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the square ball week: leeds fans llp; doing, not talking

the square ball week: leeds fans llp; doing, not talking

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There’s not really been a lot to say about the Together Leeds initiative, now known as Leeds Fans LLP, so far. Now that their second meeting has been held and their plan for fans to buy partial ownership of Leeds United have been made clear, there still isn’t actually all that much that needs to be said.

It’s a good idea. I’ve never needed much convincing that fan ownership of football clubs is a good idea, and the plan and the opportunity explained by Leeds Fans LLP add up to a very good chance of taking steps towards it at Elland Road. They should crack on. We should get involved.

Beyond that, there isn’t a great deal to discuss. Leeds Fans LLP might have its roots in a group of Leeds fans getting together in a room to talk, but it’s not about talking anymore. Leeds Fans LLP is about doing.

Of course, that hasn’t prevented loads of talk anyway, talk that isn’t about the doing, but about whether what Leeds Fans LLP are trying to do should be done differently, or done at all. With every communication, alternative ideas are flung at them like fistfuls of snowflakes: set it up differently, fund it differently, buy the ground instead of part of the club. From the other fist come flurries of imagined obstacles: GFH won’t sell, Cellino won’t play ball, the money won’t be raised, the fans will never agree on anything. Every now and then comes the head butt: that Leeds Fans LLP are just chancers with ulterior motives, out to disrupt the club.

Through the blizzard, Leeds Fans LLP’s job is just to keep on keeping on. The alternative suggestions and warnings and advisories are not all wide of the mark, but I used that word ‘imagined’ on purpose, because people are imagining problems into being and asking Leeds Fans LLP to solve them before they exist. By refusing to be distracted by those possibilities, Leeds Fans LLP aren’t refusing to deal with them; they’re choosing to deal with them when they are actual problems and not hypothetical ones. Their aim is to create a situation where all the problems that lie in wait of a group of fans that part-own Leeds United actually do exist, and then to solve them, in the real world.

To characterise Leeds Fans LLP as troublemakers, in that case, would not be unfair. The important thing is that they’re out to make the right kind of trouble. Fan ownership, even partial fan-ownership, is a problem for which football has yet to find a one-size solution; but it’s not, in the main, a problem for the fans. In fact, it’s one of the few possibilities in the game yet to be neutralised by commerciality, and you can see that in the way many of the issues around the Leeds Fans LLP idea are phrased: “What if GFH don’t…?” “What if Cellino won’t…?” The pressure in these questions is on GFH and Cellino, who will be asked to make decisions by people – backed by money and resources – who won’t take no for an answer. Fans.

If Leeds fans become owners of even 1% of Leeds United Football Club, they will become a very close and present and clear and pressing problem for whoever owns the rest of it; and it will not be before time. One of the most resonant slogans from the Leeds Fans LLP meeting is one of the most simple: GFH have something that belongs to the fans, and we want it back. And once we get it back, even 1% of it, that situation is then turned on its head and has to be solved by anybody who, in the future, wants to control Leeds United. These fans own some of it. You have to either work with them, or try to buy it off them. Either way, you have to think about them.

As Leeds United has been passed from owner to owner the wishes of the fans out on the terraces and in the streets have barely been a consideration, and now look where we are. A seat in the boardroom, or just a foot, or just a piece of paper that says part of the club is ours, means the fans become a consideration again. Any due diligence process, any Share Purchase Agreement, any speculative email to prospective purchasers, will have to include the fact that some of the shares in Leeds United Football Club belong to Leeds Fans LLP. And anyone who wants to own Leeds United will have to ask themselves what they’re going to do about that.

That is, almost in total, the aim of Leeds Fans LLP. When you read the FAQs on their website – and you should, all of them – you won’t find any details about a plan to fund the club in the future, or ideas to change how Leeds United is run. That’s not an oversight, it’s by design: Leeds Fans LLP is not being created to run Leeds United. It’s being created so that fans can buy part of Leeds United, and then see what happens. To plan beyond that aim would be counter-productive for a team of volunteers that has one target. To refuse to be distracted is essential if this thing is going to work.

What this thing requires, most of all, is faith, but not so much that it should be called a leap. The group is made up, after all, of Leeds United fans. But whether, under their model, you put in £10 for part of a £100 stake, several hundred pounds for several £100 stakes of your own; or the maximum £100,000 for 1% of the total stakes available, you’re being asked to trust the Leeds Fans LLP entity to take your hard earned cash and to do the right thing with it by your hard-loved football club. After the owners Leeds United have had over the last ten years and more, that trust doesn’t, and shouldn’t, come easy.

What’s odd about Leeds, though, is that it seems to come easiest to owners when they’re in place. Massimo Cellino is far more popular with Leeds fans than, for example, Mike Farnan for one simple reason: Cellino bought the club when it was last for sale, and Farnan tried to but didn’t. The default among many Leeds fans is to trust the winner and trash the loser, regardless of whether the right guy won or not, and Farnan’s reputation has barely recovered, just from trying to buy the club.

Wanting to trust the owner is understandable; fifteen years ago, I clung grimly to the hope that Peter Ridsdale knew what he was doing, and people do that because they want it to be true. What’s less understandable is the abuse hurled at anyone who wants to buy in, or get involved, unless they’ve got the money or the luck to do it: in which case they’re golden. Farnan is seen by some as part of a gang of “vultures”, mainly because his consortium was locked out of the last takeover by GFH’s preference for Cellino. When LUST under Gary Cooper were working to achieve fan representation under Ken Bates, they were branded “pure scum” by the very Leeds fans they wanted to give a voice. Wave a chequebook – or a loan book – and buy the club, though, and fewer questions get asked, and loyalty is immediately given – before it’s earned.

Leeds Fans LLP’s current position doubles down on that misplaced mistrust, by drawing the fan-on-fan fire from LUST onto themselves, and by taking on the ulterior motive tags that dogged Together Leeds, thanks to Mike Farnan’s involvement. The handover of his Together Leeds brand might have been worth it for the attention it brought, and its duration was brief, but the perception that Leeds Fans LLP is a new Farnan bid, or worse, a trojan horse for a bid, will be hard to shake.

The shifting names have caused confusion, but the situation seems clear. Mike Farnan is part of a group that wants majority ownership of Leeds United; but the majority ownership of Leeds United is not for sale. Separately, a group of Leeds fans want to buy a minority stake in Leeds United, and believe the opportunity exists and the funding can be found. Farnan is available to support them with expertise and cash, but can own no more of Leeds Fans LLP than anybody else, and the rules of the LLP will prevent him or anybody else from acting against the interests of the LLP. Essentially, whether Leeds Fans LLP buy 25% of Leeds United or not is irrelevant to whether Mike Farnan buys 75% in the future; and irrelevant to whether he might be a good owner of 75% of Leeds United or just a sneaky bastard looking for a cheap way into the club. If that’s what he is, then once he gets there, he’ll find a quarter of the club in the hands of the fans. And those fans will be a problem for him.

How much of a problem can’t be estimated now. Perhaps, with a minor stake bought but no clout, the future executive board of Leeds Fans LLP will be swatted away by Cellino, or by Farnan, or by some other future owner. Maybe they’ll never get close to their £10m target. Maybe GFH will declare their offer “risible” and sell elsewhere. Maybe one of the thousand different ways that Leeds Fans LLP might fail will be how they fail, and that will be the end of that.

There’s no reason, though, to talk failure into being. Leeds Fans LLP are going to do this anyway. There might be better options or different ideas or other ways of working, but it’s not really worth discussing those with Leeds Fans LLP, because they’re doing this, no that. And if they do it – if we do it – then things will change at Leeds United Football Club. 1% of fan ownership at Leeds United would change things, because from that day forward, it would be up to someone else to get it off us. That might not sound like much, but it’s a hell of a lot more than we’ve ever had.

Leeds Fans LLP is a chance to buy in. I don’t think Leeds fans have ever had such a good chance.

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