The football accountant versus the lifelong fan

Chief executive emerges as rival to wealthy Bahraini in race to save Yorkshire club
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The Independent Football

The key figures apparently at the heart of the battle for Leeds United's future are a man who gave up professional football to become an insolvency practitioner and a Bahraini sheikh hoping to transform a practically insolvent business back into something resembling a football club.

Whether it is Leeds' chief executive, Trevor Birch, or Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Mubarak Al-Khalifa who "wins" will become clearer in the next few days. Do not expect their scrap to make any sense. Logic has gone out of the window in this saga.

The victor is likely to pay a heavy price. If Birch manages to achieve his reported aim of taking the club into administration to free it from the burden of its £78m debts, he will effectively make himself redundant. Control will move out of Birch's hands and into those of the administrator, whose job will be to sell the club and its assets for the highest price possible for the creditors' benefit.

If the sheikh orchestrates an unlikely takeover as the front man for a Middle East consortium, it seems Birch, reportedly a foe, would be on his way out anyway.

Yet if the sheikh does manage to wrest control for himself and his backers and stave off administration, it will effectively cost them more than £100m. The simple purchase of the club's shares and assets would be possible for less than £20m but the buyers would also assume £80m of debt and would need further cash for players.

Though the sheikh is reputedly a long-standing Leeds fan, there has been no suggestion either that he is prepared to invest this kind of money or that his backers - presumably not Leeds fans - would do it for fun. And with virtually no prospect of money to be made, why would any neutral investors want to pay such sums?

Such questions only add to the confusion caused by the sheikh in recent days. Last Saturday he was quoted as being interested in a takeover. Next he told a Bahraini newspaper that that was "complete nonsense". But yesterday he issued a statement to the Stock Exchange saying he was exploring options to assist Leeds that may or may not lead to a bid offer. "Frankly, that was a bollocks statement that meant nothing," one City source said, summing up frustrations about what precisely the sheikh is planning to do. Sources close to Leeds added that the club had still been made no offer of any kind for control of the club.

Birch has maintained a low public profile since starting work at Elland Road on 1 November following his move from Chelsea. His main dilemma has been to decide whether his new club can survive without going into administration or whether that option is actually more beneficial. He is unlikely to be swayed by emotion. He gave up a football career that began with a dream move to Liverpool under Bill Shankly to become a chartered accountant at 23. He later swapped the comforts of a partnership at Ernst & Young for a role as trouble-shooter at troubled pre-Abramovich Chelsea. And he did not baulk at moving to Elland Road despite knowing the scale of Leeds' problems.

If he has decided the best course of action for the club is administration, it will be because he knows there will be interest in a club largely free of its current debts.

Logic would suggest that then would be the time for the sheikh to invest, at a lower price and with less debt. But the sheikh, who is in his 40s, is apparently begging to differ. He is certainly rich, being a member of the Bahraini Royal Family. He is also an independently wealthy businessman, according to sources in Bahrain. And he also has some rich and powerful friends with huge interests in sport, not least Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa, the chairman of Bahrain's new international Grand Prix circuit, who is believed to be uninterested in the Leeds venture.

It might yet transpire that Al-Khalifa, an ally of Leeds' deputy chairman, Allan Leighton, is simply playing for time, with Leighton planning his own post-administration buyout. For that to happen, Leighton would need to stand down from his position so as to avoid a conflict of interest.

Alternative bidders in any battle for control are likely to include a fans' consortium, who want to see Leeds become a community-owned club run for the benefit of supporters. The obvious problem for them would be raising enough finance to convince an administrator that they were a better bet than Leighton - or anyone else.

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