For many non Leeds United fans, current Chairman Ken Bates has been right on message, whilst from the supporter's perspective however his seven years in the position has been a benchmark in executive incompetence and conceit. Whether it was by regularly selling the club's best players, nepotistically hiring Dennis Wise, failing to recover either Elland Road or the club's Thorp Arch training facility from their offshore owners amongst many, many other failings, his record as a handbrake on Leeds United's return to prominence is unquestionable.
Until recently it was fair to say there had been pockets of Leeds fans who've continued to believe the line his administration has consistently pedalled, namely that through a heroic stand against despotic creditors and football's authorities the bid he fronted to rescue United from administration “Saved” the club from liquidation in 2007. Logic would suggest otherwise, but there's no denying that for the last three seasons Leeds have turned a profit where most other Championship clubs have mired themselves in debt. This has been achieved however at a cost – not just fiscally, with away fans being charged up to £36 to sit in Elland Road's archaic West Stand and season ticket holders having to pay up in January – of the current campaign – but also in worsening relations with customers and local businesses. The final insult came when it was announced that a multi-million pound investment in upgrading corporate amenities in the East Stand had been paid for by a facility secured against future season ticket receipts. To be blunt, better toilets for the suits had been paid for by long suffering supporters infamously referred to by Bates himself as “Morons”. In a sense, by putting up with it, he's right.
Ken Bates' record as a handbrake on United's return to prominence is unquestionable.
You would imagine therefore that the prospect of new owners for United would have supporters holding street parties from Guiseley to Gipton, but since the rumours were confirmed that Bates was in discussions with at least one party to relieve him of his 72.5% majority shareholding, joy has turned to frustration. In a sense a lengthy gestation period was inevitable as the structure of the club is deliberately opaque for reasons who could guess. But since the identity was revealed of the party involved – a Middle Eastern group called Gulf Finance House and more specifically their subsidiary GFH Capital - there have been more questions than answers.
In a sense GFHC and their public figures Salem Patel and David Haigh are the polar opposite of Bates, having outmanoeuvred him in the PR battle by striking up a dialogue with fans using Twitter. Haigh in particular cuts an avuncular figure, a self made businessman from Cornwall (Whose parents he's always quick to add came from Leeds) who purportedly will take over from the tax exile when he departs permanently back to Monaco. His website reveals some quaint anecdotes; a cub reporter for The Cornishman at 13, he raised funds for the local Conservative party by taking owls to local functions, in the process gaining the nickname “Owl Boy”. After failing to be elected as a Tory councillor in Vauxhall in 2006, he's now resident in Dubai and Vice Chairman of the group Conservatives In The Gulf.
Questions about the holding company GFH are more worrying – or if you prefer for most of you reassuring - for the club's supporters. Numerous sources have covered their apparently crippled balance sheet.
He's also Deputy CEO and COO of GFH Capital, the company who according to representatives of the Leeds United Supporters Trust – the directly involved parties themselves are bound by a confidentiality agreement - began as middlemen in the takeover negotiations but in the last few weeks have emerged as the buyers. To date no information has been made available on where the money to finance the deal has come from, other than assurances being made that the necessary resources are in place to improve the playing squad sufficiently to achieve promotion. GFHC's “Vision” statement published a few weeks ago was notably long on sleeping giant rhetoric, but didn't outline whether buy backs of the club's leased assets are part of the initial deal or just a future aspiration for the new board as and when it's in place.
Questions about the holding company GFH are more worrying – or if you prefer for most of you reassuring - for the club's supporters. Numerous sources have covered their apparently crippled balance sheet, and their reported lack of cash, even following a recent debt restructuring. Haigh has taken painstaking care to emphasise that the apparently poor performance in the parent doesn't necessarily have major implications for the subsidiary. He's also refuted allegations that GFHC will seek to “Flip” the club immediately to another buyer once Bates is ousted.
If the new board proves to be the deep-pocketed moguls they are positioning themselves as, few fans will care where the green came from, or question its sustainability.
Some of GFH's working practices would appear however to be ethically questionable, although legal. A report from Reuters filed in June pointed to their close relationship to the ruling Bahrainian al-Khalifa family, and their practice of charging very significant up front fees on projects such as the Bahrain Financial Harbour development. In addition it uncovered that the company was recently “On the brink of collapse” and “Shifted investor money from one project to plug holes in another”.
We hear this morning that Haigh and his team are in Leeds in discussions with the Chairman's bankers. It seems that after months of stop/start, on/off wheeling and dealing behind the scenes the takeover at Elland Road is about to become a reality. For many years the majority of us have prayed for regime change, an anything but Ken attitude framed by years of chronic neglect on his part. Let's not kid ourselves here though. If the new board proves to be the deep-pocketed moguls they are positioning themselves as, few fans will care where the green came from, or question its sustainability. This is the nature of football in the twenty first century. But we should only look to Portsmouth (Who should probably now replace Leeds in the apocalyptic “Doing a...” phrase to emphasise total mismanagement) for a precedent on how lack of transparency and allegedly near fraudulent business practice can result in destruction. If Haigh and friends turn out to be minted messiahs, so be it. But at the moment it's still impossible to know whether we're just swapping Shylock for Del Boy, and being a Yorkshireman I'll believe it when I see it.
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