Issue The blank space

As told by Michael Wood

Last week we saw freedom of speech taken to an extreme and it is it is an odd week where people are asking each other “did you see Question Time last night?”

Nevertheless the rights and wrongs of politics aside we can – on the whole – agree that free speech is to be welcomed and that attempts to stop someone saying something because you do not like what they are saying is not.

So there is something worrying in the news that David Conn and the newspaper he writes for The Guardian are no longer welcome at Elland Road because of Conn’s revealing articles about the ownership of the club who went down 2-1 to Millwall.

Conn’s writing had untangled a web of financial strands around the Leeds United chairman Ken Bates and the administration they went through which he emerged as owner of a debt free club following. The complexities are near mind boggling and commenting on them directly would be a presumption that I understood the detail but one thing becomes very clear when looking at stories of Cayman Islands-registered Forward Sports Fund and Guernsey accountants that the world of Leeds United administration is very different to that of Bradford City’s.

Likewise Bradford City’s two administrations were different from each other and both were different to Leicester City’s infamous debt shuffle which is a million miles away from what happened to AFC Bournemouth which was nothing like the Rotherham United into and out while still spending money which could never be afforded at Darlington.

Every administration is different, has different causes, ends in different results. When Bradford City struggled to stay afloat it was said at a supporters fund raiser that it might take the Bantams twenty years to recover from the woes but recover we would. I am of the belief that that statement was in essence true and that last season’s finishing a place higher than the previous season was a significant – if slight – sign of that recovery.

Other administrations see clubs like Rotherham United pleading poverty one year and then the next making offers to players like Nicky Law Jnr and Adam le Fondre whose former chairman Chris Dunphy has a thing or two to say about good governance in the game but oddly allowed a club that did seek protection from creditors to take le Fondre for an “undisclosed fee“. The people who had debts written off in South Yorkshire would probably be keen to know how much cash The Millers were able to find this year that was not there last.

The ownership of Leeds United is unclear but Conn’s articles would seem to suggest that the ownership is structured in a way that preferred Bates in the process and thus is not only illegal but would also be against the promises made by Bates and Leeds to the Football League. The punishments for the legal side of things – should Conn be accurate – one can only guess at and the football sanctions are rumoured to be as stiff as given out to any club in my memory with the Elland Road side facing a two division relegation should it be found that Conn’s conclusions are accurate.

The reaction of Bates to these allegations is troubling for Leeds United supporters as he attempts – one assumes – to give a lesson to those journalists who would dig too deep into his dealings that they will no longer be allowed to carry coverage on his team. Leeds are big business and newspapers – especially regional newspapers who struggle to keep going – can hardly afford to upset the local football side and Bates is infamous for enforcing a hegemony in the local media.

Of course Bates has a right to allow whomever he wants into Elland Road – as Conn attests he owns the League One club – but one doubts that will assuage any worries Leeds United supporters might have at the thought of getting promoted this year only to step backwards and be forced to find a new owner during a financial crisis. They would do well to follow the example of the Liverpool supporters who demand answers from their owners rather than doing as the Notts County fans do as some happily ignore things off the field and the muddiness of that club’s ownership.

Every administration is different, this is a point that is maybe lost on some, but in footballs age of rapid change of ownership the constant which is bought and sold is the good will of supporters. In our administration that was manifested by the half a million pounds raised because there was no other money to keep the club going but in but other clubs cases less scrupulous people – yes less scrupulous even than Gordon Gibb – have become involved and as a result supporters have suffered.

So The Guardian resisted the proposed riposte of leaving a large blank square in the sports pages to highlight the “ban” they are facing but when chairmen start stopping a newspaper from investigative reporting – and when such a ban is allowed to pass without comment from the rest of the media on the whole – then alarm bells need to ring for supporters.

Supporters should want the questions that need to be asked to be asked by the likes of David Conn and that every newspaper does not boycott Elland Road in protest is shame on them. The right for supporters to have their serious questions answered when asked by the highest quality of journalists is something that needs to be protected and when it is attacked by one is should be defended by all.