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the square ball week: back stories & comeback stories

the square ball week: back stories & comeback stories

Back

The first sight was shocking. The poshly cocked eyebrow jutted more wildly from his forehead; the rowing-team coiffure was buzzed a little closer to the skull. And that skull: the skin sunk into the bowls between the cheekbones. Hi, Dave. You don’t look like you’ve been keeping well.

It was a strong image to draw you into a statement front page from the Yorkshire Evening Post, the first of two days of reporting on David Haigh’s time in prison in Dubai, and on his time running Leeds United as part of Gulf Finance House Capital. Leeds United: that was the link that got his story into the YEP. Leeds United was the reason we had heard of David Haigh in the first place.

Then, on Twitter, came the link to another exclusive, this time in The Cornishman; the newspaper Haigh apparently worked for as a community reporter from the age of thirteen until he was twenty, although all that was ever uncovered of that was some noticeboard news of Sancreed village rounders and barbecue’s great success, and besides, one of Haigh’s biographical sketches also had him managing a branch of McDonald’s before he was sixteen. And owls. He exhibited owls at local fêtes, to raise funds for the local Conservative Party. Apparently. A busy lad.

After the exclusives in the YEP and the Cornishman, then there was the exclusive video interview with Newsnight, and as the stories and the interviews rolled around the news cycle as Thursday wore on, initial shock gave way to the old Beeston Dave cynicism. Back in the day, when GFH were still negotiating to take over Leeds United, David Haigh stood out from the bank because he had his own, separate, public relations company working on his behalf. Less than a month after returning to England from his ‘Dubai hell’, was he really already at it again? Busily relating to the public once more, so soon?

The public have plenty of sympathy for David Haigh. To be held without proper charge or trial for as long as Haigh was held in Dubai is an affront to human rights, and the toll it has taken on his health is clear from one glance. The chubby cheeked posho has given way to a haunted wraith who looks like he just spent two years in a Middle Eastern jail, and has.

Sympathy is intangible, however. And the trouble with David has always been that you never know when he’ll try to take an intangible to the bank.

“Would I like to be involved with Leeds at some point in the future — with the right owner who has got the money and the passion to back that club and get it to where it belongs — of course I would,” David told Newsnight. “It’s a dream job. It’s an amazing place.”

Suddenly the sympathy is drawn up like a drawbridge over Wortley Beck. Involved? With Leeds? Leeds United?

Leeds United is his passport to sympathy; to be blunt, a bigger toss has been given about his plight than had he been a regular banking professional. The case against Haigh was pure business; his employers accused him of stealing funds, Haigh mumbles something about irregular payments and that money just resting his account and then appeals with his eyes to the interviewer to move on. It only has anything to do with football, and any place on our radar, because the disputed payments/thefts took place while the people involved happened to own Leeds United.

Leeds United, however, is also David Haigh’s passport back to distrust. Because while Haigh was on our radar, Haigh’s life story was scrutinised by Leeds United fans who wanted to establish his and GFH’s credentials and their motivation for owning and running our football club; and his life story was found to contain multitudes. There was the list of favourite Leeds United games, lifted straight from the official Leeds United website’s list of greatest Leeds United games and including a 10-0 defeat of Lyn Oslo from years before Haigh was born; there were the claims of being born in Leeds, debunked within three hours of publication by fans who produced the record of his birth in Salford; there were his claims about his working past: “I have worked all my life, right from being a paperboy at 14 and then 16 at McDonalds as a manager,” ludicrous sounding on their own, before an enterprising fan enquired with McDonalds and established they didn’t have a branch in David’s Cornwall until after he was eighteen.

So desperate were his attempts at building a personal brand, that for a while the media area of his personal website included an embed of a YouTube video I made of Haigh zoning out halfway through the one time he talked at Brian McDermott’s introductory press conference, a moment I played on a loop, soundtracked by the first verse of Depeche Mode’s Enjoy The Silence. His PR team had taken it as positive press coverage. When they saw the laughter on social media, they removed the link.

I knew people who were dealing with Haigh on a business basis while he was at Leeds United, and all the variances in his life stories only added to the greatest mystery they felt about him: how somebody so apparently stupid could be so successful in business. His presence in meetings was that of a dimwitted child, out of his depth; and yet here he was, in the meeting. He once sidetracked a business conversation into a ten minute monologue on Dallas, Airwolf and winking comments about Pamela Anderson, followed by a complete inability to grasp the meaning of the conversation he was meant to be having. A corporate lawyer, apparently, a key financier with high-level experience; but if he was only acting dumb, he was Laurence Olivier.

Uncovering the true story of how David Haigh got to be managing director of Leeds United would take more private detectives than even Haigh himself — who, during GFH’s takeover, paid for private detectives to investigate then LUST chairman Gary Cooper — could afford. That he had something to hide was clear, and that it wasn’t hard to discover certain things about his business and personal past was also clear, and if David is looking for sympathy now, he might like to consider that he already owes a large number of Leeds fans for keeping the open secrets of his personal life away from the social media schoolyard for as long as they did.

None of that stuff seemed relevant; more worrying was the web of offshore companies Haigh was using to try and take over and then to wind up Leeds United. “Before you start another silly rumour about sport capital, there is zero involvement with kb [Ken Bates]” Haigh tweeted in March 2014, prompting me to a mini-Panama Papers moment that, by the end of May, had linked Sport Capital to Ken Bates. All we had to know about Haigh’s past was that he was a liar; the details were less important than what he was going to lie about next.

That’s the context Leeds United fans should keep in mind as Haigh continues his PR-arranged freedom tour. Haigh has several angles; he wants to clear his name, he wants GFH out of Leeds United, he presumably still wants to be a Tory MP. He also wants to warn other British nationals of the dangers that await them beneath the “glitter” and among the “sewage” of the real Dubai.

“It was the first time I had been in a police station, let alone a jail in the Middle East,” the lawyer and former compliance officer for a Middle Eastern bank GFH told The Cornishman.

“I lived in Dubai for six years,” he told Newsnight. “I went from the financial centre … and I didn’t see Dubai, and I didn’t see the UAE, and I didn’t have anything to do with Dubai courts or Sharia law or any of this,” again raising questions about his lack of observance of the world outside his comfy home and expensive office, and about his ability to offer legally sound financial advice to GFH in a country where he didn’t understand the local courts or laws. “It was like a mini England, we had a Waitrose, we had a Marks and Spencer’s. You don’t realise you are in a very different country, with some very different laws, and some very vindictive people.”

Well, you didn’t, David. To the YEP, he continued:

“They have done it to me and I have got through it. My aim for the mistreatment and torture is to raise awareness for the people who are still there.

“If I can stop one 20-year-old British kid who gets caught drinking a bit too much on the beach, when he goes to Dubai thinking it is a great holiday destination, he goes out with his mates and has a drink, causes offence to a local, he gets put in prison and they torture him, if I can stop that one person, that is enough for me.”

Which is very laudable, except that a drink on the beach — or the other crimes Haigh cites, such as holding hands with a girlfriend or bouncing a cheque (which is surely not recommended if you’re trying to keep the right side of any country’s laws) — is a little bit different to what Haigh was accused of by GFH, and ultimately convicted of.

Of all the interviews so far, Newsnight is the most illuminating. As Haigh describes his maltreatment and “torture”, the BBC’s Mark Lobel interrupts. “Was this in front of other prisoners?” he asks. “No, it was in front of police.” Fine. No witnesses, then? Okay.

Reading from his notes, Lobel moves on; “You were convicted of fraud, of misappropriating £3.5m of money from GFH Capital, in August 2015, by a criminal judge in Dubai. But you’ve complained about the process that led to your conviction. Why?”

Haigh complains about not being able to access proper representation, presumably referring to a period before some of the most prestigious law firms in London were petitioning the Dubai courts to allow him access to funds — such as £500 per week for food — petitions that were refused by a judge who pointed out that the law firm representing Haigh before him was only one of several expensive firms working on Haigh’s case. Lobel continues:

“You’re complaining you’ve been mistreated, and you’re complaining about the process that led to your conviction, but you do admit that you took the money in question, this £3.5m from GFH. That’s correct?”

“Took, is,” starts Haigh. “Took…”

“That money landed in your account.”

“Took is the wrong word because it was given to me. Yes it’s in my bank account —“

“You obviously at some point noticed that this money was in your account?”

“Yes.”

“But you didn’t know how it got there.”

“How do you mean, I didn’t know how it got there?”

Haigh continues, contending vaguely that he was owed this money for “various different services, whether that’s the salary at Leeds, whatever it may be, and I was receiving that money,” and that he had concerns over the way it was being paid to him. GFH, in their documents relating to the case, had produced invoices allegedly raised by Haigh for payments to accounts linked to Haigh. And when it comes down to the facts of the crimes alleged against Haigh by GFH, it comes down to a matter of which of them you believe least.

Which means that as a spokesperson for the plight of prisoners abroad, Haigh is all profile and no substance unless there is a final, clarifying and believable word on his time at Leeds United, the movement of £3.5m into his bank account, and maybe even the truth about whether he really did run some McDonalds somewhere when he was a kid, flipping burgers and wishing he’d been there to see Leeds in the European Cup First Round in 1969.

In the second part of the YEP interview, Haigh says GFH-C should apologise to Leeds United’s fans. He’s asked if he, as an integral part of GFH-C throughout their majority ownership of the club, thinks he should apologise too. “If people think I genuinely did wrong, then fine, no problem.” Or, to put it another way, no.

Leeds fans are the only constituency David Haigh has; Leeds fans are also the last people to believe a word he says. Leeds fans are also the most confused about what any of this has to do with them. I expect David Haigh and Gulf Finance House will continue their arguments for many months and years ahead, and I expect they will still be recorded in the sports pages of Yorkshire newspapers, because they bought us once, and never sold up.

I’ve written a few times over the last couple of years about the waking ghosts that haunt Leeds United: Ken Bates, stubbornly prowling the airwaves; Shaun Harvey, still in overall executive charge of our fates; Salem Patel, Hisham Alrayes, all somehow still remembered at a football club where you have to explain a John Pemberton, a Vince Hilaire.

Add to them this week Edoardo Cellino, who showed exactly what he thinks about Leeds United fans in the comments for which he now faces an FA ban. Watching from behind the scenes as Leeds United filmed their season ticket advert last season, I saw Edoardo, a boy in green plastic shades and crocs, stride past Billy’s statue without a glance at the stern, close-cropped blonde sitting on its plinth: David Batty. “That fucker,” someone said of Ed, “That fucker doesn’t even know who he just walked past”; that fucker is on the board of directors of Leeds United, though; and like with so many over the past few years, no fucker can explain why.

Add to the ghosts, again, David Haigh. That he has his freedom is a good thing. That he has the freedom to sit in an expensive suite at the Soho Hotel telling journalists he’d love to be involved with Leeds United again is not a good thing. We’ve been down this road, David, and there’s not much more for you down here. Enjoy your family. Enjoy your freedom. Enjoy however many millions of pounds are currently resting in your bank account(s). Next time I hear of a person being wrongly held in Dubai for a minor crime of which they are, beyond doubt, not guilty, be sure that I won’t be thinking of you.

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