Leeds fans should have the owners they deserve: themselves


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Leeds fans in the stands

In football you have to be careful what you wish for. If you are a fan of Leeds United, however, anything has got to be better than this.

Watching Leeds on Tuesday night sink to defeat against Bournemouth, it was impossible not to be impressed by their travelling support. Given the nonsense they have been fed over the past ten years by a succession of clown-like owners it is astonishing how loyal the fans remain.

1,300 of them travelled to the south coast for a midweek fixture, watched their team get hammered 4-1 by a bright and progressive Bournemouth team and still chanted all the way through the game to demonstrate their love of the club they follow.

“We may be s**t but we still love Leeds”: as a statement of intent it was inarguable.

Sure, their view of what Leeds United is all about is very different from those who sit in the directors box. Or, in the case of the trip to Bournemouth, don’t sit there: the sole representative of Leeds being entertained by the chairman at the Goldsands was the former player Dominic Matteo, obliged to tuck into the finger buffet on his own. There was not a single director anywhere near the place. They have all done a runner.

As the manager Brian McDermott suggested, the hard core supporters are the soul of the club, its beating heart and spirit. Fans like Phil Beeton, who travelled to the Dorset Riviera on Tuesday to watch his 2000th consecutive league game involving Leeds. That is commitment, that is dedication, that is what has been entirely lacking in the boardroom at Elland Road for a decade: a love for the club.

Because make no mistake, Leeds is not an isolated example of what can go wrong in modern English football. Like Portsmouth, like Forest, like half a dozen other clubs they have been a target for those who think there is money to be made from the game but don’t actually have any idea how to set about doing so.

Of course there is money to be made out of English football. With the new television deal, membership of the Premier League is currently reckoned to be worth anything up to £100 million a year. Just look at those who have made hay. From Martin Edwards’s £85m personal take at Manchester United to Taksin Shinawatra, who walked away with £90m from no more than 18 months in control of Manchester City, the profits have been dazzling.

But in the case of Leeds, the only way that sort of income can now be generated is by getting there. They have to be in the Premier League to reap any kind of financial reward. And to get there requires investment, a long-term and significant input of cash - something a succession of owners have been unwilling to provide, preferring instead to strip off whatever assets may not have been nailed into the Yorkshire limestone.

Everything about Leeds suggests the club should be a roaring success. The history, the geography (it is the biggest city in the country to boast only one league club), the local economy: this should be a club flying high. Instead it has been holed below the water line by a succession of viciously misguided owners. Barring Ross McCormack, everything worth flogging has been sold off. The stadium, the training ground, the future income from season tickets: it has all gone. There is not an asset left. Except the fans. And my, has their patience been tested.

It has now reached the pass where the current owners, GFH Capital, the financial group from Bahrain, are claiming they no longer have responsibility to pay the staff. McDermott was saying after the match on Tuesday that the players have no idea whether they will be able to meet their mortgages this month - though news emerged on Friday that, for March at least, the general club staff have been paid, while the players have agreed to defer a chunk of their salaries. As for April? Who knows.

With that kind of uncertainty hanging over the dressing room it is not surprising they were not exactly tigerish in the tackle against Bournemouth. It is typical of Leeds fans’ luck that their club has ended up in the hands of the one bunch of oil state owners without any money. Make no mistake, GFH could not be confused with the Abu Dhabi regime at Manchester City. They prefer to put their hands in other people’s pockets, rather than their own.

In a sense, you can understand why Massimo Cellino - the owner of Cagliari who was poised to take over the club until disbarred as an unfit and improper person by the Football League, with just a couple of minor things like fraud and false accounting on the charge sheet - is unwilling to continue bankrolling the place. He has been forking out for the players’ wages for the past three months, on the understanding from GFH that official recognition of his takeover by the League was a formality. Now the authorities have stepped in and finally shown some resolve, he is not so keen to keep stumping up the cash. Which was presumably why the Leeds fans at one point in the game chanted “stand up to the Football League”.

Really? They want Cellino? Few could argue the League did not have a good point in trying to keep him out of English football. He should have no place here. But then neither should GFH, Ken Bates or any of the other shysters who have taken turns at wrecking Leeds. What the club now needs is a period of steady stewardship by owners who understand the history and philosophy and purpose of the place.

There is only one set of people who properly fulfil that remit. After stopping an unfit owner from taking control, the Football league should go further, and do everything in their power to ensure the club is now taken into fan ownership. Barring the discovery out there of football’s first benevolent billionaire, at Leeds that is the only way forward.

Jim White

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