When GFH-C finally completed their takeover of Leeds United on 21st December 2012, there was genuine hope amongst supporters that after almost 8 years in the dark ages, better things were to come. While unquestionably, success on the pitch was as always the primary demand made of the new incumbents, the arrival of fresh, younger, seemingly more communicative owners also brought the promise of a club no longer rooted in the dark ages; where articulate, media savvy individuals could offer soundbites to the press, and those responsible to be conduits with the supporters could bring a great deal of professionalism, empathy and most pressingly an understanding of how most modern day Leeds supporters think.
Mercifully David Haigh and Salem Patel (bar the odd isolated press and twitter faux pas by the former) have proven themselves not to be the shameless, self-publicists that Ken Bates undoubtedly was; no longer do we as fans, shuffle uncomfortably, awaiting the next cringeworthy outburst and potential court case. Through the ‘Watch Leeds for Less’ ticket initiatives, they have also shown themselves to be receptive custodians and, if the decision to designate Derby as another such fixture is anything to go by, have deservedly reaped the rewards of being so.
However, while no longer having to fear the latest ramblings from the top is a relief, is there also such a thing as being too quiet? This may well be out of necessity if continued whispers about takeover and investment deals are to believed, but it does leave a void, this lack of an official high-profile LUFC voice at the top, leaving those lower down the pecking order to represent the club – but are those charged with being the public face of Leeds United, really in anyway qualified to do so?
If you look beyond GFH-C, the first, and arguably the only high profile voice of the club is Peter Lorimer. Eddie Gray of course works as a match day co-commentator on Yorkshire Radio, but it is Lorimer who’s appointed the ‘Fans’ Representative’, the man who is intended to communicate the board’s intentions to the supporters and the mood of the fan base to his employers. On paper at least, appointing a legendary ex-player seems a sound move, but in the case of Lorimer, the logic appears increasingly unsound.
Lorimer to many, maybe even most supporters (especially those too young to remember his playing days) does not represent those who pay to watch the side; self-interest dictated that he became a ‘Bates man’, his agenda, to serve and defend his employer rather than to engage. As such, his credibility has crumbled.
This is hardly revelatory stuff, however, his actions on Wednesday night throw into doubt his suitability at a whole other level. For those unaware, Elland Road that evening was the setting for the latest Lorimer’s Bar, an event where typically the host and four Leeds players sat on a panel to answer questions posed by supporters. Such nights usually make for an entertaining spectacle, albeit the quality of the guests and the questions always dictate just how so.
At the latest event, one of the questions towards the end of the evening was concerning Robbie Rogers; one of the audience members asked the players for their views on the American’s decision to ‘come out’ publicly. Lorimer wasn’t specifically addressed but still chose to have his say, claiming in a very measured and deliberate way that Rogers had cynically timed his revelation to coincide with the launch of his new clothing line.
Unsurprisingly, his comments provoked a reaction of shocked expressions, shaking heads, barely stifled whispers and frantic tweeting and texting. Should a man in Lorimer’s position really be making such accusations so brazenly? While those who’d defend him would say his remarks weren’t necessarily homophobic to any degree, and some might even claim to agree with him, is it the sort of thing anyone should be stating publicly? Naive, downright stupid, callous, prejudiced…take your pick; it’s at least one of those things, perhaps all four to some.
When as part of the post-Bates recovery process, Leeds United should be marketing itself as a forward thinking, progressive club, employing dinosaurs as Lorimer to continually undermine efforts can only be counter-productive; similarly the compere for the evening (a throwback to The Comedians TV show from the 70s/80s) chose to rib Rodolph Austin about his supposedly indecipherable accent (just as he had done so with Diouf at an earlier event); while it could be deemed an over-reaction to label him a racist as he clearly had some kind of rapport with Austin, you wonder just what sort of example this man was setting to the younger members of the audience, or indeed with the players who are charged with being ambassadors for the club. It also shouldn’t pass unnoted that at the previous event, he continually teased Luke Varney with ‘gay’ jibes.
Again, it should be stressed that neither Austin nor Varney on appeared on the surface to be uncomfortable with what might’ve been construed by the parties concerned as good natured banter, but in an era where racism remains such a hot topic in football and where the Robbie Rogers story has brought into focus the issue of homophobia in the game, do the actions of host and compere, both seemingly too old to know better, undermine efforts to promote equality in the game?
Maybe this is the crux of the matter…age? One culturally ignorant dinosaur charged with hosting a fans’ evening, another putting his name to it. While the compere seemed sadly out of touch with modern attitudes, Lorimer no longer appears to have any idea of social niceties nor of the opinions those who he’s supposed to represent any more.
Surely then it’s time for a change? Now younger men have taken charge at the top, offering a fresher, more ‘in tune’ approach to the running of the club, it has to be time for those changes to permeate down a level. Dominic Matteo is still involved with the club both through local media and Yorkshire Radio; he’s a man who evidently has a profound understanding of what the fans want and expect from the team and their club and at 38 is 28 years Lorimer’s junior. As such Matteo is not only far more in touch with the social norms of present day, but also far closer in age terms to the bulk of the LUFC demographic he’d represent. Time then to sweep out all regressive ‘dead wood’ that have been indelibly associated with our lowest period?
It is important to stress that it would be wholly unfair to completely dismiss the LUFC PR machine; there are those who continue to do admirable work on behalf of the club. Both Thom Kirwin and Paul Dews are long established twitter presences for the club and both regularly engage with the fans, replying to questions as courteously and honestly as they can, while still remaining mindful of their responsibilities to the club. However, in comparison to GFH-C and Lorimer, they remain relatively low-profile. They tend not to be the ones asked to appear on the television or the local press, they aren’t typically called upon by fans for face to face interaction.
The public perception of attitudes at Leeds United stem from the words and actions of those at the top. While I’m sure GFH-C do appreciate that their own continued self-imposed period of silence does their credibility little good, if it is really unavoidable, then it’s vital that those they allow to do the talking on their behalf are fully qualified to do so. For now, this just doesn’t appear to be the case.