As Good As It Gets?

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the square ball week

the square ball week


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When I was young, a near enough full set of Pro-Set cards was all you needed to have a working knowledge of the 92 Football League clubs, while every couple of years a Panini album would teach you all you had to know about the World or European game. Expertise was easy. “Romeo Zondervan? Ipswich striker, of Dutch origin. Struggled to establish himself but a hard worker.” It’s changed now, of course. Ask a ten year old lad about his favourite football team and he’ll pop his rimless glasses up on to his forehead and peer at you over his Financial Times. “They’ve made some unwise investments off the field,” he’ll tell you. “And without serious investment I fear they’ll struggle.”

The opening of this winter’s transfer window has coincided with the publication of Leeds United’s accounts – and Leeds City Holdings’, and Yorkshire Radio’s, and the Pavilion, etc etc – at Companies House. Once upon a time these documents were only of interest to the board of directors and the club’s accountants, but after the burnt fingers of the post-Champions League debacle and eight years of Ken Bates, they’re now quickly downloaded for exacting analysis by Leeds fans everywhere, who stare at sheet after sheet of figures and ask, “Say what now?”

The Leeds United Supporters’ Trust did their best to fill the knowledge gap, by following up September’s analysis of the way the club finances were heading with a detailed look at what the latest accounts show. The figures show the club’s position at the end of June 2012, when the takeover saga was only just beginning, so much may have changed since then – we have to wait for the next set to find out. But as a review of the previous seven and a half years of Ken Bates’s management of Leeds United, they’re damning.

Turnover was down, gate receipts had dropped by more than 10%, admin costs increased, non-football companies like Yorkshire Radio and the Pavilion have now lost a total of nearly £5m and owe the club nearly £4m, debts and liabilities both short and long term had reached £19m and the £2.5m profit from player sales was all that had kept the club afloat during 2011/12; spending on building projects reached a total under Bates of over £17m, while a Preference Share Issue meant that a company ‘connected to Ken Bates’ stood to make a neat 25% on its £3.2m when control of the club changed, taking out £4m a year to the day after the shares were issued. “Bugger all wrong,” Peter Lorimer called it last February. Bugger all right, more like.

The important things to note from a fan’s perspective are that the £17m on buildings, the £5m lost by non-football companies and the money spent in interest on loans all represents money that the football club did not spend on the football team – and a great deal of it either was, or was secured against, the money you spent on tickets and merchandise. Of course, the debts listed in the accounts and the amounts payable in shares and loans could have been paid off since June by the new owners – but that is still money diverted away from where we want to see it in action. In an era of £62 football tickets, it isn’t only when the accounts are published that fans get the calculators out, it’s every time a game comes around – and when a football club spends its gate receipts on almost everything you can think of before it even considers improving the product you pay to see, it’s little wonder that attendances drop and drop.

The crowd at Elland Road dropped all the way to 11,447 for the F.A. Cup Third Round visit of Birmingham City. As always there was talk about how to recover the lost magic of the Cup, but that’s an easy question to answer: if clubs didn’t milk their fans for every league game, the fans would be more inclined to turn out for the ‘extra’ games in the cups. Specific to Leeds, some better players and some more inspiring football to watch wouldn’t do any harm either. The quality of the corporate facilities in the East Stand is pretty much irrelevant when it overlooks such a humdrum imitation of the beautiful game.

“The game kicked off in an atmosphere more akin to a reserve game,” said Adam Butterwick at Travels of a Leeds Fan, while Adam Jubb at Fear and Loathing in LS11 wrote, “It had the feeling of a game that had been written off and quickly forgotten about even before it was played.” At Three Colours White, Jennifer Berry pointed out that creating an atmosphere is a two-way street, and “neither Warnock nor the players are living up to their side of the bargain.”

Perhaps the promise of Tottenham in the fourth round will liven up the replay, or maybe some new signings that might bring the spark back that the team so sorely lacks. At Right in the Gary Kellys Matthew Brown-Bolton wrote an article that agreed with much of what LUST had to say about the previous management of the club, and added that “at least one marquee, cash signing this January” is critical to reengaging supporters. Intriguingly, GFH Capital’s Salem Patel used Twitter to recommend all Leeds fans read the article; another significant media gesture from GFH this week being the absence – apparently permanent – of Ken Bates’s programme notes. Instead they published a column of their own, promising a ‘meet the new owners’ night soon – although anyone wandering into The Rock Bar on Saturday night will have found David Haigh greeting all comers and buying them all a drink. “Great stuff,” observed one voice on Waccoe. “Now how about buying us all a midfield?”

Leeds have started the transfer window slowly but steadily, with first Ryan Hall and now Michael Tonge making their loan moves permanent, Tonge on a two-and-a-half year deal. The rumour mill has had Clint Hill (constantly!) in the frame, as well as Dexter Blackstock and who even knows who else, but the main worry is still about players leaving. Tom Lees is apparently in demand, while Mick Jones caused some concern by talking about the difficulty ahead of resisting bids for Becchio and Byram. Mick’s boss has returned from his sick bed and stated that he’ll have the final say on players leaving, thank you very much, which should be reassuring, but sounds too eerily familiar…

Well, even if we don’t sign anybody, there’s still always the youth. 18 year old Aussie striker Partick Antelmi was profiled by James Willoughby at this week, talking about his move from Portsmouth and bigging up big Marko Viduka, who was probably big enough already. At is the story of Munyaradzi Mbanje, a 16 year old born in Mufakose, Zimbabwe, and now enjoying a two-year scholarship at Leeds. It’s probably a bit soon to be putting pressure on a 16 year old so far away from home, but he’s bound to be brilliant, isn’t he? Get him in the team.

I’ll leave you with this jewel from the past, from the ever excellent Leeds United Movies Files on YouTube: a look behind the scenes at Radio Leeds United in 1994/95. DJ Jon Hammond’s Partridgesque performance is guaranteed to enthrall from the start, but don’t miss the sharp movement from Sergeant Wilko as he uses the distraction of a passing John Pemberton to feint his way out of an interview. Also from the mid-nineties, I offer you Strachan Has Stricken’s look back at an attempt on goal by Paul Beesley in 1996. It requires no further comment.