A Happy Anniversary

Last updated : 20 January 2006 By PAUL DEWS (INSIDE ELLAND ROAD)
The visit of Sheffield Wednesday marks Bates' first year in charge and the Leeds United of today is very different one from the one inherited 12 months ago.

When he smuggled his way into a solicitor's office in Leeds city centre in the early hours of January 21 last year he was in the final throes of completing the deal to save a club which was clinging on for dear life.

Debts had been drastically reduced by the outgoing board, but cash flow was non-existent, creditors were getting itchy feet, and a winding up order lay in an envelope in a Sussex tax office waiting to be posted.

Bates duly sealed the deal to take over ownership of United. There were no fanfares, no false promises, and, indeed, very little time to look through the financial accounts of a club that was on its uppers.

Other parties had done all the above yet either couldn't find the cash to make a takeover viable or simply didn't have the finances at all. As Bates said: "Leeds were in the **** and didn't have a way out."

A little over 12 hours after completing the deal, he emerged at Elland Road for a media briefing, accompanied by his determined partner Suzannah.

During that hour-long press conference, the new chairman chastised a photographer for taking too many pictures, told one journalist they or their newspaper wouldn't be welcome at Elland Road, and snapped at another for asking different variants of the same question on three occasions.

It was brusque and breezy but, tellingly, the sparky Bates, clearly rejuvenated and with a twinkle in his eye, didn't make one promise.

He alluded to the fact that costs would have to be passed on to supporters – hence the matchday increases – and talked about his vision for a Members Club.

He talked about the business and making it cost effective. And he gave his backing to the manager. There were no promises of promotion or substantial cash injections, and there were no firm guarantees over buying back the ground or the training facility.

European football, for those that still clung to the past, wasn't even mentioned. It was a challenge, he conceded. Yet the cynics suggested it was an opportunity for him to make a quick buck by swiftly selling the club on.

Quite how a club that only had its name remaining would have been an investment at that time is still open to question. Now? Maybe. But then? No way.

Twelve months down the line, Leeds United, under Bates, have moved on from being a laughing stock to a club that is being taken seriously again.

Efficient Cash saved in other areas has been re-invested in the team and Kevin Blackwell – yes, he's still here and he's still got his chairman's backing much to the disappointment of those who said it was only a matter of time before the axe was wielded – was given the tools to build a side which could compete and challenge in the Coca-Cola Championship.

And, for the first time in years those deals for players were done cost effectively and on the quiet. There's been no singing or dancing, just quiet, efficient progress.

Money has been invested into the ground, the Members Club – however unpopular with certain sections of the support – has been driven forward by

Bates and, from the outside at least, United is now a well structured business that is holding its own and maybe even punching above its weight. Matchday prices have risen for the first time in years – much to the chagrin of many fans, some of whom have stayed away because they simply can't afford it while for others it's provided a handy excuse – but Bates has remained true to the words he uttered when he first arrived.

No-one can say they weren't warned, even if they aren't happy. Leeds, a club that was shopping in soccer's equivalent of Poundstretcher and had no tangible assets, has taken huge strides forward.

The future may have been blue for Bates during his Chelsea days, but that future is all white now. The chairman will soon have his own apartment in Leeds city centre and intends to strengthen his ties with his adopted home.

There was a lot of cynicism in the air when Bates first emerged. Understandably. Why would a man seen as Chelsea through and through want to buy Leeds? Why would a citizen of the tax haven Monaco want to spend his winter afternoons in the frozen north? The whys are endless.

But Bates came in and went where others either feared to or couldn't go. And for that alone he deserves great credit. He has turned a floundering business into a viable company and maybe, just maybe, he has answered all those questions.

Anyone could have done that some will cry, and sadly a minority still do – this is Leeds United after all – but I don't remember a queue of genuine investors waiting outside the boardroom to save the club.

Bates might not be everyone's cup of tea, but surely even the most ardent doubter must agree that Leeds United is far healthier than it was this time last year.

Ironically, Bates could have been sitting in the visiting directors seats tomorrow had his interest in Sheffield Wednesday turned into reality. If it had one can only wonder where Leeds would be now, but it's a surefire bet the club wouldn't be in the position it is now.

We'll forgive the Owls fans for not raising an anniversary glass to the Leeds chairman, but Leeds fans might offer up a grateful toast. paul.dews@ypn.co.uk