The Square Ball Week: The High Cost of Dreaming

In Free, Leeds United by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

Elland Road on Saturday will present two works in progress, one on the pitch against Oxford United, and one around the stadium, for and against modern football.

There’s excitement about both. After a preseason of friendlies being moved behind closed doors, cancelled, hastily arranged, or held in secret locations, and broadcasts either cut off, not beginning in the first place, or obscured by emojis on Facebook Live, it’s hard to judge how well (or not) the team is prepared for the opening league game against Bolton Wanderers. But the optimism is there. As summers go it hasn’t quite been 1989 — we’d heard of Vinnie Jones and Mel Sterland (and Mickey Thomas) back then — but the spending on transfers has been significant and Ezgjan Alioski, at least, has the highlights — on YouTube and in his hair — that promise a season of attacking swank.

Elland Road itself is a changing place, where the improvement works are prompting a mixture of anticipation and unease. Everything’s due to be finished for the Preston North End game, making this Saturday’s match one of the last chances to store up some memories of the familiar past, and a first chance to squint and imagine the future. It’ll probably also mean dodging JCBs and chain link fences, but it is a work in progress.

The improvements are improvements, but when you’re so attached to something, improvements don’t always make things better. The North East corner is an unlovely area, too unlovely to be the main entrance and exit to two entire stands, and yet it is loved for its unloveliness. As Jon Howe’s book about Elland Road, The Only Place For Us, reveals, the wall guarding the Kop from Lowfields Road is one of Beeston’s oldest survivals, its bricks laid in the 1920s. The staff signing in hut — once a programme cabin — was a horrible prefab thing, but its demolition last week already had one fan on Waccoe lamenting the end of his superstitious walk into the ground along one side, and then out along the other. There’s a space age podness to the bars above the turnstiles on the corner of the ground, hanging beneath brutish bare concrete; that’ll soon be hidden behind PVC banners featuring Souleymane Doukara (among others). That might make going into the ground feel less grim, but I dunno, I quite liked feeling grim on my way into Elland Road. Sometimes you need to baseline your emotions, ready to be delighted from a low level, or more likely in recent years, insuring against crashing down from a high.

The club say the rebrand is fulfilling two objectives, that are not mutually exclusive. On the official website, managing director Angus Kinnear talks about “Giving back to the fans … We felt it was important that our home should honour our heritage, celebrate our first team squad and make loyal and passionate fans proud on matchdays.”

The planning application documents spin the aim a bit differently. “The club already has a strong brand, with a long history and supportive community,” says the covering statement. “Leveraging this brand and realising the club’s future potential is what the new owners are keen to invest in over the coming months and over the 2017/18 football season … LUFC know that audience is key, along with increasing fan engagement. The stadium itself sits in a key position adjacent to the M621, a main arterial route in and out of Leeds from the south west. Adding to the visual intrigue of the stadium both long distance and short distance will form a key part of the rebranding exercise.”

The banners featuring club legends (not just Doukara), the slogans on the East Stand, and the timeline along the South Stand are connecting the stadium with the team in a way that hasn’t really ever been done, a natural next step after Andrea Radrizzani bought it back through his Greenfield Investment company, and a very welcome one. But they’re also a form of advertising, a way of letting passersby on the M621 know that, yes, this hulking concrete and brick bowl is home to a living, breathing football team, and tickets are now available from Leeds United dot com.

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Both are important aims, and easy gains: the graphics and PVC banners are relatively cheap to produce, install and maintain, at least when compared to, say, Souleymane Doukara. It’s nice for existing fans to feel like the club’s owners give a hot damn about us, and there might be more to discover from the internal alterations. Which is a polite way of saying, let’s hope they’re sorting the bar queues out. But as last season showed, Elland Road is a better place when it’s full, and if that means getting kids who have only ever seen Manchester City on the telly to pester their parents about going to this garishly decorated soccer stadium on the way back from IKEA, then it’s all good.

The question then is, how many of those parents will be able to afford to take their kids? Actually, kids and family pricing at Elland Road is decent now, so they might be okay. But as the response to the new category ticket pricing that appeared on the club’s website over last weekend showed, the club can be as welcoming as it likes, but it’s walking a tightrope where affordability is concerned.

Explaining the rationale behind the jacked up Category A+ prices helped: “This will only be used for exceptional fixtures,” says the club, “Where we judge that demand will outstrip supply.” That’s still slightly vague given the way the club has judged categories in the past — we used to have a cheap and cheerful Category C price, but it was hardly ever used, even as Elland Road wheezed empty on cold Tuesday nights. It will be interesting to see if and when Category A+ does get used this season.

The moderate increases in the other two categories were easier to swallow, but a larger point remains that is pretty much out of Leeds United’s control: football ticket prices are too damn high. At Elland Road, at Hillsborough, at the Etihad, everywhere. Except maybe the McAlpine (or whatever) and Valley Parade, two local and irritating examples of ticket pricing favouring the fans (and potentially troublesome examples, in terms of capturing future support). The increase might be only a couple of quid, but the fact remains that £37 to sit in the East Stand and watch a Category B game of football in the second division — Leeds United versus Burton Albion, say — is too much money. £28 in the ends is better, but it’s still steep all round.

The quandary for Leeds United, though, is that they’re a football club trying to compete within a league structure that continues to seriously deviate from reality. In a refreshing change from the days when Leeds United’s chief executives used to claim that the niceties of running a football club were more than an average fan could understand, Angus Kinnear levelled, on the club website and in a detailed response to the Supporters’ Trust. “Unlike Premier League Clubs who enjoy a vast income from TV, ticketing revenue is our primary source of income and is the largest single factor influencing investment in the team,” he said. “It’s clear from the business that we have done in the transfer market this summer that all money generated from ticket sales is going straight back in to improving the first team which is vital for an ambitious club like ours which wants to be competitive, yet does not benefit from parachute payments.”

Gate receipts for the year ending June 2016 (the last set of published accounts) were just over £8m; central distributions — the TV money from the league allocated based on league position — was £4.5m. Even putting the two amounts together wouldn’t buy you one Britt Assombalonga at the moment, but Leeds United are still expected to take on his club and win promotion to the Premier League this season. That’s led Leeds to look abroad for players, in search of value, which introduces its own element of additional risk: can Caleb Ekuban adapt to the Championship in time to become more valuable to the team than a Britt Assombalonga?

Those are the questions Leeds have to balance, while the division around them fills up with clubs that can outspend them without feeling a thing. There are three simultaneous ways forward: buy players as cheaply as possible, bring in as much sponsorship money as possible, and get as many fans as possible to pay as much money to watch the team as possible. In which case, Caleb Ekuban had better be good, otherwise those ticket prices begin to look completely impossible.

There’s not really an upside to this. I mentioned earlier a hypothetical young football fan, who has only watched Manchester City on television. City have just spent £50m on Kyle Walker, a full-back who to my mind is no better than Gaetano Berardi, but they have so much cash now — and coming from future broadcasting deals — that they can afford to spend that and more, and still offer their cheapest season tickets for several hundred pounds cheaper than Leeds United. Away ticket prices at Premier League clubs are now capped at £30, and more clubs are looking at subsidising travel or ticket costs to make it cheaper to watch their team. It’s becoming cheaper, in some cases, than the Championship.

It’s a nightmare scenario for clubs outside the Premier League, especially clubs like Leeds that have been a long, long time outside the Premier League, but are expected by their fans and sponsors to be there. Elite football’s stratospheric spiral has reached the ridiculous point where the ‘sense’ of £200m transfer fees can be calmly debated, just at the moment when the cost of watching those £200m players play is beginning to drop, whether through tickets, TV subscriptions or illegal streams, on its way back to the point where the one point of difference where Football League clubs could compete — price — is diminished.

The way out of this is promotion to the Premier League itself — or relegation to League One, but let’s not go there — which would bring its own problems. In the meantime, the club can only do what it does appear to be doing: spend sensibly but not meanly on the playing squad, to create a team that attracts fans to watch it and gives the club a chance at promotion; advertise, and emphasise that there’s something on offer at Elland Road — an ‘experience’, if we have to call it that — you won’t get watching Burnley v Huddersfield on the Super Sunday gogglebox; and reassure long-suffering supporters that their contribution to the club’s present, to its history, and to its future, is as important to Leeds United as it ought to be.

And what it can’t do is price supporters out. As Kinnear said, gate receipts are the income that underpins the football club, and even then the £8m in 2015/16 was a low; back in 2011 and 2012, the club was taking in more than £11m a year on the gate. Leeds might have approached those levels again last season, but the variation demonstrates the impact our pounds and pence have in the accountant’s office at Elland Road.

Fans’ loyalty plays a major part in keeping the club running, but the balance between loyalty and ability to pay is increasingly delicate, and will be debated intensely every time ticket prices are announced. It’s only a two quid increase this season, but we’re on a planet where football clubs are ‘only’ spending two hundred million quid on players. Perhaps part of a fan’s responsibility, these days, is to keep reminding their club what life is like on the fans’ planet. And that Alioski is better than Neymar anyway. ◉

(feature image by Lee Brown)