Wednesday 21 February 2018

Holding on for dream ticket

Leeds United fans are once again worried about the direction their club is taking, writes Dion Fanning

It was another winter and another Leeds United when David O'Leary left his home in Yorkshire on a Sunday morning for an FA Cup game against Manchester City.

Today, a different Leeds United will play a different Manchester City in a different stadium but so much was promised on that January day in the year 2000.

O'Leary can't remember much about the game but certain things come back to him. He knows that he had 'flu and had been told by the club doctor to stay at home. Instead, on the Sunday morning, he drove across the mountains to Manchester and watched his young side make another thrilling statement about who they were and what they wanted to achieve.

"It was an exciting time for the club. We had a young, vibrant side who relished going to grounds and winning football matches," he said last week.

On January 9, 2000, Leeds United went to Maine Road and crushed Manchester City 5-2. Harry Kewell, Alan Smith, Erik Bakke and Lee Bowyer were the goalscorers, names that represented the vibrancy that O'Leary cherished. This was a Leeds team that was going places. Don Revie's side might have been wrongly tainted as 'Dirty Leeds' but O'Leary's side were young and beautiful. "We didn't have a lot of money," O'Leary recalls without irony as he talks about the development of the youthful team.

He had been George Graham's assistant and, when he took over from Graham, he was soon talking about making Leeds everybody's second team. "I'd been harping on to George about the young players but as you get older you get more cautious. Number twos can give you some good advice but they can also get you into trouble."

O'Leary took his own advice and the team that walked out at Maine Road was full of the qualities that he wanted England to admire and to love.

But a few days later, a single brutal incident which involved two high-profile players, one of whom would ultimately be cleared of all charges, altered the reputation of the club and drained it from the inside. The new Leeds was built on attracting revenue and support. Their chairman Peter Ridsdale – 'Publicity Pete' – was happy in front of a microphone and relished spending money, especially as the economy was booming and the football economy, well the football economy had never had it so good.

For Leeds to prosper, in fact for Leeds to break even, they needed to be the good guys.

Because of what happened on the Leeds streets one night in January 2000, they came to be seen as representing all that was ugly in football. Soon it would turn out that they also represented a new type of financing. The world came to learn of terms like 'securitisation' during the crash. Leeds United supporters heard them a little earlier. Ridsdale's Leeds United took out a £60m securitisation loan. The security was the supporters. Their season tickets would pay back the loans. English football had never seen anything like it.

Two days after the victory in Manchester, Sarfraz Najeib was savagely beaten outside a Leeds nightclub. Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate would be among those charged for their part in the attack. Bowyer would ultimately be cleared of all charges, while Woodgate would be convicted of affray. The details of the attack were shocking. Najeib had teeth marks on his face, a fractured cheekbone and a broken leg. He claimed that one of the attackers had shouted, "Do you want some Paki?" during the pursuit but there were no other witnesses to this claim and the judge said racism was not a feature of the attack.

On January 9, Leeds were the future of football. Soon they were, once again, seen by some as all that was wrong with the game. Never glad confident morning again.

"It was a different ball game after that," O'Leary says. Too much went wrong during the next few years for Leeds United to say for certain that a night out changed the future of the club. Too much money was spent that the club didn't have but the perception of Leeds began to alter when the trial and retrial of Bowyer and Woodgate claimed the headlines.

"There was too much going on off the pitch with solicitors and police around the club the whole time," O'Leary (pictured) says. He doesn't know if the perception of the club on the outside changed. He says that's for others to decide. "All I know is that within the club the feeling changed because it wasn't about football."

When Leeds United beat Manchester City in January 2000, they were a club the neutral wanted to love. Two-and-a-half years later when they finished one place below the Champions League positions for a second year in a row, many delighted in their failure.

It took time for it to unravel. Leeds qualified for the Champions League in 2000, reached the semi-final in 2001 and began the next season as title contenders.

In December 2001, the final verdict in the trial was reached. Paul Clifford was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. Woodgate was given community service, as was another man. Bowyer was cleared. Both Woodgate and Bowyer were found not guilty of grievous bodily harm.

Sarfraz Najeib was the victim but Leeds United felt as if they had been punished too, a feeling that attracted criticism. O'Leary wrote a book called Leeds United on Trial, a title which didn't help. A month after the verdict, two years after they had dismantled Manchester City, Leeds went to Cardiff in the Cup and when they lost, the football world rejoiced.

They were also carrying huge debts. O'Leary says he was told as manager, "You look after the football side, we'll do the financial side."

He insists the deals were done without him. When Leeds spent £18m on Rio Ferdinand, he got a call in Dublin, he says, telling him the transfer was done. His input had been to highlight Ferdinand as the best defender in Britain but his view would have been "no chance" if he had been told the club could pay £18m for him. "They should get the plaudits for signing him," he says.

Yet they were borrowing to pay for it and borrowing at terms that required sustained future success. So much depended on Champions League qualification but O'Leary claims he was never told there was not so much a financial imperative as a financial desperation to qualify for the Champions League. "One thing I never knew and the players never knew was the expectation of Champions League," O'Leary says.

He recalled the last game of the 2001/2002 season when Leeds gave Middlesbrough "a good hammering", as O'Leary recalls it, although history records it as a 1-0 home win with Alan Smith scoring after an hour.

In the dressing room afterwards Peter Ridsdale was complimentary, O'Leary says. "He didn't come in and say 'Jesus, you didn't qualify for the Champions League'." O'Leary would soon oppose the sale of Rio Ferdinand to Manchester United and shortly after that he was no longer manager of Leeds United. Two years later, Leeds United were relegated.

Leeds also endured the fire sale, the administration, the points deduction and the further relegation to League One. There was the Ken Bates era which Leeds fans desperately wanted to end. In December, it did. Now Leeds fans want the most dangerous thing of all: hope.

It will be another Leeds United that plays in Manchester today in a game that has less relevance for the club. "It's definitely a distraction," says Gary Cooper of the Leeds United Supporters' Trust. In 2000, Leeds were the Premier League side and City were trying to come to terms with all that happened to them. Everything has changed. City have the riches and Leeds United have been through so much.

In December, Bates finally sold Leeds United. It was bought by GFH Capital and already there were suggestions they would make a quick sale with rumours that their major backer had dropped out. A claim they deny.

On the day of the buy-out, Salem Patel, chief investment officer of the parent company GFH, told the Yorkshire Post: "The way our business model works, it's not about flipping or long-term, short-term. The way we typically work would be to identify a project then bring strategic investors with us. If people want to call that flipping then it is flipping. But to us it's not flipping.

"It's identifying an asset and then bringing the right people on board – whether that is management or shareholders or investors – to help try and build that asset to take it to the next level."

Last week, less than two months since the sale, rumours increased that the club would be sold again. GFH Capital have confirmed that they are looking for investment but insist they do not want to sell the club.

Their preference is to sell 30 per cent and they say they will only sell the majority stake to an investor with a lot of money to spend.

In an interview in yesterday's Guardian with David Conn, they explained why in romantic terms. "We do not wish to make a short-term profit to miss out on the £150m-£200m which could be made if the club wins promotion to the Premier League," Salem Patel said.

In January, Leeds United's main activity in the transfer market involved the sale of their most important player Luciano Becchio to Norwich City.

Leeds haven't won a game since they knocked Tottenham out of the FA Cup, losing twice and drawing once and Neil Warnock's management is bringing plenty of its own dissatisfaction.

Leeds United supporters again worry about the direction of the club. Gary Cooper says GFH Capital have not replied to any of their emails even though the new owners are proud of their engagement with supporters on Twitter and Facebook. "There is a real feeling of disappointment," Cooper says.

Yesterday GFH Capital insisted that Ken Bates had been paid in full and stated they didn't owe him any money, a statement that might calm fears in Leeds that Bates could return if the new owners failed to pay him.

Leeds fans were more encouraged by the suggestion that Adam Pearson could be part of a new consortium which might be keen to invest. Pearson was a figure in the Ridsdale era but left his positions as commercial director in 2001 to take over at Hull. "Adam Pearson carries a lot of credibility," Cooper says and Pearson is burdened too with the elusive idea that he knows what supporters want.

Now Leeds supporters who have stuck around while the club dropped down to the third tier of English football want to get excited again. "Give us a dream to buy into," Gary Cooper says. Cooper thinks Leeds United could win in Manchester today. But that won't start Leeds United dreaming. Certainly not as they once dreamed.

Irish Independent

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