Leeds Fans: We're Here Because Of Bad Blood & Bad Decisions
I must admit that there were some stage feelings kicking round the house that is Leeds United after the side's 1-0 win at Bolton on September 14th. I struggled for hours afterwards trying to place the unaccustomed sensation, a sort of post-coital daze which was somewhere between happiness and it'll-all-work-out contentment. When I finally placed it the shock was palpable : strange as it was, the looking forward to the next game mindset was that certain something rarely experienced by the club's fans in more than a decade: optimism.
Normal service dictates of course that supporting Leeds needs to be accessorised by biting down hard on a piece of leather, but at the time it seemed like there were genuine reasons to be cheerful. On the pitch - despite summer transfer activity being modest - a side with little by way of star quality had grafted it's way unspectacularly into the lofty play off regions of the Division 2 table. Ahead of most pundit's expectations, it seemed that for manager Brian McDermott the momentum he had talked about coming into the new season had turned his slightly threadbare squad into if not Dogs of War, then fairly irritable canines who required a strong lead in case they got cross.
By definition this kind of success is something we're unused to and in many cases, downright wary of. Frequently chastened, we look at the prospect of glory through the eyes of a chicken that's just discovered a fox largeing it in the pimped-up hen coop. Many of my counterparts will delight in telling you that in new owners GFHC we'd been taken over by the only Arabs in the Middle East with no money; all this from a club who spent a hand gnawingly embarrassing three years getting out of football's nether regions. It's not one of our most admirable qualities if you're a glass half full kinda person, but Leeds United fans have only one default mode: cynicism, turned up to 11.
Since then the situation has become wearily familiar, with a sobering equilibrium returning. After an unfortunate late defeat at Reading on McDermott's return to his former employers, the side which had looked hard to beat if lacking flair suddenly froze in the headlights, going on to lose to Burnley, Millwall and following a stuttering temporary respite against Bournemouth in midweek, again at Derby. Leeds fans in particular are as divided and fractious as any real life family; rather than circle the wagons, social media became like a Mexican drug war after this latest setback, rival factions attempting to bump each other off with extreme prejudice. There were even murmurs of McDermott out doing the rounds, but amongst the bullets there were many variations on the most pivotal question – namely, why can't we just be good again?
As with many riddles wrapped in enigmas, the answer to that is buried under tonnes of recriminations, confidentiality clauses and blatant half truths. Principally in the dock is former Chairman Ken Bates, ousted by GFHC in the summer supposedly over a private jet contract he signed of his own volition on the club's behalf (I'm really not making this up). Pugnacious and severely lacking in bedside manner, his stewardship was associated with a list of sins we'd be here 'til Christmas just summing up. The greatest hits though are that, after giving the hapless Kevin Blackwell millions to spend only to watch him fritter it away on players like Seb Carole (didn't think you would) and even after buying the club out of the administration he imposed, he (allegedly) has spent the last 5 years running the club at break even or worse until a suitor came along. When potential buyers did arrive, at least one of them felt that the opaque structure Bates had created around the club's ownership was too complicated to navigate, said Saudi Arabian royal then moving on to buying half of Sheffield United at a premium looking price of a quid.
The new owners have their men in place now – Chairman Salah Nooruddin and the chunky MD David Haigh. Since Bates departure they've based their initial strategy around dismantling the totems of his regime, the most popular act of which was reinstating match day coverage from Radio Leeds. The direct consequence of this - closing down the mostly execrable Yorkshire Radio - could've just as easily been interpreted as cutting their losses, but meanwhile a deft PR campaign has begun wooing back the City's grandees. The duo enthusiastically speak of securing new investors that can take the club to what they describe as “the next level”, which based on the team's current form you'd have to assume is the top half of the Championship table.
Herein lies the problem. GFHC have never made any secret of their intent to sell the club at a profit when it's value has been sufficiently increased. Nooruddin himself now owns 3.3% of it's equity. This in itself is a world of transparency away from the past, but the present backers seem unwilling to put their hands into the their presumably deeper pockets other than to plug the hole in the club's running costs – depending on who you believe anything up to £4 million a season – using the oncoming introduction of the Football Fair Play regulations as their justification.
Whilst glad handing supporters groups and turning up at school, Gymkhanas is all well and good, this parsimonious streak when it comes to player recruitment has left a squad tinkered with rather than the required fully overhauled. Not quite out of the woods in terms of being challenged here either is McDermott himself, a man who seemed once honest and infallible and of whom now only one of which still rings true. Of his four recent signings only the misfiring former Reading man Noel Hunt now appears to have a starting role and whilst credit must be due for inserting the talented 18 year old Alex Mowatt into a midfield otherwise made up of paper tigers, the exclusion of the much feted right back Sam Byram for Lee Peltier has the air of a he-moves-in-mysterious-ways decision.
You assume at least that McDermott has learned by now that the manager's job at Leeds has been regularly claiming high profile victims ever since Don Revie himself left to become England Manager; whilst he is held in much greater esteem than Warnock or Wise, plenty of others have tried and failed to bring back even the mediocre times to Elland Road and been unceremoniously shown the out door. It's in these away capitulations as at the weekend however that the problems have always been most obvious. Oddly in the Premier League era it was less of an issue, given that then Leeds were medium sized fish in a big pond. A decade mapping Britain's A roads though has revealed a different torture. Now as the team bus rolls in to yet another market town with delusions of sophistication, Leeds are an attraction like some kind of 21st century dog and pony show, one to be ridiculed by people who validate the net worth of their region by how near they live to an Ikea. That many of the present crop of players seem unable, or unwilling to use this derision from the stands as a motivator indicates that yet again, the majority of them are playing football for the wrong club.
The point is that the challenges at Leeds are many, and complex. They're this way because of a combination of bad planning, bad blood and bad decisions made over many years. This is the kind of neglect that can't just be turned around in a few months; Some money would help, but ultimately the solutions are in things like keeping the club's Academy conveyor belt ticking over and having a scouting system capable of spotting the next Robert Snodgrass. There is unfortunately it seems no quick fix behind door number one. The past 6 months has seen many notable off field wins for Leeds fans, collectively the kind of people who've turned blind faith into an art form. Sadly for Nooruddin, Haigh and the shadowy owners the hard bit – winning football matches - is now proving to be harder than ever. Where this wheel stops this time nobody seems to know. As for optimism, well, it always annoyed me, anyway.