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.
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.