Daniel Chapman | Writing etc

We almost made it to eleven months. Some parts of the world would be pleased with eleven months of peace, but in Beeston it doesn’t seem all that long. It was cold, and there was a takeover, then it was warm for a bit, then it got cold and there was another takeover. Or, at least, there was talk about it.

Eleven months of peace. There is a belief that war is the natural state of man, so it’s not that unusual to think that takeover is the natural state of Leeds United. You might have thought that once the purchase of last December was followed by the purge of last June, that stability and tranquility would descend on our turbulent football club. You could only think that, though, if you weren’t paying attention to the small print.

There was no real reason why anybody should, when the large print was so beguiling. First Salem and David, then Salah when he was brought smiling to the stage, talked whenever they talked in terms of ‘medium to long term strategies’; as if they’d been trained like Pavlov’s Dog to never utter the words ‘short term.’ Add a manager with a demeanour so reassuring you could replace the D&G along the side of his specs with “Here For The Long Term And To Build The Future Health Of The Club” (if his spec-legs were long enough), be sure to repeat that nobody expects promotion this season, hand out a few contracts to teens at Thorp Arch and you’re laughing all the way to a roadmap to promotion in 2016.

That’s the large print, anyway, and it’s a reassuring message and one we could all get behind. ‘The Past is the Past, Be a Part of Our Future,’ and don’t worry, because the future is a very long time and we’re going to spend it together. Right Salah? That’s right Dave.

After that, you’d have to be a masochist or a conspiracy theorist to actively seek out the small print, but it was there if you cared to look all the same: in the accounts of parent company and ultimate owners, Gulf Finance House, you could lick an inky finger and run it down a column in the account books and find Leeds United right there, right there as an ‘asset held for sale.’

Now, I’m no accountant. To paraphrase Albert Camus, everything I know about finance and accounts, I owe it to football. But I have, in my time, been a lover, and when loving, I have held, and been asked to hold. I have heard the words, “Hold me,” whispered lovingly into my ear. But I have never answered, “Like an asset for sale?” because that does not imply closeness or contribute towards a continuation of lovemaking. And because it would get me a slap, and rightly so, and things would probably never be quite right in our love again.

It’s those four little words that mean it was never going to be right between GFH and Leeds United. “Our corporate strategy is for sustainable growth in the medium to long term” is many words. “Asset held for sale” is many fewer words, but they have much greater impact, and written in black and white in the accounts back at Bahrain HQ, they carry much more weight.

Time and duration are peculiar things, in that you can manipulate duration against the overall background of our shared experience of time. Fifty years is a long time – a long term, even. Eleven months is a short time, but if you’re only intending to hold an asset for sale for, say, twelve months, eleven months becomes a long term, in terms of the duration of time allotted to the holding of the asset. Got that? What I’m saying is that when Salah Nooruddin talked about ‘the medium to long term’, he never defined how long the term would last. On such instabilities has our near-year of apparent stability been built.

So it’s no surprise that takeover talk should spark up again less than a year into GFH’s ownership; an asset held for sale was always going to be sold some time. Bits of it already have been; each quarter another chunk of Leeds United has been passed to another company, making our ownership structure seem even more fragmented. I don’t particularly want to invoke the name of the beast here, but it is reminiscent of the tangled ownership structures of Bates, only with unhelpful bulletins from the Bahrain stock exchange every step along the way. Bates never used to tell us about ownership changes, and there was nothing we could do about it. GFH tell us everything, through the Bahrain Bourse, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Welcome to modern football, here is your complimentary calculator.

If it’s not a question of whether Leeds United would be taken over again, it is a question of why now. To which the answer is: dunno, ask them. (This is a strategy that is underused whenever there is takeover talk at Leeds. Fans demand answers from other fans about strategies, bidders and negotiations, and all the people actually involved just sit demurely to one side, like shy debutantes waiting to be asked to dance.) The timing does seem unusual. If we assume the intentions of the investment bank that owns our club is to profit from its investments, the riches on offer from promotion to the Premier League would surely be the best way to secure the maximum return, and Brian McDermott has somehow manoeuvred a team that was using Luke Varney as a striker for much of the season so far into a position not far from the play-offs. K is the first letter of ker-ching, and GFH definitely hold a K in their fists.

May, and promotion, however, lie the other side of a whole financial year. And despite their confident bluster about real estate and credit ratings and exploring opportunities, that bank ain’t made money this year. GFH’s most recent accounts show that it has been raising fast cash by selling shares for less than their market value, and made about $200k so far this financial year on continuing operations. Considering the accounts show they need to pay back a long term debt of $204m in the next six years, making $200k in nine months isn’t a fast way of paying that down. Leeds United have been in GFH’s position in the past; picture Terry Venables’ face at the press conference when Woodgate was sold, and you might be able to imagine the expressions in GFH’s offices when a cheeky £7m bid for Leeds United arrived.

They might brave it out, I dunno. The bidders might not have much more cash themselves – I dunno. They might have loads and, with Lucas Radebe on their side, be just the people to lead Leeds United back into Europe – I don’t know. There could be ten other bidders out there ready to make a move to buy Leeds – only they know. But what I do know is that for as long as a club is an asset held for sale, it won’t pay to put too much faith in the people doing the holding. And don’t expect much more than eleven months of peace at a time, either.


From The Square Ball Magazine, 2013/14 issue 04