Sometimes, the oldest ones are the best – or, in this case, the worst. There are plenty of rogues operating in and around football clubs these days, but the old master, Ken Bates, can still teach others a thing or two about dealing with those that they hold in contempt with an almost breathless degree of disrespect.
Elland Road has not been a happy place this season. Leeds United are performing much as we might have expected on the pitch. Although it was not enough to save manager Simon Grayson his job in January, the club currently sits just below the play-off places in the Championship in tenth place in the table and there is still all to play for, but crowds are down and discontent is in the air.
For some Leeds United supporters, the tipping point, as far as Bates is concerned, came with the sale of club captain Jon Howson to Norwich City for £2m in January. Howson had come to represent the very best of Leeds United during a period in the club’s history that most supporters would prefer to forget. His sale, in the middle of a season in which promotion ambitions remain on the agenda, has come to represent a toxic culture at Elland Road of cost-cutting and a lack of investment in the playing squad while ticket prices remain very much at Premier League levels. The cheapest season tickets at Elland Road for this season cost £622, more than the cost of the cheapest season tickets at all bar four Premier League clubs.
There had been talk of a boycott of the televised match last Saturday against Southampton, but after the arrival of new manager Neil Warnock this was cancelled as a show of support for him. As things turned out, the crowd that did turn out for this match saw something of a sign of the times play out, with rejuvenated Southampton, whose ascent to the top of the Championship table demonstrates what is possible with sensible investment in the team and a settled, stable manager, winning by an odd goal in spite of a dogged performance from Warnock’s team. News from the club’s supporters trust (the Leeds United Supporters Trust – the LUST), though, has threatened to again break that brittle air of detente that may have settled over the club with the arrival of the new manager.
The LUST have been critical of the way that the club has been run this season, and they co-ordinated a protest in Leeds city centre prior to the club’s recent match against Brighton & Hove Albion. Since then, the gloves have come off in the battle between Bates and the LUST. In an interview with Yorkshire Radio on the fifteenth of February he made defamatory comments in questioning the commitment of the board members of the trust, and this has now been followed up by stopping their membership of the club, which now prevents them from buying tickets to matches. Gary Cooper, the LUST chair, said that he was “gob-smacked” by the decision – which he only found out about when attempted to buy tickets for this week’s match at Hull City – and stated that, “We are being victimised and it’s insanity.” It is also understood that they are now taking legal advice under the Data Protection Act with regard to specific things about trust board members that Bates mentioned in his rant on the radio.
So, Ken Bates’ traditional tactics of divide and rule begin again, then. It is a familiar enough tactic, of course, to loudly decry those that oppose him using official channels – the Leeds United matchday programme and his weekly radio interview with the supine Yorkshire Radio are his favoured mouthpieces at present – and issuing bans to those who criticise him in public. This time, though, he seems to have scored a PR own goal. Support for the LUST has grown rapidly of late, with membership now standing at around 4,500 people, but some considered the decision to appoint Neil Warnock as the manager an appointment which took something of the wind from the sails of any protest at a club at which getting behind the team will always take precedence over any sort of protest. With the spiteful and petty decision to cancel the membership of people that have the audacity to criticise him – and, moreover, to publically question their support for the club – though, he may well find that the protests against him increase in volume and regularity in the near future.
What has been suggested elsewhere is that the nature Bates’ response to recent criticism – and, more pointedly, the recent upsurge in LUST membership – betrays that he may actually, finally be getting rattled by the Trust’s recent actions. Of course, Bates would never admit this. Such a declaration doesn’t fall into his modus operandum. His behaviour and the reaction it, however, does say something significant about football in 2012 in a more general sense. The more Ken Bates pronounces, the more of a relic he sounds. The days of football supporters turning up, pouring money into the pockets of the likes of him, paying whatever he tells them to pay, shutting up and being grateful for the privilege are ending.
Should Leeds United get promoted to the Premier League at the end of this season much of this discord may be forgotten, but with a dozen games of the season left and the team six points adrift of the play-off places, it seems unlikely that it will happen, and Bates may find that the folly of his pronouncements and steadfast refusal to invest in the team comes back to haunt him in the summer, when season tickets are on sale again for next year. If these slump further at the end of this season, Bates will only have himself to blame. Over the last few weeks he has declared open warfare on a sizeable proportion of the club’s support and, should this particular argument become one of whether the club’s support should stand up for its fellow supporters or whether it should stand behind Ken Bates, it would be unsurprising to see them opt for the former. Against such a background, Neil Warnock could well have his work cut out at Elland Road for the remainder of this season, at least.
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