Criticise Ken by all means, but for God’s sake keep it credible
It’s been a dispiriting summer. And not just because of our failure to sign the players we clearly need following the departure of both goalkeepers and the central midfield pair of Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny. No less unedifying has been the ceaseless negativity of a large number of Leeds fans, particularly the reflexive desire to perceive every piece of news emanating from Elland Road as proof of Ken Bates’s malevolence. No sign of an £8 million striker? Bates out. Waving goodbye to an average keeper who refused to sign a new contract? Bates out. Crap kit? Bates out. Microsoft not named as our new shirt sponsor? Bates out.
The Bates-is-evil filter has made it all-but impossible to sensibly discuss the club’s prospects for 2011/12: Whatever Bates does, the current sentiment runs, it’ll be bad for Leeds United. It’s reminiscent of American right-wing radio’s obsession with Barack Obama, in which every lunch with a Chinese trade delegation or speech to autoworkers in Michigan is evidence the president wants to turn America into a neo-Marxist Saudi Arabia. With universal healthcare. After a while, it just becomes meaningless noise, devoid of any great insight or intellectual honesty. In fact, it’s plain tedious.
Now, let’s be clear, there are many reasons to dislike and distrust Ken Bates. His procurement of the club was suspicious to the point of possible illegality, the ownership of the stadium is unnecessarily opaque, the whereabouts of Fabian Delph’s £6 million transfer fee after the breakeven year of 2008 is still unclear, and the confrontations with both Leeds City Council and the West Yorkshire Police are both needless and embarrassing. The Bates Out campaign does have genuine legitimacy.
But the visceral hatred of the Monaco millionaire is beginning to distort what have been three productive seasons at Leeds United. We’ve turned debt into profit, waved goodbye to League 1, and developed a squad of players that boasts several internationals and which narrowly missed out on a second successive promotion last year. The Bates Out crowd, though, would have us believe this is merely the logical outcome for any cub with our resources. But that’s how the anti-Bates filter works, it sees his influence everywhere – except when good things happen.
I’m hardly a Bates fan. But a popular chairman is invariably a poor one – as Peter Ridsdale proved so uniquely. And even if Bates doesn’t always deserve the benefit of the doubt, constantly misrepresenting key aspects of his chairmanship is not supporter advocacy – it’s self-delusion.
Here are five arguments that have been made against Bates that, for the sake of accuracy, really need challenging.
1. Under Ken, we’re now a selling club
Let’s be honest, apart from the Revie era, a brief flash of domestic dominance that ended 37 years ago, Leeds have always been a selling club – no matter how we’ve been faring. Jordan and McQueen departed a year after the 1977 FA Cup Semi-Final, Cantona and Batty were sold within 18 months of the 1992 title triumph and Rio Ferdinand a year after reaching the last four of the Champions League. But then, Manchester United (Beckham, Van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo) are also a selling club, as are Liverpool (Torres, Mascherano) and Arsenal (how many names can two brackets contain?). No club is ever immune to predatory offers from rivals flushed with cash.
In the last three years, the only player that we cashed in on was Fabian Delph, and only the most romantic of Leeds fans would expect a third division club to turn down £6 million for a teenager whose experience amounted to a solitary season. Indeed, in 2010 the club chose to keep Jermaine Beckford, easily our most bankable asset, for the League One promotion run-in and allow him to leave for nothing in the summer. Hardly profit-driven motivation, was it?
2. Ken will only recruit free transfers
This has been repeated so often in my Twitter feed that it’s almost a hashtag in it’s own right. Sure, we have signed a lot of free transfers in the last couple of years, but last season alone we spent something close to £1.5 million on transfers, and a further half million the year before that. We can argue all we want about the merits of Collins, Bruce, Bromby, Clayton, O’Brien, McCormack and Gradel, and whether a bigger fighting fund would have recruited better players, but they were Grayson’s picks and, yes, they all cost money.
Of course, the opposite argument is invariably used when our own out-of-contract players – Johnson, Kilkenny, Beckford – leave on free transfers. Then, they’re always seen as players Bates is insufficiently ambitious to keep, not cast-offs no one else wants.
3. Every signing by our Championship rivals is a player we should have bought
It’s becoming the Leeds United transfer echo: every transaction involving a Championship club this summer has been followed by a Leeds fan demanding “why weren’t we in for him?” Some have merit, like Scott Danns or Kevin Nolan, but most others wouldn’t have been on Grayson’s radar had he been given a budget of £20 million. Craig Mackail-Smith? David Nugent? Nicky Maynard? No matter that Leeds had one of the most potent attacking forces in the Championship last year, it seems that we should still sign strikers of modest or unproven talent – on long contracts, at astronomical wages – because that’s what “ambitious” clubs do.
4. Ken Bates’ failure to invest is running the club into the ground
This is an argument that confounds me. You can claim we’re not on the right path, that Bates’ conservative strategy won’t achieve promotion as quickly as we’d like, if at all, but after the adventures of the Ridsdale era, balancing the books and turning a profit would seem like the exact opposite of running the club into the ground. In fact, with demands for multi-million pound recruits and the repurchase of Elland Road and Thorp Arch coming from every corner, it seems a good number of fans are proposing the same recklessness that catapulted us into oblivion a decade ago. Pardon me if I welcome a more cautious approach.
(As an interesting side note, the £400 million naming rights deal for Manchester City’s stadium wasn’t affected by the small detail that City don’t actually own it.)
5. Bates is a good businessman – but only when he’s ripping off the fans
It’s incredible how Bates’ business acumen is used against him when player budgets are assigned or season-ticket prices set, yet suddenly he is a financial incompetent when it comes to the cost of redeveloping the East Stand (which is designed to generate revenue) or, ludicrously, selling the shirt sponsor. One Tweeter even suggested that Enterprise Insurance was “Bates yet again doing something on the cheap”. Sorry, you can’t have it both ways; either he’s a mercenary, screwing down costs and inflating prices, or he isn’t. You can argue that good business practice won’t get us anywhere in an era of Gulf oil cash, but then make that argument, not vacillate wildly on Bates’ business skills to suit your agenda.
To be clear, this is not a defence of Ken Bates. We still haven’t been as active in the transfer market as we need to be, and it would reflect poorly on both his and Grayson’s record if we finished lower than last season’s seventh place. And, yes, the ownership of both club and stadium stinks to high heaven.
I’m merely arguing that not everything is rotten at Leeds United and not everything Bates does is necessarily negative for the club – as the last three years have demonstrated. I’m also asking for a bit more honesty in the debate. Bates should be judged on the effects of his actions, not on his supposed motivations. Criticise him by all means, but arguments always carry more weight when they’re plausible.