Ken Bates: Glory, glory Ken Utd

Yes, he's 73, and must have needed to give his mouth a break, but sunning himself quietly in a Monaco tax haven seemed an unlikely end to a career such as his. And so it has proved with the news last week that the former chairman of Chelsea Football Club has bought himself back into the limelight with a £10m, 50 per cent stake in struggling Leeds United. And are they grateful? 'It's like putting King Herod in charge of babysitting,' say the supporters
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The location, for the first time in many years, was not Stamford Bridge, but a hotel down the road in Chelsea Harbour. The guest list was somewhat unusually thin on glamour (unless you count ex-Chelsea players Dennis Wise and Roberto Di Matteo). Although a smattering of loyal Chelsea FC staff turned up at Ken Bates's Christmas party last month, not a single member of the current squad perching high atop the Premier League was present.

The location, for the first time in many years, was not Stamford Bridge, but a hotel down the road in Chelsea Harbour. The guest list was somewhat unusually thin on glamour (unless you count ex-Chelsea players Dennis Wise and Roberto Di Matteo). Although a smattering of loyal Chelsea FC staff turned up at Ken Bates's Christmas party last month, not a single member of the current squad perching high atop the Premier League was present.

Perhaps they weren't invited. After all, Bates had severed - or had severed for him - all ties with his beloved Chelsea 10 months before, less than a year after selling his controlling stake in the club for £17m to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. The day before the party, he was not even at the Bridge to watch Chelsea thrash Norwich 4-0. An ongoing £2m claim for constructive dismissal against the new regime at Chelsea, meanwhile, is expected to reach the High Court later this month.

But if the festive atmosphere was a little curtailed by circumstance, guests also noticed an ill-suppressed energy about their famously irascible host. The leisurely life of a retired businessman in Monaco, where he and his wife Susannah have been living as tax exiles, was not enough for the 73-year-old. This week Bates announced his purchase, for £10m, of a 50 per cent stake in beleaguered Leeds United, traditionally no friends of Chelsea, as it happens. "Ken can't bear being out of the limelight," says Labour MP and Chelsea fan Tony Banks, "so he put himself back into it."

Not that Leeds fans rushed to welcome the news. Bates's reputation as a short-tempered and highly idiosyncratic businessman elicits strong opinions. "It's like the four horsemen of the apocalypse selling to Lucifer," commented Simon Jose of the Leeds United Independent Supporters' Association. "We need a clean sweep and a fresh start. This is like putting King Herod in charge of babysitting."

His bombast is not what matters, says his friend, former Conservative MP David Mellor. "The point is, he makes a very effective leader of a football club. He is a footballing man to his fingertips. I would have advised him to have a few more drinks and enjoy his money, but he's not like that. He's a man of action. Of course he's going to do a better job at Leeds than some of the fairly useless bottom-feeders who've been in charge there recently."

Bates can be loyal too. Although he got through his fair share of managers (nine in 18 years), he was horrified by the treatment of Claudio Ranieri at the hands of the new Abramovich regime, and deplored the briefing against the Italian that went on within Stamford Bridge. "He's actually hypersensitive and very easily bruised, which is why he paints on this outer coating of brusqueness," says the Daily Express's Mick Dennis, who has seen the best and worst of Bates - and for a journalist the worst can be pretty bad - for more than 20 years. "When someone's been critical, he has a tendency to lash out at them, which can be very embarrassing to witness. But it's not his natural instinct to be rude."

Bates himself traces the roots of his famous determination, or sheer bloody-mindedness, to an exceptionally grim childhood. Indeed, his earliest years, on a council estate in Ealing, west London, verge on the bleakly Dickensian. Born with a club foot that required numerous operations, he was barely 18 months old when his mother died and his father abandoned the family. At 16, he discovered that the parents who had brought him up, scrimping and saving to pay medical bills, were, in fact, his grandparents.

It was not long before the young Ken Bates was displaying characteristic self-reliance in the pursuit of numerous business interests, and building a portfolio almost as impenetrable as that of Roman Abramovich. Large amounts of money were apparently made out of ready-mixed cement, from dairy farming, in sugar cane in Australia, and land development in South Africa. Bates is said to have bought his first Bentley at 23.

But football was his first love, and a spell as chairman of Oldham FC in the 1960s was followed by the purchase of Wigan in 1981. A year later, for just £1, Bates bought Chelsea FC, floundering dangerously close to the old Third Division, with one of the worst hooligan problems in the country and debts of £600,000. Bates bought the team but spurned the chance to buy the ground, which later required him to launch a long battle against the bulldozers. His first match as chairman drew fewer than 9,000 fans. His last, in 2003, secured a place in the European Champions' League. Yet the tenacity and self-belief that repeatedly saved Stamford Bridge from demolition - still remembered as acts of near-heroic defiance by dewy-eyed Chelsea fans - are just as often interpreted by others as mere pigheadedness and inflexibility. Bates makes enemies easily and bears venomous grudges. His business career has been no loss to the diplomatic service. In his early days at Chelsea, Bates seriously antagonised some former players and stars by refusing them the free tickets and booze they'd got used to enjoying. In 1985, when football terraces were still at their most crowded and turbulent, he wanted to erect electric fencing to keep Chelsea's fans off the pitch. At the same time, when Bates was trying to raise money to keep Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, he gauchely drew a comparison with Bob Geldof's grappling with global poverty, telling the world: "Band Aid, Live Aid, deaf aid, what matters to me is..."

Later, the virtual breakdown of relations between Bates and major investor Matthew Harding instituted a period of infighting and low morale at the club. Upon Harding's death in 1996, meanwhile, Bates made a number of wholly cheap and offensive remarks that earned him widespread censure: it's undoubtedly the case that Chelsea's reputation as a club suffered because of its former chairman.

The question Leeds fans should be asking, however, is not whether Ken Bates has a winning personality, but whether he's a sufficiently astute businessman to rescue them. Opinions differ. It's widely accepted that the complex of restaurants, bars, shops and hotel attached to Stamford Bridge, known as Chelsea Village, was a flawed concept, and that Bates's similarly grandiose plans for the new Wembley Stadium were unworkable. His leadership of the Wembley project, indeed, came to a grisly end in 2001, with Bates publicly denouncing a whole group of people involved in the rebuild. ("Even Jesus Christ only had one Pontius Pilate; I had a whole team of them.") And there was a huge slice of luck that his stewardship of the club ended with Abramovich's millions appearing on the horizon. Chelsea were in a parlous financial position at the time of the sale, with debts of £80m owed by Chelsea Village plc.

Yet the very fact that Stamford Bridge still stands in west London is testament to shrewd - if not wily - and cussed dealing on Bates's part. "You can't eradicate him from Stamford Bridge," says Tony Banks. "You just need to look around you. If it hadn't been for Ken Bates, there wouldn't have been a Mr Abramovich." Thin-skinned and much misunderstood, or plain mean with a bullying streak and a poisonous tongue, at the very least Ken Bates provokes strong reactions. It remains to be seen whether blunt-speaking Yorkshire is as indulgently amused by him as were the success-starved sophisticates of the Fulham Road.

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