The Lesson of Leeds United: Sort Out These Tyrant Owners – by Rob Atkinson


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Bates: Irrelevant

Many times over the past few years I despaired of the future of my beloved Leeds United.  It was a club dying under the not-exactly benevolent rule of one Kenneth William Bates, a man who had taken control at Elland Road almost 21 years after declaring his avowed intent to see the club banished from the Football League and sent into oblivion.  This perhaps wasn’t the best recommendation for the supposed saviour of United (we heard repeatedly later of how he had saved Leeds at least once, and possibly two or three times).

The next seven years made you wonder whether the Bates reign had started with the breaking of a mirror in the Elland Road boardroom, although what followed was not so much bad luck as bad management, bad PR, bad taste – just every shade of bad you could possibly think of.  Ken’s method of “saving” Leeds, involving as it did relegation to the club’s lowest ever league status, did not inspire confidence.  Administration ensued, with record points deductions which saw an institution of the game in this country being hounded by their fellow league clubs who snarled and slavered as they were ranged against a hapless and helpless United.  It was like watching a mortally-wounded lion being snapped at by a pack of degraded hyenas – or standing by, powerless and frustrated, as a beloved family member was beaten up by snarling thugs.  It was simply horrible.

All in all, then, Bates’ potential as saviour looked more like that of a man who was determined to compass the demise of the club – and many were the reminders of his 1984 Chelsea-owning vow:  ”I shall not rest until Leeds United are kicked out of the football league. Their fans are the scum of the earth, absolute animals and a disgrace. I will do everything in my power to make sure this happens.”  Seven years under a Ken Bates thus motivated is a hell of a long time; for much of that period, things were bleak, grim and joyless around LS11.  The peaks of success were achieved in spite of Bates, not because of him; promotion and a famous win at the home of the Champions in the FA Cup came against a background of player sales, transfer market impotence and managers hamstrung into a frustrated inability to do their jobs properly and effectively.  Ken Bates was to Leeds United what Myxomatosis had been to the rabbit population of Australia; if he’d been left unchecked, the club may well have died.  It was that serious.

Now of course, despite the odd white-bearded apparition seen slithering around in the vicinity of Elland Road, Ken Bates is gone from the club.  It’s safe to pick up a programme again (and even a bit cheaper) – without having to bear the embarrassment of reading his latest rants against the fans (morons) or his business associates, nearly all of whom were either suing him or being sued by him – but at the club’s expense.  No more Radio Bates FM, no more silly bloody notions of a Northern take on Chelsea Village.  Gone and irrelevant, unlamented and destined (we devoutly hope) to leave no long-term mark on our beloved Leeds.

The legacy of Bates now is more intangible than material.  Sure, there’s the cladding on the East Stand and a few vanity projects elsewhere in the stadium.  But the true impact is on the fans; as a body we are now suspicious of owners, investors, saviours – yes, especially saviours.  The fans know what they want, but for the current owners of Leeds United it’s a slow process winning their unqualified trust – even if their aims really are absolutely parallel to those of the frustrated and long-suffering United support.  I write this with feeling; I’ve been as guilty as the next man of occasionally expressing doubts and reservations about where we’re heading under GFH, or under whatever the Consortium apparently on the brink of another takeover will call themselves.  It’s just not easy to lose that suspicion which amounts almost to paranoia; it’s not easy to trust men who are, after all, businessmen wanting to show some return on their money.  Trust will come, but more solid proof may be needed before everything in the garden is rosy.

Double jeopardy: Allam and Tan

Double jeopardy: Allam and Tan

Still, relative to certain other clubs, things are pretty good at Leeds United.  We could be Hull, struggling against an embarrassing change of name being foisted by owner Assem Allam on unwilling supporters who want to be Hull City and not Hull Tigers (cringe).  We could be Cardiff City, already suffering in red after they’ve been Bluebirds these many years.  Of course these two clubs are in the Premier League, and that will mean a lot to their fans.  But at what price?  Would Leeds United fans accept an elevation which comes at such a premium?  Red instead of White, or being known as Leeds Red Bulls even?  What price tradition, pride, identity?  I know how I’d feel – I’d fight such scandalous iniquities to my dying breath, and whatever the feelings of certain complaisant short-term glory seekers, I’m sure there’d be many thousands fighting with me.  As things stand, we have to trust that our current and future owners do not intend to follow a Hull or a Cardiff route.  If that trust were to be breached, things could get pretty hot for those gentlemen.

At times during the Bates era, I used to wish that something official could be done about him, to have him forcibly excised from our club.  “Fit and proper?”, I’d think to myself, unable to understand how any governing body could accept this of such a transparently villainous and malicious, self-serving old curmudgeon.  I saw managers depart and I knew they’d not had a fair chance.  I used to hope that maybe the League Managers Association (LMA) would advise its members not to work for Bates, and force the issue that way.  I doubt it would ever have come to that – too many peace-at-any-price merchants in those particular corridors of power.  But that’s how desperate I felt, that’s how much I wanted rid.  It’s just a year ago since the beginning of the end of Bates.  What a very much happier year it has been.

Now, with things so much more positive around Elland Road, and with the promise of better things yet to come, I can feel some sympathy for fans – and managers – who are suffering under tyrants, much as we did.  Particularly, I feel sympathy for Malky Mackay, the manager of Cardiff City who got them at last into the Premier League and whose reward is that he probably won’t be their manager for much longer.  He’s been issued with a “resign or be sacked” ultimatum by owner Vincent Tan, a man whose football knowledge adds up to precisely zero.  Still, having ruined the Bluebirds image, he feels qualified to criticise the coaching, tactics and transfer policy of a football man, a solid professional and a man of dignity and restraint in Mackay.  This manager is a dead man walking and he must know it – but still, he’s travelled to Anfield with his team, hoping against hope that he can coax a performance out of what must be a bewildered, angry and confused group of players – at the daunting home of a formidable Liverpool side.  And then, he’ll be gone.  I fervently hope he sticks to his guns and refuses to walk, and I hope too that every penny of his contract is paid up to him.  He will emerge with massive credit for a job well done; he will not be out of work for long.

If there are any hitches with the terms of his dismissal, though, the LMA should show it does have some teeth – and withdraw their members from availability for the Cardiff manager’s position.  Maybe they should do that anyway, to show some solidarity and to demonstrate to Tan and the others like him that the cadre of football professionals will not be made to jump through hoops at the petulant whim of wealthy but clueless, spoiled and egotistical individuals who are just looking for a shiny toy to play with.  I would love to see Tan in the position of having to manage his own football affairs.  His players wouldn’t be able to perform for laughing.  And after all, why should any honest professional, player, coach or manager want to work for such a man?  Let him paddle his own canoe, and let him sink without trace.  In the long run, it would even be better for the fans that way.

English football stands today in real danger of being dragged down to the level of certain other leagues throughout the world, where petulance and tantrums rule over sober judgement and the sanctity of professionalism.  This is something that should be resisted, tooth and nail.  As Leeds United fans, we feel a rivalry with pretty much any other set of fans anywhere, and an antipathy with several groups who don’t need naming here – but decidedly, Cardiff would be among that number.  However, in this situation, I believe that solidarity and the greater interests of the game as a whole should transcend any mere club or fan rivalry.  I’d be happy to stand alongside any Cardiff fans who wanted to protest about Tan and his treatment of a manager who has delivered a lifelong wish for them.  I would be proud to stand four square with them, and chant and sing as lustily as any.  Ultimately, no club is an island, and what can happen to one could happen to any or all.  We have the thin end of an almighty big wedge here, and if something is not done soon, then we might be surprised at some of the changes that will be imposed on clubs that might appear impervious to such interference.  And, of course, more good, honest managers like Malky Mackay will be humiliated in the press, and will lose their jobs at the whim of a megalomaniac who isn’t fit to run a pub quiz.

We at Leeds United should be as conscious of all this as anybody else.  We were nearer to disaster than many would care to admit when the first rumblings of a takeover were heard halfway through 2012.  And who knows what the future yet holds for Leeds?  At the end of the day, the notorious truculence and militancy of the Leeds United support may yet be its biggest asset – especially if, as usual, the game’s various governing bodies turn out to be about as much use as a pet rock.  So we need to stand ready at all times to look out for the interests of our club, which is so close to the hearts of so many of us.  And in the meantime, we cannot afford to ignore the plight of our counterparts at other clubs.  Solidarity and the will to organise and resist are immensely powerful forces if wielded wisely – as we found in our own fight against Bates, the will of the fans being, I believe, instrumental in giving impetus and direction to the takeover.

Let’s support the Hull and Cardiff fans where and how we can.  Let’s see if we can’t apply some pressure, as an organised and cosmopolitan movement of fans, to bodies like the FA, the Football League, the Premier League, the PFA and last but not least the LMA.  Maybe then the message would be brought home to Vincent Tan and similar tyrants that the game is bigger than them – bigger by far – and that their actions if seen to undermine the foundations of that edifice, will not be tolerated.

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23 responses to “The Lesson of Leeds United: Sort Out These Tyrant Owners – by Rob Atkinson

  1. Great article Rob-stand by for a lawsuit for defaming Bates lol!

    Agree with the concerns raised against owners that have no respect for a clubs history and traditions, however, I will never forgive or forget the fans of the majority of clubs that publicly revelled in our demise. What goes around comes around!

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    • Thanks Wriggy – it’d make my name to be sued by the old bastard, bring it on 😉 I know what you mean about the glee with which our problems were greeted by certain clubs – I share your bitterness, too. I doubt I’d bother to spit on Paul Scally if he were on fire (any other time though). But I think this current spate of idiot owners playing fast and loose with professionals has implications for the game as a whole, and I think it’s high time something was done about it. I checked out the Cardiff NewsNow page after writing this, and I’m pleased to see that the Guardian has weighed in on the side of sanity. In other circumstances, it might be quite funny to see fans of Hull and Cardiff suffering a bit – but it’s just got beyond a joke when a man like Malky Mackay can be hung out to dry by a rich-kid nonentity like Tan.

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  2. Great read Rob – as usual – fully agree with your points and would not hesitate to stand united against this evil among us – the question is how? One immediate similarity between Tan and Bates is facial hair – maybe that is the only one – so what better way to show solidarity than 30,000 turn up tomorrow with false or otherwise moustaches

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  3. Great read Rob. The only way that clubs can avoid these megalomaniac owners from turning them into playthings is to limit the percentage of ownership and ensure the fan base has access to a degree of shared ownership. The German League has the template which should be mandatory for all league football clubs. To achieve this the various bodies you quoted need to grow some balls – but as history has shown when huge sums of money are involved those much needed balls generally disintegrate!
    As a fan of Leeds United, despite leaving the city for OZ some forty three years ago, my passion waned for all things White under the Bates regime. I feel more optimistic under GFH but until we know exactly the format of our new ownership there is no guarantee that all will turn out as we would like. I for one would despise any relationship with Red Bull! Leeds playing in red – ain’t gonna happen. But all these concerns would not occur if, for example, 30% of the ownership was held by real Leeds United supporters.
    Anyway I agree with all your comments. Yes, I think we all agree that life under GFH is a hundred times better MasterBates, but until Mr Haigh advises us what and whom are part of the new ownership structure there is no guarantees we will not fall foul of another megalomaniac. Here is hoping got three points over Barnsley and a very successful January! Merry Xmas Rob.

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  4. Pattaya Rag

    Your 2nd para is the best description I’ve read yet of the 7 years of suffering under the rule of a pariah.

    On the issue of trust, it will come for me when it is clear who owns 25% and 75% of the club. With Bates loitering I can’t help thinking he’s involved somewhere, somehow. My gut feeling is Bates is now selling 75% and retaining 25% behind a GFH proxy to cash in when the club reaches the Prem.

    Possible cynics scenario is twelve months ago Bates had the choice of letting the no-asset club go in to Admin or sprucing the place up to make it attractive enough to sell. He took the latter option and brought GFH in to do the sprucing and selling. The money put in the club over the last 12 months was probably raised by selling small percentages of the club to Nooruddin and the investment bank in Bahrain (?). With Admin, Bates would have got nowt but with a sale, he’ll make a sizable chunk of money..

    If this is the case, then GFH have done a brilliant job for Bates over the last 12 months.

    Final point on the current T.O., surely Haigh being involved with both the buyer and seller is a conflict of interest…….. just a thought.

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  5. Well Rob, what can I say? I suspect that you are a man who has been CAUGHT speaking the truth previously. There are always people who will put their heads above the parapet and take on the establishment, they often lose, but sometimes they win!. In the end though, it is always worth it!! Look at Gary from LUST. He took on the monster and gave him a bloody good hiding and credit to him. I agree with your sentiments Rob at every level and long may there be people of your mind and persuasion to counter the ills of the beautiful game. Why don’t we have a campaign against tyrannical owners! Why don’t we stop talking and start shouting from the roof tops that we are football not the owners! Finally though, as far as Leeds United is concerned, I believe that the Suits have it! I really do!! I trust David Haigh, Salah Nooruddin and the board to do what is right for Leeds United and football. Only time of course will tell. I think that we are very lucky to have them on board and I believe that they are doing a wonderful job so far. Ironically, it is the old Buzzard that brought them in lol. But, credit also to GFH for getting themselves in (it wasn’t easy) and getting him out, lol!!! Three cheers therefore for GFH, so raise your glasses to these honourable gentlemen during the festive season! Excellent blog my friend, just excellent!

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  6. The football league are a disgrace for letting this happen to THE BLUEBIRDS just as they were a disgrace for relaxing/ignoring their “fit and proper person”rule with bates. Clubs, heritage and image should be protected just as old buildings are. The appointment of harvey as chief executive illustrates how low the English game has sunk.

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  7. Totally agree with Leeds Mick, the guardians of the game i.e The Football League have let the fans down badly. The fit and proper persons rule means nothing because they have,nt the clout or the balls to enforce it. Ultimately its money that talks and this allows the likes of Bates, Tan or Allam to do as they like. Lets just hope GFH, Haigh and the likes are genuine and are working in the best interests of Leeds United rather than massaging their egos. So far I am impressed with the turnaround in the atmosphere and the feel good factor around Leeds. Great piece from yourself again Rob showing that whilst we are Leeds you do care about the game at large. Merry Xmas

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    • Many thanks Neil and compliments of the season to you & yours – MOT

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      • We may think the football league are a waste of space and they probably are, but you are right the problem is more fundamental than that. The football league have to apply the fair and proper person criteria very carefully and to be quite honest it is a very easy criteria for most people to meet. If the FL decide that someone is not fit to be involved in the running of a football club it would almost certainly be subject to a legal challenge and they would probably lose! I believe that parliament needs to interject and change the model and the criteria of ownership, to something like the Bundesliga. To do this there would need to be quite a lot of lobbying of MP’s and the various supporters trust would need to lead on this. Over to LUST to start the ball rolling then.

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      • I’m for the Bundesliga model. Let’s do it.

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  8. A few seasons ago I went to cardiff , at the side of the stand the stewards were dressed in water proof macs , I thought this a bit odd but during the game it became obvious why , a huge wire net sepperated us and the cardiff fans and at various stages through the game thier fans threw plastic bottles and glasses full of piss thus spraying anyone on the other side ,, so my view is what ever comes cardiff’s way is like pissing in the wind rob , one day you’ll get covered in it and I have no sympathy what so ever for the Welsh scum

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    • Most of my sympathy is for Malky Mackay, a good professional at the mercy of a crass amateur. But I wouldn’t wish a Vincent Tan on my worst enemy – this is not just a club issue, it’s something that, unchecked, will affect our whole game – and not in a good way.

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  9. Yeah.

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  10. redheadedanimal

    I must admit, I did snigger one or two times on hearing the plight of Hull and Cardiff. I have no love for either and take a small, but not insignificant moment of joy on seeing them in this position. Remember the day we were all but relegated to League 1 after Hull beat Cardiff to virtually secure their status. The chorus of “we all hate Leeds scum” and laughs at our expense were no doubt as loud as the popping of champagne corks from Peter Ridsdale on that horrible day.

    Which makes it all the more curious as to why I and many other Leeds fans – and no doubt fans of other clubs find the situation of Hull and Cardiff as unpalatable. The reason is that this is a much bigger issue than any minor rivalry we have. It’s about what football stands for and how, if we as fans do not make a stand on it now, then we are going to be in a position in 10-15 years time where there is absolutely no going back. It’s already started – Look at stadium naming rights, clubs referring to themselves as brands, TV dominating fixture scheduling without any consideration for travelling fans. We have all put up with it so far, but when something as sacred as the name of the team you support is being changed, then that opens up t Pandora’s box and the result will be franchise football. Imagine the Leeds Red Bulls playing home games in Doha? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility if we don’t stop what is being discussed now.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one that shouts at the radio when I hear pundits and players say things like “He is the owner, he can do what he likes!” No he / she cannot do what they like! The are the guardians of our football club. They are privileged to have the position and their sole priority is to run the club in the best interest of the key stakeholders – their fans. Fans are still the lifeblood of a club. They may not bring the significant revenue that TV deals bring – but without the fans TV companies will not want to show the games, players will not want to play for the club and you will only survive in the top flight for so long – look at Wigan.

    So a message to you Vincent and Asseem. If you continue as you are going, you will lose the identity of the club, you will lose the fanbase that has connected to that club, and you will lose face – if you haven’t already. Football supporters have a limit. Just ask Mr Bates and see the attendances at Elland Road last season compared to this season, and the financial mess that left us in.

    This is a fight to save football as we know and love it.

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