There was a hint of what might have been and what might yet be at Elland Road last night as Leeds United knocked Everton out of the League Cup with a win by two goals to one which, if we disregard the empty seats between a crowd of only just over 21,000 people, rolled back the years to the days when this club was a Premier League force. It was a result which might not have much long-term significance – even winning the League Cup doesn’t feel particularly significant in the grand scheme of things these days – but for a couple of hours the clubs supporters were able to forget about the persistent Ken Bates-shaped cloud that hangs over their club and get on with the altogether more satisfying job of seeing their team dumping a Premier League club out of a cup competition. On the pitch, Neil Warnocks team has made an inconsistent start to the league season, and the 2012/13 Leeds United vintage remains something of a work in progress. A home win against Nottingham Forest last weekend ended a run of three league matches without a win and left the club in twelfth place in the Championship table, still comfortably in touch with the play-off and automatic promotion places at its top but without having issued the statement of ambition that we might have expected from a club whose desire to return to the Premier League has in recent years become so evident as to feel tangible.
In recent years, however, what happens on the pitch has had to share headlines with the clubs owner. Ken Bates continues to frustrate and insult in roughly equal measures, but over the last couple of weeks or so it has started to feel increasingly as if his time at the club is finally starting to come to an end. Talk of new investors has become talk of a take-over that we understand to be close to completion, with a consortium backed by a Bahrainian investment now believed to be close to finalising a deal that might just see Bates’ time in the game – which is now coming close to fifty years – finally come to an end. That they should be interested in buying Leeds United is not a surprise. The huge increase in television money from the start of next season announced a couple of months ago makes clubs of the Championship considerably more attractive to investors than they might have been a couple of years ago. A club like Leeds United might be a very canny investment if managed well. But Ken Bates surely already knows this, and few at Elland Road will be expecting any change of ownership to be done and dusted without a good deal of haggling being done first.
Bates, meanwhile, seldom makes life easy for anybody that he disagrees with and the continues to snipe at the likes of the Leeds United Supporters Trust from the safety of media channels that he owns. In a bizarre interview with LUTV and his own tame Yorkshire Radio – which brought to mind a meeting with a third world dictator crazy with power – he opted to continue this nasty little vendetta through dedicating more time to them than on the machinations going on behind the scenes at Elland Road, describing the Trust as ‘a waste of space’ and the Trusts membership as ‘an ignorant, illiterate minority’. Leeds United supporters have, perhaps, grown too used to these rambling addresses for them to have a great deal of effect any more and perhaps the rest of us are now so familiar with his modus operandum that we too don’t give them the discredit that they deserve. Viewed from a distance, however they remain breathtaking in their pettiness, vindictiveness and childish. To listen to the thoughts of Chairman Ken is to see a window into a parallel universe in which these characteristics are prized rather than something that he should be – but apparently isn’t – embarrassed by.
The Trust responded to his comments with, one suspects, the withering tone of an organisation that has heard this all before, stating that, “Having been accused of directing personal abuse at Ken Bates, which, as anyone who has read our statements and comments during the takeover process knows, we have not done, we find it amazing for the L.U.S.T. board to be described in the next breath as “idiots,” “illiterate,” and “a waste of space.” In some respects, we might even argue that it should be grateful for his clearness of entrenchment on such matters. After all, unlike at other clubs, at which a veneer of bland customer service has come to shroud the continuing fleecing of supporters at every turn, at least the situation at Leeds United is completely black and white, with Bates’ pronouncements being so absurd and so widely publicised that Leeds supporters have a clear choice on who they wish to get behind (should they wish to get behind either), and in addition to this it’s difficult to see how Bates could possibly attract much support for his views when his articulacy so frequently descends to the language of the playground.
Not, of course, that he gives much impression of caring that much for what anyone thinks of him. Perhaps this is inevitable for anybody after almost five decades in the role that has cast for himself. Popularity contests are seldom won by football club chairmen that aren’t unctuous and insulting towards anybody that disagrees with their ‘my way or the highway’ approach towards running their club, and it can feel at times as if he is playing to a gallery that is expecting him to behave like a pantomime villain. At the time of writing, however, it feels as if there might be cause to believe that, for supporters of Leeds United, there is finally some light at the end of their tunnel. It has been suggested that a contributing factor towards his decision to leave the club now might be to escape an FA charge of bringing the game into disrepute that was stayed at the end of August pending the outcome of negotiations to take the club over. There are many that would like to see Bates punished in this respect. For others, if it means him getting out of football and this time for good, then that is all that matters. Both are viewpoints that have considerable merit about them.
It is also worth pointing out that while the new owners will likely enjoy an extended honeymoon period at the club of account of who they aren’t, there are questions that they should answer if they are to be trusted with an institution like Leeds United. The matter of their anonymity is currently given a sheen of respectability by the confidential nature of talks concerning the take over, but clubs have been bitten by those who want to stay anonymous whilst reaping its rewards before and Leeds United supporters might be well advised to keep a watchful eye on their behaviour after they take control, presuming it all goes through. As well as this, the question of how any new owners should utilise the commitment, knowledge and enthusiasm of the 8,200 strong LUST membership is one that only they can answer, but the evidence of elsewhere indicates that football clubs at which everybody is pulling in the same direction are healthier and happier than those at which supporters groups are frozen out. Others, meanwhile, may also ask the valid question of whether anything can be done about the currently exorbitant cost of tickets at Elland Road – it might be too late to do anything about that for this season, but there is no reason whatsoever why they shouldn’t be frozen or reduced in the future. New owners of a football club, ultimately, should never be given an easy ride. They’re not taking on just another business – football clubs are far more precious than that.
For now, though, there is an end in sight for the clubs supporters, and that is a start. With sensible management, a return to the Premier League for Leeds United is a distinct possibility and with this would come deserved catharsis for a fan base that has been repeatedly let down over the last ten years or so. There can be no promises of a return to greatness – modern football simply doesn’t work like that – but for the club to be something to he proud of and to try, with honesty and endeavour, to fulfil its potential would be a start, at the very least. And when Ken Bates finally does leave English football for good, there is a very real chance that the put upon supporters of Leeds United won’t be the only ones raising a glass to seeing the back of this particular individual. Bates can retire to the country and sit counting his money. We’re sure they’ll be very happy together. Leeds United, meanwhile, can put the last decade behind them and start marching on together again. And it has felt like a very long time indeed since we could make any such comment with a great deal of confidence.