Ken Bates Does Not Come Back

Ken Bates does not come back.

It’s one of his few good traits. When he’s gone, Ken Bates does not come back.

There have been no great comebacks in Bates’s life’s work. He didn’t go back into concrete after the concrete company that made his first fortune stacked up losses and went into administration. After quitting as chairman as Oldham Athletic in the late-sixties, amid a storm of protests from fans angered by his programme notes, his club radio station, and his plans for French restaurants and discos at Boundary Park, he didn’t venture back to Lancashire; although he did take a number of those ideas with him.

Once Noel Lloyd rid the British Virgin Islands of Tortola and Anegada of the “feudal” threat of Bates’ redevelopment plans – he would have turned both islands into leisure resorts, the lands fenced off from the native people – Bates has had there only a few PO Boxes to register businesses with (including parts of the ownership of Leeds United), but never managed another attempt at profiting from paradise.

After the Irish Trust Bank went bust in 1976, it took the financial authorities years to unravel the web of loans that had brought the bank down and took the savings of thousands of ordinary people with it; the Irish government never did claim the money back from Bates, but he didn’t set up a new bank, either.

Instead he took himself to Chelsea and took them to the brink of ruin, before Roman Abramovich chanced upon the club and used a bit of loose change to take it out of Ken’s clutches. After the initial sale had been completed, Bates did have a brief resurrection, as it looked for a while as if he would be staying on as chairman as part of Roman’s new regime; but as Peter Kenyon and Bruce Buck moved in, reasons for Bates to hang around moved out, until the removal of his programme notes led to the removal of Ken altogether. He might still have a penthouse in Chelsea Village, but the idea of him ever doing business at Stamford Bridge again is laughable.

Ken Bates does not come back.

What we have right now at Leeds United is not a Ken Bates comeback, either. He has never quite gone away; like a binbag full of old clothes that were going to the charity shop years ago, he has just mouldered in the spare room all this time.

Bates confirmed that he’d sold the club to Gulf Finance House Capital on December 21st 2012; but he didn’t leave then, because he was staying on with Shaun Harvey to ensure a ‘smooth transition’ with his choice of new owner; the real party was on 3rd August 2013, after Bates had been shuffled up to president and then shuffled out altogether over the summer due to his private jet and expense claims. But even then he wasn’t actually gone.

We might have to wait for either a) David Haigh to get out of jail b) everyone at GFH and GFH-C to swallow a truth serum or c) someone to decode Ken’s garbled video blog to find out, but the working hypothesis about that era now is that while Bates was ‘out’, he was only out so long as GFH-C kept up the payments on their phased takeover; putting him only one missed payment away from being back in the door. And as the staff and players of 2013/14 season will tell you, there were few things likelier than a missed payment from GFH-C in those days.

The early end to his presidency didn’t close the door on Bates as it should have, either; it simply shifted his relationship with the club from in-person to paperwork, from Ken to Ken’s lawyers. When you talk about ‘stakeholders’ and people with an interest in the future of the club, that doesn’t only include people with the best interests of the club at heart; it includes people who, locked in litigation, have a vested interest in what goes on.

Meeting with David Haigh about the court case, eating in Billy’s, trying to negotiate the purchase of LUTV, meeting with Massimo Cellino about the court case settlement; much as many would like to rid Elland Road of Ken Bates, burn the ground he walked upon and they sow the soil with salt, he has managed to find reasons – excuses – for leaving his stray white hairs all over our new upholstery like a mangy old cat that won’t stay off the furniture. Old animals reach a point where they just stop listening, and as an animal that never had much interest in listening in the first place, trying to convince Ken Bates that he isn’t wanted around here isn’t proving easy.

It was never going to be. Ken Bates does not come back, but his history shows that he doesn’t leave without putting up a long, drawn out squealing fit either. Although he quietly dropped the part about doing breaking United Nations resolutions to do business with the illegal racist state of Rhodesia, Bates was still firing off letters to the Financial Times to complain about the failure of his Tortola and Anegada project in the early seventies; questions were being asked in Parliament about why the British government had never been reimbursed for bailing him out in the early 1990s. At Leeds, we all assumed Ken had moved on from Chelsea by the time he named one of the vehicles of LUFC ownership ‘Romans Heavies’ in a pointless dig at a Russian billionaire who didn’t give a fuck.

Throughout his life, the story remains the same. Bates is a habitual failure; sure, he’s rich, but the Anegada plans were supposed to net him more than $300million in today’s money, and a 200-year lease on an island paradise, to do with what he liked; his eventual personal profit was estimated at just $8.5million. 21 years after buying Chelsea for £1, Bates was reckoned to have made a personal profit of £17m from the sale to Roman Abramovich; eleven years later, what profit would Abramovich make if he sold the club tomorrow, assuming he could find someone rich enough to buy it?

Leeds United is perhaps the most glaring example; even now on his vlog Bates talks of his ownership as some gilded age for our club, while we remember relegation and player sales and the occasional moment of joy on the pitch. Ken Bates might have made money out of it – he always claimed he never did – but how much more money might have been made during that decade if Leeds United had been any good?

That delusion is the kicker, though. When somebody is convinced that they’re on to a good thing, it’s hard to convince them to let it go. Ken keep wanting to go back to that same old pub that he used to like, even though it changed hands years ago and has been rundown ever since. “I had a good beef wellington here once,” he’ll say; “I don’t understand why the chef doesn’t still use that recipe.” That chef died in 1984, but Ken isn’t having it. “I’m sure it’s just his day off. I had a good beef wellington here once.”

Ken Bates does not come back, but first you have to make sure he’s gone, and this is where a mixture of incompetence, grandstanding, and a lack of understanding has blown it for Leeds. Ken Bates is, in every way that matters, finished in this city, thanks to two things: one, his behaviour while he owned Leeds United, which soured relationships with public and private sector organisations alike and ensured that the Leeds United ‘brand’ is now seen as pure poison – next time you see a commercial promoting the city that involves Rhinos but not United, you’ve Ken Bates to thank; and two, the groundswell of supporter opposition that was led by LUST and ensured there was no practical way Ken Bates could continue as owner of Leeds United without significant changes. Rather than make those changes, he sold the club.

Whoever bought the club from him had the opportunity to finish him, Mortal Kombat style, or would have, if they had the resources and were willing to take the risk. From Gulf Finance House we got neither, and so Ken Bates actually got promoted as a reward for his decade-long failure to deliver; but what we always got from GFH was an eye for an easy PR victory, and sacking President Bates delivered exactly that, along with 10,000 extra fans through the gate against Brighton. That the next stop was the High Court was inevitable, but back then we could be forgiven for not realising that when GFH said “long term” they meant “short term”, and that when they said “building a sustainable future” they meant “leaving it for someone else to sort out after we’re gone.”

The man to sort it out is Massimo Cellino, or so we thought; but either through weariness, wariness, or an underestimation of what Ken Bates means to a lot of fans, he has not sorted it out. Instead he has ratified what even GFH’s Hisham Alrayes refused to agree to, if you believe Bates’ version of events; Cellino has waved through the out-of-court settlement between Bates and David Haigh that GFH refused to honour. The word from inside the club is that Cellino felt the court case would be too expensive to fight and carried too great a risk of losing; an odd view given how bullish Giovanni Coco is over in Sardinia about winning a fairly helpless looking tax case on appeal, and a blow to hopes that Cellino would prove to be some kind of all-conquering vampire hunter for Leeds United. Abramovich called every Bates’ bluff at Chelsea and washed the old man out of his hair in fairly short order; it doesn’t look like Cellino is in that league, for attitude or for money.

What GFH gained by the short-term PR victory of being the men who sacked Bates has cost us, in the end, time. If Bates’ three-year presidency pay-off had run its course, we’d be fifteen months in by now, with twenty-one months to go. Instead his ham-radio outfit over the road at Subway now have broadcasting rights on digital radio, starting we don’t know when but soon, and lasting we don’t know how long but the rumour is for five years; giving Bates an afterlife at Leeds of almost seven years from the day he stepped down as chairman.

Ken Bates does not come back, though, and nobody can do much with an afterlife. See Ebenezer Scrooge, faced with the rotten fruits of his earthly toils, powerless to call out to the living, unable to make them hear his apologetic cries. To change, Scrooge had to come back; and Ken Bates does not come back.

We have to think of the commentary rights, and whatever comes with them – bilious YouTube videos full of hate, by the looks of things – not as a comeback by Ken, but as an extension of the endgame. It’s a game he’ll end up by losing; Ken Bates always ends by losing, and he is not in Leeds United’s future – mother nature will eventually deal with that rather more effectively than GFH or Cellino have. But it’s a game we’re all bored of playing, a game that has gone on much longer than it should, and a game that we ought to leave Ken to play by himself.

Ken Bates does not come back. There is only person left at Elland Road who we need to make sure understands the significance of that message, and that he needs to play his part to make sure it holds true. Massimo Cellino has yet to comment on the deal that has given Ken Bates his platform back, or explain to the fans his reasons for allowing it to happen. I hope his silence is an indication that he is an unwilling participant in this deal, rather than that, like Ken, he doesn’t care what we think. I worry sometimes that Massimo underestimates the fans of this club – we’ve been quite easily won over by the swearing and the rock n roll, and yet when it came to appoint a coach he gave us Hockaday, who nobody rated, and when it came to appointing a media partner he gave us Bates, who is hated.

Ken Bates does not come back, historically, and that’s one tradition that has to continue. For it to continue Massimo Cellino has to understand that Ken Bates does not come back. Massimo, Ken Bates does not come back.


From The Square Ball Magazine, 2014/15 issue 02