Ken Bates: Lunch with the Leeds chairman, and it really is a blast...
The Brian Viner Interview: Age has not mellowed him. From Ferguson to Abramovich, he directs his notorious ire at the football elite past and present, and a former prime minister
Friday 10 September 2010
Sitting with Ken Bates, at his usual table outside the Cafe de Paris in Monte Carlo – "this is my office," he says – is something of an education. In half an hour the Leeds United chairman, very happy to be an expatriate on account of everything that is wrong with Britain and right with Monaco, offers me the potted life histories of four passers-by, points out Turkey's richest man, recounts his last exchange with the retail magnate Sir Philip Green (who was shabbily dressed, so Bates quipped that he'd clearly been shopping in his own stores), lambasts the late Chelsea striker Peter Osgood, flirts with a toddler peering over her mum's shoulder, and earns the devotion of a pretty waitress by pressing an extravagant tip into her hand. Through all this, his charming wife Susannah and I scarcely get a word in edgeways. Undiminished at 78, Bates didn't get where he is today without exerting his forceful personality.
We move on to a swanky hotel, where he is well-known by the staff, and well-liked, doubtless thanks to his tipping policy. He has booked a table for lunch, at which he sits alongside Susannah. He commands me to sit opposite her, so that she won't feel left out of the conversation, and later, when she briefly leaves the table, he half-rises, another display of old-fashioned gallantry which seems at odds with his enthusiastic effing, blinding and occasional C-ing. "Please don't use that word," says Susannah, gently. It is a futile protest.
Bates operates according to his own rules, and hang those who do not like them. That's how he made his millions, initially in ready-mix concrete, and how he runs football clubs. He has been owner or chairman of Oldham Athletic, Wigan Athletic, Partick Thistle, Chelsea and now Leeds United, although there remains some uncertainty about who exactly owns Leeds. It appears to be the Forward Sports Fund, registered in the Cayman Islands, but when I invite him to explain who this organisation comprises, he picks up my tape recorder and threatens to throw it into the sea. "Don't sour a nice lunch," he snaps. "We have complied with Football League regulations, it's all on the website, and there it is." I venture a supplementary question. "I've just said I'm not going to elaborate, so don't push it. Better men than you have failed."
"Lesser," murmurs Susannah, sweetly. "Lesser men."
We move on to the slightly less contentious issue of his managers. Kevin Blackwell was in charge at Leeds when Bates took over in January 2005, and lasted until September 2006. Blackwell was followed by Dennis Wise, then Gary McAllister, who was sacked, though the chairman considers him "a very honourable guy". He pauses to order an expensive bottle of Sancerre, and to kid the waiter that I am actually an inspector with Relais & Chateaux and that I think the service is crap. "Great players who become managers, and Gary was a great player, have problems adjusting to players not as good as them. 'I could do it, why the bloody hell can't you?' I had that at Oldham with Jimmy McIlroy, and I had it with [Glenn] Hoddle at Chelsea."
The incumbent, Simon Grayson, is by general acclaim one of the finer managers outside the Premier League; indeed, I express some surprise that he was not in the frame for the Aston Villa job. "Well, Simon was approached by Burnley last season. They offered him a lot more money than we could afford to pay him, but he said no. He wanted to finish the job he'd come to Leeds to do. But loyalty is a two-way thing. I'm loyal to my managers until they can't or don't deliver. Unfortunately, Dennis and [his assistant] Gus Poyet thought the grass was greener elsewhere. It wasn't. Dennis's time at Newcastle was a complete disaster. And I heard about Poyet leaving on Sky Sports News. Then he wanted to come back as manager. No fucking chance. Nobody lets me down twice."
Grayson, meanwhile, has taken Leeds back into the Championship, where they currently lie sixth. The present and future are manifestly looking brighter than they have for some time at Elland Road, and no fewer than 11 new players were brought in this summer (albeit not at much expense), yet several Leeds fans of my acquaintance tell me that there is more than a little disgruntlement with Bates, not least because of hikes in ticket prices.
He snorts with derision when I raise this. "It's the same at every club. They all want their club to buy Ronaldo and let them in for fucking free. Listen, [Peter] Ridsdale bust the club, and the guys who took over then sold the assets. We pay £2m in rent, which goes up 3 per cent a year, to play football at Elland Road. That works out at £7 per ticket per game. Then there's the rates bill, which is horrendous. The police charges are horrendous. People say, what about that money you got for [Fabian] Delph? Well, what about the wage bill? What about the £2m we've spent to maintain the bloody ground because it's falling apart? In fact, we've spent nearly £10m since we took over."
Irritation flushes his cheeks. "People say 'Let kids in for free'. Why should we let kids in for free? One woman asked me to do a deal for students. She said her son can't afford to come. Then get a bloody job. The disabled get a helper in for free if they pay for a full-price ticket, which means they both get in at half-price. I'm not being funny but if you've got a bad back, do you need a helper? We asked them to come in to prove they're disabled, and some of them did a runner, which isn't bad if you're disabled." A bellow of laughter; I suspect that nobody amuses Ken quite as much as Ken. "The worst scroungers," he continues, "are those who can afford to pay, and that includes pop stars. There's no such thing as a complimentary ticket; it's just paid for by someone else." At least he doesn't have a problem at Leeds with ex-players demanding freebies, which was one of the banes of his life at Chelsea (a cue for Osgood to get another dishonourable mention). Most clubs, he thinks, are far too indulgent. "All over England you find Mr Bigs throwing tickets round for free. As soon as a clever businessman goes in the boardroom door, his brains go out the window. But if you give away free tickets, you're being generous with the money of the guy who stands behind the goal and can't afford to go on holiday. When I was chairman at Wembley [for a time he chaired the Football Association company charged with redeveloping the stadium] we had Tony Blair as guest of honour. That meant an invitation for him and his wife. But we got a request for five tickets, all in the front row. I told them to fuck off."
The biggest of football's Mr Bigs, if only in terms of financial means, is of course the Manchester City owner, Sheikh Mansour. Does Bates despair at the economic lunacy being perpetrated in order to give a very rich man what he wants? "No. It goes in cycles. [Roman] Abramovich [to whom Bates sold Chelsea in 2003, reportedly making a £17m profit] is cutting back, isn't he? And at the end of the day, there's no achievement. If Man City do the treble this year, big bloody deal. So what. What have they achieved? Fuck all."
Yes, but the record books in 50 years' time will still show a City treble. "Yes, and it will still have no value. Let me tell you a story. The moment my relationship with Mr Abramovich's entourage went wrong was in August 2003, when [Abramovich's adviser] Eugene Tenenbaum said to me, 'When are we going to make a profit?' I burst out laughing. I said, 'You've just put £20m on the cost structure, and you've done it without speaking to the chairman', as I then was. I would have been a good chairman for Abramovich. I bought them in 1982 [reportedly for £1] when they were bloody bankrupt, and for 10 years from 1994 we played in four FA cup finals, won two of them, won the League Cup, the Cup-Winners' Cup, got to the quarter-final of the Champions League, all on the smell of an oily rag. Now that's an achievement. I genuinely thought when Abramovich bought the club that he would use his money to accelerate down the road I was already on. Instead he went mad. I said to them, 'Man United must be laughing their fucking socks off. [Juan Sebastian] Veron and [Peter] Kenyon... they've sold you two lemons in three weeks.'"
If Bates had known before he signed Chelsea over to Abramovich what he knows now, would he still have done the deal? "I couldn't possibly answer that question over a lengthy alcoholic lunch without due notice." But with the benefit of hindsight, I suspect he might have done things differently. "Look at Alex Ferguson. Not a very likeable person but you have to admire what he's done without any external funding. Look at Arsène Wenger. I dislike him immensely, and it was me who nicknamed him 'Arsehole Whinger', but again, look at what he's done. He has a fantastic scouting system, his teams play exciting football..."
Another pause, to order another bottle of Sancerre and rib the waiter again. "People talk about Arsenal's debt, but you have to distinguish between debts against assets, and debts against waste. Ridsdale borrowed millions and pissed it up against the wall on players. Nothing to show for it. Arsenal have £300m of debt but that's against property. When I left, Chelsea had £90m of debts, but they had assets. At Leeds, I'm building the castle on stone, not sand. What you have to do in football is generate business that doesn't depend on that 25-year-old pillock who misses an open goal in the 89th minute. You use the supporter base but generate non-football business: weddings, conferences, bar mitzvahs. I preached that at Chelsea and they all took the piss, now they're all copying me."
What nobody has copied is the notorious Bates programme notes. At Chelsea, and now at Leeds, he shamelessly uses his chairman's page to peddle a decidedly right-wing (he chuckles when I say Thatcherite) view of the world. Take this example, from the Leeds v MK Dons game shortly before the general election: "You could, as I have been urged to do, vote for the Icelandic Volcano Party. After all, they have done more to stop immigration in the last seven days than Labour has for 13 years." And that in the city that returned Denis Healey to Parliament for many years.
But Bates insists that supporters love his programme notes. "When I stopped writing them at Chelsea, programme sales fell by 10 per cent. At Leeds, it's the first page people turn to. The media call me controversial because I talk straight. They slag me off from their ivory towers." He names the journalists he considers the worst miscreants. "Sports writer of the year, what does that mean? A load of plonkers voted him the least worst of the rest of them." He asks why [Premier League chairman] Dave Richards got a knighthood. "For the bloody work he's done for the NSPCC over 40 years, that's what. What have they ever done for charity, these slaggers-off? What have they ever achieved? I woke up at two o'clock last night and what did I do? I redesigned the East Stand."
Unarguably, Bates has wrought considerable improvements in the infrastructure at Elland Road, and despite embracing the Leeds cause so late in life, maintains that nobody values the heritage of the club more than he does. "Howard Wilkinson is the second-most successful manager in Leeds' history, yet there was nothing there in his name, not a thing. So we opened a pub called Howard's Way, and now we're opening a new restaurant called Howard's. It opens this Saturday, and he will be our honoured guest."
I have an irresistible question: what happens if Wilkinson wants to bring along the rest of his family for a free dinner? "Then he can fuck off." This time, Susannah and I laugh heartily too. It has certainly been an entertaining three hours, my lunch with Mr and Mrs Bates, and it ends on an interesting note. He normally charges for interviews, he tells me, but this time he will waive his fee, as long as I pick up the (€296) bill. Inwardly, and possibly outwardly too, I quail. I would normally expect to buy lunch for an interviewee, but he has invited Susannah, he has chosen the venue, he has ordered – and reordered – the wine, and I have assumed all along that his largesse with the staff would extend to the very substantial tab. It is only as I walk back to Monte Carlo's station that I realise what a stupid assumption this was. A free lunch? For a hack? You must be bloody joking.
Bates on Ferguson and Wenger
"Ferguson's not very likeable, and I dislike Wenger immensely, but you have to admire what they've done".
Bates on Manchester City
"If City do the treble this year, it will have no value. What will they have achieved?".
Bates on the Blairs
"Free tickets? They cost the fans who can't afford holidays. When Tony Blair and his wife were guests of honour at Wembley, we got a request for five free tickets!".
Bates on Abramovich
"When Abramovich bought the club he went mad. I said to them, 'Man United must be laughing their socks off. Veron and Kenyon... they've sold you two lemons in three weeks'".
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