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the square ball week: who would want to?

the square ball week: who would want to?


Almost a week since it was announced that Massimo Cellino had agreed to sell Leeds United to Leeds Fans Utd, and everybody involved is sticking firmly to the script.

The beleaguered owner, at first pliant, turns bullish and belligerant. The owners-in-waiting are scrutinised, pilloried, belittled and then formally rebuffed. The fans split, and turn on each other, some taking the side of the owner, some the side of the buyer, over a deal that — apart from in some, certain cases — they can’t influence anyway. Peter Lorimer uses the Yorkshire Evening Post to lecture fans to support the owner, for rescuing the club from the last owner Lorimer lectured fans to support. The club itself begins to cough and splutter; this week, the loan transfer of Liam Bridcutt that wasn’t quite over the line in time for him to face Cardiff still isn’t quite over the line in time for him to face Huddersfield. The deal is “confused,” says Sam Allardyce, Sunderland’s manager. “A bit like Leeds.”

This time there are differences, mainly because Cellino is involved, and he’s, how shall I put this, ‘differently skilled’ when it comes to running a football club. This week is the first time I can remember a priest becoming involved, brought in by Cellino to “bless” — the doubful quotemarks are the official website’s own — the pitch; we only went and won on it, too, another rarity when it’s takeover hour.

The other difference was the identity of the buyers. Over the past few years we’ve had rumoured interest from Canada, the USA, China, various parts of the Middle East, and Red Bull, as well as UK consortiums; we’ve been bought by a Bahraini bank with an ill-starred reputation and a madcap Italian everyone in Britain had forgotten existed after he was frightened off from buying West Ham by The FA’s ownership regulations.

This time, if you’d stuck in £100 or contributed to sticking £100 into Leeds Fans CBS, then the person doing the buying was you. And if you hadn’t and you weren’t, probably several people sat near you at Elland Road had. Massimo Cellino offered last week to sell to a group that couldn’t be more different from the foreign banks, obscure investment funds and difficult to pronounce individuals we’ve had to frantically Google when their names were linked. Cellino offered to sell to a group us Leeds fans know better than anybody: Leeds fans.

If you believe in solidarity among a football club’s supporters, if you’ve felt a real kinship from singing We Are Leeds, or its modern offspring All Leeds Aren’t We, if you’ve ever looked around an away end and thought about how, different as everybody there might be, it’s great that so many people can come together around this one thing, then you’ll be as mystified as I have been by the suspicion and vitriol aimed by Leeds United fans at Leeds United fans who were trying to buy Leeds United.

I’ve become used to many Leeds fans’ blind defence of the incumbent over the years; people stuck up for Ken Bates, other people stuck up for GFH. I’ve heard Leeds described as a town run by bosses; that it was dominated by the mill-owners, rather than the millworkers, and that this can explain the natural ease with which Loiners cower before the presumed superiority of the rich; which is what these defences largely amount to: Cellino wouldn’t be rich if he didn’t know what he’s doing, and he bought the club so he owns it, so he should be left to do what he wants.

In Cellino’s case this falls down at the first statement; in every case, it should fail on the second, because when you say, ‘he bought the club’, you’re really saying, ‘he bought me’, because what it is a club without its fans, and its income stream from its fans? The third statement, after Ridsdale, McKenzie, Krasner, Bates, GFH and Cellino, should never be uttered, and yet it’s often the position fans rush to, after they’ve been bought.

What is stark, in this week’s defence of Cellino, is the self-loathing. ‘What do Leeds United fans know about running a football club?’ demand the Leeds United fans, who never asked Massimo Cellino the same question. It’s hard not to listen to this rhetoric and decide, sadly, that the transformation of football supporters from fans to consumers is complete.

There has always been an element of optimism in football fandom: the idea that, if you sing a song, or shout the right encouragement at the right moment, your team’s mostly duff striker will score a goal. This optimism persists, although it’s more often expressed in the negative; we shouldn’t openly criticise players, because it will limit how they play. Most fans, though, deep down, would recognise the delusion involved in thinking that shouting ‘shoot, you bastard!’ from the back of the Kop will affect the game in any way.

Where fans really can influence football clubs is off the pitch, as shown by clubs like Swansea, AFC Wimbledom, FCUM, Portsmouth and others; where fans didn’t just seek influence at a club, but wrested control of a club’s destiny. Talking cold: there is more chance of a Leeds United fan buying Leeds United than there is of a Leeds United fan coaxing a netbuster from Alex Mowatt by shouting ‘Play up, Alex!’ from the sidelines. And yet optimistically we cheer for Alex from the stands, performing our allotted roles in modern football; while all optimism about influencing the club off the pitch is crushed by knowing our place. That, apparently, is for people who know what they’re doing; as if Alex Mowatt doesn’t know what he’s doing, or needs our help.

The perception that Leeds Fans Utd wouldn’t know what they were doing is one that has them caught between the need, as a group that wants fans to have a stake in the future of Leeds, to gain support as a grass-roots movement; and the structural reality of their buyout if you took away the name.

Because of their origins and their aims, LFU place the greatest focus on the ordinary ranks of their fundraisers, the fans in for £100. But start looking at the funding model described by Dylan Thwaites from the top, and it looks much like any other takeover: around a dozen ‘high net worth individuals’ (‘multi-millionaires’ doesn’t sound so impressive these days when you can become one as a reserve team footballer) pooling resources to provide 90% of the funding, with favourable loan options on hand and a percentage of the club going to invested supporters.

If that proposal was made by Mr O. Versees Investor of The Foreign Bank With The Reassuring Name, it would go down a storm: wealthy individuals! Favourable backing from big financial institutions! And they’ll even sell ten per cent to the fans and give us a say! That proposal, finally, might lessen the grip on even the most tugged forelocks around LS11 and invite backing for the bid. But this identical proposal was made by Leeds United fans. Therefore it doesn’t have credibility with Leeds United fans. And there in our sights, as we squeeze the trigger, is our foot.

“I saw the supporters group Leeds Fans United talking about buying him out earlier this week, although that seems to have fallen through now,” screamed Peter Lorimer from under his bedclothes, tears running down his mascara stained cheeks. He seems to have missed the part where Leeds Fans United were talking about buying Cellino out because Cellino had agreed that they could buy him out, and is instead intent on defending Cellino to the hilt the way he defended Bates to the hilt, regardless of whether Cellino wants to stay or not.

“I’m very hurt and sad,” says Massimo, “I can’t take anymore.“ But Peter isn’t having that. ”I accept that Massimo does things his own way but some of the criticism of him has been very unfair,“ said Peter, also missing Cellino’s self-assessment — ”I’ve achieved nothing" — which would suggest that the criticism of him has been very fair.

Where Lorimer truly shows himself up is not in the unveiled attacks on the fans for daring to hold and express an opinion on events at the football club they pour their savings into supporting — that’s old stuff from Lash by now. It’s here, where he says:

“Football clubs like ours need big finance. I’m sorry but they do. Massimo has money, there’s no doubt about that, and he’s put plenty into the club … I don’t believe that lots of wealthy people are out there waiting to buy Championship clubs. I just don’t see it. A minority are trying to chase Massimo out without being able to say what will replace him.”

— and creates the same feedback loop that kowtowing Leeds fans make whenever a takeover is mooted: there can’t possibly be anyone out there rich enough to buy Leeds United, therefore we have no choice but to stick with the person rich enough to have bought Leeds United.

Pliance will be our downfall. The defeat to Blackburn last Thursday was as woebegone as any I’ve seen in the last ten years, and yet me and nearly 18,000 others still turned out to see some more of it on Tuesday night. And hey, Leeds United won, so we got our treat! And that’s the Leeds United conundrum in a nutshell: with our massive fanbase, we have massive power; but we use that power to turn out in greater numbers and be treated to worse fare than supporters of any other football club, and then when people like Peter Lorimer tell us to shut up and be grateful, we listen.

“Does anyone really think that the way in which owners are treated here will encourage people to invest?” asked Lorimer. I dunno. Leeds United’s fans have had it far rougher than any of our owners over the last decade, and we keep handing over fistfuls of money for tickets and merchandise to keep the club going. If you listened to Lorimer, you’d imagine only a masochist would want to take charge of Leeds United FC, yet the fans are the one bunch of masochists that are never in charge.

Back to imaginary rich saviour top trumps it is, then, as philanthropic Canadians are played off against carbonated drink peddlers, none of them, not a single one, giving a toss about us or our arguments.

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