Just who owns Leeds United?

By David ConnGuardian football journalist and Inside Out presenter
Elland Road stadium at sunset
Elland Road as the sun sets, but who is in charge of this famous football club?

When the House of Commons select committee for culture, media and sportexternal-link began its inquiry into the running of football in December - its brief to encourage supporter ownership of clubs - the MPs did not envisage the spotlight they would ultimately shine on Leeds Unitedexternal-link.

On 29 July, when the committee finally reported, its members had, according to one of the committee's key MPs, Damian Collinsexternal-link, been "appalled" by what they had discovered.

For six years, between 2005 and 2011, with Ken Batesexternal-link the chairman throughout, nobody in football knew who owned Leeds United, one of football's biggest and most famed clubs.

Bates had arrived as the chairman when the club was suffering the latest in a series of dire financial crises.

After the 2005 takeover for which he was the most visible figure, he said he did not own any shares in Leeds, was not connected to the ownership, and that he was only the UK representative of the company that had bought Leeds.

That company was Forward Sports Fund, registered in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven.

The public cannot see who owns companies in tax havens; secrecy is one of the key services offered by such countries, many of them former British colonies or protectorates.

The Forward Sports Fund's investment in Leeds was administered by a financial firm based on the fifth floor of an elegant building in well-appointed Geneva, where we filmed for the BBC's Inside Out documentary.

Switzerland's law also preserves the anonymity of investors, according to the firm administering Forward Sport's Fund's investment, Chateau Fiduciaire.

Ken Bates at a Leeds United press conference
Ken Bates has banned the BBC from covering Leeds United at Elland Road

In the summer of 2010, when the Football League introduced new rules requiring its clubs to publish who owned substantial stakes in them - 10% or more - to improve transparency in football, Leeds stated that no individual owned 10% or more of the club, so no names needed to be disclosed.

Shaun Harveyexternal-link, the club's chief executive, told the select committee at a session in Burnley that he did not know who the owners were, and - "to my knowledge," he said - neither did his chairman, Ken Bates.

The Premier Leagueexternal-link chief executive, Richard Scudamore, gave evidence to the committee shortly afterwards, saying that if Leeds were promoted, the Premier League would interpret the rules more strictly and require Leeds to say who the owners were.

Just days later, Leeds announced Bates had bought the club.

The unnamed investors who had apparently owned Leeds for six years, and certainly since the club came out of administration in 2007, had decided to sell it to him.

Bates, a UK tax exile resident in Monaco, had bought the club from the anonymous investors, via a company registered in Nevis, the West Indies, another tax haven.

Neither Bates, the club nor Chateau Fiduciaire said how much Bates paid to buy Leeds, why the unnamed investors had decided to sell when the club could achieve promotion and be worth a great deal more or, when they decided to sell, what efforts they had made to find a buyer, perhaps internationally, before concluding Bates was the buyer for them.

Preparing for the programme, we asked Leeds United and Bates to appear for an interview to discuss these issues, but he declined.

He has banned The Guardianexternal-link from Elland Road after articles I wrote covering Forward Sports Fund's ownershipexternal-link, and he has now banned the BBC from non-contracted coverage of the clubexternal-link.

Leeds United fans hold an anti-Ken Bates banner
Relations between Leeds United's fans and the club's ownership are strained

He uses his own page in the Leeds United matchday programme, which costs supporters £4, and Yorkshire Radioexternal-link, a station Leeds United actually owns, to deliver his world view, although he has never disclosed who owned Leeds between 2005 and 2011.

We asked the Football Leagueexternal-link's chairman, Greg Clarke, on to the programme, to explain why the League approved the declaration Leeds made that nobody owned 10% or more of the club, without the League actually ever being shown who the shareholders were, so they could see the evidence for themselves. Clarke too declined to be interviewed.

In a debate in parliament, Collins said of Leeds United: "There can be few people in football who do not privately believe that Ken Bates has effectively been in control of the club for most of the past six years. The answers given by the club to questions about its ownership over that period stretch credibility, to say the least."

In its report, delivered in July, the select committee called for more transparency in football, so that supporters, who pledge their loyalty to their clubs for life, at the very least know who owns their clubs, and to whom they are giving their money.

Of Leeds' ownership during six years, via a company registered in a tax haven administered in Switzerland, the committee said: "There is no more blatant an example of lack of transparency."

The committee called for the Football Association, the national game's governing body, to investigate who owned Leeds between 2005 to 2011, with the assistance of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customsexternal-link if necessary.

Three months on, the FA has not responded to the report. It is waiting for the government to issue its response, due this month.

Top Stories