We have noted before on this site that football supporters can be considerably more patient than we are ever given credit for. Indeed, some might even say that we are too patient. In recent years, we have put up with increasing ticket prices, the desecration of the atmosphere inside grounds and policing methods that would raise an eyebrow were they to be practiced in a totalitarian state. It is also worth remembering, however, that everyone has a tipping point, a moment at which a penny seems to collectively drop amongst a support base which triggers feelings that may have been suppressed or ignored for a considerable period of time. That moment may just have come for the supporters of Leeds United.
The Yorkshire club has had to tolerate the ownership of Ken Bates for four and half years now, at least. Bates’ hard-headed policy of pushing ticket prices through the roof, using official club media for baseless attacks on those that he deems to be his “opponents” and labelling those amongst his club’s own support that oppose his methods with language that goes beyond being merely derogatory and into the realms of merely being abusive. Set against this, the decision to sell club captain Jon Howson to Norwich City may seem, from the outside, to be relatively small beer. Howson, however, more than merely the club captain at Leeds United.
Born in Morley, on the outskirts of the city, Howson has already made almost two hundred appearances for the club since making his debut for the club in 2006. At a club at which long service was for many years part of the culture – consider, for example, the twenty-one years that Jack Charlton spent at the club or the seventeen years that Peter Lorimer managed – Howson was regarded as a personification of the spirit of Leeds United and, while there has been considerable grumbling ever since Bates’ ownership of the club was completed, it seems as if his sale may well be the moment at which those that had previously chosen to not get involved with protests against his ownership of their club become motivated to act against him.
Against Southampton on the fourth of March 1972, Don Revie’s Leeds United team put in a performance of such brilliance and arrogance that is has come to be regarded as one of the definitive of its era. They won the match by seven goals to nil and, although they ended up losing out on the league championship at the end of that season to Derby County, the presence of Match Of The Day cameras at Elland Road that afternoon preserved forever a team at the absolute summit of its powers. This March sees the two sides meet again in the Championship, with Southampton chasing one of the automatic promotion places and Simon Grayson’s inconsistent Leeds United side sitting just below the play-off places. The cameras of Sky Television will be in attendance, but the biggest question mark now surrounding this match is how many Leeds supporters will be making the effort. Talk is starting amongst the Leeds United support of boycotting the match against Southampton, and this has been fuelled by a statement made by the Leeds United Supporters Trust (LUST) last Friday, which reads as follows:
The Leeds United Supporters Trust today calls for the Chairman and board of Leeds United to actively look to sell the club to owners whose ambitions and resources more appropriately reflect the stature of the club and its loyal fans. We believe the time is now right for the current regime to step aside and allow the club to move forward. Overwhelmingly the majority of our members have asked us to campaign for this.
After 7 challenging years in control, our members believe that it is time for change at Leeds United and we believe the overwhelming majority of Leeds United supporters feel the same way therefore the Trust will be supporting peaceful campaigning for new ownership in the days, weeks and months ahead and we urge the Chairman and the board to listen.
The obvious question to ask at this is point is that of how successful a boycott of this match might be. Protests outside Elland Road have already been airily dismissed by Bates as the work of “morons”, and Bates is a man who gives every impression of someone who relishes the battle against those that disagree with him and there will be Leeds supporters who will wonder what the point of further protest against him is or argue that, with average crowds already having dropped by around 3,500 from last season, the boycott has already started. With ticket prices the highest in the Championship and higher than many Premier League clubs, this is perhaps unsurprising.
Yet what alternative do supporters of the club have? The fact that Bates may not listen to them and almost certainly will deride them shouldn’t prevent them from protesting. Their alternative is to continue to pay through the nose and sit at Elland Road watching a team that seems unlikely to challenge for automatic promotion at any time in the near future. No football supporter has an automatic “right” to anything – not least Premier League football – but when we consider the amount of money that is being demanded of them for tickets, they might expect to see greater investment in the team than they are seeing at the moment, and this before we even to begin to consider the dubious character that Bates is and the circumstances under which he took control of the club. If they don’t make a stand against Bates but don’t wish to continue watching the club, the other choice is to walk away from Leeds United, whether temporarily or permanently – an unsatisfactory resolution for all supporters.
It is positive that LUST have come out to campaign for his removal. As at many other clubs with large support bases, Leeds United’s support is disparate by its nature and it is to be hoped that the concerns of LUST can provide a focal point around which those that want rid of Bates – who has been a cancer upon the game in this country for almost five decades now – can gather. Protest against him may not succeed quickly, but a boycott of the match against Southampton would serve two purposes. It would offend Bates in the only manner that he can, it seems, be genuinely hurt – in the pocket – and would be a visible signal to the rest of football that the supporters of this football club are not merely going to accept stratospheric ticket prices and the systematic sale of players. And if the supporters of Leeds United did manage to dislodge him from our game for good, we would all owe them a debt of gratitude.
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