Abrasive Bates leaves Leeds fans in the dark

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The Independent Online

As Ken Bates took his public bow as the new chairman and co-owner of Leeds United yesterday, he invoked Cilla Black's famous catchphrase to tell the ailing club's fans: "We're gonna have a lorra lorra laughs." On the evidence of a combative, tetchy and thoroughly unenlightening press conference, his reign threatens to be about as amusing as a punch in the face.

As Ken Bates took his public bow as the new chairman and co-owner of Leeds United yesterday, he invoked Cilla Black's famous catchphrase to tell the ailing club's fans: "We're gonna have a lorra lorra laughs." On the evidence of a combative, tetchy and thoroughly unenlightening press conference, his reign threatens to be about as amusing as a punch in the face.

"Get out, I don't want you flashing in my face," he barked at photographers. Flapping open his jacket in mock "dirty old man" fashion, he added that he was the only person who could flash around here. "If you carry on, I'll walk out," he said to one questioner, who had the temerity to query the logic behind his investment in Leeds.

"It's simple really, I just won't deal with you," he told the gathered press, explaining what would happen to any detractors considering coverage of him or Leeds that he deems unfairly negative. And that, in short, was the tone of the afternoon. Less than a year after the 73-year-old former Chelsea owner departed Stamford Bridge, having sold a financially-crippled business to saviour Roman Abramovich, he was back in the football business, and as abrasive and evasive as ever.

Bates, who bought 50 per cent of Leeds last week for an undisclosed sum believed to be £10m at most, refused to disclose who now owns the other half. He said his refusal was for financially sensitive reasons.

Such a stance comes as no surprise. The ownership structure of Chelsea was similarly never declared. Indeed, an inquiry by the City's financial regulatory body is still ongoing to ascertain who exactly owned Chelsea in the run-up to the sale to Abramovich.

Bates also refused to give any information whatsoever about his financial input at Elland Road. It has been assumed he paid around £10m for half the club but it might have been less.

Bates did admit that he was still on the lookout for investors, but provided no figures on his own input, or about funds available for players, if any. "We intend giving no commercial information to our competitors," he said. With Leeds now a private company, there is no requirement for financial transparency. If a plan due to be outlined last night at a Fans' Forum is any indication, it seems supporters will be asked to provide money to safeguard the club's future.

Bates is proposing a scheme whereby they buy the pitch at Elland Road, and even the rights to the club's name, and then lease them back to the club for peppercorn rent in 199-year deals. Quite how this will work in practice is not known. Bates declined to tell the press. A similar scheme in his early days at Chelsea was not a success.

On the subject of sales and lease-backs, Bates reaffirmed his intention to buy back Elland Road and the Thorp Arch training complex "in the fullness of time". Both properties were recently sold for around £13m combined to alleviate debt and it is understood there is a fixed buy-back price of £17.7m.

In the meantime, Leeds will pay more than £1m a year rent for their ground. Arguably the most surprising claim of the day was Bates's assertion that Leeds' debts had been "to an extent overstated". He said the debts, which stood at more than £100m a year ago, were now £17m. Of that, he said £4.4m was owed to the outgoing board, and another £3.5m was scheduled to be paid in manageable stages to the tax authorities.

"There is not a great deal of debt," Bates said. Naturally he would not discuss outstanding liabilities, if any, to the bondholders who lent Leeds £60m during the Peter Ridsdale era.

As recently as September, Leeds' books showed that tens of millions could still be due if Leeds return to the Premiership, with an instant £5m due on promotion for starters.

One item that was allowed on the agenda yesterday was manager Kevin Blackwell's future. Bates denied he had considered hiring Dennis Wise and said Blackwell had his "unqualified support", and even his phone numbers. Blackwell will not be forced to sell players, Bates said. Not surprisingly, he gave no details about who might come in, or when.

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