Ken Bates’ diabolical insight, used at every club he owned, was that while players could be popular with fans, loyalty always went first to the institution. It takes a lot to separate a supporter from their club, but players come and go. So if the official club media channels portrayed players as mercenaries trying a swindle with their contract demands, fans would take the club’s — Bates’ — side against them. The players couldn’t say anything back, because Bates controlled the club’s media and unauthorised interviews meant fines, and more criticism. This was useful in contract negotiations — why should a player get a pay rise when the fans don’t like him? — and transfers, because by the time the player left, the fans would have heard so much about their contract, they’d be happy to see them go. Supporters would keep handing their money over to the club, and the chairman wouldn’t have to give it to the players or their agents he said were ‘robbing’ it.
Kilkenny’s exit in summer 2011 was typical: he was offered a contract in October, turned it down because he could get more elsewhere than the small increase being offered on his League One wages, then spent the rest of the season being accused of greed.
“I didn’t want to leave and I made that clear so many times last season,” Kilkenny said. “I had three-and-a-half years with the club and I loved my time there. The way it all finished was really disappointing and I thought my performances over the whole of last season proved my worth. The club always got 100 per cent from me and I felt I’d earned a better offer than the one they gave me. Sometimes that’s how football works out but I want to make it clear that I wanted to stay, and in a way my hand was forced.”
Bates had a shelf life, though, and underestimated how fans would keep getting attached to good players while his schtick became tired. That’s why the start of 2011/12 brought protesting fans (“Sickpots,” Bates called them, and “dissidents”) onto the streets. Kasper Schmeichel was sold to Leicester while he was on holiday, surprised to learn from Sky Sports News that he’d turned down a contract offer he didn’t know about. An offer from Saint-Étienne for Max Gradel was portrayed as too good to refuse, but Bates then claimed he’d been screwed by Gradel’s agent and the exchange rate so the fee couldn’t be used for new players. After months being criticised by Bates on the club’s in-house Yorkshire Radio station, Bradley Johnson — who had tried to answer back on TalkSport — and Neil Kilkenny left on free transfers, to Norwich and Bristol City. Three of those departing players had come up from League One with Leeds, while Schmeichel was obviously better than his replacements: Andy Lonergan for £200,000 and Paul Rachubka for free. Michael Brown also came for free to replace Johnson and Kilkenny, plus Danny Pugh, Darren O’Dea and Andy Keogh (all on loan); then Mikael Forssell and Mika Väyrynen turned up, right at the end of the transfer window, again for free.
Leeds had finished 7th in their first season after promotion from League One, maybe a couple of new defenders away from pushing for the play-offs and promotion to the Premier League. Instead the team had been gutted and the East Stand turned into a building site for new corporate facilities, being paid for by a loan against future season ticket sales. Neil Kilkenny had noticed. “I looked at the team that has been playing recently for Leeds and there were only three players from last season,” he said. “That is really disappointing for a club like Leeds. They should be keeping that team together from last year and adding a couple more.”
This was something else Bates hadn’t counted on. Enfield born but Australia raised midfielder Neil Kilkenny often got mixed reviews from Leeds supporters, but a bond had grown between the fans and the players who rescued the club from League One. That put Kilkenny in a rare position so that, when he hammered a 25 yard equaliser in off the bar for Bristol City at Elland Road, then turned and ran to the West Stand, blowing angry kisses, pointing and shouting, there was a moment when the fans wondered what was going on — then delight when they worked it out. He wasn’t looking at anybody else, wasn’t targeting anybody else, wasn’t gesturing at anybody else, but Ken Bates. Stick it to ‘im, Killa! Give it to Ken!
And to be fair to Kilkenny, he’d been on the receiving end in the build up to the match. Bates was never shy about airing his grievances with former players on his weekly Yorkshire Radio address, and with Bristol City coming at the weekend, he’d been claiming Kilkenny told Leeds he was ‘leaving for a bigger club, and ended up at Bristol City’. Killa replied before the game, telling Bristol City’s website, “There were reasons why I left in the summer and not the reasons Ken Bates said. I just leave him to rant on and he’s always arguing with someone.” The goal, and the fact it was a good one, the celebration, and the post-match interviews, were Kilkenny’s unexpected golden chance to clap back in full.
“I didn’t really want to celebrate in front of the fans,” he said. “But I needed to make a point to the chairman and his chief executive [Shaun Harvey] because everyone here has said hello to me except for the chairman and the chief executive, which is disappointing.
“I have seen a few things said by the chairman over the last couple of days. He said that I left Leeds to go to a smaller club and that was very disrespectful to both me and to Bristol City. That is really, really disappointing… but that’s him. What can you do? I made a lot of appearances in a short amount of time for Leeds — almost 150 in three-and-a-half years, and that’s not really heard of these days. It wasn’t nice to hear those things said because I always stated that I wanted to stay at the club. Obviously he was a bit disappointed that I left but he made the decision and he shouldn’t have said those things. Maybe he was feeling a bit upset that I left.
“I did blow a kiss. I can’t stress enough that it wasn’t to the fans. He [Bates] didn’t blow a kiss back — he just sat there with a stony face. I can only give my opinion about what I have seen at the club. I didn’t want to say anything but after what he has said in the papers, I have to say my piece. There was no need for him to say anything because I haven’t said anything about the club. I have only ever said that I love the club and didn’t want to leave — that is all. I was made out to be the bad guy in this situation by certain directors, but I wasn’t. I always said all along that I wanted to stay and obviously the powers above had the decision to make and they didn’t see me staying at the club.”
It was personal, but the bond with the fans was reciprocal. Nobody at Leeds had wanted to be in League One — and Kilkenny had been at Arsenal in his youth, so he didn’t either. Everyone involved made a deep emotional investment in Leeds doing well, and wanted to carry on, pushing Simon Grayson’s squad to the Premier League. That aim, for fans and players alike, was now bumping too often against the way Bates was running things. From the safe distance of Bristol, Kilkenny could talk.
“It is hard to speak out when you are a Leeds player and things are going on around you,” he said. “I was really close to Jermaine Beckford and they let him go on a free transfer. As a player, it is hard to see that but you can’t say anything because they will keep you quiet by fining you or something like that.
“Over the years it has happened over and over again and people have blamed the players for that. But now people are starting to see that when it happens four, five, six times, there is something else going on.”
What was going on in the short term was more moaning from Ken Bates, who if he couldn’t fine Kilkenny himself, could try and get the FA to do it.
“He can’t justify or excuse his behaviour,” Bates said. “It shows exactly why we weren’t sad to see him go. Neither myself or Shaun [Harvey] ever go down to see players on match days. Why would we? The fact is he asked for a wage which we didn’t think he was worth. He’s a petulant sod with big ideas of himself. We might report his behaviour to the FA because we’ve got CCTV footage of it.”
Quite why he needed CCTV footage when Manish and the gang had all the match footage on the Football League Show wasn’t clear. Clearer was that Bates was losing his grip. Scanning tweets posted at the time, the ones that stand out are from Leeds fans saying things like, ‘I never rated Kilkenny much, but good on him for sticking it to Bates’. Of course it helped that, thanks to Bristol manager Keith Millen taking Kilkenny off (he was having the game of his life) and Luciano Becchio flicking a cross onto Ross McCormack at the back post, Leeds won the match 2-1.
HOW BIG WAS THE FA FINE AND SUSPENSION FOR KILKENNY?
Give over. If Bates was running out of friends in Leeds, he’d long since burned his bridges with the FA. I doubt anyone there had any appetite for reviewing grainy CCTV footage from whatever decrepit system Bates was refusing to upgrade in the West Stand.
DID KILLA EVER BACK DOWN?
Nope. In 2019 he told the Not The Top Twenty podcast that the goal was one of the highlights of his time at Bristol City. “I really enjoyed that goal — just, not because it was against Leeds, but because of what the owner had been saying about me.” It was his only goal for Bristol, and after a couple of seasons with them he teamed up with Simon Grayson again, for another promotion from League One with Preston. ⬢