Editor’s note: Ian King, author of the exceptional 200percent football blog, will be writing periodically on English lower league football for pitchinvasion.net. Here he addresses the latest twists in Leeds’ increasingly problematic plight, and urges Leeds supporters to take matters into their own hands.
I’ve heard it said before that choosing the football team that you will support is one of the most important relationship decisions that you will make in your life. Considering that the divorce rate in the UK at the moment is so high, there’s a persuasive argument for saying that the team that you pick is more likely to stay with you for life than any spouse ever will.
Supporters of Leeds United must feel as if they’re trapped in abusive relationship at the moment. Since entering into administration at the end of last season, Leeds supporters have had to endure worst case scenario after worst case scenario. Every time they thought that things couldn’t get any worse, they have, and this has repeated itself over and over again throughout the summer, culminating in a threat of legal action by HM Customs & Excises over an unpaid £7.7m tax bill.
Without wishing to go into too much detail over the technicalities of the situation at Elland Road (which is complicated enough to warrant a book of its own), Leeds United proposed a Companies Voluntary Arrangement to take the club out of administration that would pay their numerous creditors just one penny for every pound of their £35m debt, whilst threatening that failure to agree this would result in the closure of the club.
In a statement of extraordinary arrogance, the club stated that their paltry proposal would be “the best way to allow the Football Club to progress and to allow it to resume its proper place in the FA Premier League”, and that, “the Company has made significant payments to HMRC [the taxman, to you and me], if they had not then the loss to HMRC would have been considerably more than the £7.7m currently claimed” (bear in mind that this is tax that we’re talking about here – not something that most people have any right to negotiate over). The offer was raised to eight pence in the pound but the taxman has, it would appear, called their bluff.
In short, it would appear that Ken Bates, the chairman of Leeds United Football Club Limited, has miscalculated. The other biggest creditors are mysterious holding companies that are widely believed to be cover for Bates himself, and ownership of their Elland Road stadium and – more significantly – their Thorp Arch training ground (believed to be one of the most valuable pieces of land in the North of England, should it be sold with planning permission to be developed) were transferred into the ownership of a company based in the British Virgin Islands – also a place with very close links to Ken Bates.
The role of the other creditors remains largely a mystery, but the administrators, KPMG, have reportedly received a letter from these creditors stating that they would only accept an offer to buy the club outright if it came from. . .Ken Bates. All of this leads many people to believe that Bates is simply trying to obtain ownership of a debt-free Leeds United for next to nothing. It’s now widely accepted that if Bates isn’t acting illegally, he’s acting in a highly underhand manner and, from their intransigence over the matter, it would appear that HMRC agree with this analysis.
So, what are Leeds fans doing to mobilise against this web of intrigue? Well, not a lot, really. The editor of the Leeds fanzine “The Square Ball” had this to say: “If the club folds or is unable to challenge for promotion because of this legal limbo the local MPs who pressed for this action will have to answer to their constituents. This challenge is not in the best interests of Leeds fans or the promotion prospects of the club”. This sort of statement strikes me as profoundly unhelpful. It sounds as if the supporters of Leeds United are more than happy to bury their heads in the sand, and hope that something, anything, comes along to get them back into the Premier League, at any cost. They’re acting as if there’s no alternative to Ken Bates and the current constitution of Leeds United. Not so.
There are clear parallels between the situation at Leeds United now and what has happened in recent years at such clubs as Manchester United or Wimbledon, which led to the formation of FC United of Manchester and AFC Wimbledon. Over the last few seasons, clubs the length and breadth of the country have been asset-stripped by people that have seen them as being ripe for exploitation. Leeds fans seem to be stuck in a loop of getting the club and the company that own the club mixed up. They themselves are the “club” – the beating pulse that validates its very existence – and the future of the “club” lies with them, rather than Ken Bates, the taxman, or whichever venture capitalists swoop in to feast on Leeds’ carcass when this matter is resolved.
There is another way. All that a proportion of Leeds’ supporters have to do is mobilise, and form their own club at the bottom of the football pyramid. They can form a trust and run an elected committee to oversee their affairs. The club will never be subjected to this most abject humiliation again, because it will be owned by the fans themselves.
It’s not an easy decision to make, and will require a deal of soul-searching for a lot of people, but what, realistically, is their alternative? To be kicked from pillar to post by those running Leeds United? To know, deep down, where their hard earned money is going? Whichever way you look at it, it strikes me that Leeds United in its current constitution is a shell of a club, but the supporters can at least seize control of their own destinies.
They probably won’t get rid of Bates. The likes of Bates, Malcolm Glazer and Pete Winkelman are a cancer on the game that is almost certainly inoperable, but that isn’t the point. Ask any supporters of AFC Wimbledon or FC United of Manchester and you’ll hear the same thing over and over – they’re enjoying their football again. It’s fun. They can focus on their team, rather than having to brush up on insolvency law and all the other things that seem to be the unfortunate and unwanted requirements of being an empowered football supporter in the twenty-first century. They can enjoy what happens on the pitch and build their own community. After all, isn’t that the reason why we get involved with football in the first place?
Editor’s note: Ian King, author of the exceptional 200percent football blog, will be writing periodically on English lower league football for pitchinvasion.net.