Now it's here, the feeling is more than a little anti-climactic: as the implications continue to sink in of yesterday's long awaited takeover announcement, the sensation it provoked amongst many Leeds United fans was one of simple relief, tinged however with suspicion.
This contrasted to our sentiments at the beginning of the process, one which has taken six months to come to fruition – and isn't even officially completed until December 21st, after United take on Chelsea in the league cup – when there was a huge sense of optimism amongst the club's supporters. It was quite reasonably anticipated then that with an experienced manager like Neil Warnock and some astute investment Simon Grayson's lop sided squad could be improved to the point of competitiveness. This frankly normal desire for success on the field was of course squared with a far more fundamental ambition – the removal from his position of current chairman Ken Bates and an end to his seven year reign in charge of United's destiny.
At the risk of repeating myself, my perception is that Bates' tenure will be viewed in hindsight as having almost certainly removed the prospect of Leeds competing at the top of British football for years to come. His often used rebuttal is that he “Saved” the club in 2005 and then “Saved” it again in 2007 by putting it into administration, then fronting the consortium that subsequently bought it out for a fraction of it's market value. For the sake of balance it's fair to say that in the first instance United, laden with debt and relegated from the Premier League, were certainly a less than attractive prospect for investors. This doesn't explain why though, having done all that hard work, any chairman would logically then go and hire Dennis Wise as manager. The merits of his latter instance of self proclaimed philanthropy are far murkier, a view shared by the football league, which docked Leeds United the fifteen points which effectively prevented Gary McAllister's side from gaining automatic promotion the next season. And so began a period of “Stabilisation” which in fact has had completely the opposite effect.
And here lies the rub. Measured against it's publicly stated objectives, the Chairman's grand plan – Premier League, European football, financial stability, repurchasing Elland Road and the club's Thorp Arch training facility – has failed humiliatingly. United's league status is there for all to see. Despite being “Profitable” for three seasons, it's now in fact indebted to the tune of at least £7 million, loans secured against future season ticket and corporate hospitality receipts which are by no means guaranteed.
Meanwhile, it's best talent has been released or sold to cover the increasing holes caused by supporter disaffection and dwindling gates. The loss of high profile players like Robert Snodgrass and Jonny Howson caused most upset for supporters, but more worryingly a former player I spoke to a couple of months ago described the existing youth set up as a shambles, also claiming that the likes of Liverpool's Andre Wisdom were initially farmed through it and then allowed to slip away. Finally all of the club's stranded assets remained, until yesterday, owned by shell companies who were charging United far more than a peppercorn annual rent. After seven years, Leeds United remained tenants in their own home.
Let's speculate for a moment though. Perhaps in this alternative world there were other, private strategies which Bates and CEO Shaun Harvey formulated. Here it's possible that inwardly they envisaged a scenario of promotion as they perceived it “On the cheap”, like perhaps a Reading, a Norwich, or a Swansea. Bates himself has often used his programme notes for fulsome praise for clubs of their ilk, “Well run” being his usual metaphor for their business models. But assembling that kind of organisation of course takes time, effort and investment in quality coaching and players, along with a good scouting system for lower league talent. And of course patience.
In this world you might also speculate that the likes of Brian McDermott, Roberto Martinez or Paul Lambert may well reject wholesale the concept of working under the sort of conditions Simon Grayson had to endure, forced to constantly shop in the emergency loans market and then relinquish Beckford, Johnson, Gradel et al.
Except of course allegedly Lambert made contact with someone close to Leeds following Grayson's sacking and before Warnock was appointed to express his interest in the manager's job at Elland Road. The Scot, of course, had at that point guided Norwich past Leeds not once but twice in search of the Premier League holy grail. Surely a chairman who had ambitions for his legacy to be that of steering United back to the promised land would hire a manager who was fresh from just having done that, and on a budget too? We'll probably never know the truth. Lambert in the real world is now at Villa and Warnock has been left high and dry by a takeover process which has starved him of cash to build.
Perhaps the other plan was quite simple, and again purely speculating perhaps it consisted of administration, then operate with a net cash surplus for a few years, then sell at a vast mark up. In a strict business sense – and no-one can deny that Bates is a man who knows his balance sheet from his P&L – this is nirvana. But football is a sentimental industry, one in which stakeholders demand high performance as well as good cost management. A plan like this which would benefit so few, mostly anonymous people whom it would seem have failed to invest anything materially in the club would by definition have to be a veiled one.
Incompetent then, or covertly self serving. Allegedly.
Yesterday's announcement by definition than had a flaw, one which new Chairman David Haigh probably describes to his friends as a “Wrinkle”. Under the terms of the agreement, Bates stays on, continuing his association with club which he has effectively hand-braked for so long. Ultimately his role will be that of President, one held with dignity for almost forty years by the late Earl of Harewood, George Lascelles. I like many Leeds fans shudder inwardly at the prospect of a man so lacking an inner voice of reason acting in the capacity of diplomat for United's interests.
But then again this outcome is so typical of our existence: for Leeds United fans it seems that every silver lining has a huge, f-off cloud. So thanks GFHC for putting your faith in us. But right now we're going to keep looking that gift horse straight in the bloody mouth.