“We want to re-engage with the fans. We see that as being very important. We’ve had a lot of interaction with them, and the show of support has been amazing.”
Those were the words of David Haigh on 21st December 2012; a positive, proactive and affirmative statement of intent, made at the press conference to introduce Leeds United’s new owners to the world.
Having suffered nearly 8 years under a regime where supporters were seemingly regarded as the least valuable of all commodities, to hear an immediate acknowledgement from GFH that those who make the club what it is, would be afforded the sort of respect that had so long overdue was arguably the greatest positive to be taken from that day. The finer, ostensibly more pressing details of immediate plans, ambitions and finances may have remained fuzzy, but in the midst of worries and lingering doubts over the new guys’ ability to take the club forward far enough, quickly enough, there did seem at least the assurance that the aims of the fans and the board were one and the same.
Since those days, the doubts about GFH’s financial muscle have remained, and while as much as every other Leeds supporter, I would’ve dearly loved to have been reflecting upon my naivety in doubting them as another in a succession of multi-million pound signings made their way towards Thorp Arch, I have no particular complaint that this hasn’t been the case. If GFH aren’t blessed with extensive funds, but still do share our ambitions of taking the club forward as quickly as possible through shrewd management and external investment, then that still represents a huge step forward from the Ken Bates years.
Indeed, I’ve suspected as much from the start. The day after David Haigh and Salem Patel met the press, they attended the Leeds United Members’ Party and on that evening I took the opportunity to speak to both; initially I said a quick “hello” to David Haigh and exchanged pleasantries, though my conversation with Salem Patel was rather more revealing.
I caught Salem later on in the evening and he was good enough to spare about 15 minutes to discuss everything about the club. During that conversation he seemed to show a genuine interest in what I had to say, suggest and ask – when I thanked him for his time and shook his hand; I left him believing that while my initial suspicions that the new owners were in no position to invest heavily in the club, what they were willing to do was to explore every possible avenue maximise the potential that they held in their hands.
Salem spoke of the decision to reintroduce half-season tickets in an effort to captialise on the new spirit of optimism around the club and was very keen to discuss the issue of ticket pricing and attendances as a whole (I was quick to criticise the FA Cup prices… and I was right!), offering some hints of possible cuts and concessions next season. He also assured me that he aimed to extend an olive branch to LUST as the new board looked to communicate with all significant supporters groups. All in all, I was very impressed and looked forward to a massive sea change in policy from the top…
Then it happened.
This week BBC Radio Leeds revealed that contrary to all expectations, their ban from all Leeds United press conferences was to continue indefinitely. They seemed baffled, as did Leeds supporters; only a couple of weeks or so previously, Adam Pope had been welcomed back with open arms to cover the GFH press conference – indeed, it was the first decision I congratulated Salem Patel on during my conversation, and he replied by enthusing about Pope’s reaction…at that point I assumed the BBC return as permanent – and now they were again positioned on the outside looking in.
The decision immediately brought back to mind David Haigh’s promise of re-engaging with fans and what has been done so far. Ultimately, on reflection, I’d suggest very little; on initial inspection there may seem to have been great strides made, but scratch off the surface of superficiality and you made ponder what exactly has changed, if anything?
If a club wants to communicate with its supporters, if it truly wants to keep them informed, it does not exclude the biggest single media organisation in the world from reporting on events; in continuing to ban the BBC from Thorp Arch, not only does GFH massively undermine exposure of the football club (in an age where media exposure is so critical), but it also marginalises a huge number of supporters who rely on the radio as a primary source of Leeds United information and either haven’t a DAB, are relatively techno-illiterate, or live outside Yorkshire.
By keeping the BBC out, the club also deny supporters the opportunity of balanced media coverage, where questions may be asked and parties brought to account by a public service broadcaster charged with a mandate of representing those who fund it.
The response to the revelation has been almost universal condemnation; a poll on the ‘Right in the Gary Kellys’ site showed that over 98% of voters backed a lifting of the BBC ban, while the twitter accounts of David Haigh and Salem Patel have been bombarded with tweets demanding answers, which brings us to the crux of the matter – are GFH really communicating?
Yes, there have been some initiatives that have suggested promise; the open invite for fans to email the owners on a specially created account – something that attracted over 4000 responses over the first few weeks – and the regular presence on twitter and David Haigh and Salem Patel have made the new regime seem immediately more accessible than previous incumbents; it’s provided an outlet for supporters who want to air their concerns and put forward ideas. There has also been the announcement of the intention to stage a ‘Meet the Owners’ event at a future date – all encouraging signs.
How much GFH have actually taken on board from the emails and barrage of tweets cannot truthfully be gauged until decisions are made and actions implemented. The BBC decision indisputably goes against the wishes of many, albeit at the moment it would be harsh to judge them solely on this issue. At the moment, we appear on the surface at least, to have people in charge who are good listeners, but engagement is a two-way street and it’s time GFH started talking.
Since introductions were made to the media shortly before Christmas, precious little has been heard from the new owners; while they continue to maintain a regular twitter presence, their accounts are reflective more of exercises in narcissism than avenues of engagement; a cheap way of winning hearts and minds and satisfying the hordes on the shallowest possible level – providing a retweet for every single “massive” Leeds United supporter who requests one is not engagement, nor is asking followers who is going to each approaching game.
Fielding compliments is all very well and basking in the new found adulation brought through being associated with Leeds United is also understandable for men who previously in their chosen fields may have been successful but relatively speaking, fairly anonymous. But while responding to flattery is fine, there are also burning issues that concern us all like the BBC ban, like speculation over the future of players and questions regarding the manager’s future beyond the end of the season that are at least equally deserving of a reply – whenever Haigh and Patel are questioned on these topics, a wall of silence suddenly goes up; the other day Haigh did manage to muster one response, suggesting that supporters should not believe anything unless they read it on the official site or hear it on Yorkshire Radio…it suddenly felt like we’ve all been here before.
While the January transfer window remains in swing, there is of course another, perhaps more significant benchmark by which supporters will judge the new men, as the success or otherwise of the remaining 19 days will define the destiny of Leeds United’s season. However, GFH came on board not only with promises to push the club forward, but also a mandate that after years and years of division, to make the club and fan base again united and to do so acknowledged engagement is the most effective tool.
Well, we’ve listened and we’ve responded in kind; now David and Salem, it’s your turn.
It’s good to talk.