There’s a feeling that sometimes returns to me from my childhood, and it’s not a good feeling. It’s the feeling I had when I bought my first single – well, cassingle. I got it on a tape in the end.
It was Tricky Disco by Tricky Disco, and I must have badgered my parents for it for ages before I was eventually dragged, or dragged them, into the music section in Woolworths, where I was told to point it out so they could buy it for me. Standing in front of the endless racks of tapes, with their bright colours and astronomical price tags – on a Friday for a treat I used to get two old comics for 10p from the newsagents, so 99p for one tape felt like a huge expense – I suddenly felt incredibly small.
It was overwhelming. I’d wanted, and pleaded, and I’d won, and my small desires were about to be met. My mind whirred fast forward: to picking up the tape, explaining why this tape and not another tape, buying the tape, putting it in the stereo in the car, hearing the song on the tape come through the speakers, listening to it, with my family, listening, all the way to the end, explaining why I liked the song, taking the tape home, deciding to listen to it again, putting it in the tape player whenever I liked, listening to it whenever I wanted.
It was too much for me to handle. “Which one is it?” asked my mum. “None of them,” I said. I didn’t want it anymore.
GFH Capital got off to a slow start. First, they were slow buying the club last summer. After fending off other bidders and successfully negotiating with Ken Bates, they were then slow to make any changes at the club, despite boasting on Twitter about picking up the keys to Elland Road and getting to work. It wasn’t unsurprising: “Nothing will change,” Bates had said while announcing the takeover. By this summer, ticket prices were lower and someone had spilt blue paint down the home shirt, presumably while giving the ground a lick of paint, but the fundamental structures that had kept our football club suffocated for more than eight years had barely budged. Ken Bates was no longer chairman, but he was president. By the sounds of things, he was preparing to come to more matches this season than he ever did as an executive.
So it was a slow start, alright. But in the run up to the season, it’s been a whirlwind month.
Ken’s ascension to presidency had been announced back in December when GFH-C took over, so when the change was made on 1st July, it wasn’t a surprise. That Shaun Harvey stepped down at the same time certainly was. The official website said Harvey was to “remain as a director of the club to offer us his considerable footballing experience,” but for the first time since 2004 he was no longer Leeds United’s Chief Executive Officer. Salah Nooruddin shuffled round the table from vice-chairman to chairman, with David Haigh taking Harvey’s job, if not his title, as managing director.
It felt like a score beyond my wildest hopes: not just Bates, but Harvey too. In many ways Harvey’s departure was even more significant: while he was often dismissed as Ken’s lapdog on the scene, following the orders faxed through from Monaco, he essentially ran the club. When you look at the photo of them cosying up together outside Leeds Crown Court, during the libel action Harvey admitted was costing Leeds “a fortune,” you realise the extent to which they were a partnership, with Harvey the one actually doing the work. As CEO, Harvey had to be in on everything Bates was ever up to. To be Bates’s executive had to be more than just carrying out a sequence of random commands.
These close relationships were how Ken did his business; it’s why, whenever you do hear of a dodgy Ken Bates deal ‘exposed’, it’s through a friendship turned sour, a former confidant turned whistleblower. Too few people ever blew the whistle for anyone but Ken, but without him there to tell the tune, the Bates years soon fell apart. Peter Lorimer left the board and put on a club ambassador jacket, with which he can hopefully redeem his reputation. Yvonne Allen, who Bates brought from Chelsea as his “rottweiler,” the finance director whose job was “to look for any fraud,” slipped quietly away. Halton Sports, whoever that was; and Outram, not to be confused with Bates’s company Outro, also relinquished their stake.
So much for the boardroom. But within a week, Bates’s hook into the playing staff was gone too. Neil Warnock was never the most attentive, but he did notice one thing at Leeds: “The one constant in all the years under Ken Bates has been Gwyn Williams,” wrote Warnock in The Gaffer. “He’s obviously influential, but I never did work out just what his role was. I suppose he’s been Ken’s eyes and ears for more than 20 years.” It was announced on July 4th that Williams was on gardening leave pending severance negotiations.
Things were really warming up now. On July 12th, a deal was announced granting commentary rights to BBC Radio Leeds, who had been forced to look on for season after season as Ken gifted commentary to Yorkshire Radio despite the cash on offer from the “Bloated, Biased Corporation,” as Ken called them. Paul Hunt, formerly deputy CEO of Blackburn, joined as acting chief executive. Adverts went up around the city, inviting Leeds people to be a part of the club’s future; they aren’t quite on the scale of those Photoshopped on the Corn Exchange and Bridgewater Place, but they are there. United stretched its wings further, announcing a pop-up shop that will sell Leeds shirts in Trinity Leeds shopping centre for a month, six years since Bates closed the old shop down.
Getting Ken out of the way to the safe position of president, despite looking like a promotion for the old beard, seemed to have given GFH-C the leeway they needed to start a rapid process of change. No changes were as rapid, though, as those in the last week of July.
8pm on a Friday night is a funny time to make an announcement, and my first thought was that Bates might have drunkenly chinned someone, a stone deal-breaker for any presidency. The statement was terse and to the point. “Ken Bates has ceased to be President of Leeds United Football Club. Mr Bates will now no longer have any role within the football club.”
The events surrounding Ken’s sacking were naturally petty and acrimonious, and were naturally recounted with usual rambling gruffness on the radio. Even TalkSport host Neil Ashton, who wrote lovingly of Ken and his “charming wife Suzannah” in December on the same page of the Daily Mail that he dredged through the private life of LUST chair Gary Cooper, seemed bemused as Bates ploughed through the tale of injustice that boils down to GFH-C alleging that Ken negotiated a private jet for himself, using club money, without the authority to do so, and considered this a breach of terms so serious that they sacked him. “Somebody’s got a screw loose,” grumbled Ken, promising court action.
GFH-C have made no public comment, although details of their relationship with Bates have made it to the Yorkshire Evening Post. Bates had expected to buy LUTV, the club’s website and Yorkshire Radio for £2m. Instead, GFH-C sold commentary rights to BBC Leeds, are expected to have launched a brand new website by the time you read this, and, with two hours notice, closed Yorkshire Radio. If this is pettiness from GFH-C, all I can say is, they’re very good at it.
Closing Yorkshire Radio is the point where the purge becomes human. As the only choice for commentary since 2008, Thom Kirwin et al have been familiar voices to thousands of fans, even if we couldn’t ever tell you who is responsible for spinning Tinita Tikaram on the midweek daytime shows. In many ways, though, Yorkshire Radio was the most severe expression of Bates’s method.
It’s an old expression, too. He first had a club radio station at Oldham in 1966, where he had already scrapped the match programme in favour of a newspaper that he used to criticise the club’s supporters, calling them “the lambs of Sheepfoot Lane.” He had another go with radio at Chelsea, where much of Yorkshire Radio’s equipment came from. But he really perfected the form at Leeds.
It was Yorkshire Radio, during administration, that swung the creditors’ vote Ken’s way and was crucial to him retaining control of the club; it was Yorkshire Radio, with station director (and minority owner) Ben Fry, that broadcast Ken’s belligerent and bilious weekly “interviews,” and gave us the infamous foreplay metaphor; it was Yorkshire Radio that contravened Ofcom regulations when, in the words of Ofcom’s ruling, “Mr Bates had taken advantage of his position as a company director of Yorkshire Radio and, ultimately, its owner, to use the programmes as a vehicle to air his views about Gary Cooper and the LUS Trust”; it was Yorkshire Radio that cost the club Harvey’s famous “fortune,” when broadcasting ‘wanted’ adverts demanding the whereabouts of Melvyn Levi was found in court to “constitute acts of harassment” which were “more than unattractive and boorish and are serious enough to sustain criminal liability.”
‘Thanks for tuning in. In a moment, our station owner will criminally harass a business rival, and after that, he’ll be sharing sex tips for octogenarians with our lovely Ben; but first, and before we get to the Leeds United commentary that is all you care about, here’s a classic from Godley and Creme.’
On top of all that, Yorkshire Radio’s losses totalled over £1.6m despite showing no employees and minimal running costs; and in June 2012 it was in debt to its parent company – Leeds United Football Club – to the tune of £1.14m.
There are few greater symbols of the egotism and waste that have characterised Ken Bates’s 81 years on earth than Yorkshire Radio. It had to go. The only surprising thing is, it really has gone.
Those of you who know your music might know that Tricky Disco by Tricky Disco was WAP7: the seventh release on seminal Sheffield-born label Warp Records. An early release on one of the coolest labels of the last twenty years wasn’t a bad choice for my first cassingle. Getting everything I asked for on one tape might have been too much for me to handle at the time, but that young confusion gave way to confidence in my taste and I was soon buying all the cassingles a young lad could want.
That first wobble, that overwhelming feeling of getting all I wanted at once and feeling not joy, but apprehension, has never left me, though, and its with me once again.
I almost daren’t end this article, because I don’t know what the days between now and the game against Brighton have in store. GFH Capital have been ruthless in ridding the club of the last eight years in the last month: the slogan for the season is ‘You Can’t Change The Past, But You Can Be Part Of Our Future,’ and they seem determined to live up to at least the first part of it. While sweeping the past away, though, not a lot is being said about what the future holds. In fact, not a lot is being said at all, other than ‘He’s gone. She’s gone. That’s closed. This is closing.’ Silent but deadly is the order of the day.
The hope is that it really is only the past that is being so ruthlessly done away with. A football club might downsize like this to rid itself of past, beard-wearing unpleasantness; but a business would downsize like this as part of drastic, cash-running-out cost-cutting. And Nooruddin, Haigh, Patel and their bosses are businessmen. Set against this swift and dynamic off-field restructuring, the team on the pitch looks as static as ever, investment in players something to be chuckled about, rather than something being undertaken seriously. The stronger rumours continue to be outgoings rather than incomings, and such ruthlessness in the boardroom doesn’t suggest security. Ken Bates got two days notice. Yorkshire Radio got two hours. How long might Byram, Lees or McCormack be given to pack their things and go?
Part of that wobble, with the whole top forty laid out before me and a shiny pound mine to spend, was about whether I was making the right choice: whether, given everything I wanted, Tricky Disco by Tricky Disco really was everything I wanted. It peaked at no. 14 in the charts, and there were other choices around it on the Woolworth’s racks: One Love by The Stone Roses; Turtle Power by Partners in Kryme; Naked in the Rain by Blue Pearl; Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega. I had everything I wanted, but had I chosen the right thing? It’s why I feel my knees wobble now. Bates, Harvey, Allen, Williams: gone. Yorkshire Radio: closed. David Haigh is even meeting with LUST this week. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I just hope this means we’re really getting the right thing.
From The Square Ball Magazine, 2013/14 issue 01