already sunk the investment they were never going to spend that sort of money to rival the FSF bid on a league 1 club. At that point in time someone would have had to pay around 4 times more for Leeds United than FSF who didn’t have to pay anything to the loan provider….

    So, to be fair to Ken Bates, he has saved Leeds United twice by debt financing the club and having to write of that debt….so he has lost money. 

    However, he has no regard for the collateral damage. Many other creditors lose out as Ken only pays them a small percentage of what they are owed.

    Ken hasn’t injected any shareholder capital so managed to buy a profitable asset for nothing other than the loans he has written off, which in turn allowed him to keep the asset due to insolvency rules. 

    This can be seen from p&l accounts from the last few years. Now the cost base has been addressed, Leeds is a profitable asset.

    That asset also pays him a good wage to be Chairman.

    He has used it’s ties to the city to try to leverage cheap investment from Leeds City Council to increase the asset value and generate new income. Remember, injecting debt finance through loans is a cost effective was to run a business due to tax rules. LCC has quite rightly rejected these advances due to the lack of transparency over the ownership and structure of the club. 

    So, where we are today is that Ken had committed to a building project at Elland Road on the basis that we win World Cup 2018!!! Can’t see any reason for developing the East Stand at this point in time. 

    As Ken did not secure a loan, Leeds United must be using retained profits and cash to pay the builders. The case against Chelsea and the Delph sale generated good profits and injected cash to the club. Clearly the Delph money is funding Elland Road development when it should be invested in the playing squad!

    This is why fans are hacked off with Ken now. We are nowhere further up the league ladder than we were when he took over, he has screwed over local businesses by taking us into administration and is now diverting cash that should be used to build the team into a building project that is not required right now. 

    And who funds it…. the very fans he calls morons and dissidents. He uses loyalty to the club to increase income by charging season ticket holders and members extortionate prices for everything…..

    He is only in it for self gain and uses offshore companies, debt finance and insolvency rules to protect his own investment at the cost to others…..how does the fit and proper person test work??? They are two words I would not use to describe Mr Bates. 

    But, the reality is we are stuck with him until someone buys him out and he won’t sell up until he is in the premier league and makes a big profit! 

    Andy Flynn

    October 14, 2011

  8. It was utter rubbish

    Dom

    October 14, 2011

  9. I found the programme a bit of a let down. Most of the points Conn made are already well known by Leeds fans but I supposed others may have learnt something.
    It needed to be harder hitting and I think that an interview with Bates was a must.

    EYLEEDS

    October 14, 2011

  10. David Conn describes himself as an “investigative journalist”

    Why did he not ask Gerald Krasner the obvious simple question:-

    “Who did you sell Leeds United to?”

    If Krasner did not know who he was selling to, perhaps Conn should have asked him why he cares so much now about who owns LUFC?

    The programme was overhyped an in typical David Conn fashion a “copy and paste” exercise.

    If only I could find a job like Mr Conn’s! One that requires little effort for a lot of reward.

    Brian B

    October 31, 2011

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