In the concluding part of F&L’s interview with the Leeds United Supporters Trust chairman, Gary discusses the Trust’s relationship with the club, his misgivings about GFH-C’s approach to engaging with fans, the future of Leeds United, he also responds to his critics and reveals the personal cost of holding such a high profile role…
GFH-C and LUST’s relationship with Leeds United
One of the most intriguing sub-plots of the summer and the inspiration for a plethora of conspiracy theories was attendance of Shaun Harvey, alongside other club officials at a LUST/FSF organised stewarding event at the start of the season. With rumours abound of strained relations between Ken Bates and Shaun Harvey, the attendance of the CEO was regarded by some as a very positive step and by others as tangible proof that Harvey was manouvreing himself away from the old regime and towards the new men. As Gary explains though, there was a rather more simplistic reason behind it all:
“I think it’s important at this stage that I define our relationship with the club; we deal with an awful lot of problems – stewarding problems, ticketing etc. for our members and when we contact the club, whether it’s Sue Kilroy or Kelly Holmes amongst others, the club are entirely responsive. Credit is due to them and 9 times out of 10 we are able to achieve a positive outcome”
He also chose to pay tribute to Harvey who “genuinely, genuinely worked his socks off to make this deal happen” – midway through the sentence, he struggled to stifle a chuckle following all the recent ‘sock jokes’ with regard to the transfer window, but the praise is heartfelt. It is also revealed that LUST have yet to meet the club’s new Supporters Liaison Officer, but also welcomes such an appointment.
So it would seem that at on an operational level, the club have gone a long way down the road to doing things right. So why at ownership level is there a complete communications stalemate? Is it Ken Bates’ influence?
At this point, the theme of GFH-C’s carefully worded statements returns – back in October when LUST released what they considered a “balanced” pre-AGM update, reference was made to discussions they’d had with “representatives” of the bidders. The club quickly reacted by publishing a joint statement with GFH-C stating that “no direct contact” had been made between any employee and the trust.
As it turned out, again a careful play on words was made – LUST had spoken to a PR consultant working on GFH-C’s behalf, rather than anybody on actually on the company payroll. It was a statement therefore that technically could be held up as true, but nevertheless, designed to mislead thousands of supporters. So why did David Haigh et al agree to it? While he doesn’t honestly know, Gary like many of the membership suspects they had a contractual obligation to do so and as such, Bates for now at least continues to exert a significant influence.
GFH-C’s future plans
While Salem Patel’s remarks to David Conn about aiming to make Leeds United a sustainable club, one that can support itself without any need for additional investment, may not have excited many, it is an approach that finds favour with LUST. In fact it very much ties in with a philosophy they’ve adopted from work of Rob Wilson; a financial expert at Sheffield & Hallam University, Wilson has been a key advisor to the trust and has developed what he believes a sustainable model for running a football club.
The model puts the supporters at the very heart of the club and everything they do; as a club’s most fundamental income stream, the focus is very much on club/supporter engagement, supplemented by investment on the pitch, then building everything else around that – the absolute anthesis to the Ken Bates approach. So encouragingly, both LUST and Salem Patel are very much of similar mind.
The problems lie with the damage already done; a disenfranchised fan base, plummeting attendances and debts and liabilities (payable in both the short and longer term) rumoured to be in the region of £19m. Therein lies a problem, a smothering blanket of apathy that simply employing a new sustainable philosophy may not be sufficient in addressing, and it’s a slide that continues to gather pace, despite the completion of the takeover.
The feeling is that something really is needed to kick-start the club again, something to excite the supporters, for them to buy into:
“In the past, we’ve had that drive from top to bottom – it was like, support us because we’re going somewhere. We’ve got to build that dream, foster that enthusiasm and bring back that emotional attachment back into following Leeds United.”
Gary has four daughters, all of whom have been indoctrinated into the ways of following the Whites; only the eldest ones were able to savour the Champions League days, but all of them have experienced the lows. While he accepts that without the lows, you can’t fully appreciate the good times, there does at least have to be a hope for their return to buy into.
“I don’t care what you say. When you’re Leeds, you’re Leeds for life. Give them something to buy into then all that passion, all that emotion will come back in a flood!”
Discussion then turns to this time in 1989, it was just weeks ahead of a transfer deadline day where Leeds secured the signings of Chris Fairclough and Gordon Strachan, it was a show of ambition that quickly snowballed into the transformation of the club, culminating with a return to the very pinnacle of English football barely 38 months later – oh for something similar now!
Whether GFH-C currently have the means or even the ‘know how’ to push the club forward is not so much an issue, rather just that they possess the genuine ambition and drive to do so as quickly as they feasibly can. That then prompts me to ask the question, that had GFH-C come clean about their intentions for the club back in November, stating as now seems to be the case, that they were looking to purchase with the intention of then courting further investment, whether Gary and LUST would’ve accepted that.
The response is emphatic – of course he would. While doubtless, having a bidder in place that was already blessed with the necessary resources would be ideal, the Trust would’ve been happy to get on board and offer all the support they could. As has become clear throughout our conversation, honesty, engagement and ambition are all LUST are demanding of any new owner:
“To me, if you are a new buyer, a new owner coming into a club and that club is suffering from dwindling matchday attendances and disenchanted supporters, who feel left out and pushed aside, who no longer feel important and don’t share an understanding with the previous owner, I just believe there are a number of things you’d want to do.
First of all you would want to talk to the representatives of as many fans as you possibly can; not just members of LUST, but the Regional Members’ Clubs, the Supporters Club, independent groups like the Mavericks…get them all around a table and say “Lads, we need some help; if we’re gonna do this, we need bums back on seats – our fundamental income stream – we need your help to convince fellow supporters that this a project worth buying into, that’s it’s something long term”
It is fair to say that Gary has a lot of sympathy for the predicament of the new owners in terms of the financial liabilities they’ve inherited, his main objection has always has been in regard to their reluctance to be more open about their plans:
“The silences, smiley faces and all this ‘We all love Leeds’ stuff – that’s possibly why there still is this great divide amongst the fan base. The are some who still want to believe, those who do believe and some who are as cautious as the Trust have always been. It just takes a little bit of honesty to sell a dream for people to buy into and I’d have been eternally grateful to GFH-C for just coming forward and being honest about their intentions from the start. Now that’d be engagement”
Get people involved and you’ll get them on board.
In a whirlwind summer where the demands of supporters and the media have often been overwhelming, it’d be understandable if there were many things that Gary may have chosen to do differently, though as it turns out, there are actually only a few. Providing a likely timeframe for the completion of the takeover was based on (as in truth he always stated) an educated guess – if a 7 month takeover was ever going to teach anyone anything, it would surely be that.
The only other thing he’d rather have not done on reflection was choosing to react publicly on twitter to David Haigh following the release of that statement denying any contact with LUST; he responded by tweeting asking why Haigh would choose to mislead the supporters, reminding him that he possessed proof of contact in the form of recorded phonecalls and text messages.
That apart, the only remaining sadness lies in the fact that he’s never had the opportunity to meet Ken Bates face to face. One abusive phonecall from Monaco is all he’s ever been afforded, but he feels that given the chance to meet the pair would both gain a lot from the exchange. He admits even now he’d still take the opportunity “in a heartbeat.”
Ahead of the interview I opened up the opportunity on twitter for anyone with concerns or criticisms to tweet me any questions and to his credit, Gary was happy to answer those.
Lust don’t represent the wider fanbase.
While Gary is quick to point out that LUST are the largest of all the supporters’ groups with a membership of 9000 and is quick to make a distinction from the club’s ‘Members Club’ on the grounds that all those enrolled in that are done so automatically as season ticket holders or join in order to enjoy ticket purchasing privileges, he also refutes any suggestion that LUST have ever claimed that they speak for anyone other than their own membership, a membership he reminds me that is charged with setting the agenda for everything they do.
LUST’s support of boycotts and the ‘Campaign for Change’ march is harming the club through the turnstiles.
At this stage Gary reiterates the LUST stance of supporting the rights of every individual to express any disillusionment in the most appropriate way that they see fit, so while the Trust supports any member’s right to boycott, they also equally back the decisions of those who have stated they will continue to attend regardless.
While very proud of the the march, there is an acceptance that supporters will always have conflicting ideas on what represents the best way to articulate concerns. Although some regard LUST as an enemy of the club, Gary is at pains to remind those critics of the Vision Statement – although ideals on methodologies may differ, ultimately the Trust share the same common goal as every other individual – a successful club.
The trust are just self-publicists and trouble causers.
This allegation is met with a sigh; it’s something Gary’s had levelled at him many times. As a matter of fact, he spends much of the time attempting to get the media to speak to other board members, but as chairman he’s become a reluctant ‘go to’ guy; not as he’s not passionate about speaking, but because he does also have a working life and family he needs to devote time to, and because there are other equally articulate voices to be heard within the organisation.
The trouble causers tag is considered an inevitable by-product of the takeover saga and the constant need for the Trust to push Leeds United into keeping supporters informed of developments. The takeover has proved to be a double-edged sword, a catalyst for the huge growth in membership but an ordeal that’s effectively taken away from their wider remit and reduced them to being bracketed merely as a ‘Bates Out’ body.
Free membership renders LUST as meaningless
Gary considers the initiative to offer free membership to have been a resounding success and a move that has drawn wide praise, albeit legislation may some come into place that necessitates a return to paid subscriptions.
Who funded the recent trip to London for the meeting about safe standing enclosures?
Gary was quite happy to confirm that trip was paid for out of Trust funds, being that it concerned an issue that interests many members.
How long have you been going to Elland Road? Do you even have a season ticket?
For those looking for credentials, Gary reveals that he started attending Leeds games some 32 years back at the age of 14. At first recollections of his first game are hazy, but he gets back to me the following day to confirm it was a home game against Derby which he has troubling recalling much of after a day on the Skol. Although the small matter of producing four daughters inevitably took a financial toll for a while, he’s been back as a regular at Elland Road since 1991. This year, in a show of unison with other members who chose not to renew, he didn’t buy a season ticket, but has attended on a match by match basis, which by his own admittance has cost him a whole lot more money!
The personal cost of being LUST chairman
While Gary has always accepted the right of fellow supporters to be critical and welcomes anything constructive that the Trust could take on board, he’s rather less tolerant of those who “choose to defend their viewpoint by attacking me and using personal insults.”
“Wishing me and my family dead is way beyond the realms of common decency… and when you wake to find a ‘Happy Birthday’ message from your daughter on Facebook and people underneath have put comments like ‘w*****’ and “you fat b******’ – my kids don’t deserve that, even if I might”
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Gary reveals that not a single person has ever taken the effort to confront him face to face with such insults. Still, he maintains such incidences of name calling are now “water off a duck’s back” and never keep him awake at night. It’s only those incidences when his nearest and dearest are implicated that anger him. Sadly a couple of months ago, he had to deal with something very traumatic to those ends.
On December 18th the Daily Mail printed a story about an alleged failed business venture that he and his brother was involved in, a firm that was wound up in 2011. The story also revealed that his brother was currently serving a 7 year prison sentence for running a cannabis factory. Three days ahead of the takeover it was hard not to suspect foul play.
“That caused some problems. First of all for my brother who is serving his sentence…and that had nothing to do with me – I couldn’t be further away from what he was involved in, even if I tried. Because as a family we tried to help him and get him away from that, the newspaper printed the story…I have no idea what relevance it had to my position.
It’s fair to say I know exactly what happened. I have had information passed onto me by people associated with the club that proves who was involved and I’m sure in the fullness of time, those implicated will have to answer some questions.”
While he despairs of those involved and questions whether they possess a conscience, Gary reveals the efforts of his detractors have never caused him to consider his position:
“Did I ever think of walking away? Did my family ever ask me? My 14 year old daughter was subjected to bullying at school because of it. Kids…lads older than her were saying “Your dad’s a drug dealer” and the rest of it – she didn’t deserve that. The wife has also found it difficult to mix in the village we live in. That’s not fair. It’s really unfair that I’ve put my wife and one of my children through this through my own decisions, my own choices as a LUST board member, as a Leeds United supporter and they’ve suffered because of that. That will NEVER, EVER be fair and that has weighed heavily on my conscience…”
At this moment, Gary’s voice starts to weaken and by his own admittance, he starts to get emotional as is always the case when he recalls the response of the Leeds supporters:
“But…the goodwill shown by members of the Trust, by Leeds supporters on WACCOE in doing what they did in raising a fighting fund for that and for sending flowers to the wife… there are no words that can describe how me and my family feel about getting shown that kind of support – I can’t put it into words. There are never enough ‘Thank yous’…
…Ah, I get emotional about it. I’ve never experienced that in my life ever, and all I did after all was try and help my brother who was in trouble and I put my wife and my family through that. And I’ve questioned myself and asked myself if my decision to stick it through is a wise one, but she supported me through it…but no, I’ve never truly thought of walking away for a moment as people, thousands of people showed me that our work matters to them.”
So that beggars the question, when will it be time to walk away? When does Gary feel his work with the Trust will be done?
“Once Leeds is going in the right direction, then I will step down and fade back into the background. When will that be? I dunno”
When that time comes he envisions that formal and established avenues of communication between club and supporters will be in place. While the general trust model preaches about supporter representation at board level, he has no desire to fill such a role, indeed he’s not sure many ‘typical’ supporters would be qualified to do either. Rather, he’d like to see some form of supporter representation just below board level, where members of the newly formed ‘Leeds Fans United’ (an umbrella group that brings together all Leeds supporters’ groups) regularly speak with the newly installed Supporters Liaison Officer at a higher level.
Looking back, Gary considers it to have been an “astonishing” last year or so, one of so many highlights and the odd low point. The rebranding exercise that was undertaken was intended to swell membership to 1500, but with the new found desire of Leeds supporters to want accountability from those running at their club, numbers now stand a six times that figure.
The much talked about book, intended to reveal all about the whole takeover process remains in the pipeline; against expectations, some of those implicated may still remain at the club upon publication, but while the ownership issues remain unresolved, those revelations will remain on hold.
For now, talk is of a new manager and like many, only one man figures in the thoughts of Gary:
“I agree with Salem Patel about getting a younger manager in. It has to be Nigel Adkins, hasn’t it…ideally?”
With that I thank him for his time (a mere 75 minutes) and ask him as a parting shot, that if he gets to meet David Haigh and Salem Patel at the Fans Forum – “wild horses” wouldn’t keep him away from attending – what would his message be?
It’s a simple one…
“Read the mission statement, listen to what the supporters have to say. We are the future of this club – work with us”.
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