Leeds United Fans: A Punch & Judy Twitter Fight In A Land Of Chaos
Late July is the one time of the year when football fans have a legitimate cause for optimism; new signings, pre-season friendlies, anticipation of the early season cup games under lights. It's also been the best time to be a Leeds United fan over the last couple of summers because it's been a break from the traumatic experience of supporting the team during the season itself.
Since the sacking of Simon Grayson in February 2012 – and for years before arguably – following Leeds has been the footballing equivalent of being water boarded, with long sequences of being almost drowned by poor results, inept performances and managers living in a constant state of denial. There have been some brief respites but any humour surrounding Elland Road is now strictly of the gallows variety.
The problem? Gerald Krasner reckoned it was Peter Ridsdale. Ken Bates said it was Krasner. GFH Capital probably said it was Ken Bates fault in amongst their avalanche of PR bullshit and new owner Massimo Cellino blames of all them, snakes, shysters and out-of-their-depthers, men profligate with the club's former array of riches, from buildings to back fours.
United's most recent Managing Director David Haigh is now in a Dubai jail accused of embezzling money from his former employers, GFH, money which allegedly he used to save the club from administration.
Little of the surrounding circumstances of the case are concrete, the whole situation of claim and counter-claim having an opaque quality to it in which the arch barrow boy himself Bates seems to revel in.
You would think that after Ken Bates it would be impossible to find a majority stakeholder more divisive, but then again, this is Leeds. In Muhammed Ali speak, Cellino was the dope that GFH really had to rope. Speaking to an Italian friend of mine when Cellino’s fraud cases were made public: his response was simply to shrug his shoulders and say that no man got rich in Italy and kept clean.
To GFH, the Cagliari owner was a gift. Their tenure had resulted in unsustainable losses. For his part, Cellino seemed to have no interest in the due diligence which most prospective stakeholders would deem as essential to protect their investment.
So keen in fact were United's stay away executive team of Hisham AlRayes, Salah Nooruddin and the unctuous Salem Patel to welcome Cellino to the club that they allowed him to famously sack the then-manager Brian McDermott before he even owned the club. This on a day during which the main sponsor quit, Cellino was hounded around the ground in a taxi by irate fans, and the panicked Ross McCormack decided to hawk himself out to the football world live on Sky Sports. It was a state of self induced chaos unparalleled even in United's recent ignominious history.
Right there battle lines were drawn amongst the fans over the suitability of Cellino and the BMD sacking. I've seen groups come to blows over relatively trivial issues, but this time the mistrust, bitterness and rancour which had been Bates weapons of choice were creating splinter groups opposed to each other at an almost idealogical level.
Welcome to the Leeds United “Family” possibly the most oxymoronic twitter hashtag ever created, one which unsurprisingly has fallen into disrepair some time ago. Like all families it's dysfunctional to the point of misanthropy, always just another passive-aggressive moment away from fratricidal meltdown. The die was now cast in this odd Punch and Judy: one side are the “In Massimo we trust” optimists, those who see his sale of McCormack to Fulham as good business, the delayed buy-back of Elland Road as a simple deferral of a promise, the wide-scale redundancy programme of Elland Road's backroom staff as resolutely cleaning up GFH's mess. Across the barricades meet the pessimists, those who see only doom in the club's Mediterranean dominated recruitment policy, humiliation in players washing their own kit, or contempt for the impresario’s chain-smoking, perma shaded playboy lifestyle.
Each side spends every night pot-shotting at each other on Twitter, the territory like a social media version of the Do-Lung Bridge scene in Apocalypse Now. A more objectionable sub-group of the paranoid cadre are the “In The Know” crew, those who refer gnostically to “Direct Messages I've Seen” without ever sharing their content with any mere mortals. There are few worse conceits than anyone who believes that being in possession of information is of itself a token of their superiority over any other fan.
To GFH, the Cagliari owner Cellino was a gift. He seemed to have no interest in doing Due Diligence.
The smoking gun for critics will always be the appointment of Dave Hockaday as head coach a man who occupies the remarkable position of having an approval rating lower than a returning Terry Venables. His lack of CV, incomprehensible formations (Even the usually diplomatic Yorkshire Evening Post reporter Phil Hay confessed he was “Genuinely not sure” where Steve Morison was playing in a recent friendly against Chesterfield) and witless post match interviews have left many fans believing he'll be fired before the schools re-open.
This is a job which has beaten Neil Warnock and Brian McDermott, so for a man sacked by Forest Green Rovers from his previous job, he may as well from my perspective ask for some fish and a few rolls and tell people to form an orderly queue.
I had the good fortune to share a pint recently with Bryn Law, Sky Sports reporter and passionate Wrexham fan. Rapidly the conversation turned to Leeds, a team he used to commentate on for the BBC twenty years ago, and one which remains close to his heart. Wrexham too have had their share of despotic owners in recent years, but Bryn spoke of how a group of fans had taken bold, proactive steps to ensure professional football stayed in the town, from picketing the work places of those who sought to drain the club financially to personally vetting potential investors. He voiced his surprise that in Leeds, no-one seemed to be able to unite the multiple factions, let alone give a voice to the disenfranchised at anything more than a rudimentary level. He thinks that such a large fan base should have the resources to get a representative into the boardroom at Elland Road, to give a voice to the much trampled supporters that successive Chairmen have taken for granted with which to line their pockets.
He is of course right. But the toxic schism amongst the Leeds United family now runs deep. And as GFH showed, it's easy to turn sickpots and dissidents into believers with just a few worthless trinkets. At the moment those in control of our destiny have little regard for the past, present or future; unless someone convinces them they should, Leeds will remain as dis-United as ever.