New owners need further investment but tell disillusioned fans they are in it for the long haul
Leeds United's FA Cup fifth-round tie at Manchester City on Sunday recalls the titanic meeting at the same stage in 1977, when Leeds, still a power in English football, beat City 1-0, watched by 47,000 fans at Elland Road. City approach this game with renewed questions being posed over Roberto Mancini following last week's 3-1 defeat at Southampton but Leeds supporters would swap their situation greedily for the luxury of agonising about being second in the Premier League.
After almost eight largely depressing years under Ken Bates' control the Leeds hard core at a half-empty Elland Road hoped the takeover by GFH Capital, based in Dubai, owned in Bahrain, would be their version of City's Sheikh Mansour: multimillion-pound deliverance by a Middle East benefactor. Instead, eight weeks on, that optimism has crumpled for many into further disillusionment. Responding to the revelation by BBC Radio Leeds last week that they had turned down an offer from local businessmen – still unnamed – to buy a majority stake, GFH issued a statement professing they were "thrilled" with their January transfer window and "delighted with the progress made".
For most Leeds supporters the transfer window's loudest statement was the exit of their leading scorer, Luciano Becchio, following Bradley Johnson, Jonny Howson and Robert Snodgrass, in recent years, to Norwich City. Middling in the Championship, with play-off hopes faint as the manager, Neil Warnock, conceded on Friday, just over 19,000 watched the 1-0 home defeat by the leaders Cardiff City last week. Leeds lost again on Tuesday, 1-0 at Middlesbrough.
In the same statement GFH acknowledged: "We continue to seek strategic investors," an admission understood in West Yorkshire to mean the investment bank does not have sufficient money itself.
David Haigh, the GFH Capital deputy chief executive, in England for Leeds business and the City match, and Salem Patel, the parent company GFH's chief investment officer speaking from the Gulf by telephone, accepted, in an in-depth interview with the Guardian, that they do not have Mansour-level backing. However they deny, as is widely believed by fans, that they began the long and arduous negotiations with Bates last summer representing a mega-rich backer who then pulled out.
"The money we paid to buy the club and to provide it with working capital since has come from us, our institutional investors and some smaller strategic investors," Patel said. "There was never a single, hugely wealthy person with us. And we paid for the club with cash; we did not borrow money to buy it."
Both men emphasised that, although Bates remains chairman until June, they have paid him in full. They stick to the confidentiality agreed when concluding the deal on 21 December, refusing to divulge how much they paid – it was less than the £44m mooted then; figures from £14m to £23m are cited around Leeds, with more to pay if Leeds are successful. "It is absolutely, categorically incorrect that we owe Ken Bates money," Haigh said. "He is staying on as the chairman until June because that was the agreement we made."
Their pitch to Leeds fans disillusioned because of that continued association and the lack of big money and evident change is partly to ask for patience. Patel and Haigh point to significant investment already made, say they are still reviewing the club's operations and do have planned improvements and that it will take time to revitalise the once mighty Leeds who have never recovered from the calamitous, over-borrowed financial collapse of 2001.
Even before they concluded their takeover, GFH put £2m in as working capital; Haigh says they have put substantial money in twice since, in November and on 21 December, and they say the club will need further support until the end of next season. Patel declines to confirm the £4m figure doing the rounds of the Leeds grapevine as the cash needed now but does say that the club is short because Bates mortgaged season-ticket money to Ticketus for this season and next, receiving £5m up front to pay for refurbishing work in the East Stand. Bates also sold the catering rights for five years, Leeds receiving £2m plus a profit share from Compass catering, and as recently as October the club borrowed £1.5m at 7% interest from the club's sponsor, Enterprise Insurance.
"There is a cashflow shortfall," Patel says. "This is largely because more than £13m has been spent on building projects, financed by selling things forward. We are supporting the club and will continue to but, once this is worked through, we can see a business which can operate without significant input from the owners."
They argue they never promised to spend millions on transfers and envisage a more gradual rebuilding based on bringing through a fair crop of youth but they nevertheless believe their transfer window was sound. Becchio was not sold, as Leeds' best players have mostly been in recent years, but swapped for Steve Morison, whom Warnock wanted. Stephen Warnock arrived from Aston Villa while the loans of Ryan Hall and Michael Tonge were converted to signings. Sam Byram, a 19-year-old bright light this season, signed an improved contract and El-Hadji Diouf extended his.
"A lot of people have criticised us for not spending money in January but we are supporting the club," says Patel. "We wanted to reward and retain our best players and our goal is to build the club slowly but surely."
Rather than be judged a crushing disappointment after eight weeks the men from Bahrain say they consider this a period of transition. Bates' presence as chairman will end in June. Warnock's contract is also up at the end of the season.
"Whether Neil goes immediately then or not, when Neil goes we will look to appoint a young manager who will particularly work to build the young players into great players for the club," Patel says.
"We understand that many fans are disillusioned and we want to engage with their concerns; their loyalty is amazing to us. One complaint is high prices, so we have introduced cheaper deals" – the "Leeds for Less" £15 adult and £5 children's tickets for the forthcoming Blackpool and Peterborough matches – "which we hope the fans will take up."
They are still seeking investment and would prefer to sell 30% to reduce their exposure, which rather signals how tight are the means with which they hope Leeds can be cheered up. Patel says they will consider selling a majority stake but any buyer will have to have the funds to bring success.
"Otherwise we become a minority shareholder in an investment not going anywhere," Patel explains. "We do not wish to make a short-term profit to miss out on the £150m-£200m which could be made if the club wins promotion to the Premier League."
There it is: the crock of gold which has drawn overseas buyers into Championship clubs. Tomorrow Leeds United's fans will see what all the vast money has done for their former rivals at the top of football, Manchester City. And they will grapple with the message that, even after their own club's takeover with money from the Gulf, there is still no fast lane back.