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the square ball week

the square ball week


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For the past few weeks, I’ve been using the football as a sort of anti-takeover shield in this column, concentrating on players kicking balls to drown out the screaming labour pains from the East Stand executive suites, at least until they produced something real we could smack on the rump and call our new owners. Unfortunately, Watf-, Wa-, Watfo- – last weekend’s game – has put paid to that plan, and I’ve no option but to gulp down the gas and air and take the forceps to Monaco. Besides, Leeds United released one of their teatime statements on Thursday, so let’s start there and work backwards to see how we got to where we are, wherever this is:


Update on investment…

GFH Capital have announced that they are in exclusive negotiations with Leeds United in respect of the proposed acquisition of the Club.

The relevant agreements are being processed by the respective legal teams and information supplied to the Football League as required under their regulations.

That’s it. In full. Two sentences, and it still doesn’t make any sense. The text says “acquisition,” but the headline and subhead say “investment.” The first five words are: “GFH Capital have announced that…,” but there has been no announcement from GFHC – the last announcement on their website was on 26th October. So this is a statement about an announcement that doesn’t exist that can’t decide between ‘investment’ and ‘acquisition’ – and that’s only the first sentence. Out of two. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather talk about the Watf- – the football?

Update: it turns out that the 5pm Thursday statement actually predicted the future, which doesn’t make it any less mental, but does tidy things up a bit: GFH Capital put out a press release on Friday morning announcing an extension of the exclusivity period. Until when? It doesn’t say, naturally.

The rest is the typical ‘lawyers working hard’ bit we get everyday from David Haigh and Salem Patel’s Twitter feeds. Quite what they’re working hard at is never made clear. “Did we send that paperwork into the Football League? Yeah? Shall we send it again? We can bill for the envelope.” That part was new on Thursday morning: GFHC must have found time to talk to journo Ben Jacobs, because an hour later he revealed: “the T/O has reached Football League approval stage.” It’s worth pausing to analyse ‘stage’ in this context, because the Football League don’t have a final say on club takeovers: they could rubber stamp GFHC’s credentials today, but Leeds still might not sign off the deal for a month, or at all if they so desired. Equally, there is nothing to stop the Football League approving GFHC, then looking at paperwork from another bidder, and approving them too. And another. And then another.

Other bidders were the story earlier in the week, before paperwork and two-sentence statements took over. On Wednesday Phil Hay took time off from packing at the YEP to report that an offer from Saudi Arabia had become a very real prospect, with bidders looking to take Leeds over at the end of the season. This followed Saturday night’s ripple of interest from America, with the exotically named – if you count Lancashire as exotic – Preston Haskell IV named by Duncan Castles as wavering between a buyout or buying a share. Either way, the north end of £10m for the January transfer window is involved in Preston’s offer, and he’s already managed the feat of tempting Ken and Suzannah on to his private jet – although I suspect he only had to tell them, “It’s free,” and they were all aboard. An anonymous Saudi and a property developing mate of Bates might not inspire the confidence that Leeds fans are looking for in new owners, but the months since GFHC went public haven’t inspired much confidence in them either. If the various ‘exclusivity periods’ and ‘secrecy clauses’ can be worked around and an alternative bidder can establish their credentials, GFHC might not be as locked in as they claimed when David Conn called their parent company’s accounts into question in The Guardian.

What exactly any buyer will be taking over remains an open question, as does whether they’d have to be mad to do it. Andrew Haigh revealed on Twitter on Saturday morning that a document at Companies House showed a bizarre development in LUFC’s relationship with its shirt sponsor: in October, Enterprise Insurance loaned the club £1.5m at 7% interest, to be repaid by 2015. That interest rate means that effectively Leeds will be giving our sponsors £105,000, when surely sponsorship works the other way round. On top of the loans of £2m from GFHC, £5m from Compass Catering, £4m to be paid to Lutonville Holdings for their preference shares, and the estimated £5m against season ticket sales, “debt-free” Leeds United seem suddenly to have various debts totalling around £15m.

All of which takes us back to Friday morning and the last Square Ball week, which was published here a couple of hours before a statement from Leeds United Supporters’ Trust that aired the concerns the Trust and its members had about the club and the takeover process. “Our financial analysis raised serious questions about the club’s ability to continue without investment … we are concerned about how funds will be found to drive progress on the pitch,” it read in part, even before the Enterprise Insurance loan was revealed the next morning. Questioning whether GFHC can complete the deal, LUST also asked whether Bates shouldn’t use the reported end of their exclusivity period to explore other options. “We are aware of other parties who have themselves been in contact with Leeds United,” said LUST, “and that these parties can also provide the resources necessary to back the manager and build the club going forward.” And that was exactly one week ago, forty-eight hours before Preston Haskell IV came on the scene, and five days before Phil Hay confirmed the Saudi interest.

So that’s the last week in Toma-land, from this Friday to last. The conclusion? There is no conclusion. The Scratching Shed are as nonplussed as any by the “update that never was”; while earlier in the week Andy Peterson wrote an excellent piece about the state of play for Sabotage Times. “The proposed takeover of Leeds United is ending up as something rightly seasonal,” he wrote, “a pantomime, of which the joke is very much on the club’s long suffering fans.”

Which brings us to Leeds United 1 − 6 Watford.

It’s tempting to write this off as a freak result, a ‘get over it and move on’ affair, but that would be letting United off the hook far too easily. Leeds may not have conceded six had they had eleven men, or even ten, but a heavy defeat was on the cards from the moment Neil Warnock named Paul Green as a centre back alongside Pearce and Peltier in a 3-5-2. I know he said we’d go “gung-ho,” but we had one recognised centre-half, and it showed every time Watford attacked in the first half. It showed even more once that centre-half got sent off. What transpired with the subs and then Austin’s injury was unlucky, but as the cliche goes, you make your own luck in football, and we might not have needed to make those half time changes had the formation not been so out of whack at the start. A bad day all round, then, but worse, an embarrassment, of the sort Warnock promised we’d never see again after the Forest and Derby matches last season.

The lackover isn’t helping, sure, but whether he likes it or not Neil’s job now is to keep this club in the reckoning in the league and, most of all, sane on the pitch amid the madness off it. In his brilliant match report, Adam Jubb drew attention to the empty seats in the Kop, while Andrew Butterwick replied to people who say it can’t get any worse: “I think it will. I don’t know how but I think it will.” At the new-look Three Colours White, Jennifer Berry admitted that, “it stuns me that Warnock has stayed at the club for so long … when many would’ve long thrown in the towel.” That’s the point after Watford, isn’t it? Warnock is still here, still trying to get players on loan, still trying to keep the team going. We know he’s capable of it, and we know he’s a better manager than 6-1 says. So let’s muster our meagre resources and get sensible again.

If there has been one glimmer of hope after the weekend, it’s in the lazarus like recovery of Rodolph ‘Rodocop’ Austin. After an agonising delay, and the sight of the man I’d already declared player of the season leaving in an ambulance, it looked like Rudy was out for the year. I’d still have given him the award, but that wouldn’t have made up for his absence on the pitch. Only The Beast, though, could let the swelling go down on a doubly fractured leg, and come up frowning with nothing worse than a chipped bone. That still sounds like it bloody hurt, and Austin is going to be missing for a while, but it’s a much better diagnosis than we’d feared. What a player; what a man. What wouldn’t we give for some like him in the boardroom.