Mexican Standoff in West Yorkshire

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Mexican Standoff in West Yorkshire

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As difficult as it is for Leeds United fans to accept, Ken Bates legacy is still writ large over events at Elland Road. Some of the links are obvious; across the road lurks his obscure radio station, one on which he occasionally rants with lessening coherence on subjects as diverse as immigration and the economy. The club is also still partially owned by a subsidiary of GFH, the Dubai head quartered “Bank” to whom he sold it to in late 2012 and whose employees then proceeded to steer it to the edge of financial ruin with a mixture of jaw dropping incompetence and (it's alleged) borderline fraudulent practice.

Obvious signs then, but the most disturbing taint is one that isn’t obvious to the casual observer. Throughout his ownership – sorry, the ownership of the individuals of whom he had no knowledge – he sought to manage our expectations of success ever downward, playing to the supporters vanity in public whilst pursuing a highly truculent and litigious strategy of divide and conquer against any vocal opponents of his truth. After marginalising it’s long established supporter’s club, Bates then went for the Supporter’s Trust, entering into a series of David vs. Goliath confrontations with it’s then Chairman, Gary Cooper.

He reckoned without Cooper’s popularity and the fans rising sense of frustration. At the end of 2010 Leeds sat 2nd in a Championship into which they’d only just been promoted, but rather than back then manager Simon Grayson, the man who told club employees to refer to him as “Mr. Chairman” then inexplicably refused to sanction any meaningful strengthening in the following transfer window and the side finished seventh.

Early in the following season Cooper had managed to mobilise a cadre of almost 2,000 disaffected rebels to march from the city centre in protest: Bates scoffed in public, but rumours persisted that in fact he’d been considering a sale even before this open unrest. A protracted fifteen months later, GFH were in charge.

Early in the following season Cooper had managed to mobilise a cadre of almost 2,000 disaffected rebels to march from the city centre in protest: Bates scoffed in public, but rumours persisted that in fact he’d been considering a sale even before this open unrest. A protracted fifteen months later, GFH were in charge.

By early 2014 however those erstwhile bunglers themselves had run out of funds (legitimate or otherwise) but shamelessly, rather than consider the future of the business they’d effectively bankrupted, they sold a majority stake to Massimo Cellino, an Italian agriculture magnate’s son whose ownership of Cagliari had been punctuated by controversy at every level. He arrived long on promises but found himself stymied from day one by a fundamental lack of understanding of what he’d bought: allegations persist that he’d been effectively set up by GFH’s directors as a patsy, the specifics of their idea being that Cellino would pay them, fail the owners and director’s test, and then be forced to sell United back to either them or a consortia of their choosing for a song.

No, I’m not making any of this up.

This aside, Cellino is not a man who likes to help himself. Hamstrung by a purchase agreement which gave his new sleeping partners a highly disproportionate amount of executive power, GFH’s profligacy meant that immediately he was staring down the barrel of an FFP regulated transfer embargo: he reacted to this by recruiting a sprawl of players unprepared for the British second tier. Subsequently banned, he had absolutely nothing to do with the running of the club at all, but coincidentally during this period the popular former youth team coach Neil Redfearn – who’d just guided the mish-mash of a squad to safety from 20th at Christmas – assistant coach Steve Thompson and Redfearn’s girlfriend team Youth Liaison Officer Lucy Ward were all dismissed by proxy. Even with him in absentia, club insiders spoke of a culture akin to a South American dictatorship, of decisions made on a jealous whim at the expense of people who had a longstanding, deep affection for the club.

Like being in the eye of a hurricane, a brief spell of normality followed as former Hull City owner Adam Pearson was drafted in to help repair Leeds’ threadbare reputation, but by October newly appointed coach Uwe Rosler was sacked and once again we were looking over our shoulders nervously at League One.  The season’s nadir appeared to have arrived via a 2-0 home defeat against Blackburn, during which the home crowd finally snapped and en masse advised the Italian to sell. The following day he agreed to do just that, before changing his mind in what transpired was an exercise to discredit Leeds Fans United, a group set up to buy a minority stake and wield some modicum of influence over goings on at board level.

Cellino’s volte-face was, amongst other things the point of no return for a group of activists fed up with what they saw as an institution at the mercy of his arrogance and counter productive behaviour. They called for him publically to be held to account, creating a group which called itself “Time To Go Massimo”, a title immediately abbreviated to TTGM.

From the outset their goal was peaceful protest but with a high visible impact: their view was that Cellino’s Achilles heel lay in his vainglorious desire to be Patrician, his insecurity stemming from the ying and yang of being wanted to be feared and adored in equal measure. It was at this thread that the group decided to pull.

It began with a simple poster calling for the self-styled President to honour his commitment to divesting. The significance was not so much of the words but the chosen site, one located right outside the club’s offices by Elland Road’s East Stand. The Gary Cooper-era LUST team had done exactly the same, however Bates had wisely chosen to ignore it: Clearly peaked, club officials instead threatened the local media company responsible with a writ and it was removed. The overreaction played directly into the group’s hands, and within hours they had a national media platform to speak from, complete with journalists from a selection of tabloids happy to use their spokesperson as a go-to for such times when Cellino or his family would gaffe, which thankfully for them occurs with a depressing regularity.

Out of the almost mundane came the spectacular. Leeds next home game was with table topping Middlesborough, shifted to a Monday evening for TV. I arrived at the ground to find something quite remarkable taking place: the group had managed to procure the same outdoor projection company as had famously stuck Gail Porter’s arse on the Houses of Parliament, this time however the presentation consisted of a number of Cellino’s own quotes, all beamed onto the side of Elland Road’s largest stand. A stunt? Yes. But as a stunt it had it all, the audaciousness striking many, raising awareness across the world of the club’s plight and granting the campaign the kind of PR acreage money can hardly buy any more in these information overloaded times.

As for money, the group were raising it for themselves via individual donations from like-minded sickpots (as Bates once called those would-be West Yorkshire Bolsheviks). In the weeks that followed things became slightly more traditional: a biplane in the skies above the ground carrying a banner, a symbolic coffin walk, and 48-sheet posters in the vicinity of the ground. The group continued to harry their target, always peacefully, always striving to let the frequently absent owner know that they’d seen a future with him in charge and it felt like purgatory. Whether Cellino was truly rattled remained hard to truly gauge, but he’s spoken openly of understanding supporter anger, whilst those running the club day to day have been forced into discounting season tickets this summer to prop up otherwise plummeting attendances.

The culmination of TTGM’s work last season had echoes of the past – a march to the ground prior to the game with Reading. Estimates vary, but anywhere between 800-1000 turned up, a very creditable number given that coach (we don’t have managers anymore) Steve Evans had managed to steer the side into the top half of the table for the first time in three years.

Had he been sitting in his nearby office above a sandwich bar Ken Bates may well have reflected on the role he’d played in creating such a poisonous air of mistrust and even more worryingly, of mediocrity as the status quo. As encouraging as the amount of money donated to TTGM has been and the numbers on the march were, there remains an undoubted sense of apathy amongst a large part of United’s support, one which allowed the property developer to rule unchecked for so long. In this construct owners are heroes, “saving” the club from ruin by their expertise and judicious actions – and this should be enough. Thus indoctrinated, many at Leeds are content with season after season in the second tier, superstitiously fearing another Ridsdale-style financial Armageddon. As TTGM’s credibility began to strengthen over the weeks, there were even a handful of crackpots attempting to disrupt their activities, people who unaccountably believe that Cellino’s love is a tough love but it’s medicine we all need to swallow. On social media reactions become magnified, looking at times like hysteria, but the mere fact that some of the country’s most indolent fans are back out on the streets again should tell you that it’s bad.

Throughout the last few months the group has remained committed to transparency in the face of accusations of seeking to take profit from the thousands donated to them, even distributing copies of invoices online as evidence. This might seem like overkill, but the fact that the whole initiative is fan-led is vital. There were in fact individuals who wanted to fund the events in totality themselves, but this never came to pass for a number of reasons, not least of which was the discomfort which would’ve been felt if the group had needed to use the same cloak of anonymity which Bates had employed to protect the regime he led.

In the primary sense however it’s a case of mission unaccomplished. Cellino remains in situ and it was with horror many supporters recently discovered that the grounds on which the Football League had originally banned him – for a tax evasion conviction in Italy – had been effectively rescinded due to a technicality. Inevitably there are other cases – both foreign and domestic – waiting in the wings, not least the one concerning the abortive construction of Cagliari’s stadium for which prison sentences have already been handed out, or the fresh FA charges related to the transfer of Ross McCormack in summer 2014, or of shenanigans around the recruitment of Brazilian flop Adryan. Even through all this, through projections, posters, planes and marches, Cellino remains, defiantly bobbing and weaving like a Sardinian Frank Spencer. Hopefully the authorities will land a knock out blow soon, else Leeds will almost certainly be damaged for decades to come.

At Leeds we find ourselves with a man in charge who cannot adapt to his surroundings, one who believes that somehow if he keeps putting it all on black with no plan a jackpot will eventually come his way. The truth however is something far more painful. The essence of football is loyalty, thus as you want to walk away in disgust (our average gate was down by about 8% last season) the reality is that something so inked into your psyche makes it hard to do so. For me, finishing a 34 year old relationship is something I’ve thought about, but continually reject, a choice which many around me find odd given that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool cynic when it comes to Cellino having any chance of building success at Leeds United. So off it looks like we’ll go again:  Time To Go Massimo vs. Cellino the Not So Great, a Mexican stand off, coming back to Beeston from August.

Andy Peterson

@ArcticReviews

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