As I prepared to call Gary Cooper a thought dawned upon me – I’d never interviewed anyone before with the intention of writing an article; I had no clear idea of how to structure such a conversation or translate the results into something cohesive, just a long list of questions, loosely banded together by category. This could be a painful process…
Within moments of exchanging “hellos” though, it quickly became apparent that this wouldn’t be a case. Although he may spend his working life as a CCTV operations manager for the local council, it appears that while LUST’s chairman is as naturally comfortable in front of the camera as he is behind it, that also extends to the telephone – when it comes to discussing Leeds United, getting him to chat is the least of my problems.
For those in need of a brief history lesson – and I include myself in that bracket – The Leeds United Supporters Trust (LUST) actually dates back as far as the late 1990s when the football trust model was rolled out nationally. In common with other clubs, the organisation was small and primarily concerned itself with football governance: the bureaucratic and political side of the sport. At that time the common fan showed little interest, Gary included. That started to change in 2008.
The roots of modern day LUST lie in a conversation that took place in Billy’s Bar back in late 2008. Gary and a group of friends were discussing the 2007 administration process, where Ken Bates was able to engineer his continuation in the role of chairman despite having taken the club into administration. Those who sat around the table were to a man, still not happy with what had gone on, believing that fans views had received little representation and spoke of putting together their own group for such a purpose.
A pressure group at that time did exist, but the ‘Ten For Ken’ campaign sought to target Ken Bates directly – it didn’t possess the wider remit these friends had in mind. This new organisation would be concerned not just with boardroom issues, but the wider everyday concerns of supporters, such as treatment by stewards and ticket pricing; it was only in then that they learned of the Trust.
Once it became clear that LUST already existed and had compatible aspirations, the two parties began talking to each other and very quickly Gary and his colleagues joined the board and immediately began work on raising the profile of the body; why were the Trust not popular (membership stood at around 300) and influential, and what could be done to raise awareness?
Jonny Howson and the ‘Campaign for Change’ march
After many years of relative anonymity, the Trust suddenly found themselves centre stage last January. The sale of an injured Jonny Howson to Norwich provided a catalyst for an exponential growth in the LUST membership; a succession of appalling transfer windows had culminated with the last gasp sale the previous August of Max Gradel, with Howson now seemingly ushered out, supporters were demanding answers and LUST were positioning themselves to provide a voice to those concerns.
Following a consultation exercise, LUST drafted their first ‘Mission Statement’, their vision for a successful Leeds United. They also took it upon themselves to take on the challenge laid down by Ken Bates after the chairman claimed that no potential investors could be found in Yorkshire. With momentum building, they chose to demonstrate the strength of feeling by organising a peaceful march to the Elland Road ahead of the Brighton game on 11th March.
A few prior to the march, LUST held their regular monthly meeting at The Magic Sponge where a lot of enthusiasm was evident, but that didn’t stop doubts surfacing on the big day…
“I’ll tell you something, I’m what…46. I’ve had some proud moments as a Leeds United supporter over the years but…
Look, we stood in City Square an hour before that march was due to take place, really not knowing what to expect. We seemed to receive a lot of commitment, but with an hour to go there was a handful of us stood there and we really thought to ourselves, have we done the right thing here?
I could not believe the sheer swell in numbers during the course of that hour and as that march began and set off from City Square, I can’t remember ever feeling so proud to be part of a group of people as I did that day – it was just outstanding, I was gobsmacked!”
The police estimated around 1300-1500 attended the march and it was a day that Gary will long remember, a day when he felt for the first time in a long time, there was some unity amongst supporters and they now had a voice.
Gary does however reject the notion that the march marked the moment that the trust truly arrived. He regards it more as the culmination of an 18 month relaunching and rebranding exercise, a campaign that’d already brought Nigel Martyn on board, established links with local MPs media and businesses; what the success of march then demonstrated to the rest of the media, both locally and nationally was that LUST did now have have serious credibility.
The Summer (and Autumn) Takeover Frenzy
“In many respects it was an absolute bloody nightmare…”
That’s Gary’s summer essentially distilled into a sentence. The opening weeks, months even of the takeover saga at Elland Road thrust Gary and the Trust board into the limelight in such a way that none of them ever quite anticipated. The first murmurings of takeover talk blossomed following a couple of necessarily vague hints to that end by Gary on WACCOE (a Leeds United internet message board); by the end of the week, despite promptings for information the club remained silent, so the following Monday, LUST and Phil Hay decided to break the story themselves.
That was the signal for a media and supporter led frenzy. Gary had booked that particular week to go on holiday in Cornwall:
“The phone never for a second stopped ringing, it drove the wife barmy. To be honest, I’m surprised she stuck around…”
By making the revelations themselves, LUST forced the club to come clean and the following morning in a short statement it confirmed that talks with “potential investors” were underway. It was a taxing time for board members, volunteers who were juggling commitments with full-time jobs. It was later revealed that during that period, one of the board spent a solid 24 hour shift on twitter, just in an effort to deal with all the questions that had been directed at their account.
The Trust were already well aware of just how much interest there was in the club having actively marketed it potential investors as Bates had challenged them to do so. Presentations were put together and within hours of releasing their statement, calling on interested parties to contact them, they found themselves chatting:
“We were contacted that quickly. Not just by local people but by some quite leading figures in the football world”
It appeared that many people believed in the potential of Leeds United and were quite happy to discuss it; it was evident that money did exist in Yorkshire, but those with it were just unable or unwilling to deal with Leeds United’s chairman. But interest also emerged from further afield, including on Middle East based party – when pressed about the identity, Gary was unable to divulge any further details; it appears those same bidders may well be involved in this latest fresh round of investment discussions with GFH-C.
So why did LUST choose to pressurise Leeds United into revealing that discussions were taking place back in May? Quite simply as they believed the supporters had a right to know; Gary maintains that LUST would never push for the finer, more intimate details of any deal. What they did want Ken Bates to do, just as they want GFH-C to do now is to share the plans and dreams they have for our club. It was an agenda that they were to continue to pursue.
Gary accepts the Trust’s actions in pursuing such a policy may have done much to gain them a reputation in some corners as trouble causers, but remains unrepentant in that regard. He believes all that LUST demanded was what the members were asking for – engagement. He also feels that in the fullness of time, some perceptions will change; he’s a great believer that the truth will always come out:
“We have been proven right. The financial analysis, which was a massive undertaking for the trust…Mr Patel himself in his interview with David Conn, in last Saturday’s Guardian, has confirmed what we suggested back in late summer that there is a cash flow problem at the club.”
At the time, many people refuted the claims, rejecting them as a fabrication, the work of agitators, maintaining that Bates had everything under control.
“We’ve been proven right – that’s not that I want to sound smug, it’s just to prove that what we did was for the right reasons – if we continue being as accurate as that and as credible as that we can continue to head in the right direction, all for the benefit of Leeds United”
He believes that is why LUST enjoy such good relations with the media, and not just locally but nationally and even internationally – because they are credible and can be trusted. The YEP’s Phil Hay and Adam Pope of Radio Leeds particularly draw praise as consummate professionals who are always willing to listen and find balance in arguments and who are passionate about what goes on at the club. The three often compare notes and intel to ensure they all remain as informed as they possibly can be.
The takeover collapse mystery
When conversation moves on to the day that LUST announced that the takeover process had collapsed and the bidder had walked away, Gary becomes more guarded in his responses. Much speculation has centred around whether a major backer pulled out that day, leaving the remaining players to struggle on alone to tie up a deal, especially as some believe that backer has now returned in the form of the fresh bid from the Middle East for a controlling stake in the club.
Salem Patel in the David Conn piece revealed that GFH-C never had a major backer behind them, contrary even to claims made by Ken Bates who spoke of a “very, very wealthy backer” as a deal neared completion. So what is the truth?
“I’ve got to be very careful what I say, because again, those people who we were speaking to in the lead up to that announcement may still have some kind of interest going forward.
When we put that statement out it was correct at the time of going to press. There was later, a significant changes in the shape and structure of things during the course of the day, which we became aware of about 2 hours after the announcement. We contacted the club and were asked not to release anything further until they put out their own statement – we honoured that.”
Then a key revelation, that possibly shades new light and offers an explanation to the conflicting messages over the conflicting messages from Bates and Patel…
“I don’t want to criticise GFH-C, but I’ll say this. When they release statements the wording is chosen very carefully so they can’t be accused of misguiding anyone, or not telling the truth…but at times, that truth can be misleading. What they said today in the Guardian newspaper, that there never was a wealthy backer behind them…well, GFH-C never had a wealthy backer, but the same may not be true of GFH and they’re two separate entities who’ve played two different roles.”
That is as far as the conversation goes, as Gary is reluctant to be drawn further for now with the new incumbents being at such a delicate stage in attempting to attract new investment.
“Dare to Dream”
Arguably the most infamous soundbite of the summer, still the focus for so much speculation and even now in some quarters regularly used as a stick with which to bash the Trust with. So what provoked Gary to make the remark in the first place and does he regret it?
“I still dare to dream but I have to be very careful about that. The ‘dare to dream’ was based on conversations we had with contacts over the summer.”
When I push again to try and ascertain whether LUST are aware of the identities of the Saudi Arabian bidders who’ve resurfaced again and if this is the same party that lodged a counter bid in November, he again replies that he “can’t really answer”…
“In November we were aware…we spoke to people right across the Middle East – people get fixated on this Saudi Arabia thing – we were aware of at least two other groups or individuals who had a keen interest”
In tomorrow’s concluding part, Gary discusses the Trust’s relationship with Leeds United, GFH-C’s future plans, answers his critics and reveals the personal cost to himself and his family of life as the LUST chairman.
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