Short of issuing 33,432 complimentary pitchforks and burning an effigy of Ken Bates in the centre circle as part of the pre-match build-up, there is little more that GFH Capital could have done by way of a convincing charm offensive on the Leeds United populace, prior to this weekend’s big kick-off.
Subtlety was never Ken Bates’ forte, and GFH Capital have at least followed suit in that respect, except they have chosen to listen to the fan’s concerns and demonstrate a degree of compassion when addressing the day-to-day operations of their core business. Some would say the systematic deconstruction of Bates’ barbed empire by GFH Capital over the summer has been as public a denouncement of the previous regime as it is possible to get, short of open libel and contravention of no doubt meticulously planted takeover contract stipulations.
From the moment Bates faded from the scene at the end of the 2012/13 season we have seen reductions in season ticket and match day ticket prices, the appointment of popular ex-players as club ambassadors, the closing down of seriously flawed restaurant and radio ventures, the removal of almost all significant senior staff and board members, the reintroduction of BBC local radio back into Elland Road, public meetings with Bates’ nemesis the Leeds United Supporters’ Trust (LUST) along with the demonised Leeds United Supporters’ Club (LUSC), the provision for sale of Leeds United replica shirts to stockists other than those controlled by the club, and the opening of a merchandise store in Leeds city centre.
In short, GFH Capital has decided that having a football club in tune with, interacting with and accessible to its consumer is the way to go. Fans of other football clubs may see that as somewhat fundamental. Hell, fans of Geordie Shore probably even see the logic behind that. But Leeds fans are now taking part in the slow process of re-acquaintance and trust-building, and it may take some time, but where once a visit to Elland Road was distinctly anaemic and colourless, save for the sea of empty Blue seats, this season it is as if someone has flicked on the colour switch.
For the past eight years Leeds United’s fan base has been famously divided. Bates’ Vulcan Death Grip on the lifeblood of the club was such that it was split asunder like a shattered vase. Simple anti and pro-Bates groups were just the tip of the iceberg, elsewhere there were LUST, LUSC and Regional Members Clubs, boycotters and the vocal ‘dissidents’, match-going sceptics, along with match day programme, club merchandise, in-house television subscription and club food and beer bans. Strangling the cash from Bates’ pocket was perceived as the honourable act, while others simply wanted to support the club, as any seemingly sane fan would. But everyone questioned quite what kind of ‘fan’ they were; thinking the unthinkable. He drove us to this. Quite simply, Leeds fans would argue about what time it was, and Bates had succeeded in creating a situation where fans were railroaded into committing the ultimate sin; feeling guilty about supporting their own club.
Regardless of the why’s and wherefore’s of that argument, GFH Capital has been very shrewd in tagging its ‘re-engagement’ marketing campaign as ‘the past is the past’, and for the sake of the football club, that is how fans need to approach the situation now. Old arguments need to be put to bed, and a new embracing, with an open mind, of club ventures both on and off the field needs to take place.
It took only 23 words on the official website of Leeds United around 8pm on Friday 26th July to ensure, emphatically, that all the club’s fans would be singing most forcibly from the same hymn book once more. The most damning statement of intent from GFH Capital was to find a loophole with which they could remove Ken Bates from his odious and self-appointed presidency role; the chief ostraciser had finally himself been ostracised.
Having a united fan base feels like the most natural thing in the world, but it is something we have to become re-accustomed to. At their very best, such is the unity and focused belief amongst Leeds United fans, that on occasions such as Saturday’s first game against Brighton, attendees at the Nuremberg Rally could be described as self-opinionated splitters by comparison.
Now Brian McDermott is charged with channelling this most cherished surge of optimism into team affairs. Despite all the seismic shifts in the Leeds United landscape, he remains the ringmaster of a mish-mash squad of plodders and underachievers, while his paymasters feverishly seek more investment. But act one of the re-birth saw a conscious fighting spirit and engaged endeavour that completely by-passed the insecurity and sense of surrender of the Warnock era.
Conceding an early goal at Elland Road at any time in the last couple of years has seen a collective suspension of any belief, amongst players, fans and probably management. And so it was that when Brighton’s early control of proceedings culminated in Ulloa’s crisp, whipped finish it provided the only audible respite from the incessant stirring of the Leeds fans’ dogmatic passions.
But any returning, post-Bates Leeds fans may not have been prepared for McDermott’s canny tactical nous, and his ability to get the extra 10% from his players to match the extra 10% that visiting teams always seem to find at Elland Road. Rather than freezing, as many feared they would in front of a crowd and accompanying expectation the size of which many had never played before, the re-born Leeds thrived on the pressure and exhibited a knowing cool and patience, stemming the controlled passing of the opposition and probing incisively themselves. McCormack’s equaliser set up a second half where either side could have won and you sensed only the bravest would survive.
If GFH Capital’s raft of positive manoeuvres had been administered like comic blows to a cartoon Bates, as he fell down the stairs, through the banister and impaled himself on a rake lying conveniently in the hallway, the shot that finally finished him off was probably the brazen and foolhardy act of spending money on a good footballer. If anything was to give this afternoon of atonement its perfect ending it would be a winning goal from the £1 million debutant, and that’s what we got.
In the Twitter aftermath to Luke Murphy’s 94th minute winner I saw him variously compared to previous Leeds midfielders such as Ian Snodin, John Sheridan, Gary McAllister and Lee Bowyer. His overall display certainly featured pleasing attributes present in all of those, but the manner of his match-winning goal was borne more directly from the blueprint of the club’s owners.
Murphy saw a situation and applied progressive thinking. Rather than stand idle and watch a cross sail aimlessly into the unchallenged goalkeepers’ hands, as we have been accustomed to seeing with relentless tedium in the last few years, Murphy took a punt. Just as GFH Capital have thought ‘I know, maybe if we do ‘this’, something good might happen’, Murphy applied the same logic to a high ball in to the box. He made a run, Matt Smith headed it down, he collected it and bang; something good happened.
Normally on a Saturday night Leeds fans go out to forget about Saturday day. This Saturday was just ‘Saturday’, it just carried on and the bubbling vibrancy of Elland Road transcended across the city. It was one game, one win, but it heralded a new beginning, a fresh start where we put past misdemeanours behind us. There is a long way to go and nobody believes it is going to be easy, but crowds follow crowds, momentum follows momentum, and progress follows progress. If you think and act progressively, progress is more likely to come.
Rather than drinking to forget and numb the pain, Leeds fans were drinking to continue the mood. Heads were nodding, shoulders were shuffling and feet were tapping in bars and clubs as the music captured the spirit. Leeds United was back in our lives, back in our blood; the club, not just the team, wholly and completely and without doubt, paranoia or contradiction. As a natural and involuntary affirmation of that, thousands of Leeds fans would find themselves mouthing back at the DJ “We’re up all night for Luke Murphy, We’re up all night for Luke Murphy, We’re up all night for Luke Murphy, We’re up all night for Luke Murphy ……”