The Fall (And Fall) Of Leeds United

In 2001, Leeds United were playing in the semi-final of the Champions League. Now it is synonymous with greed, mismanagement and chaos on and off the pitch. Longtime (and long-suffering) fan Richard Benson charts the rise, fall and fall even further of his hometown team

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"Ladies and gentlemen, we will soon be passing that famous old football stadium which tells you we are approaching... Leeds."

The guard on the 9.03am East Coast London to Leeds train on Thursday 15 May 2014 is a warm, chatty Yorkshireman, friendly with the passengers and fond of cracking gags over the PA system. Partly because I am a lifetime supporter of Leeds United, who play in the famous old stadium, his announcement gives me a train-traveller's homecoming glow. Back where people are chummy and open! Back where they know the meaning and history of that grand old ground! "Leeds! Leeds! Leeds! Marching on together…" etc.

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He is, however, taking the piss.

"Yes, Manchester United has the Theatre of Dreams," he says, pausing for effect. "While Leeds... has the comedy Playhouse."

The passengers, some of them presumably Leeds fans, smile and laugh. The train passes the famous old football stadium and rolls on to its next stop.

Leeds United have been one of English football's great punchlines for almost a decade-and-a-half now. The club's business affairs and on-field performances have been prone to tragi-comedy since 2000, when then-chairman and chief executive Peter Ridsdale "lived the dream", as he termed it, by borrowing £60m in the erroneous belief that Leeds would qualify for the Champions League – which generated huge revenue – every season. New owners and chairmen have come and gone but the problems have never really settled. While other clubs may have experienced worse financial and legal difficulties, it is hard to think of anywhere where the hardship has lasted so long.

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At one point attracting the attention of the British Government, Leeds have become a textbook definition of modern football maladministration – almost literally so. Under the heading "Doing a Leeds", Wikipedia now actually has a 613-word definition of a new "English football phrase which has become synonymous with the potential dire consequences for domestic clubs of financial mismanagement."

To understand what this means for the supporters, you have to start at the very beginning. Leeds United Association Football Club was formed in 1919, after the Football League expelled the old Leeds City for making illegal payments to players in the 1919–'20 season. Until the Sixties, they bobbed fairly anonymously around English football's top two divisions, with only a second-division title and the goals of the great centre-forward John Charles to distinguish them. The city traditionally had more ardour for rugby league, and that didn't change until 1961, when the dour, lantern-jawed Don Revie was appointed as the team's manager.

Revie, a man who could have walked out of a Morrissey lyric, turned Leeds into arguably the greatest club side in Europe, and attracted local admiration for doing it in a pleasingly Yorkshire-ish manner. He was famously prudent, preferring to develop young players rather than buying expensive additions. He had no time for divas. His teams were tough, instructed by a sign on the dressing room door to "Keep Fighting".

Dirty Leeds? Outsiders said so, but to me, coming in at the end of the Revie era in the mid-Seventies, they were tireless battlers, hardcore professionals and slandered by the poncey, southern, Manchester United-loving media. I lived in a village 45 minutes' drive to the east of Leeds, and everyone – older boys at school, my dad, his mates – agreed. We knew that leg-biting centre-back Norman Hunter would've been picked every time for England if he'd played for a bloody London club. And that diminutive midfielder and captain Billy Bremner got stuck in – but the establishment didn't like it 'cos it was us. When my aunty knitted me a jumper with LEEDS UTD on the front in square, blocky letters, my junior school teacher sent me home with a letter banning it. "It's only 'cos it's Leeds," my mum said. "Sodding typical."

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And 2014 has been sodding typical, too, but this time typical of the apparent chaos at Elland Road over the last decade or so. At the start of the year, Leeds were in the Championship and still owned by GFH Capital, a subsidiary of a Bahrain-based Islamic investment bank called Gulf Finance House. The club was losing a reported £1m a month, and it seemed that after only 13 months as owner, GFH was running out of money. In January this year, managing director David Haigh, a 36-year-old, PR-conscious solicitor with the broad-beamed look of a middlingly prosperous farmer, fronted a consortium, Sport Capital, which agreed to buy a 75 per cent stake. Sport Capital then found itself unable to raise the funds, and amid accusations of double-dealing, GFH received a rival bid from Massimo Cellino, the 57-year-old owner of Sardinia's mid-table Serie A side Cagliari.

Cellino is an unconventional figure, being among other things an agricultural trader-magnate, convicted fraudster and a Nineties-period Keith Richards-lookalike guitarist in a rock band called Maurilios. Arriving in Leeds from his home in Miami in late January, he immediately fell out with manager Brian McDermott, telling him he was sacked despite not owning the club. The consequent rumours and counter-rumours prompted team captain Ross McCormack to call Sky Sports News to protest live on-air. Fans then converged on Elland Road, where they chased away taxis called to collect Cellino, and blockaded him and GFH reps inside. The next day, the team, whose form had been poor amid all the uncertainty, beat local rivals Huddersfield Town 5–1, and GFH promptly reinstated McDermott.

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Cellino's company, Eleonara Sport, agreed to buy 75 per cent of Leeds United (GFH still retain a percentage), but because a Sardinian court had just convicted him of tax evasion, the Football League said he failed its Owners and Directors Test. Cellino appealed and let it be known that GFH had no money ("Trust us to find t'world's only skint Arabs," as a friend observed at the time), and he was keeping them afloat. The League referred it to an independent QC.

Meanwhile, Haigh, who negotiated the role of club chief executive for himself, was rumoured to be trying to borrow money for his own takeover from the pre-GFH owner, Ken Bates – more of whom later. At some point Haigh and Cellino fell out, as was made clear when a Leeds fan recorded a phone call to the Italian and broadcast it on an internet radio station. David Haigh was "a son of a bitch, a witch. He's dangerous. He's a fucking devil," said Cellino. The club was "full of thieves and crooks" and the team was "fucking shit" he railed.

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The only thing of worth was the fans, who "are feelings" [sic]. "You don't buy feelings. You can buy a bitch for one night, but you don't buy the love, my friend."

On the pitch, the team had looked like contenders for promotion a few months earlier, but now supporters were watching the points gap between them and the relegation places shrink. Bolton beat them 5–1 at home, Bournemouth 4–1 away and it looked as if Cellino had a point. Anyway, the independent QC accepted the appeal and Cellino became president. On moving in, he ordered a security sweep of the ground, and his men discovered spy cameras hidden in the boardroom and toilets. Questioned by West Yorkshire police, Haigh claimed he had them installed because of "reports of class-A drug-taking" on the premises.

Haigh also called in £950,000 that he said Sport Capital loaned to Leeds in November. Cellino didn't pay, so Haigh responded by issuing a winding-up order that froze Leeds' bank account. The season ended with the club in 15th place and unable to pay the players' wages. Still, in some respects, the spirit was undimmed. At Leeds United's annual end-of-season awards, our new owner got on stage with indie band The Pigeon Detectives and played lead guitar in a cover version of Hendrix classic "Hey Joe".

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It's been a strange journey from the glory years to here. I first went to watch Leeds on the evening of 9 November 1977, when they played a Scotland Select XI for Revie-era-veteran Peter Lorimer's testimonial. My dad took me. I can't remember the score, but I do remember the excitement walking with him to the ground, being surprised at how bright green the grass looked under the floodlights, and sharing a meat and potato pie that seemed to take forever to cool down. I asked Jack Charlton for his autograph that day, and when he declined, my dad had to explain "after the game, son" hadn't meant he wanted to meet up with us later on in the night.

My dad wasn't much of a pub or socialising man, so watching football, and the cricket on telly, was probably the closest, and most frequent, thing we did together. I suppose that must have intensified the us-against-the-world feeling as we watched the team decline after Revie left for the England job; though if I'm honest after they fell into the Second Division, in the dark days of the Eighties, I lost a bit of interest. I think it was moving to study in London that revived it. Like many northerners who move south, I felt intimidated by what seemed to be posher, more confident people, and supporting Dirty Leeds – managed by Bremner himself now, and hated by the cockney clubs, especially Chelsea – felt like having one of those talismans in fantasy films, that you can wish on and be taken home. As David Conn, the author and investigative reporter who has written extensively about Leeds, has pointed out, this is why they are called football clubs. People feel they belong to them.

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The dour, disciplined Howard Wilkinson took us back up, and won the last of the old League Championships in 1992 with a side that included Eric Cantona, Gordon Strachan and David Batty. On the day of the victory parade, I remember standing in the sunshine on the Headrow in Leeds watching cars driving around with flags streaming and horns honking, and saying to a mate and my sister that we'd soon be there again but, of course, we weren't. Cantona went to Manchester United, form dipped, and Wilkinson was sacked. For several seasons, Leeds were good but unspectacular, but then right at the end of the century came new manager David O'Leary's young team, featuring exciting, academy-trained players like Alan Smith, Jonathan Woodgate and Harry Kewell.

Leeds went into the ascendant, challenging at the top of the Premier League, and reaching the semi-finals of the 2000 Uefa cup (during which two fans tragically died following clashes with fans of Leeds' opponents Galatasaray), and the 2001 Champions League. Momentarily, Leeds were even popular. "When we reached the Champions League semis in 2001, London taxi drivers were congratulating me on how well the team were doing," recalls Loaded founder and Leeds fan James Brown, who was producing the club's official magazine at the time. "It didn't last long, but it definitely happened." It was strange after all those years, almost like supporting a different team, but I didn't think about it much. When it comes to sport, no one thinks about anything much if they're winning.

The team was expected to take home major trophies, but then it failed to qualify for the Champions League for two seasons running. In 2003, Leeds United AFC reported the then largest loss by an English football club (£49.5m; the year before it had been a mere £34m). Chairman Peter Ridsdale, bearing the brunt of the criticism, resigned. There was a succession of new managers, a fire-sale of players (some of whom were on such high wages Leeds had to agree to supplement their income at their next clubs to persuade them to leave), and stories of incredible financial extravagance. Company cars for a third of the staff. Private jet hire. Infamously, £20 a month was even lavished on Ridsdale's personal goldfish.

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A consortium of Yorkshire businessmen stepped in and took over. They kept the club out of administration by restructuring debt, first selling then leasing back Elland Road and the training ground. "We're not famous anymore," sang the supporters, and in May 2004, relative obscurity was sealed with a 4–1 defeat at Bolton that ensured relegation.

Since the Seventies, there has been a belief among Leeds fans that the club's rightful place is in England's top division. Fans of other Yorkshire clubs loathe this arrogance, but there is no denying that Leeds United has stature: at £32.7m in 2011, its revenue was (discounting those receiving Premier League parachute payments) nearly £10m more than that of the Championship's second-placed club Norwich City, and double that of the middle-ranking competitors. Leeds is considered to be the biggest one-club city in Britain, and United has a fanbase that is not only national but global, with supporters from Europe (particularly Scandinavia), the US and the Far East familiar visitors to Elland Road.

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This is why it is seen as having potential. When GFH bought Leeds United in 2012, David Conn spoke to investors in Qatar and found them all familiar with the handsome revenue. "Everyone said, and they still say, Leeds is the club to buy… it's a big club on its uppers with massive potential support and income," Conn says. "And yet when the opportunity arose, no one wanted to buy it. You have to assume that it's because the club is still scraping about in turmoil because of legacies from the past."

It seems fair to assume that this scale is what attracted Ken Bates – or at least the company he claimed to represent – to the still-financially-crippled Leeds when he became chairman at the start of 2005. Bates, white-bearded and now in his mid-eighties, is a controversial figure in English football. In terms of football ownership, he had made a career out of buying cash-strapped big clubs and developing their grounds. It's what he did with Chelsea between 1982 and 2003 when he famously sold the club to Roman Abramovich, pocketing a reported £17m.

In January 2005, a secretive offshore company called Forward Sports Fund (FSF) bought a 50 per cent stake in Leeds United for a reported £10m. FSF, Bates said, just employed him as a representative, and wanted no publicity; as FSF was managed by a Swiss company, it was not obliged to reveal FSF's owners. No one could discover who was actually responsible for the club. It was a matter of some interest because, being offshore, these mystery individuals would, it was noted, not be liable to pay capital gains tax should the club be sold at a profit.

Bates's reign could be described as turbulent. Those who questioned the financial arrangement, or other aspects of Bates's management such as the Premier League-level ticket prices, found themselves attacked in his column in the matchday programme as "dissidents" or "sickpots". Journalists from The Guardian and the BBC were even banned from the ground. A former director, who was denounced on the club radio station and accused in the programme of being a "shyster" and "trying to blackmail the club", successfully sued for libel and harassment.

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Many fans regarded the new chairman with suspicion because of his Chelsea connections – a feeling to which he demonstrated his sensitivity by employing former Chelsea captain Dennis Wise as manager. Wise couldn't stop the slide and in the late spring of 2007 – still £35m in debt and facing relegation to the third tier of English football for the first time in their history – Leeds were placed in voluntary administration by Bates and his two fellow directors Mark Taylor (his solicitor) and chief executive officer Shaun Harvey.

The details of the administration period would fill a book. Essentially, it emerged that Leeds now owed two more mysterious offshore companies many millions of pounds, and those companies would write off the debt only if Bates/FSF were able to buy the club from the administrator. There was a summer of wrangling, in the course of which Her Majesty's Customs and Excise (which was owed £7.7m) challenged the deal, the players went unpaid and the Football League told the club it would be excluded from competing in the league the following season. The fans protested. Bates – and many supporters – blamed the Football League, and in the end the other clubs voted to allow them to play but with a 15-point deduction. Bates emerged as chairman of a now debt-free club, the creditors having had to accept payments significantly smaller than the sums they were owed.

Meanwhile, under new manager Gary McAllister, popular veteran of the Wilkinson championship era, the team ended the season by reaching the play-off final, but lost 1–0 to Doncaster Rovers. Doncaster! As the pundits all gleefully pointed out, seven years ago our big games had been against giants AC Milan and Real Madrid.


It got worse. The following season, a non-league team, Histon FC, knocked Leeds out of the FA Cup, with the winning goal scored by a man who worked as a postman to pay the bills. McAllister was replaced by former Blackpool manager and Leeds player Simon Grayson, who developed a talented side that won promotion and had some good cup results, including a 1–0 FA Cup victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford. Many of the players from that time – Jermaine Beckford, Jonny Howson, Bradley Johnson, Max Gradel, Kasper Schmeichel, Fabian Delph, Luciano Becchio and Robert Snodgrass – are now, or have been, distributed around the Premier League or leading foreign clubs. Manchester City's James Milner is another Elland Road graduate; a reminder of what Leeds might have achieved if they had retained players.

Too often, however, talent was sold or allowed to leave when contracts ran down rather than being renewed. Bates/FSF spent time and money redeveloping the East Stand, mortgaged future season ticket sales and were criticised for making easy profits by flogging players. In 2011, Bates was also criticised by a House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport for not disclosing enough about the ownership. Peter Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, said that he would want more clarity if Leeds were to be promoted. After that, at quite remarkable speed, Leeds announced that Bates had now bought the club through a company called Outro Ltd, registered in the tax haven of Nevis.

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Not long after, Grayson left his wife amid infidelity rumours. The fans didn't mind ("He shags who he wants/He shags who he wants," they chanted in the autumn of 2011. "He's Simon Grayson/He shags who he wants"), but the club chairman may have disapproved of all the negative publicity – the manager was sacked and replaced by Yorkshireman Neil Warnock in February 2012. Ten months later, Bates sold the club to GFH for a reported fee of £52m.

In retrospect, these individual events seem like episodes of a soap opera but, at the time, there was always a niggling hope that each one might be the thing that would sort it all out. The trouble is, as blogger and journalist Amitai Winehouse says, "We were brought up believing we were once the best team in Europe. So we really want to believe." Even when, in June 2014, Cellino replaced McDermott with David Hockaday – a man whose only previous managerial experience was at non-league Forest Green Rovers – a small part of me thought, "Well, yes, probably a disaster but then again, what if we've stumbled across an untapped genius?"

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At first, GFH seemed to justify the early guarded optimism. They offered cheaper tickets, promised investment and "reached out" with billboard ad campaigns ("The past is the past… Let's be United"). Chairman Salah Nooruddin and executives David Haigh and Salem Patel were busy on Twitter, too, while Winehouse, writer for Leeds' excellent The Square Ball fanzine, saw the club reach out to him in some truly bizarre ways. Patel would contact people to object to posts in blogs and online forums, and once invited Winehouse to a meeting at Leeds' Malmaison hotel after noticing he had written an open letter to GFH on his blog. "He was friendly, and talked about the club, and at one point asked who he should appoint as manager – Paul Lambert or Nigel Adkins," he says. "I was only a 20-year-old student at the time. After that, Patel sent me a lot of direct messages, asking my opinion or correcting things I'd written. He was doing the same with quite a lot of people.

"I didn't really understand quite why they needed my opinion," Winehouse has since written. "But it turns out it was quite simple really: they had no idea."

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In May this year, GFH – so Haigh would say later – invited Haigh out to Dubai to discuss a new job. He had been their deputy chief executive before taking over at Leeds, so this must have seemed fairly straightforward. On arriving at their offices, however, he was arrested, with GFH accusing him of embezzling almost £3m between 2012 and 2014 through false invoices, many relating to Leeds United business. The case, a matter between Haigh and GFH rather than criminal charges, would be heard in Dubai's civil court. Haigh denies any wrongdoing, claiming the invoices were forgeries.

At the time of writing, Haigh is still incarcerated at Dubai's notorious Bur Dubai police station. The winding-up order has been lifted after Leeds repaid Sport Capital's £950,000, and Cellino is looking to reduce the club's costs. There is a sense that Ken Bates, who retains an office on Elland Road and was not long ago sighted having a drink in one of the bars at the ground, is still hovering in the background. Oh, and Shaun Harvey is the chief executive of the Football League.

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What of the future? Many fans found grounds for optimism in Cellino's directness and sense of purpose at first. "It all depends on what happens on the pitch in the end," James Brown says. "But there's excitement and a kind of nervousness around Cellino. I mean, his lifestyle influences seem a bit... unusual. I'd say at this moment, supporting Leeds is like being on a narrow path winding around a mountain. It's breathtaking if you look up and see where you could go, but terrifying if you look down."

Rob Bagchi, author of The Unforgiven: The Story of Don Revie's Leeds United, a history of the club, suggests that fans have now come to see the weirdness as normal. He looks back to the old Revie-era resentment – which was compounded by a series of notorious refereeing decisions that deprived the club of several trophies – and wonders if it didn't "leave an enduring sense of being the victims of unfairness, which then creates an almost comic, grudging acceptance of mistreatment."

You can feel this in the fans' camaraderie, but it should also be said that one (sort of) positive has been the questioning by fans and others. This has given rise to some excellent work by journalists and platforms like thebeatengeneration.co.uk website and The Square Ball fanzine (which has won awards). Amitai Winehouse credits the experience with his decision to train as a journalist.

In his last book, Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up, David Conn recounts how the Football League and FA had originally sought to preserve the "social purpose and collective benefit" of football clubs, which were set up as clubs not businesses; organisations with an awareness of a purpose beyond football. Of course, owners have for years abused that idea, adopted legal structures to dodge FA rules and worked hard to create loyalty and a sense of heritage in a lucrative "captive market", but it isn't fanciful to think that football clubs ought to be somehow protected.

"The clubs did develop with a sense of themselves as collective institutions, representing their towns and cities, and the fans embraced them as homes of belonging for life," Conn writes. "This was partly due to the culture that they were not simply there to make a profit. No other recreations ever claimed such loyalty – cinemas, theatres, music halls and pubs exist to entertain people but make money out of them as 'punters'. Fans grew up, for generations, thinking that football companies, to which they paid their money, were their clubs."

The change wasn't inevitable, and it didn't happen everywhere. In Germany, all top-flight clubs except Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg (owned by Bayer and Volkswagen respectively) are controlled by their members, as are Spanish clubs Real Madrid, Barcelona, Osasuna and Athletic Bilbao.

Several smaller English clubs have gone the same way. There are viable alternative ways of doing business; it's just that the men who run English football have chosen what we have now, a situation where any club can "do a Leeds", and several have.

I sometimes think the Leeds United story perfectly charts the change in fans' relationships with their clubs in the last 25 years or so. In some ways, it's more than that: it's a change in the world in general. In the old days, you felt neglected and/or taken for granted because the stadia were so poor and dangerous. Nowadays, you feel neglected and/or taken for granted because you're just dust on the plans of corporations making millions via media rights and property development. You don't really understand the deals, but you do know the thing that has meaning for you seems to have a somewhat different meaning for them.

My dad died five years ago, and I still miss him. There's some old footage of the Lorimer testimonial on YouTube, and sometimes, when I'm in on my own, I sit and watch it for a bit, and think about us sitting somewhere in the crowd, talking about the players, probably still waiting for the pie to go cool. I don't mention this because I think it's unusual, but because I think the vast majority of people who go to watch football have similar experiences. I know it's never going to be perfect, and people have always tried to screw money out of the sport, but still: football clubs are bound up with people's lives, and to me it seems strange that our famous old theatres of dreams and comedy playhouses can't be governed so their owners act more like custodians of important organisations. We all deserve a bit better, really. Even Dirty Leeds.

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