Leeds United was on Wednesday sold back to former Chairman Ken Bates. With debts of £35 million, including £7.7m in unpaid taxes, Ken Bates had put Leeds United in administration on 4 May 2007, before the end of the last season. With relegation to the third tier of English football almost a certainty, the 10-point deduction imposed for entering administration was incurred last season, thus confirming the relegation, but enabling the club to start the new season with a clean slate.
The sale to Mr Bates has gone ahead despite a challenge in the English High Court last week by Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue (HMRC), the tax department in the United Kingdom. HMRC was dissatisfied with Mr Bates’ proposal to pay unsecured creditors (including HMRC) 8 pence for every pound of debt.
It was only 6 years ago that Leeds United was playing in the semi-finals of the Champions League, and 15 years ago that the club was English champions, having won the old Football League Division One the season before the English Premier League started in 1992. The club finished in the top five in the EPL in each of the five seasons from 1998 to 2002, finishing third in 2000, as well as reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup that season. However, under then Chairman, Peter Ridsdale, the club had borrowed £60 million pounds to finance its progress on the field, and repaying the loan required revenue from qualifying for the Champions League each season, which the club failed to do from 2002 onwards. By the time Mr Ridsdale left the club in March 2003, it was £103 million in debt.
Next season will be the first time that Leeds United will play outside of the top two tiers in English football since it joined the professional league in 1920. The relegation of Leeds United to the third tier of English football also means that there will be no West Yorkshire side in the top two tiers of English football for the first time since 1903.
Another Yorkshire side bearing the name “United” relegated last season, and recently linked with court proceedings, are Sheffield United. Any hope Sheffield United had of being reinstated to the EPL at the expense of another “United”, West Ham United disappeared with the ruling last week by an arbitration panel that the decision by the EPL not to dock points from West Ham over the Carlos Tevez affair could not be impeached, despite the club’s appeal to the English High Court scheduled for hearing this Friday. With the relegation of Sheffield United, next season, for the seventh time in the eight seasons since 2000-01, there will be no South Yorkshire side in the EPL, and, for the third time in four seasons, there will be no Yorkshire side at all in the EPL. Further, no Yorkshire side has won a major trophy since the inception of the EPL in 1992.
In contrast, with West Ham United staying up, London will have five clubs in the EPL next season. In fact, London has had five or more clubs in the EPL every season since the start in 1992.
One obvious factor in the capacity of London to sustain five or more clubs in the EPL (and now 13 clubs in all of the EPL, Championship and Football League) is that it has a much larger population than the six metropolitan counties (which between them are the 7 largest metropolitan areas in England).
However, as a percentage of the population, far fewer people regularly attended football matches in London in 2006-07 (4.1%) as compared to South Yorkshire (6.2%). If the fact that Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham regularly attract fans from neighbouring counties in the south-east of England were taken into account, the ratio for London would be even lower. The low ratio in London is not surprising, as the cosmopolitan city provides many alternative forms of entertainment for its population other than football.
In 2006-07, only Tyne & Wear (7.3%) and Greater Manchester (6.9%) had higher ratios than South Yorkshire. While the high ratio for Greater Manchester is brought about mainly by Manchester United’s average home attendance of 75,826, many of whom travel to Old Trafford from outside the Greater Manchester area, the 7.3% ratio for Tyne & Wear appears to confirm what is often said about the region – that is a football hotbed (although Newcastle United in particular attracts many fans from the north-east of England outside of Tyne & Wear).
On the other hand, the remarkably low ratio of 2.0% for West Yorkshire has as much to do with the decline of Leeds United as the fact that rugby league is traditionally very popular in the area, itself attracting large crowds to matches.
However, the popularity of rugby league in West Yorkshire did not stand in the way of Leeds United in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the club was the dominant force in English football (also reaching the European Cup final in 1975, which it unluckily lost to Bayern Munich).
While several clubs in London, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Tyne & Wear have attracted wealthy investors recently, ready to spend tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds to buy a club in these metropolitan areas or to finance the club in signing expensive players or upgrading facilities, Yorkshire clubs have attracted nowhere near the same degree of interest.
The hard times that have befallen Leeds United must have been seen by many potential investors as a deterrence rather than an opportunity, leaving the way open for Mr Bates (who in 1982 bought Chelsea, a club then in serious financial trouble and struggling in the second tier of English football, for £1 before selling that club to Roman Abramovich in 2003 at a profit of £17 million) to buy back the club with a greatly reduced debt burden, despite opposition from HMRC, as rival bids did not satisfy the administrators.
As for the two Sheffield clubs, they do not appear between them to have a major selling point, whether in terms of a successful era or high profile players within living memory, a great reputation for loyal and passionate supporters or a large catchment area population. Apart from Sheffield Wednesday’s League Cup triumph in 1991, no South Yorkshire club has won a major title or trophy since World War 2!
It is hard to see Leeds United, which has been in severe decline, or the Sheffield clubs, which attract little or no attention or support outside of South Yorkshire, returning to winning major titles or trophies any time in the near future, without major investment. Yet all it may take is a wealthy investor to see the potential in one of these clubs, to turn that club around.