Wednesday, December 05, 2012
Me and Mr Bates
By Steve Jennings
Supporting Leeds United has always been a challenge even when the general feeling among anyone interested that the club was doing well. Just when you thought we were onto something good a disaster appeared from out of nowhere. Which other club could be in the European Cup Final in 1975 but relegated just a few years later in 1981? How many league champions survive relegation by just two points nine months after being crowned champs as happened to Leeds in 1992? Who else could be playing at Real Madrid in 2001 and Rotherham in 2004 as equals? Only Leeds.
But in 2004 it was probably as challenging as it had ever been up to that date. The boom ‘n bust of the Ridsdale era had left the club heavily in debt and teetering on the brink of administration. Ridsdale had bailed out when the going got tough and he was rightly subjected to some adverse criticism from United fans (it was, after all, all his own fault, bless him!). He was succeeded by the ridiculous Professor John Mackenzie who was simply out of his depth running a high profile club like Leeds United. Gerald Krasner’s Yorkshire consortium reduced the debt heavily by selling many of the club’s assets but the club needed a buyer, and fast! Mad Sheikh’s and family members of certain supermarket chains were mentioned but nothing bore fruition. There were rumours that consortia were waiting for the inevitable administration to buy the club on the cheap but rumours are just that, rumours. I remember going to bed at night many times wondering if there would be a Leeds United when I woke up, mainly because I didn’t understand the admin process and consequences. Player pay deferrals were all the rage and our few good players left sold off cheap. Then Ken Bates name was mooted in the press as a potential buyer and in the space of about 48 hours he rode into town and bought Leeds United for £10m.
Now anyone with even a passing interest in Football knew who Ken Bates was. He was the man who bought Chelsea for £1, was outspoken (to put it mildly) and had always courted publicity and controversy. This was the man who welcomed Matthew Harding to the west London club, took his money to fund transfers and then banned his widow from Stamford Bridge the very next game after Harding was tragically killed in a helicopter crash in 1996. Not a very nice man, Mr Bates!
But he built Chelsea up transforming their crumbling Stamford Bridge ground into Chelsea Village with state-of-the-art hotel, bars and restaurants. He talked of the need for football clubs to have income streams 365 days of the year not just matchday revenue. This vision was complimented by a plan for the football club, one that won more than their fair share of trophies with Gianluca Vialli, for instance, winning five in four seasons before getting sacked by Bates.
Unfortunately for Bates towards the end of his time there the club income was vastly overshadowed by the outgoings and Bates was forced to sell to Roman Abramovich in 2003. But for the Russian billionaire Chelsea may have been finished. He had so much money he could pay £140m for the Chelsea takeover (including £17m that went to Bates personally), absorb the club’s reported £80m debt and fund a spending spree on players that had never been seen before. And rarely since.
Now anyone who has been subjected to my many rants or read my tweets about Ken Bates may be surprised to know I was pro-Bates at the start of his days at Elland Road, after the initial shock of course. I was in the minority but bought into the theory that he would have one last football ambition after the Chelsea disappointment and he would want to be remembered by the world of football as a success in his own right, surely, not one bailed out by a rich Russian? He needed a challenge and he got one at Elland Road. And maybe after the dream chasing of Ridsdale and fire fighting of Krasner Leeds needed a man who talked straight was not courting popularity or afraid to make big decisions whatever the fans thought. Bates appeared to fit the bill and he brought immediate stability to the club.
The hard-working Kevin Blackwell was handed a three-year contract and money made available for players to be signed. United finished that first year in the Championship in 14th but talk was of a big push for 2005/6. But controversy beckoned and Bates made his now infamous comment that “if the city of Leeds wants Premier League football the fans have to pay for it!”Season ticket prices were subject to a huge increase and I was at the home game where Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United thrashed Leeds 4-0 (with Andy Gray scoring twice) and Leeds fans on the Kop responded to the price rise with chants of “you can shove your Chelsea prices up your ar_e!” I remember being quite disgusted by that, Bates did, it seem, have a plan and if we supporters had to pay a bit more so be it.
Crowds dropped in 2005/6 mainly due to the ticket increases and some general apathy, despite a successful season with United making it to the play-off Final at Cardiff. The East Stand upper was closed in all but big cup or league games and attendances of 18,000 or so at Elland Road were common place. The squad was steady if unspectacular. Gregan and Butler were solid (if slow) at centre-back but money wisely invested in Hulse, Cresswell, Harding, Blake and Derry was supported by the useful acquisition of Lewis on a free and the loan market used to good effect to gain Premier League players Miller and Douglas at a key stage in the season.
The team were capable of big performances (Preston away in the play-off semi-final the most obvious) but also capable of imploding too, none more so than the Final at Cardiff where an average Watford team put Leeds to the sword with a 3-0 hammering. United were dreadful that day and all of us Leeds fans in the stadium to watch proceedings were simply struck dumb by what we saw! But being 90 minutes from the Premier League was proof enough that Leeds were heading in the right direction, right?
It was during the summer of 2006 that my largely positive opinion of Ken Bates started to wane and begrudging respect moved quickly to dislike and on to detestation. His reaction to missing out on promotion was not to build on the squad but sell Hulse and Kilgallon, two of Leeds better players, to Sheffield United for a combined £4m and promising youngster Walton to Charlton for £1m. Likewise Miller & Douglas returned to their parent clubs and not replaced. Little of the money generated was made available to Blackwell to invest although he did waste £800,000 on the awful Kevin Nicholls, arguably one of the worst Leeds players of all time. But in general it was second rate loanees who were brought in like Tony Warner, Geoff Horsfield and Jemal Johnson while Ian Westlake came in as part of a swap deal with Dan Harding. This was one of the first times Leeds fans publicly asked where transfer money income had gone as it hadn’t been spent on team improvements, and in previous seasons Aaron Lennon and Scott Carson shipped out for six-figure sums too with money apparently going elsewhere. It was no real surprise that the team struggled and Blackwell was sacked eight games in after three successive defeats. Bates initial plan was for John Carver to manage the club until the end of the season – no doubt to save costs – and this looked a good decision after his first game where Leeds beat Birmingham 3-2 at Elland Road. But it was Bates programme notes for this game that were most poignant. Talking about Blackwell’s sacking Bates stated that Leeds debt had been reduced to £6.3m and that the club would be debt free by the end of that season. He also had a dig at the stay-away fans saying that 5,000 more season ticket sales would have seen Leeds debt free already. These words would gain more attention by the end of the season.
When Carver suffered four heavy defeats he was also sacked and the worst fears of most Leeds fans became reality when Dennis Wise was installed as our new boss. He, with the help of another former Chelsea player Gus Poyet, took Leeds down to the third tier of English Football for the first time in our proud history and he was responsible for signing some terrible players like Tres Kandol, Matt Heath and Graham Stack to name a few. Bates football decisions had not worked and his leadership again called into question.
In early 2007, with Leeds now embroiled in a relegation battle, the first whispers were being uttered that the club was fighting the real possibility of administration. We all thought these rumours must be ridiculous, remember Bates boast in the Birmingham programme in September 2006 that the club were in an improving financial state and near to a positive bank account?
Failure to beat Ipswich in the final home game would all but condemn Leeds to relegation to League One as United would need to beat Derby away by a double figure score if not. A late Town equaliser prompted crowd trouble with thousands of Leeds fans invading the pitch and, after the game and Leeds relegation all but confirmed, Bates called in the administrators and United were automatically deducted 10 points to boot meaning a bottom place finish just one season after finishing fifth. When the dust settled it was made public that Leeds United’s debt was quoted at £35m meaning that £29m more debts had been accumulated since September if Bates programme notes were to be believed. In my view that makes Ken Bates possibly the worst football chairman of all-time, indeed the worst business man of all time too! Unless, of course, the figures were not entirely pure. Within this £35m was a loan taken out by the club from an offshore company of £12m in March 2007, a figure that increased by a further £5.7m with interest added making this the major creditor with about 50% of the debt. Amazingly this offshore company would later state that they would accept 1p in the pound repayment but only if Ken Bates regained control of the club, an approximate repayment of £177,000 or a loss of £17.5m. Failing that they would demand the full £17.7m from any new owner. This would prove a major influence on the final administration process. I am not sure it ever became evident where the monies from this loan were invested (I may be wrong), but it certainly wasn’t used to pay HMRC (the Inland Revenue in plain talking) as the club owed a huge £6m when admin was placed, and you don’t mess with the Taxman!
Now I don’t want to dwell on the dark, wet summer of 2007. It was a horrible few months for both weather (I am a Cricket lover too!) and what was happening at Leeds United while Ken Bates wrestled to regain ownership of Leeds. I have to be honest and thought that there was zero chance of Bates winning the administration process as I always believed that any chairman or owner who took a club or business into admin would be deemed unfit to be involved moving forward. But this is Ken Bates we are talking about and in the ensuing months we learned of the club being “secretly” sold in March 2007 (well it wasn’t that well known, put it that way) meaning Bates was not much more than an employee when the club called in the Administrator’s, KPMG, so the “blame” for admin lay elsewhere. My memory maybe a little clouded five or so years later but I doubt I am too far away.
Without going into too much detail KPMG made the decision they deemed best for Leeds United with the £17.7m “loan” most dominant in their thinking. By keeping Bates they were effectively writing off £17.5m of debt that any incoming investor would have to pay, money that could go into the team?
But again Ken Bates' inability to keep counsel alienated him from a large number of Leeds fans when he stated during the process that he would take Leeds into liquidation if he didn’t regain control of the club. From that minute I detested the man. And I don’t use the word “detest” lightly. It amazes me that any Leeds fan could accept this man as chairman after such a claim but there you go.
I will never forget the horrible moment one dark Friday afternoon when I found out Bates had been successful regaining ownership of Leeds despite not making the most lucrative offer for the creditors. I was working at Somerfield’s head office in Bristol and there were a fair few Leeds fans working there including many who had joined us from Asda so were Yorkshire born and bred. I just sat there looking at my PC screen trying to come to terms with the news after the internal email dropped into my inbox. It was like a death in the family. Then, during my near two-hour drive home I learned that the Football League had reacted by deducting Leeds United 15 points from the season ahead meaning we would start bottom of the table without kicking a ball, and probably stay there for a while. From hell to the abyss, thanks to Ken Bates.
If there could be a silver lining then surely all this would be too much for the Leeds fans, most of whom are grounded and decent, no nonsense Yorkshire folk? But no, in fact Bates came out of this the hero to many fans who vented their anger to other obvious targets, including the Football League, Leeds City Council, West Yorkshire Police and the HMRC who were deemed the bad guys. In fact the point’s deduction prompted togetherness within the club support; it was us against the world and all that. Support at games was fervent as we cheered on a new set of heroes. Well, something like that.
The League One years were horrible, pure and simple. Don’t let any Leeds fan get all dewy eyed about those three seasons with tales about putting Yeovil to the sword or visiting “real grounds” like Hereford and Exeter. Ken Bates decisions in 2006/07 dragged Leeds into a relegation battle that ended in failure and the tactics he employed during the admin process prompted a 15 point deduction that cost us automatic promotion in our first year down and kept us in the lower leagues longer than needed. There were other notable contributors, sure enough, but Bates was at the root of all evil.
And some things never change. Fabien Delph was sold for a big fee in August 2009 (reported to be £6m) with little evidence of investment back in the team. And our League One midfield of Snodgrass, Gradel, Johnson, Howson and Kilkenny were all allowed to move on cheaply or for free as neither Bates nor his sidekick, Shaun Harvey, could negotiate appropriate contracts.
When Leeds finally did escape the League One hell it was much to do with the efforts of manager Simon Grayson who had worked admirably on a shoestring to put together a squad capable of going up. Being a young manager he wasn’t perfect, who is, but he stuck at his task and finally we were nearer where we needed to be. Our first season back in the Championship was exciting with United just falling short of the play-offs. Grayson added some useful players including sons of two Manchester United legends Schmeichel and Bruce. But he brought in some dross too like Paul Connolly, Fede Bessone and Billy Paynter. It is up to you to decide if you think Grayson is at fault for these signings or whether you think it was because he had to shop in other club’s dustbins to find gems. I am of the opinion it is the latter and once again I accuse the chairman and his associates for lack of vision. The club did not need to spend millions, just a bit of quality in key areas similar to how Swansea, Reading and Southampton invested wisely to gain promotion to the promised land of the Premier League.
There were some big performances. Likewise we had a couple of thrashings as Preston put six past us after being 4-1 down (the first time an away team had scored six at Elland Road but not the last), but a seventh place finish was probably punching above our weight considering minimal spend.
Before the following season Schmeichel, Gradel, Kilkenny and Johnson had all left and Leeds fans would have to cheer on players unable to get contracts elsewhere playing for our club. Step forward the likes of Väyrynen, Brown, Nunez and Webber. Grayson was sacked one day after the transfer window slammed shut (we didn’t expect that one did we Mr Bates?) and Neil Warnock brought in. But regardless of the new managers experience he couldn’t perform miracles. As the saying goes, you can’t polish a turd!
So much has happened since Bates gained control of Leeds, firstly in 2005 then again in 2007. I will remember his tenure as a time when the crowds dropped, future generations stayed away (and probably support teams in red instead?), best players sold, poor players brought in, abusive comments aimed at the club’s supporters (the real saviours of Leeds United), lies, lies& more lies and misinformation about the running of the club, court cases and bad press. This is Ken Bates legacy. So when rumours started gathering pace in April 2012 that Bates was ready to sell Leeds then I was as excited as many other Leeds fans. But, being Ken Bates, one should remain calm until a deal is done. And so I waited. I waited. A comment from the club in May merely stated that the club were talking to “investors”. I waited. I waited. Another silly comment from the club saying nothing specific really. Internet rumours and Twitter goes into meltdown and then, finally, a deal announced that GFH Capital had started the process of acquiring Bates shares of Leeds United. Phew!
And so to today. This is written the day after Leeds won a third game on the bounce away at Huddersfield (ironically managed by Grayson) and the third game since GFH Capital started their acquisition of the club. The world appears to be brighter since the announcement. Are we really close to removing Ken Bates from the running of our famous club? I certainly hope so.
Am I being harsh on Bates? Clearly I am in a place where everything that is wrong in the world is the fault of Ken Bates but should I afford some praise?
The so-called “Bates apologists”, a dwindling number of Leeds fans who support the chairman, say that he saved Leeds in 2005 and but for him we might be supporting Leeds & Hunslet Rangers FC, AFC Leeds or FC United of Leeds. Or even worse for you Yorkshire boys and girls Bradford City. According to them only Bates was interested in Leeds, no-one else was ready to put their money where their mouths where. To those I ask one question: if that is so why did Ken Bates pay full market value for Leeds United (£10m) if a few days later he could have acquired the club unchallenged for a fraction of the amount, say £1m? I thought Bates was the master businessman? I don’t actually have the answer but may I suggest that there were indeed 2 or 3 consortia waiting in the wings to bid for Leeds when the inevitable administration happened? I don’t claim to be in the know, but that is what I heard.
And why would admin prove the death of Leeds United, why do some think the gates would have been chained and that would have been it, no Leeds United? Look what happened at Southampton and Leicester were admin proved a blessing.
We should remember Mr Bates first choice investment was Sheffield Wednesday who had the good sense to send him away. If Bates interest in Leeds had been public knowledge then there would have been uproar and the administrators would have questioned Bates record at Chelsea. Yes, he built a club up from humble roots but he would have killed them off but for a Roman with billions to waste.
Allow me to suggest that Bates knew the only way he could acquire Leeds was to pay full value so can we dispense with the conspiracy theories that Bates stood alone in wanting to buy Leeds.
And as for 2007 Bates and his apologists believe he saved Leeds United again! From whom, himself?
Remember Bates boast in the Birmingham programme in 2006 a few months before admin, didn’t sound like Leeds were looking down a barrel then, did it?
So to answer my own question then no, Ken Bates does not deserve praise for buying the club with others money, making poor decisions, having no business acumen or vision and taking our club to the depths of despair and our lowest ever league placing. In fact I believe his coming in took us back years, undoing all the good work of Wilkinson at Thorpe Arch.
The Leeds United fans have paid for Premier League football many times over but the chairman and his merry gang have failed to deliver.
Me and Mr Bates have walked “together” for seven years or so and it has been emotional, frustrating and little else. According to GFH the takeover will be complete on 21st December and Bates will stay to manage the handover until the end of this season and will then assume the role of President. As much as this appals me it has to be better than allowing the man to make decisions.
Mr Bates lost my support because of one man, himself. Time for him to head down to Monaco and enjoy retirement but I fear he won’t! Mr Bates, Mr President? Good grief!