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the square ball week: somebody and nobody

the square ball week: somebody and nobody

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“An ex-chairman is a nobody,” said Ken Bates, once upon a time. It was as good an explanation as any for why Ken was sat in the chairman’s seat at Elland Road when he said it.

David Haigh has not, so far, held the position within football that Bates valued so highly; and I’m only really including that ‘so far’ out of politeness, and because you never can tell. Even after yesterday’s drawn out admission of defeat – 22 tweets it took, via Adam Pope of BBC Leeds, to say he’d screwed the takeover up – it’s said that Haigh has no intention of stepping down as managing director and will continue to seek those fabled strategic investors. One of them might make him chairman; you never know. Equally, if that investor is Massimo Cellino, he might just sack Haigh, the horse he rode in on, and everybody else at the club. But Bates could have said the same thing about being an ex-football MD; the point remains the same. When you’re out of the game, you’re out of the game.

Bates came to Leeds after the Russian heat became too much at Chelsea, and the heat – and the lack of limelight – of life in Monte Carlo removed his reason to be. First there was a flirtation with Sheffield Wednesday, then a full-on shotgun wedding to LUFC, and there he was: back in the chairman’s suite, pricing up nameplates that would make it fit for a president. 

Unlike Bates, however, Haigh didn’t come to Leeds United to maintain an already high profile. He was totally unknown outside of financial circles – and we can only really guess how much he was known within them – until the day he and his buddies from GFH were photographed around the East Stand entrance and everyone started trying to judge their wealth by their shoes. Leeds United, it seemed, would be the making of him. A nobody before he arrived, this ex-chairman – when the day arrived that he became one – would be a somebody.

That seems to have been the plan for David, at least. Why else arrive with a personal public relations agency at your service, your own website, a ‘narrative’ crafted by political coach Peter Botting and a gushing desire to share it? Before he was involved with Leeds United, all you could read about at DavidHaigh.co.uk was his passion for politics and charity work. Once Salem had given the defining wink on Twitter and they’d collected the keys to Elland Road, “My role at Leeds United” went right to the top of that list. A story also appeared on the site about how, as a teenager, David used to raise funds for the Conservatives by displaying his prize owls at village fetes, but that seems to have been removed now to prevent any fun being made out of it at Owl Boy’s expense. 

Leeds United gave him something to talk about, and a way of connecting with people, people who would want to take and share photographs of themselves with the lovely young man who was making himself popular by running Leeds United.

Which, in total contrast to Ken Bates, he was. The way Ken Bates ran Leeds United made him a figure for mockery and hate, but the way David Haigh has run Leeds for most of the past twelve months has kept him in the thoroughly nice chap column of many people’s estimations. And it’s a status he earned. If you had told me, back when Ken Bates welcomed Chinese Olympians to Leeds by calling them “a waste of money” despite “increased sales of sweet and sour pork,” that within a couple of years Leeds United would be the first football club to sign up as a Stonewall Diversity Champion, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you’d said the club would be offering free hot meals to the homeless, or even cheap hot meals to its own fans in the form of pie and pint deals, I’d have asked against which grave I should press my ear to hear Ken Bates spinning. That’s before we even get to new membership and ticketing structures, and even the simple acts of advertising and having a shop in the city. For eight long years, there was none of that, and it was good to have it at last.

However, that Haigh got such a good reputation for such good works became part of the problem. When a photo popped up of our Dave in Bhutan, spreading the good word about LUFC, it was the first any of us knew that he wasn’t in his office, doing his job as managing director of LUFC. When he visited St George’s Crypt to dish food up for the hard up, their lead fundraiser said, “It wasn’t a publicity stunt,” but said it to the reporter sent to film the visit for the Yorkshire Evening Post. The uncertain birthplace, the ‘Favourite Leeds Games’ copied and pasted on to his website, and those much too white teeth, made it hard – in this cynical age – to distinguish the good from the being seen to be good.

It also, looking back, made it clear that the plan David had was not the same plan that GFH had. Salah and Salem may have gone gamely along with it when asked to hand out Xmas pressies on the pitch, but you wouldn’t catch any of them crafting a personal narrative or rowing the Channel. Haigh and Patel might enjoy acting like Reeves and Mortimer on Twitter, but only one of them is part of the executive management at Gulf Finance House, and it isn’t Haigh. Only one of them, in fact, is listed on the board of GFH-Capital; and that’s not Haigh, either. At GFH-C he’s named as Deputy CEO of a company that doesn’t list a CEO; down at the bottom of the chain, at Leeds United, he’s managing director and is a board member, but under the chairmanship of Salah Nooruddin, who bought in four months after the takeover. Salah has bought himself a seat on the board at GFH, too. 

In every position within the organisational structure at Leeds United, David Haigh is somebody’s junior. And yet, through Brendale, Berrydale and Sport Capital, there’s a decent chance that Haigh has put as much if not more money than any individual into the club – “to ensure its viability” – and as we all know, the strategic investor he most wanted to lead a takeover at Leeds was himself. And the story of how that went has become about as clear as anything can at Leeds this week: after due diligence, Haigh and Sport Capital found reasons to reduce their offer to GFH; the process became more trouble than its worth, and the backers with the money walked away.

The question remains, though: how can the managing director of a company find something, during due diligence, to make it so difficult to buy that company from himself? The answer is that Haigh wasn’t buying it from himself. He might have been managing it, but even the money he claims to have ploughed in has not been enough to buy him a seat on the board at GFH-C, let alone GFH, and it’s in those boardrooms – the boardrooms where Salem Patel, Salah Nooruddin and Hisham Alrayes all hold positions that David Haigh does not – that the power truly lies. Why were things uncovered during due diligence that David Haigh didn’t know about? Maybe because there were things that his employers didn’t want him to know, and he only found out when it was too late. 

This is not, despite how it might sound, a requiem for David Haigh. It’s a wake up call to a fact that Leeds fans have forgotten about. ‘David Haigh’ and ‘the owners’ have become synonymous, and as such the praise for all the good things that have happened at Leeds since GFH/GFH-C took over has been placed upon them as a single entity: David Haigh and the owners. What this month has proved is that there is no such single entity: there is David Haigh, and there are the owners, and when one does business with the other, trouble arises. It’s trouble we need to watch out for.

David Haigh will be fine. He may yet find the strategic investor who can make his Leeds dream come true; or he could be out on his backside before I even finish writing this. But he’ll be fine. Grooming owls for show is a skill that never leaves you, and despite what Ken Bates might have said, and despite the unwanted attention his new profile might have brought him, Haigh is one ex-football MD who is, for now, a somebody. And that, as Peter Botting will no doubt soothingly say, as they pick up the pieces and search for a viable Tory seat, was always part of the plan.

Whether Leeds United will be alright is a different matter. Dave’s teeth shone for a reason, and now that gleam has dimmed, our club’s ownership is shown in a very different light. I wouldn’t say that I believe David Haigh had Leeds United’s best interests at heart; the truth of that is too lost among the narrative and spin. But I don’t believe that his bosses do, and that’s the bigger problem right now. An ex-MD might be a nobody, but that’s David Haigh’s problem. The power at Leeds United lies with somebody, and that problem remains ours.

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