“Nothing comes easy” is a mantra fans of most clubs would like to adopt as their own. But there is something about Leeds United FC that suggests they have to pay a singularly high price for whatever success comes their way.
The glory days of Don Revie were marked as much by the pain of near misses as the joy of success, while the vintage served up by Howard Wilkinson’s side in the early 1990s could only be sipped after eight traumatic years in the second division.
Now, having endured nearly eight years of austerity under Ken Bates, the price paid for the excesses of the Ridsdale era at the turn of the millennium, the promise of new investment has tortured fans since June. And, four months since contact was first initiated, Dubai-based investment bank GFH Capital appear no nearer to depositing the required £50 million into the owner’s Monaco bank account.
For the Dubai Whites, the 100-plus-member supporters club in the United Arab Emirates, the prospect of a Gulf takeover is certainly appealing but, with few signs that a deal will be concluded any time soon, optimism is starting to fade – not least as questions have emerged about the financial viability of the banks’s parent, Gulf Finance House of Bahrain.
“In this part of the world there are a lot of people pretending to be wealthier than they are – many of them leveraged to the hilt,” says Dubai Whites vice-chairman Simon Green. “[GFH’s plan] is similar to the one Ridsdale used: spend heavily up front, and hope the team delivers. This is manageable if you have access to significant cash reserves, but we’ve seen how it works if you overstretch with borrowing.
“But I think GFH’s business model is simple; to make Leeds a more valuable asset, they need promotion to the Premier League. To get to the Premier League they understand that they need to first invest in players… Leeds has the infrastructure, history and support to be a top-six Premier League team.”
“There appears little doubt GFH want us promoted sooner rather than later,” echoes Pete Mackewicz. “GFH, or individuals within it, have the club at heart but are also keen to profit from the takeover… and a push to the top of the Championship will require additional on-field resources.”
Lee Cousens, though, is more cautious, reflecting a growing unease about the means and the motives of the potential new owners. “The reports do seem to indicate a lack of funds,” he says, “thus leading to us struggling in the transfer market again. A club the size of ours, and with a fan base like ours, deserves better.
“I agree Bates needs to go, but will it be a case of ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ with GFH?”
GFH’s ability to finance this deal is certainly coming under increasing scrutiny, notably in a damning article from Reuters that cited heavy losses and a number of incomplete development projects. But most of the Dubai Whites assume that the necessary funds are already in place. Pete Mackewicz even has “a sneaking suspicion that there is one (or several) big hitting backers” lining up behind the bid.
That said, the drip-feeding of information, much of it negative, has impacted expectations. Initial hopes of a second Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the man who bankrolled Manchester City’s title triumph last season, have now been reduced to the acceptance of anyone who can hasten the departure of the ever-unpopular Bates.
“I think it’s fair to say that no Leeds fan wants to see the club spend beyond its means and end up back in League One or in Portsmouth’s situation,” says Dan Galley, secretary of the Dubai Whites. “Nor do I think we really want a billionaire where the sense of achievement could be overshadowed. What we want is an owner who matches our ambitions as fans and invests an adequate percentage of the club’s turnover into the team.”
It’s perhaps little surprise, then, that many of the fans would actually be happy for other potential investors to come forward – even if that meant extending an already protracted process.
“As supporters and stakeholders, we should want what is the best for the long term future of our club,” Galley says. “Should another investor be interested who has the power and knowledge to serve our club better then I think they should be given the opportunity to stake a claim, even if it delayed the process.”
It’s clear, though, that a further three, four or even 12 months of negotiations is an unpalatable prospect, especially with the accompanying information black hole – thanks to confidentiality clauses – and endless social media in-fighting among fans.
GFH Capital and their Leeds-born deputy chairman David Haigh began this process as saviours. While the Dubai Whites, the fans on their doorstep, remain cautiously optimistic of the new dawn they could usher in, it seems some of the goodwill has already been squandered.
Ultimately, as Lee Cousens says, they support a football team, not a boardroom.
“It’s the results on the pitch that count to most fans,” he says. “When we win, which we seem to have done a bit this season, we quickly forget the takeover news. If the deal collapses tomorrow and Bates is chairman for another seven years, we’ll still be Leeds United. And he can’t take that away from us.”
The Dubai Whites gather for live games in the Goodfellas pub in the Ramee Rose Hotel, Tecom, Dubai. For more information, contact: Dubaiwhites@gmail.com