What We Talk About When We Talk About Leeds

The most disturbing aspect of Ken Bates’ impact at Leeds United has been his effect on us, the fans. We’ve changed; or rather, he has changed us. The most fundamental way this change expresses itself is in the way that we express ourselves – it’s right there, in the way we talk about Leeds United. Ken Bates has stolen our narrative of ourselves; he has blunted our desire to write our own history, to give vocal form to what we want from Leeds United Football Club.

It’s not a surprising result, and certainly not an accidental one, given the time and emphasis put into Bates’ programme notes, and his weekly radio addresses, with edited highlights printed on the official site; long before his Leeds tenure, Bates programme notes at Oldham and Chelsea came to be seen as a bizarre sort of institution. Bates’ regular soapboxing is often dismissed as an airing for his ego, but there’s more to it than that. Even if you don’t share his opinions, or if you try to ignore his often ugly oratorial style, you can’t pretend they aren’t there. You pick up on words and phrases and tones, and you hear them from the fans around you; and the focus of conversation on a match day becomes less about whether Paynter is starting ahead of Somma, but whether the Norwegian Supporters Club should pay up for memberships and how the Pavilion is doing.

Languages change: they evolve, new words are formed, old ones become more prominent; people need different words to talk about things they haven’t spoken of before. And language has changed at Leeds United. In our attempts to understand what Ken Bates is doing at our football club, the language of football, of Leeds United, has been replaced by the language of Ken Bates. And the language of Ken Bates is not the language of a football fan, but of a property developer.

And so, when an offer is made for our goalkeeper, the focus of the fans is not on the Leeds United question of whether a sale will be good for our team, but on the Batesian question of whether it represents “good business sense.” Fans talk about the balance of a contract, on freeing up wages, whether £1m now is a fair price when the player can leave for free in a year; and not about whether the team will be improved. A football team at its core is eleven players, and yet rather than have a footballer in the number one shirt, it makes “good business sense,” it’s a “good deal going forward,” to have a million quid instead. It’s better to have the money than to have the player. That’s not football fans talking; that’s Ken Bates.

The acceptance of the Kasper Schmeichel sale – assuming it happens – is the acceptance that Leeds United are now a selling club. That’s the logical conclusion of the idea that a transfer before Schmeichel’s contract runs out is “good business sense.” It follows that every player at the club has a price related to the remaining length of their contract, that each one has a tipping point at which the sold sticker is slapped across them. We can find a better keeper than Schmeichel, sure, but can we find better players to replace Snodgrass and Gradel when it becomes “good business sense” to sell them? Leeds United fans never used to think like this, and that was not just because we were arrogant sods; it was before Ken Bates convinced us that “good business sense” is more important than football, that money is better for the club than players.

Bates has used the spectre of Ridsdale to get us all scared, essentially. It’s how he’s managed to spend £7m on the East Stand development this close season. Through careful repetition – never backed up by proof – that “brick by brick” he’s “building” the club up, Bates has managed to convince the fans that executive boxes, shops, and eventually a hotel will lead directly to success on the pitch. And we repeat it to each other, and it replaces the football, and because we’re all saying it, we all think it’s true. Leeds fans used to talk about football, but now we talk about “maximising long term revenue streams,” “expanding our commercial interests,” about “safe investment in a guaranteed return.” Leeds fans now think that to spend £7m on a football player would be a momentous risk and a return to the spend-spend-spend era of Ridsdale; but that to spend £7m on corporate facilities is sound business thinking in the long term. Well, it’s very long term that we’re talking: the twenty-two new East Stand executive boxes are priced at £28,500(+VAT) per season; if they are all sold every season at that price, it will take eleven years to make £7m back. And that’s assuming they all sell; in Bates’ last years at Chelsea, Stamford Bridge was notorious for the number of executive boxes that were unsold and unused.

By listening to Ken Bates about the soundness of the commercial infrastructure he’s building, we’ve not just bought into long-term thinking, we’ve bought into never-never thinking. Yet somehow we believe that executive boxes today will mean more money for players tomorrow; that by waiting for the profits to show from the corporate side, we’ll be on a surer footing to spend on the football side. Well, if we can wait a decade, I suppose that’s alright.

It’s a triumph of fearmongering; it’s the triumph of the Ken Bates mantra. “Ridsdale, Ridsdale, Ridsdale; we must never repeat the mistakes of the past.” Out of our fear of having the last decade happen to us again, we’ve allowed Bates to convince us that Leeds United is not a football club anymore. Football clubs buy and sell players, and train them up through youth teams, in order that the eleven on the pitch will beat the other eleven on the pitch. But now we’re too scared to do it. We’re too frightened to buy a player in case it’s another Seth Johnson; we’re too fearful of the bottom line to turn down bids from our rivals. We won’t risk anything for football anymore; we’ve been told that too much risk is involved in getting Leeds United to compete on the pitch; that bricks and mortar and conference suites and hotels are somehow the path to success for a football club; we’ve been told it, and we’ve believed it.

I‘m as involved as anyone. What I’d really like to do in this blog and in The Square Ball magazine is write wanky prose poems about Robert Snodgrass going to sleep and Luciano Becchio pretending to be Maradona. That’s where the fun is. Instead I’ve ended up writing stuff like this, where in order to point out where I feel Bates is destroying Leeds United I get dragged into his arena, forced into using his language, to stop talking about football and about Leeds United and to talk about executive boxes and corporate fine-dining instead. These aren’t the stories I want to write about Leeds United Football Club; these aren’t the words I want to be using. I long for the day when we can stop printing the transcripts of the Yorkshire Radio interviews on TSB; but Bates will have to stop using them to slag off and misinform Leeds United supporters first.

Bates’ mantra has relied on convincing Leeds fans that we aren’t going to repeat the mistakes of the past, that Ken Bates isn’t Peter Ridsdale, that ground improvements are ‘safer’ than team improvements. But at least Peter Ridsdale’s greatest mistakes were borne of a pursuit of football glory, were supposed to bring about success on the pitch, to keep us in the Champions League: ‘Living The Dream’ has become an ugly phrase to Leeds fans, but wasn’t it exactly the dream of every football club – to be as good at football as possible? Whose dream is it, precisely, to have the best executive catering arm of the second division, to have the highest room occupancy rates in the Football League? Do any fans long for the day when they’ll see a Leeds United hotel manager lift an award for corporate hospitality?

We as Leeds fans need to stop kidding ourselves that long-term revenue streams and diversification of property portfolios are what we want at our football club. We need to stop believing the lie that pursuit of football success will always end up the way it did with Ridsdale. We need to stop thinking about our football players in terms of debit and credit. We need to stop believing that the core business of a football club should be corporate hospitality. We need to admit that, due to Ken Bates’ influence, we’ve stopped talking about Leeds United as a football club; and we need to ask ourselves just what stories we want to tell each other about our football club in the future. We need to take control of our club’s narrative again; we need to make the story of Leeds United our story again, not the story according to Ken Bates. Take a look at a photo of Gordon Strachan with the League Championship trophy; of Billy Bremner lifting the FA Cup. Moments like that give our football club it’s whole reason to exist; those are the stories we used to have at our football club. That’s what we should talk about when we talk about Leeds United.

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Postscript 24/6/11: Thanks for all the comments below, and the responses on Twitter and elsewhere. Some of the points made I agree with and some I don’t, but they’ve all been interesting and thought-provoking, and having had my say in the article I’d rather let everyone’s comments stand without any further back-and-forth from me.

I can’t resist pointing this out, though. Twenty-four hours after I wrote:

It’s a triumph of fearmongering; it’s the triumph of the Ken Bates mantra. “Ridsdale, Ridsdale, Ridsdale; we must never repeat the mistakes of the past.” Out of our fear of having the last decade happen to us again, we’ve allowed Bates to convince us that Leeds United is not a football club anymore.

Ken Bates said this on Yorkshire Radio:

There are loads of players out there… They have to be far more realistic on their demands. Leeds United went bust once through Peter Ridsdale paying daft wages, we do not intend to do that again.[/x_blockquote type="left]



Originally on The Square Ball blog