The Square Ball Week: Happiness & The Way

In 2017-18, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

I know what it feels like to be happy while supporting Leeds United. I just don’t remember it very well.

I’ve lived through it, but there’s a shadow over every memory. Winning the league in 1992 was like staggering out of a party into a delirious summer rave; but winter soon came, when Leeds couldn’t win away. Even during the Champions League season, when David O’Leary’s babies were top of the Premier League, there was the misery of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate in court, and UEFA’s habitual cheating when we threatened glory. Now there’s the retrospect knowledge that it was all a prelude to disaster.

The happiest I can recall being as a Leeds fan was one morning far away from Elland Road. I’d woken up on a campsite near Newquay, ready for 1999’s solar eclipse. Someone bought a newspaper, and on the back page I read that the money from Jimmy Hasselbaink’s sale was being invested in one of the best young players in England, Darren Huckerby, and that one of the other best young players in England, Michael Bridges, had scored a hat-trick for Leeds against Southampton the night before. There was a photo of Bridges, smart in the new blue away kit Puma had nicked for us from Lazio, and as I sat in a deckchair, the sun on my face, and contemplated these things, I felt a deep contentment with my place in the universe.

Of course, Huckerby could only run in a straight line, and by the time he left, injuries meant Bridges could barely run at all, but I wasn’t to know that then. And I remember it so clearly, because football, swinging from euphoria to tragedy with the swing of a boot, has rarely made me feel like that before or since.

I haven’t felt anything close to that this season, but I have felt something different to the anger and misery that has become, in the years since, usual. I’ve felt optimistic. I’ve felt not-angry. Patient. Relaxed. Confident. In the club. Yes, Leeds United Football Club. I’ve felt confident in Leeds United Football Club, the club that always repays confidence in spades, like a shovel of gravel to the face.

It’s weird and people have noticed a change in how I’ve been writing and asked if I’m okay and I’ve said I’ve noticed it too and that I think I’m okay but it’s unusual and I’m not sure. When one of my main reference points for football happiness is of being at the far end of the country from Elland Road eighteen years ago, it’s difficult to understand how or why I could be cheerful again now. How, when Leeds lost seven of eight games, could I be writing in support of the manager? Why, when the club has publicly kicked any intentional plan for promotion into the long grass of next season, am I blithely prepared to wait, and hand over my ticket money in the meantime? Why, when I used to scour newspaper archives for whatever traces I could find of our lesser-spotted director of football, Gwyn Williams, am I cutting Victor Orta so much slack for the Nunez and Grella one-two of Klich and Cibicki? That said, I always kinda liked Ramon Nunez, if only for his bow ties. But eighth in the Championship, and highly likely to be in this league yet again next season, why aren’t I filling these columns with the same futile anger of old?

Well, for one thing, I got a lot of it out of my system when Michael Brown came back earlier in the season. For another, ten years is a long time to stay angry. The ten-year anniversaries of our worst despair, relegation to the lowest level of our history and Ken Bates emerging from the organised chaos of administration still in charge on behalf of people he claimed not to know, passed quietly over the summer. It was like nobody had the energy to remember that time, or the years of fighting that followed, represented until long after he’d gone by the resistant ‘Bates Out’ graffiti on the Lowfields; and certainly not the energy to start it all over again.

It took something good to shift that graffiti — a mural of happier memories. But long before that I remember a relieved pause for breath after Gulf Finance House arrived, and began dismantling Bates’ legacy — cutting short his absurd, unearned presidency, dismissing Gwyn Williams for having more than just the latest Football Manager on his work computer — before we realised what else they were dismantling, and what they were doing with the gains. Massimo Cellino was attritional chaos from the start, and the years of his ownership turned into one long slow motion replay of his big opening night, the fans outside the stadium and angry, barricading Cellino, inside and indignant, as he tried to call out for a bailout. By the time he left, I think everybody had had enough.

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To some degree the complaints against these various ownerships were driven by personality. Ken Bates was born loathsome, a man who deliberately travelled to and supported the illegal racist regime in Rhodesia in 1967, at a time when the United Nations had the world’s agreement that no person of integrity would do business with its rogue Prime Minister Ian Smith. Bates took Oldham Athletic on tour there anyway and had his photo taken with Smith, and it was believed he would be using labour and building materials sourced in Rhodesia as part of his plans to turn the Caribbean islands Anegada and Tortola into leisure resorts and private serfdoms, effectively confining the indigenous people to reservations on less than 10% of their own islands. After that, he ran the Irish Trust Bank until it collapsed, leaving thousands of ordinary people out of pocket, and moved to Australia, only to turn up at Chelsea, where he suggested putting the very people whose ticket money was keeping the club afloat — the fans — inside electrified cages.

By the time he came to Leeds, Bates was a serial failure, peddling the same clapped out concepts he tried at Oldham and Chelsea — build off-pitch leisure facilities, control the club’s media channels to quieten fans, and success on the pitch would somehow follow — and he should have been turned away at Tingley by a crowd with torches and pitchforks. After Noel Lloyd led the ‘Positive Action Movement’ to drive Bates out of Anegada and Tortola in 1971, they put up a statue to Noel and named a park after the victory. But in Leeds, the Yorkshire Evening Post wrote that, “All right-thinking United fans, and certainly this newspaper, welcome Mr Bates with open arms … He is a wise old sage … a tough cookie; just what is needed … Welcome, Ken. And all power to your elbow.” From the moment Bates arrived, it was up to the wrong-thinking United fans — the sickpots, morons and dissidents — to make Ken as unwelcome as possible.

Pinning GFH down as people was more difficult, because their personas were artificially crafted. David Haigh changed birthplace as often as he changed PR companies, and while he was content crafting messages for the 150,000 Twitter followers that had been bought for his account — for a while he had more followers than the club itself — getting him, Salem Patel, Hisham Al Rayes or Salah Nooruddin on the record in any meaningful way was impossible. At least there was communication with Bates, as we regularly slagged each other off, a practice resumed with Massimo Cellino, years that were all about personality, because he thought that buying Leeds United made him and the football club the same thing — say Leeds United, and you say Massimo Cellino. One of our problems became the extent to which he made that true outside Leeds; another, that when Leeds fans wanted to separate the club from his coercive conjoining, Cellino took the insult like a stab to the groin.

Louder than the valid complaints about what these owners were like as people, though, were the even more valid complaints about what these people were like as football club owners. Looking back through articles I wrote in the angry years, the moral objections to Bates, personal suspicions about GFH, and the unmanageable volatility of Cellino are all repeated. But the dominant theme driving the anger was that they weren’t doing very good jobs of running Leeds United Football Club, which ought to be one of the easiest football clubs in the world to get right.

Since relegation from the Premier League, Leeds United has always been one of the top earning football clubs in the two divisions below. In the years before dropping into League One, the problem was that the outgoings from the Peter Ridsdale era consumed vast amounts of the incoming cash. Since relegation and administration, the question has always been about where those vast amounts of cash were directed after those events cleared the debts. Under Ken Bates, pavilions, radio stations, hotel redevelopment plans and legal bills piled up around Elland Road, signifiers of expenditure that was being readily signed off as long as it was spent anywhere but the pitch. Meanwhile, in the accounts, ‘administration expenses’ crept up season after season.

Even when Burnley, Middlesbrough and Hull came down into the Championship with parachute payments, United were making £5m more than any of them, by far the largest turnover in the division; taking out parachute cash, Norwich were next best, earning £10m less than Leeds. But the wages to turnover ratio remained stubbornly low, even declining from 55% to 51%, leaving a gap of £6.4m between Leeds and UEFA’s recommended maximum 70% ratio, and £3.1m short of the 60% limit used in Leagues One and Two. What did increase, though, were those ‘other costs’, to £13m in 2010/11, the highest in the division, while the accounts also showed £16.6m being spent on ‘capital projects’. Most conspicuous in that category was the tarting up of the East Stand which, when it was paid for through a combination of Fabian Delph’s transfer fee and a mortgage against future season ticket sales, became a very visible symbol that the football side of the football club was being neglected, not through lack of available funds, but because of Bates’ determination of how those funds should be spent.

GFH’s contribution was to put up a very unBatesian front and act as if nothing was more important to them than football — David Haigh could name his favourite Leeds United matches any time you liked, once his PR company had copied and pasted them from the club website to his own — all while management charges and ‘other’ expenses increased to levels that made Bates weep, frequently, down the phone to his radio station across the road. They then locked up all the good stuff and handed the lemon over to patsy-in-chief Cellino, who was too preoccupied breaking calculator after calculator, trying to understand how he’d been stitched up, to do much else.

We’ve been searching, since admin, for the antidote to Bates, but everything we’ve had forced down our throats since 2007 has just been another poison. The anger, and the frustration, was because the medicine has been in our cabinet all along. I can’t ever remember, throughout these bitter tasting years, wanting a fairy billionaire to come and blow money-dust to make the badness all go away. I was never demanding an instant cure, or more than that, instant health; to be out of bed and running laps around the Premier League with one dose of a magic money pill. There were simpler options, that wouldn’t ruin Leeds United in another new way.

The dream scenario was always right there in the accounts Ken Bates’ ownership published season after season. Look at the large amounts of money coming into the club. Reduce how much of it is spent on ‘capital projects’ and ‘other expenses’. Increase the amount spent on footballers, their wages and their needs. Maintain that new ratio until promotion. That couldn’t be guaranteed, but its chances could be vastly increased, if only Leeds United’s own resources were used properly, and Leeds United was run, for a change, as a fucking football club, instead of whatever else its owners wanted it to be.

Throw in some element of supporter ownership and an owner that doesn’t induce Pavlovian levels of sick in my mouth and you’ve got the only cure I ever wanted for Leeds United. And, depending on how you feel about being forced to wave a sycophantic flag, that seems to be close to what we’ve got with Andrea Radrizzani.

Seems to be. Because until we start seeing published financials, or scaffolding replacing playmakers, or vertically challenged Hollywood celebrities replacing coaches, we have to take much of what Radrizzani and co are doing on trust. GFH were granted similar grace, which turned out to be a huge mistake, but from a supporter perspective you can never really know what’s going on behind the facade until it’s too late anyway. Outside, though, Radrizzani is saying and doing all the right things, avoiding, for a start, the emergency obnoxiousness and habitual impatience that made Bates and Cellino targets from their first day.

It’s what I’ve been asking for, for years. Radrizzani’s plan for promotion has upset some fans for not being ambitious enough; he’s quite open about the fact that millions of Radrizzidollars are not going to be pumped into the club for instant success. The club is going to have to pay its own way, but that means unplugging all the streams that GFH diverted, and Cellino clogged up with hair and talcum powder, to get revenue back where it should be: among the largest, without the aid of parachute payments, in the division. As well as being an appropriate tribute to former players, and fans past and present, the new Bremner Square redevelopment is also a way of selling expensive ornamental bricks, and whatever else Radrizzani’s people are doing, they’re definitely looking for ways for the football club to generate more revenue. Just because it won’t be from Radrizzani’s personal fortune doesn’t mean they don’t want to spend a lot of money. They’ve just got to make it first.

If that money is then spent on the team, then that will be as it should be. What I wanted from Bates was for him to, well, fuck off, but while he was here I wanted him to fulfil his side of the club-supporter bargain: we pay for tickets and merchandise, and that money gets spent on making the team as good as possible. Radrizzani may have fiendish other uses planned for our cash, but for now he seems to be building around Victor Orta a machine for buying and developing footballers, that in the long term ought to function independently of Orta. Orta is not a direct analogue for Gwyn Williams, because Bates would have laughed at the idea of giving Williams a worldwide scouting network, a team of analysts and a new training facility, because he had Gwyn Williams, so he didn’t need that other stuff. GFH had Football Manager to tell them not to sign Ashley Barnes; Massimo Cellino had his, er, instincts. But by the time the summer transfer window comes around, we shouldn’t be reliant on Orta’s status as the ‘Wikipedia of Football’ to find us Jay-Roy Grot’s from all over, but instead on a permanent system of recruitment that will recommend something better than a JRG 2.0. It’s a capital expenditure that ought to benefit the football side of the club for years, as long as somebody doesn’t come along and close it down.

Those signs of progress beginning but not yet bearing fruit are visible around the club, from increased staffing levels, to more visible and sincere community efforts, to fixing the urgent asbestos nightmare of the West Stand roof, to buying back the whole damn stadium. It might all be a con, but buying Elland Road and allowing it to be registered as an Asset of Community Value bought the trust that it’s not, and there were probably cheaper ways for Radrizzani of buying that trust, if all this was a confidence trick.

That can’t be ruled out. Anybody who wants to own a football club ought to arouse suspicion, because it always seems to attract the wrong kind. As I type this, those increased revenue streams could be pouring out the other side of Aser Group and straight into bitcoin wallets from which it’ll never be recovered. Plans could be afoot for Greenfield Investment, the group company that owns Elland Road, to circumvent the Asset of Community Value process for Radrizzani’s gain. Every one of those Bremner Statue bricks could equal a brick of another substance elsewhere in the stadium.

Or, there’s the bogeymen that do exist. The reputation that preceded Orta down the A19 from Middlesbrough was of a meddler with a very limited eye for a player; we can wonder if the second part might be too accurate already. Thomas Christiansen is undoubtedly on a steep learning curve, and taking the team with him, something that might have been avoided with a more experienced coach. Angus Kinnear has West Ham’s disastrous move to the Olympic Stadium on his CV. Then there’s Ivan Bravo, the bête noire I’ve already picked out and written about this season, who either provides a bottomless well of top class technical knowledge from his years at Real Madrid, or an unwelcome link to Qatar’s World Cup in 2022 via the Aspire Academy. Talking to us for The Square Ball, Kinnear said the relationship with Aspire would become “increasingly formal”, while avoiding the topic of Qatar; and as our summer signing Ouasim Bouy has only managed 55 minutes on the pitch since we sent him on loan to Aspire-owned club Cultural Leonesa in Spain, that’s a relationship that already has me on edge.

Then there’s the fact that, even if Radrizzani and Aser and Aspire and all are above board and legit, none of this might work anyway. The ball is still round, and it can do many strange things to prevent promotion. Even without the ball, maybe chucking tens of millions of pounds at the team and worrying about revenue and infrastructure after you’re bathing in money in the Premier League is the way to go, after all. But right now I can’t be mad at them for trying to do the things I’ve wanted someone at Leeds United to do for more than ten years. So it’s no wonder I seem more positive than I used to.

That doesn’t make me an acolyte of the regime, or a fanboy for Radrizzani. I’ve never found my heroes among rich men in executive boxes, especially not when there are eleven on a nearby pitch to choose from, and never understood the cults of Bates or Cellino that have plagued Leeds United and split the support with their weird devotion. Besides, there is plenty of turbulence ahead, even with success. The Premier League might be where we’re headed, but is that sanitised world of clappers, goal music, and five-goal drubbings by Arsenal where we want to be? The mosaic and flags against Middlesbrough were just about allowable, but week after week might be hard to swallow. As plans for training facilities and, crucially, other redevelopment around Elland Road come forward, and as Leeds United gets sucked into the corporate realms it has spent this century stubbornly resisting, the chances of an old soccer romantic like me clashing with the media-led modern football world of Radrizzani will only increase.

But we don’t know what’s going to happen yet. The first set of accounts showing the first full year under Radrizzani, from this summer to June 2018, should be published around March 2019, by which time the success or otherwise of the first proper attempt at promotion should be pretty much known. It all seems a long time away, but it’ll come around quickly. At the moment, we’re in a tranquil vacuum. None of the information needed for anger has come our way yet; instead, just signs pointing towards a well run football club that might be successful in a few years, rather than never. Judge them as they come.

The battle until that information starts to come through, then, is with ourselves, trying to balance unusual feelings of contentment with the natural impatience for winning matches all the time, now; and, also, with anybody who suggests we should “Get Tony Pulis in.” Because if one thing has made me happier than anything else this season, it’s that little Tony Currie in David Batty’s body, Samu Saiz, and the idea of him gazing up at the moon sobbing for a touch of the torrential Pulisball screaming through the sky makes me wonder if anyone who thinks Pulis would improve Leeds United has the capacity to feel any kind of happiness at all. Even when I agree with the way he’s running the football club, I’ll never die on a hill for Andrea Radrizzani. But I’ll make any mountain sacrifice this cruel world demands to protect Samu Saiz. ◉

(feature image by Paul Kent)

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