When the final whistle blew on Cardiff City's 1-0 victory at Elland Road last Saturday there were many people with much to reflect on. For Malky Mackay it was all upside: new signing Frazier Campbell netting the winner after a misjudged clearance from Leeds United young right back Sam Byram, another win over United for the Blue/Redbirds and a ten point lead over the play off pack all represented satisfying aspects of your archetypal job done result. Having tasted defeat at home for the first time in three months his opposite number Neil Warnock, was suitably disgruntled with an insipid performance from Premier League referee Mike Dean, who waved away a couple of dubious penalty appeals. Whilst maintaining a reasonable amount of pressure on the Cardiff goal in the second half, his charges best chance came through Everton loanee Ross Barkley, who somehow managed to find only the keeper from five yards out.
Of far more significance and the most disheartening statistic of the afternoon was an attendance of just over 19,000 for a Saturday 3 o' clock kick off against the league leaders. True, less than 500 away fans were in Beeston to see victory (This being a fixture for which they have their collective excuses prepared on an annual basis) but for Chairman-elect David Haigh watching in Dubai with the local supporters club branch, it must have made painful reading. Since the long gestating takeover of the club reached a conclusion in December, he and new owners GFH Capital have seen gates slide at an even more pronounced rate than during the previous 12 months, a period in which a semi-unofficial boycott was employed amongst certain sections of Leeds United's supporters. Released not long after they'd sat down in the plush leather seats of the board room for the first time as owners, the latest set of accounts already pointed to a reduction in cash from matchdays of an estimated £1.3 million for the period covering last season, and with an average now of less than 22,000, any swift revival in bums on seats their business plan may have anticipated looks ambitious to say the least.
So what precisely is the problem? Well, the problem is that there's nothing precise about it. Many of those three of four thousand season tickets holders who've cancelled in the last two years would point to Ken Bates parsimonious (And allegedly self serving) stewardship as the reason for lapsing. His retention as chairman by the new regime and boot upstairs to the position of President were briefly controversial, however now the blight of his programme notes has been removed, the former Chelsea man's profile has shrunk rapidly. And yet the commercial office's recent gambit to woo fans back – a half season ticket – was met with a mildly apathetic uptake of just 350 applicants. Were it as simple as removing the constraints to rallying around the club in what is an obvious time of need, you feel the olive branch would've been snapped off. However, no dice.
United's meager crowds are also both a long and short term condemnation of the club's transfer dealings. Up until January of course those fire sales had been on another man's watch, with the departure or release of every playing asset of any real potential becoming a recurring source of angst for the increasingly pessimistic fans. Better informed people than I will tell you that the sales of Jonny Howson and Robert Snodgrass were conducted partly to stave off the threat of looming administration; either way Leeds reputation as being the place to shop had become an embarrassing and unwanted one. Until of course this year. New owners, new approach. To be fair to GFHC they'd already made it clear in public that their strategy towards the window wouldn't involve lavishing Warnock with what they called “Crazy money”. They'd also spoken of their frustration at missing the summer window, perhaps because it's alledged that the £2 million given to Bates in the summer wasn't spent on players as they'd understood it would be.
Expectations then were that modest investment would be made, particularly as a response to a string of mediocre results away from home in the last couple of months. Just how modest however came as a surprise. Early recruits Michael Tonge and Ryan Hall were already on loan in December and available for negligible fees. Shortly after the talented Barkley arrived for an initial period of a month after excelling at Sheffield Wednesday. Then nothing. All around players who may legitimately have been regarded as targets came and went. And still nothing. Critics of club CEO Shaun Harvey – and by now there were many – suggested that tumbleweed was blowing through his office. All the time in the background rumours of top scorer Luciano Becchio's determination to leave – incomprehensibly discussed in public by coach Mick Jones at a post match press conference – remained active. By the window's final throes the Argentinian had submitted a transfer request, and on the eve of the last day his destination was confirmed as none other than Carrow Road, the current domicile of other former United players Bradley Johnson, former captain Howson and jewel in the crown Snodgrass. In return former Millwall man Steve Morison came the opposite way, plus some cash. Sky Sports news footage of a Canaries fan taking a Leeds supporter for the least pleasureable kind of ride was both funny and tragic at the same time, but underneath the joke the familiar pattern of divesting a key player wasn't lost on anyone from either side. The slightly bemused Morison was joined by Villa left back Stephen Warnock and Habib Habibou, the latter to date having achieved the most notoriety by ironically doing a Bernard Mathews in his adopted home of Austria. As 11 pm rolled round, the sense of underwhelming amongst those who'd expected a higher standard of capture was almost tangible.
As a backdrop, in recognition of the one way nature of Bates communication and abysmal fan engagement, GFHC have ventured into the social media world which he probably found a difficult concept to grasp. Overnight the club's official presence on Twitter expanded, matching that of Haigh and his colleague and fellow new board member Salem Patel. Recently an official Facebook page has been launched. Yet both of the most visible avatars of the new era disappeared throughout the fractious window, failing to respond to anxious supporters on the platform which they'd used to circumvent much of the faux-secrecy of the takeover. It could be argued that those frantically jabbing the pair to complain with the hackneyed perenial accusation of a “Lack of ambition” were simply being naïve in expecting a direct response, but then again if you profess to live by the tweet, then surely you should at least answer it.
Perhaps a good PR strategist would've told them that it might have been worthwhile to point out that for Leeds fans, there are still reasons to be cheerful. In past years I have no doubt that Byram, undoubtedly on the fringes of the England Under 21 squad, would've been sold to balance the books for another season. Quietly there are many supporters happy at least that Becchio was replaced and that in Morison we have a forward with a marginally better goals to games ratio. Warnock has also taken the opportunity to trim the squad (And wage bill) of almost all of his predecessor Simon Grayson's acts of desperation. For their own part they could've pointed to heavily discounted admission prices for home games against Blackpool and Peterborough. And in the regimes at both Nottingham Forest, QPR and Blackburn, shameful lessons on how not to run a football club continue to be given.
Whether this will placate those who claim that through GFHC Leeds have been bought by the only potless sheikh in history is anyone's guess and in my opinion unlikely. That huge potential remains of course – the 6000+ tickets for the FA Cup tie at Manchester City sold out in a few days – and it's probably this that Haigh, Patel and their anonymous investors are consoling themselves with. According to Warnock, who to all intents and purposes still plans to retire in May, promotion via the play offs is still possible. For this kind of belief to percolate to the stay away fans, regardless of ticket prices, re-tweets, programme notes or new signings, winning the next two away games at Molineux and The Riverside is vital. United's season, and perhaps mid term future, hangs in the balance.