In the Shadow of the Goldfish
Having lived the dream, Leeds have slowly drifted into a protracted doze
To suggest that Leeds United have kept their descent into torpor rather quiet would most likely be met with cries of derision.
Of course all the key features of a very public fall are there. For an abridged version of the last decade, try: goldfish, admin, El-Hadji Diouf. The rest of the seemingly limitless archive of public domain material for the casual haters to quote doesn't seem worth mentioning anymore.
While our dirty washing has been hanging out, the strangest thing is that the mass of fun-pokers you encounter don't see a terminal decline at Leeds and are in fact often inclined to reel out the consolations of "big fan base" and "too big to stay down" when you start complaining. It's too late: the platitudes of outsiders aren't enough to keep us convinced.
There are some glaringly mistaken but extremely common beliefs: the main two being the inevitability of a return to the top flight for Dirty Leeds and the formidable nature of a trip to Elland Road. It's time we talked.
Leeds's old ground loomed over a record eleven defeats last term. There was a 5-0, a 4-1 (all four for Nikola Zigić) and a 7-3. The season before there was a 6-4 from 4-1 up. Elland Road is quiet. Elland Road is mainly unpleasant for the home fans.
Mid-table obscurity is one of the best ways to keep mainstream interest from your door — a wall of silence masking the fact that these are dark, dark days. Remaining high up the Championship average attendance table — fourth —also proves a neat distraction for the unobservant. In the average attendance table for the Championship last season, all of the top 10 bar Birmingham and Leeds were filling 70% of their seats or more. St Andrews was respectably creeping towards two-thirds full. The South Leeds monolith was echoing to a nervous 57.9%. We got fewer than 20,000 for Everton in the Cup. More worrying still, at last count, an average of over 3,500 more fans were staying away per game than in 2010-11 — by far the biggest exodus in the league. Those doing other things with their Saturdays are probably not regretting the decision.
Most of the non-capitulation defeats last year weren't particularly hard-fought either, just grudging expectation of the worst devoid of any semblance of either creativity or fight. Oh sure, there were nine reds and 75 yellows picked up overall, putting us a lofty second in the disciplinary charts, but the majority of the faithful do see 'fight' as being a subtler thing. No, really.
Anyone we could get vaguely excited about in recent times has gone: Gradel, Howson, Delph, Beckford, and add to that last summer, Snodgrass and Clayton. The psychological knock-on effect of repeated exits is evident as each contract renewal for the diluted 'stars' still knocking around comes up. We have learnt to expect the running order of no agreement reached, player/agent officially derided as greedy, offer accepted from nowhere spectacular; often Norwich.
Players' undoubted affection for the club overshadows careerist pragmatism no more. There's just not much been going on around here to maintain interest. Of course there's suffering and selling all round outside the elites, worsened by relentless recession, but some say you have to spend your way out of one of those. It's safe to say that is not an approach Ken Bates signed up to.
Financial Fair Play offers owners like Bates a chance to preach false morality via their (loss-making) in-house media, but the club are taking fiscal responsibility into the absurd, with by a massive distance the lowest wages/turnover spend percentage in the Championship — 51% to be precise — just scraping into Uefa's suggested range of 50-70 per for the healthy club, and actually below the 60% maximum adopted by Leagues One and Two. Mid-table investment with top of the league income and expectation is a poisonous concoction.
To clarify, this is fiscal responsibility where playing staff are concerned. Elland Road, the property portfolio we don't even own, has been making progress all the time. Plans for a 350-room hotel — which spawned the ultra-sardonic 'Visit Beeston' motif from sceptical fan media — have gone somewhat quiet, but not to worry: we've got over twenty new and under-utilised executive boxes, a massive concourse to emphasise further the reduction in non-executive attendees and we'll probably have opened a museum by the time this goes to press. They were still making desperate pleas for stuff to fill it in late 2011.
And that's without mentioning the proposed casino. Considering the journey from destructive high stakes to today's absolute lack of even a tame gambler's vision when it comes to assembling a competitive playing staff, the irony is not lost here.
The truth is that a famously one-club city with a potentially massive support base is having to rely on its away following — in many cases older 'out of towners' living on reheated memories of the Revie years — to maintain the myth that Leeds can incite fear and respect when in full voice.
All this may well be seen as a treacherous breaking of a semi-official code of silence. We've kept it a secret well, but it's time to confess, to those that are still vaguely interested in what goes on at the side of the M621: the fortress is in ruins. Ironically right at the point the Chelsea Village of the North™ is taking fine shape.
If you're building facilities, you tend to need some folk to use them. That might be tricky here. The fanbase is mirroring the flab of the ageing nation and any discernible marketing strategy to attract new blood to keep the elders' dander up under the Bates regime seems to involve making the club nigh-on invisible: personal court appearances overshadowing club business, scant ticket offers and up until recently not even allowing high street sports stores to stock the shirt.
It comes as no surprise then that the colours of the Premier League hegemony float about Leeds these days as if the city has no team representing it. In essence, Bates has exploited the 'Leeds mentality' on this one — the idea that we don't need to reach out for fans, we are Leeds, no explanation needed for those who haven't heard the legend.
In a sense, the appointment of Neil Warnock can be seen as the last throw of a dying big beast. The gnarled antihero has been hand-picking cheap potential from even more desperate and budgetary-restricted outfits this summer, as the fans cling to the hope that he maintains his reputation of making warriors from cast-offs. The fear is, after having Tony Fernandes's wallet to play with of late, he may have forgotten how.
It's lucky then, that our Arab white knights have ridden in. Or have they? The idea that GFH Capital could be merely a cipher, with Bates still pulling the strings may sound like garbled conspiracy, but this sort of thinking has become the norm in the last eight years, and this writer is as sure as everyone else: not at all.
This piece was supposed to be entirely about the dark clouds hanging over Elland Road these days. But Leeds United, as contrary as ever, have gone and led us to believe again in possibilities of silver linings, albeit the shine increasingly scuffed by conjecture and social media. Message-board rumours in the early weeks of summer that Bates was on his way out slowly and painfully became real people talking to the BBC about a 'bright future' and suchlike, in the depths of December. The suggestion that the parent company, Gulf Finance House is considered at risk of insolvency by KPMG was initially considered nothing to worry about, so sure was everyone that our new-found public faces were just that — smiling brokers for serious investment geared toward enabling the fêted return to the glory, glory that timeworn song talks about.
Under long-term mists of despair lie fertile breeding grounds for delusion. And these latest assumptions, apparently, are false. GFH are going it alone, and right now we're struggling to see change: channelling the cup specialisms of 2003 Sheffield United (by assembling a good number of their personnel) hasn't masked continued intrigues, vague communications, a transfer request from our top scorer, and most pertinent of all, fairly dire league form.
So as we did all summer, we wait once more for something more tangible than occasional raised-games in knock-out competitions. Time will be offered to those in charge, but not much. The Bates Out banners are still hanging, quietly. The self-declared internet experts and insiders look less 'in the know' than ever. This famously forthright set of fans reduced to desperate, passive sitting around, idly speculating as if we really have a stake in things. We should have learnt better.