Leeds consider inquiry into debt crisis

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The Independent Online

Leeds United's acting chairman, Trevor Birch, yesterday promised to consider an independent inquiry into the running of the club over the last five years.

With John McKenzie stepping down as plc chairman at the annual general meeting at Elland Road, albeit remaining on the football club board as a director, Birch has now assumed overall control and a new job title. Initially appointed as chief executive, Birch will be in temporary charge until at least 19 January, the deadline agreed with creditors while a buyer is sought for the club.

Birch's appointment as a director was overwhelmingly agreed by shareholders, who voiced their anger and frustration at how the club had sunk into such a financial mess. One described the Leeds board, primarily harking back to the era under Peter Ridsdale, as "inept" and "incompetent", while another claimed they were "the laughing stock of the football world".

Such accusations prompted a suggestion that Leeds should implement an independent inquiry to discover why the club stands on the brink of administration.

"Shareholders have a right to be angry," said Birch who, it has been revealed, is the highest-paid director in the history of the club, earning £500,000 per year, although he is continuing to work without a contract. "But John came in, steadied the club and steered it through turbulent waters. The reality is the ship is still afloat. It may well have sunk if John had not implemented pretty difficult decisions in terms of taking cuts out of the business.

"In terms of an inquiry, all my efforts are concentrated on the club, and I'm not sure who would take it on and how it would be financed. But it's something to look at once Leeds United is safe. For now, we are totally geared towards saving the club."

Due to Stock Market regulations, Birch was unable to divulge to the 250-strong meeting details of the negotiations. The former deputy plc chairman Allan Leighton is believed to be favourite to take over with a consortium, although he came in for strong criticism, as did McKenzie.

Birch reassured the shareholders that the club was in contact with a number of interested parties and had entered into "a very delicate set of negotiations".

"We have to hope they are concluded within the time frame otherwise the alternative is the club falls over, but I am confident something will be done," he said.

Birch again warned Manchester United off a bid for Mark Viduka in the January transfer window. Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, watched him during Leeds' 1-1 draw at Manchester City, in which the striker scoring his second goal in two games.

"No club can say a player is not for sale," Birch added, with United understood to have made an approach for the Australia international, "but we don't want to sell anybody and we don't need to sell anybody. Selling a player for £3.5m makes no difference to the level of debt and only weakens the playing squad."

The caretaker manager, Eddie Gray, was given a standing ovation when he was introduced, and concluded the meeting in rousing fashion. "Everybody is here for one reason and that's because we love Leeds United," Gray said.

"If we all stick together then we can make this club great again because I firmly believe we should be among the élite clubs."

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