As the full-time whistle blew at Elland Road on Thursday night, the smell of decay emanating from Leeds United hung heavy in the air. Another home defeat, this time at the hands of Blackburn Rovers, left the team just three points above the Championship relegation places and without a league win in the last six weeks. Away from the pitch, owner Massimo Cellino, a man for whom the – yes, made up – word “eccentrocratic” seems fairly appropriate, had been banned from having a say in the running club for the second time in a year over discrepancies in his tax affairs, whilst the club’s last change of manager was a resulting in the employment of a man unlikely to placate those already unhappy at the way that the club was being run.
This weekend, however, has seen news coming from Elland Road which offers a glimmer of light at the end of one of English football’s longest tunnels. It has been confirmed over the course of the last couple of days that Cellino has agreed in principle to sell the club to Leeds Fans United, a body set up earlier this year with the express intention of taking it into supporter ownership. Even Cellino himself has shown a degree of hitherto unseen humility about the whole matter, telling BBC Radio Leeds on Friday that:
If they want to buy it and look after the club. The fans are the only asset the club has,” he told BBC Radio Leeds. I’m sad and embarrassed. My dream was to do my best but I’ve achieved nothing and family aren’t even with me. I’m trying to protect the club but at the same time it means I have exposed myself. The result is that the fans say ‘Massimo it’s time to go’.”
For much of the last decade, Leeds United has been a club in a state of what has felt like perpetual flux, as if suffering the game’s longest hangover as a result of overspending in the Premier League at the turn of the century. The cast of individuals and group that have tossed the club like a rag doll since then came to resemble every supporter’s worst nightmare, from Ken Bates and his media sniping at anybody he took a dislike to and general air of contempt towards anybody that wanted to be regarded as something more than a walking wallet to be emptied upon arrival in the vicinity of Elland Road, through to the almost comically stereotypically “anonymous” Gulf Finance House, the debacle of an organisation which came to sell the club on to Cellino.
The Leeds Fans United bid for the club has, perhaps unsurprisingly, received a huge upsurge in interest since this agreement in principle was confirmed. Shares are available in blocks of one hundred at £1 each. It’s an investment that should prove affordable for most, and the potential for a club with the size and scale of Leeds United is certainly very great indeed. If Leeds Fans United are successful in their bid, the club will become by some distance the biggest in England to be taken over by its fans, and the ramifications of this could be huge for the supporters ownership movement in this country in a wider perspective. At several other clubs – most notably at present, at Blackpool and Northampton Town – fans groups are continuing to agitate for fans to have either complete or a greater degree of control in the management of the club. At there and elsewhere, Leeds United now has the opportunity to set an example to prove both at clubs of this size and bigger, that the idea of fan ownership can be made to work.
None of this is to say that fan ownership is some sort of panacea for the ills of the game, of course. There have been clubs at which it has been less than successful and at which supporters trusts have run clubs for relatively short periods of time before handing it over to someone else. The experience of Portsmouth over the last couple of seasons, for example, has proved that even good intentions mixed with crowds that are the envy of the rest of the division will not automatically lead to success on the pitch. The running of a professional football club is a complex mesh of interactions that touch on many aspects of business, but ultimately the difference between success and failure is a fragile business, determined at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon by eleven players. There are never any guarantees, in this business.
With this in mind, it may be argued that a shift in attitude in the mindset of any fan base is important if fan ownership is to be successful. The happiest football clubs often seem at be those at which a win at all costs mentality is set aside in favour something less tangible, a set of ideas that revolve around principles of what that club should stand for, whether they, say, be pseudo-political or based in a mindset that says “never again” in situations following the involvement of unsavoury owners. At Leeds United, the latter certainly feels like a banner around which the entire fan base could unite. This is a club that has had its fair share of owners that have given every impression of being solely out for what they could get from it, no matter what “it” may be. These ownership models have, ultimately, failed the club, as its current league position amply demonstrates. It’s surely time for a fresh approach at Elland Road.
This, we might conclude, is Leeds United’s big opportunity. Football club owners seldom entertain the notion of selling their shareholding to fans’ groups, and in cases where even this is a possibility the likelihood of these groups having the potential to be able to raise the money required is simply not possible for many. The fact that Massimo Cellino has stated that he will not seek to profit from the sale, when combined with the size of the Leeds fan base, means that a sweet spot is being hit that allows the owner of the club to exit the club with a greater degree of goodwill than would ever otherwise have been possible, whilst giving its supporters an opportunity control its – and, by extension – destiny and to create something of which they can all be proud. A return to the Premier League may not necessarily be imminent for Leeds United – the Championship is far too unpredictable a division to be able to make such a claim for any club, regardless of circumstances – but this is an opportunity that Leeds United supporters should embrace with both hands. Perhaps there is light at the end of one of English football’s darkest tunnels after all.
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