The article in the Yorkshire Post began: “The financial nightmare is over.” It continues: “Stability has been restored behind-the-scenes while the team could this time next week be in the Championship play-off places – Leeds United fans must be checking their calendars to make sure it isn’t April Fool’s Day.”
Leeds fans might want to check their calendars again now, and also check when that article was published. It was in the paper on January 24th, 2005, and the financial nightmare was being declared “over” after the sale of the club to one Kenneth William Bates.
The tone of the reporting in Leeds was overwhelmingly positive. “Friday’s takeover has swept fears away and this week Bates will outline his vision for taking the Elland Road club forward.” Another article the next day said, “Love him or hate him, there can be no mistaking his firm intention to resurrect the club’s fortunes. His money has already saved the club from the spectre of administration and, with play- off qualification still a possibility, will be considering ways of strengthening the squad.
“If Bates can turn Leeds into the same sort of business proposition that led to the arrival of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in English football, there will be no complaints. Development of land around the stadium will be a key element of his business plan and Bates is also planning to buy back Elland Road and the training ground at Thorp Arch.”
The London press, who had dealt with Ken at closer quarters for around 25 years, adopted a slightly more cynical tone. “No, he would not disclose who owns the Geneva-based Forward Sports Fund, which now controls 50 per cent of the club,” wrote the Financial Times.
“No, he would not reveal who owns the other 50 per cent. It was ‘a financially-sensitive situation’ and the details would be known in the fullness of time, he said. He was equally vague about his plans to give fans control of the Elland Road pitch and Leeds United brand name, which would then be leased back to the club on a 199-year lease.”
Overwhelmingly, though, the mood in Leeds was positive. Despite his history, despite his admission that he hadn’t done due diligence, and despite the fact that, well, it was Ken Bates, he was saying all the right things. He said that our money troubles were over, and that he’d be buying back Elland Road and Thorp Arch, and that he would make Leeds great again. It all sounded good, and even if you didn’t like the man or his methods, at least the man and his methods would be on our side now.
What was good for Ken would be good for Leeds, went the logic. He’d need a successful Leeds United to make money; we needed a successful Leeds United for our sanity. He might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but if an unholy alliance was what was required to get Leeds back into the Premier League, then who cared about his past, or his personality?
Raising Bates now might seem like a low blow; nobody likes to be reminded me of the Ghost of the Footlong, especially not when they’re excited about the glamorous new Italian (and his daughter) bringing in a new era at Leeds United. But I raise him not because Cellino particularly reminds me of Ken, but because our fans do. The arguments being used to convince ourselves that Cellino is going to be okay are much the same as the ones that ensured Bates an ovation in his first game in charge.
The convictions for false accounting and deception are breezily dismissed – that was Italy, and besides it was ages ago. The arrest warrant from last year that called him a man of “marked criminal tendencies … capable of using every kind of deception to achieve his ends” is just because the local ‘authorities’ – although we don’t know which one – are out to get him. He’s rich beyond belief, and will spend millions of his personal fortune on Leeds to take us to the Champions League, even though he’s never spent on his beloved Cagliari that way. We can finally look forward to seeing flair players at Elland Road, because all Italians are flair players. Right. Just look at Watford.
Some of it is wishful thinking, and I can understand that. And some of it allows for a cultural and narrative gap between us in Leeds and the last 22 years at Cagliari, which I can also understand – we’re trying to process a lot of history in not very much time. And perhaps the different circumstances and different horizons in Leeds and the English game really will unlock a new look Cellino, outstripping in football terms anything he achieved at Cagliari. I can understand that optimism.
But while I can understand allowances being made for Cellino due to time and distance, I can’t understand the allowances being made for events that took place at our football club two weeks ago. The anger when Brian was temporarily McDermorto was real, or at least, it felt real at the time. Who did this guy think he was, to storm into our club and sack our manager?
The anger now, though, seems to have all gone. ‘It was wrong how he did it,’ is the new stance, ‘but it’s only natural that he should want his own man in.’ A new scenario has been proposed; one where Cellino ‘gives Brian a chance’ – a chance to do what, given how far we are from promotion, isn’t made clear – ‘but brings a new man in if he feels it isn’t working out.’ The line of thinking continues that as long as we get someone better than McDermott then there shouldn’t be a problem; a line of thinking that completely ignores the fact that the best Cellino could find for the Leeds job in his big book of Football Contacts was Gianluca Festa. And Festa was no last-ditch panic appointment; he was expected to be the next manager of Cagliari, before Cellino switched his attention to Leeds.
Part of the justification seems to be that Cellino will be no fool, he’ll run the club his way and his way will get results. His confident statements about “going to the bank on Thursday” to buy Elland Road suggest that here is a man who take a hands on approach to revolutionising the club, who won’t stand for any bullshit, and won’t let any bullshitters stand in his way. That just what we need after GFH’s PR fronted up for a decaying financial situation behind the scenes.
Except the bullshitters aren’t going. Salah Nooruddin is going to remain as chairman; David Haigh has been promoted from managing director to CEO – perhaps a clue as to why Paul Hunt was only ever ‘acting’ CEO. The 25% of the club that Nooruddin and GFH will continue to own between them will not be easily ignored by Cellino. Unless Cellino does ignore it, because it’s not his problem; he has spoken about becoming ‘president’ – I wonder if anybody has told Ken about that? – and taking an interest in player recruitment and the academy, while his two sons − who have “degrees from American universities” – will be taking up jobs at the club. The extent to which Massimo will actually be running Leeds, around and between Salah and Dave, isn’t clear.
The ‘no fool’ argument also brings us right back to square Bates. He was no fool either, so everybody said; he was hard nosed, he would do things his way, and in his own way, and would bring success to Leeds because, after all, wasn’t he a bit Leeds himself? He sure was hard nosed, and he did do things his way, but I think you can provide your own answers about the success he brought and his ‘Leedsness.’ We are, though, doing our best to make the same mistakes with Cellino.
That question of ‘being Leeds’ is perhaps the most interesting of all. It comes down to a misunderstanding of what the ruthlessness of Don Revie’s side was all about. Nobody on Revie’s team would have given the slightest attention to a show off like Cellino. Ruthless? What’s ruthless about playing guitar in a metal covers band? What’s clever about his constant battles with the authorities over Cagliari’s stadium – battles that he seems to have lost? Billy Bremner would have called that a waste of energy, something done more for show than effect.
That’s a crucial thing about Leeds United, and it’s where we’ve gone wrong with Bates, with GFH, and where we might yet go wrong with Cellino. These are shows. “We’ll have a lorra lorra laughs!” promised Ken Bates at his first press conference, and we’re building up to more of the same from Cellino – whatever happens, we’d better buckle up for a crazy ride! That’s not Leeds, though. Opponents used to be terrified of David Batty because he was almost silent on the football pitch, so they didn’t know where he was, or what he was doing, until he’d done it. No light, but a lot of heat.
All the light, for too long now, has been concentrated on the boardroom at Elland Road. As Leeds hammered Huddersfield Town 5–1 in as good a second half display as they’ve put on in a long time, I kept finding my eyes drawn to the East Stand executive boxes, to see if I could catch a glimpse of whoever was up there. And that, frankly, is all wrong. I’m fed up of us justifying plain wrong ‘uns to ourselves when all the evidence points the other way; and I’m fed up of being told that everything going on off the pitch is ‘exciting.’ Alex Mowatt’s first goal, lobbed over a calamitous Alex Smithies; that was exciting. But like everything else from that Saturday, it’s almost forgotten about now.
From The Square Ball Magazine, 2013/14 issue 07