The Square Ball Week: Laughed Out

In 2018-19 articles, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

It’s the beard. That quivering nest of hair and spit covering the jowls, while above, the eyes grow wide, indignant at the interviewer’s line of questioning.

He’s bewildered by the accusations, astonished by the reaction, mystified by the doubts about his motives. He’s the one being betrayed by the authorities and threatened by the very people he claims to be helping; why isn’t there sympathy for him, instead of this anger? Thumbing over a phone he says contains countless messages of support, he insists that if only everybody would trust him the way those uncounted people do, everything will turn out fine.

Add an imagined Shaun Harvey somewhere out of shot, disavowing responsibility with a shrug, and the demise of Bury FC under Steve Dale becomes superficially reminiscent enough of Ken Bates presiding over the end of Leeds United — the business founded in 1919, that was finally liquidated earlier this year — and the start of the new company that emerged from administration in summer 2007, with Ken Bates still in charge of the club, after it dropped into the third tier for the first time in its history.

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Bury FC met a worse fate, expelled from the Football League, and now their fans want answers about the events of this summer. Specifically, they want to know more about a company that was established days before a delayed board meeting and took on a crucial £7m debt, and whether the Guardian’s allegation that it was owned by Steve Dale’s daughter’s partner is correct. And they want answers from the Football League about how a club can end up ruined and thrown out of the competition while its owner is, ostensibly, abiding by its regulations. I wish them luck in their search for answers.

Leeds fans are still waiting for their answers about the Bates era, and have been waiting so long that many have forgotten what the questions were, or were too young at the time to know what we were asking. In 2007 the biggest question was why two anonymous companies in the British Virgin Islands, owed more than £17.6m of the £38.1m debt that grew under Bates’ ownership, gave preferential terms to Bates during the administration process, effectively agreeing to write off the money owed them if he won the bidding to run the new company, voting for Bates’ bid ahead of other, higher offers. And there are still questions about how the Football League allowed Bates as chairman and Shaun Harvey as his chief executive to run the football club on behalf of the new company, while insisting that neither of them knew who owned the company or whose benefit they were ultimately working for. I suppose we got an answer, of sorts, when Harvey was made chief executive of the Football League.

I wish Bury’s fans luck, but a lot of Leeds fans don’t. Hearing calls to help the stricken club over the last few weeks, Leeds fans with long memories have wracked their brains, trying to remember anybody rushing to help them when Leeds were out of business and effectively out of the league in 2007.

There was more help than many realised, but it got lost amid propaganda. The infamous fifteen point penalty was imposed because, according to the regulations, the way the admin process had been run meant Leeds shouldn’t have been allowed into the league at all. For the first time the Football League used its ‘exceptional circumstances’ clause to allow Leeds to play in League One, with a fifteen point penalty part of the deal. The Football League expected Leeds to appeal to have the penalty reduced, and to be successful; as it turned out, Leeds would have been automatically promoted with a reduced deduction of nine points. Instead Bates characterised the help as an unjust punishment and spent the season fighting the League, unsuccessfully, in the courts.

Any other help on offer at the time was lost amid the laughter. ‘You’re not famous anymore’ has only just been replaced by ‘Leeds are falling apart again’ as the taunt of choice, after more than a decade. Home fans in the Championship are still as delighted as ever when the once-mighty Leeds visit their ground for an unusually intense game of Second Division football, and never hesitate to remind their guests that they’re disgracing themselves by playing such lowly opposition. Many of these clubs have been to the Premier League and back since Leeds were last there, making the mockery harder to take, and the grudge even more bitter.

Leeds fans are right to resent this. Being right is one of our greatest strengths. We were the Champions of Europe in 1975: just watch the video, and ignore the trophy presentation. That’s what Greek fans did in 1973, when Milan left the stadium in Thessaloniki with the European Cup Winners’ Cup: Leeds were hailed as the victors. We’re still bitter and we’re still right.

It’s true that after years of mockery opposition fans don’t deserve our support, especially not in this ultra-toxic social media era, when sympathy is at a premium and completely out of style. But regardless of deserving it, they need it. Otherwise we’re all in trouble.

The reminiscences of Bates in Steve Dale’s actions shouldn’t make Leeds fans glad to see it happening to someone else, even if that’s our first instinct. Instead we should be furious that, in more than ten years, while huge fines are swiftly handed down for trivia, nobody in charge of football has come up with a way to stop this happening. Leeds are subject to the same regulations as everyone else in the Football League, and the lesson that should have been taken from our demise still needs to be taken from Bury’s: that nothing in the rules can stop this from happening to any club, including ours again.

Football didn’t heed the warning of Leeds United’s fall; perhaps it was too busy laughing, and sowing the seeds of the bitterness that leaves us divided against the fans of Bury or Bolton Wanderers. Instead of ensuring that no club could follow us, the Football League considered Shaun Harvey — whose involvement in two administrations at Bradford City would, had the Fit and Proper rules been applied retrospectively, have banned him from the job at Leeds where he was involved in a third — and made him its chief executive.

Shaun Harvey’s career is emblematic of the problem the Football League has. Reforming its rules would risk making too many of its members ineligible to run the clubs they own, and it’s those members who have the final say on reforms. Football League clubs have been sold to their owners since 1992 as ‘opportunities’ — a chance in a lottery to win promotion to the Premier League and its riches. The slimmer that opportunity has become, the more desperate and ruthless the opportunists.

Fans continue to be tricked, as Leeds fans were, not only by Bates, into trusting the promises of self-proclaimed saviours, not realising they’re being lured into a Faustian pact until it’s too late. And fans continue to lack the tools they need to rescue their clubs when the truth is revealed.

For as long as there are opportunities in the Football League, there will be opportunists seeking to capitalise, and to hell with the consequences for a town’s 134 years of football history. There’s a blithe acceptance among some fans now about Bury’s demise, assuming the fans can just found a phoenix club and start again in non-league, as if nothing is really being lost. That’s entirely the wrong lesson from AFC Wimbledon’s success. Wimbledon should have been the exception, not become the rule. A club shouldn’t need to implode, and reform many rungs beneath the position it achieved through competition, for it to start running properly.

If there will always be phoenix clubs then there will always be clubs going bust, and there will always be owners risking those clubs’ fates, knowing they can escape the consequences while the fans are left to rebuild.

Ken Bates never showed any appetite to sell Leeds United until the clamour from the fans became more than he could withstand. And there won’t be any appetite at the Football League to get its house in order until the clamour from fans makes it clear that the current situation, affecting not just Bury and Bolton but Charlton and Coventry and Blackpool and Northampton in the last few years, and who knows who else in the years to come, can’t continue.

How that message is collectively communicated is beyond my scope — membership of the Football Supporters’ Association feels like a start. But another place to start is by swallowing our bitterness and pride, and swallowing the urge to laugh at others, even if they have laughed at us. One day there might not be anybody left to laugh at, and what fun will football be then? ◉

(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)

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(photo by Lee Brown)