2900Miles.com recently spoke with Gary Cooper after Gary stepped down as Chairman of the Leeds United Supporters Trust (“LUST”) following five years in the post. As chairman of LUST, Gary has seen Leeds United owned by four separate entities, and has featured heavily in media coverage of the club throughout the often turbulent five year period.
Interviewer: Simon O’Rourke (2900 Miles)
Gary Cooper, on the Leeds United Supporters Trust
2900 Miles: Thanks for speaking with me, Gary, let’s jump right in. In our previous interview, we discussed the fine work being done at Leeds Ladies FC. How much did the Leeds Ladies ‘project’ influence your decision to step down as LUST chairman?
Gary Cooper: It didn’t. Unbeknown to everyone outside the LUST board, the decision to step down was made at the end of March 2014. Of course having made the decision it allowed me to concentrate more of my time on the Ladies which at that point seemed likely to continue as LULFC and not as an independent club so it really didnt impact on standing down from LUST at all.
I took the decision to retire as Chairman of LUST based upon several reasons;
Timing: with a new owner of the club the time just felt right to hand over to a new board and Chairman, we had dealt with the club under bates and his chosen successors, GFHC, and Mr Cellino presented as an entirely new scenario in terms of custodianship so i felt perhaps a new board might be more likely to engage and represent our members without the ‘memory’ and ‘attachments’ to the old if you like, it felt like the best thing to do for our members.
Health issue: Having had some health problems over the last 18 months or so my health had not been good and i felt a certain amount of pressure from my family to start looking after me for a change and spend more time showing how much i appreciate the support i recieved from them. The stresses of leading an organisation like LUST did take their toll and if I am honest I needed to break away from those to concentrate on changing my own physical and mental health conditions for the better – so far so good.
There was a feeling of ‘Job done’: Back in 2009 when we first looked at LUST as the vehicle that could effect change for the better at our club we set ourselves (me and the board members who joined in September 2009) certain targets all of which we had surpassed. Membership increased far beyond expectations, restructure and branding achieved, increased media presence achieved, improved credibility and influence achieved way beyond expectations and at that point we had achieved the mandate set by our members, dialogue with the club. I felt my role within that had been accomplished and more.
To Keep a Promise: I made our members a promise that as chairman of LUST i had been unable to keep, to tell the story, the truth, the facts about what happened during 2012. As chairman of LUST the legal advice was if I did keep my promise potentially I put the trust at risk of litigation, I couldnt risk that for LUST but as Gary Cooper I welcome the opportunity to fulfill the promise and bugger the threats of litigation because what i have to tell is true, can be supported and would stand up in Court. So I can now keep my promise and am working with publishers on a book which will cover my tenure from 2009 to 2014.
2900 Miles: Standing down must have been a very difficult decision, given your five years at the helm?
Gary Cooper: I didn’t stand down without a great deal of thought, i and others worked bloody hard during 2013 and early 2014 to put together the Fan Share Scheme which, in honesty, under Mr Cellino doesn’t seem to be going anywhere which is a real shame and for me a wasted opportunity, but i wanted to at least give Mr Cellino the chance to hear about it and offer him options. I knew that opportunity was coming so after we had done that i announced my decision to our members.
I have a few regrets, I didnt always get it right and said some things I shouldn’t have but emotions sometimes got the better of me. I did always represent the opinions of our members honestly despite them not always being my personal opinion. Looking back I am not sure any of us could have done more and I am certain no one could have asked more of us.
.. On the Fan Share Scheme
2900 Miles: With regards to the fans share scheme, do you think it’s dead in the water or merely on hold? Cellino doesn’t appear to have any interest, as you referenced, but could GFH’s 25% stake could still offer some glimmer of hope?
Gary Cooper: Anything is possible of course but the impression i got from Mr Cellino was that it wasn’t something he was at all interested in, I am afraid. We were appraoched by a relative of Salah Noorhudin who enquired about the possibility of the trust buying shares from him, we asked him who his legal representatives were so we could put our lawyers in touch directly but he never came back to us. I am not sure the terms of the SPA between GFH and Mr Cellino allow for the sale of GFHs shares outside of the preference given to Mr Cellino.
.. On his storied history with Ken Bates
2900 Miles: I’m not sure about the rules of the Agreement either, should Cellino not purchase the GFH 25%. It is something that has remained a relatively well-guarded secret. There have been more than a few rumours since Mr. Cellino took over that your former Chairman Ken Bates could be interested. Do you think that’s a possibility, perhaps heading another consortium?
Gary Cooper: Since the agreement to sell was made public I have doubted that it would be the end of Ken Bates’ involvement at our great club. Indeed the trust statement of November 9th 2012 says all anyone needs to know about our very real concerns about both GFH and the terms of the deal agreed with Bates. The contents of that statement were denied vigorously by both parties but read it again and ask yourself if you think LUST had good cause for concern? All LUFC fans should be worried by any involvement by Ken Bates in any aspect of our club and I do not accept that the concession of allowing broadcasting rights to Ken Bates is either clever, pragmatic, calculated or in any way justified under any circumstances and I am certain, just as I was on November 9th 2012, that no good will come of this.
2900 Miles: Mr. Bates has made several comments about you in public, both directly and indirectly. Did you ever meet him in an official capacity considering that he was at Leeds United for four of your years at LUST?
Gary Cooper: I offered on many many occasions to debate any issue with him publicly at any time that suited him, it was never taken up. I did get the now infamous phone call from him after Damian Collins MP quoted a trust press release whilst chairing the DCMS select committee, Bates asked me why i was the enemy of Leeds United, swore at me, told me Leeds fans who use the internet are “f*cking idiots” amongst other things then appeared to fall asleep mid rant at which point Susannah Bates took over the call and told me i would never know how much money her husband had put into the club, she couldn’t answer when I asked why he would do that if he wasn’t the owner (Ken Bates had long maintained he was not the owner of Leeds United, but merely a Chairman put in place by anonymous backers)
2900 Miles: The situation got out of hand, really quickly, didn’t it?
Gary Cooper: Bates’ campaign to discredit me was built on lies, control of his own media and breaching regulations and laws as found proven by both OfCom and the Information Commissioner. Now he has been handed broadcasting rights for LUFC games i have no doubt he will seek to exert control and bully others, maybe even you and I Simon, but he knows neither of us fears his threats of litigation and both would welcome the right of reply we are entitled to under broadcast regulation, i doubt we will get that, bullies don’t like being stood up to!
2900 Miles: Bates’ infamous rants about you include such accusations as “You brought GFH to the club”, or something similar. What was his reasoning, if any, behind such a statement?
Gary Cooper: How he figures LUST was in anyway responsible for bringing GFH to LUFC is a complete mystery to me especially as he and GFH put out a statement in October 2012 denying we had ever spoken to GFH. He now claims I was in cahoots with Salem Patel (a man i didn’t even meet until December 2013) which means Ken is either completely mad or has forgotten what he said previously.
2900 Miles interjection: The joint statement made by GFH and Bates was removed from the official website at some point in the last eighteen months, but things rarely stay hidden on the internet. I present you with the statement in question: JOINT-STATEMENT FROM CLUB AND GFH (“As such, neither I nor any employee of GFH Capital has been in discussions with the LUST.” – David Haigh)
2900 Miles: Let’s speak a little about the infamous rant when he revealed your private information: Did that lead to any issues either on a personal level, or as LUST chairman?
Gary Cooper: In his ‘reveal all from the clubs data base’ he couldn’t even manage to get that right, although the Information Commissioner was amazed that a man of his supposed intelligence would admit breaking the law in such a public manner. If what he ‘revealed’ had been remotely true then it might have caused problems and rightly so but as is always the case with Mr Bates there is actual truth, real facts, then there is what Mr Bates wants you to believe, never the twain shall meet!
2900 Miles: In the past, Ken Bates has been known to lash out most severely against those who questioned his various business practices. Is there a feeling that too many of the comments emanating from LUST and yourself were hitting too close to the truth? Or do you think you really just caught him on a bad day initially, and it snowballed out of control?
Gary Cooper: For sure, LUST analysis of the accounts etc was as close to the truth as it was ever possible to be with only very basic information available due to the typical ‘hide all, reveal little’ Off shore tax haven systems Bates used. Having a bunch of volunteers get the support of experts (especially ones Bates himself had previously claimed were brilliant) expose him for what he is clearly got to him. I think he considered himself untouchable with good reason as previously he seemed to be, ask the people of Oldham, the Irish families who lost their life savings and Chelsea supporters too? LUST made sure he was exposed and he didn’t like it.
2900 Miles: Possibly a silly question, but did you ever get an apology from Mr. Bates after his attacks? Perhaps an admission that he overstepped his bounds?
Gary Cooper: Nothing, and his attacks and lies continue with his latest Radio Yorkshire broadcast (Ken Bates’ latest interview with Radio Yorkshire includes a further accusation that Gary Cooper and LUST brought GFH Capital to the club and were secretly communicating with Salem Patel)
.. On Massimo Cellino
2900 Miles: Moving on to Leeds United’s current President, Massimo Cellino: what’s your opinion of his first six months at the helm?
Gary Cooper: I’ve met him twice to speak to at some length and its difficult not to like him, to be almost captivated by his charismatic personality. He is a passionate and emotive man and i totally get that as i am the same in many ways. I also understand the job that’s before him and the sweeping changes that are needed after 8 years of the club being pillaged by Bates and the farce that Bates left behind when he chose to sell LUFC to GFH. Leeds United is not in great shape and it needs a broom to sweep clean the cupboard, maybe Massimo Cellino is the broom?
I am concerned though by some of the actions that don’t really inspire confidence and seem a little short of the ‘master football man’, the ‘pragmatist’ many LUFC fans want to believe Mr Cellino is? Fiasco Friday being the first point in question, clearly not a great start, well not a start at all as the sale was far from concluded and shrouded by the problems that are following it now when Brian McDermott was sacked and then reinstated in 24 hours? Then the appointment of Hockaday an appointment that everyone seemingly bar Mr Cellino could see was doomed to failure and most recently the disastrous decision to allow Ken Bates so much as a sniff at anything to do with LUFC again, all actions that are questionable at best.
That said Mr Cellino has made no secret he see’s LUFC as his personal challenge which, if he succeeds means LUFC succeeds, and that he makes his decisions his way and as he told me “Don’t fight me my friend”, maybe Ken Bates said the same when he asked about broadcasting rights and an executive box at Elland Road?
Mr Cellino has swept the changes through the squad too, and got superb money for our top goal scorer, has done as he said and brought in young talent at bargain prices and is trying to develop them to bring success to LUFC and increase their sell on value which is good business of course, that’s great and the most positive we have been able to be about affairs on the pitch for a decade or more. He does play out his ‘man of the people’ persona to perfection and the fans will buy into that big time, of course they will, and why shouldn’t they?
I desperately hope he succeeds in his challenge and equally i hope he realises that whilst he may have bought custodianship of OUR club his challenge and the club he is using to take his challenge belongs squarely to those who make a bigger investment than any custodian ever could, the fans who put their hearts and minds into a lifetime investment. No personal challenge or monetary commitment is bigger than that and no one matters more that the fans.
.. On his Dare To Dream comment
2900 Miles: I asked the social media folk to suggest a question or two, and the number one question suggested was regarding “dare to dream” from your radio interview during the GFH takeover. Do you regret that statement?
Gary Cooper: When my book comes out and people realise just exactly how appropriate that statement was at the time, they will understand why i said it. Unfortunately the dream became a nightmare in more ways than one and with the benefit of hindsight i certainly wouldn’t have said it. I think what gets forgotten is I am just a bloke like any other, a fella who loves his club, whose heart has been sold for as long as he can remember. I’ve never been in it for the fame, the glory, the money or anything other than what all LUFC fans are ‘in it’ for and that’s the sweet and simple love of Leeds United. I have had no media training, am not a professional actor or presenter and i am not likely to be winning a BAFTA any time soon so when i was asked questions and my mouth opened my heart spoke most often with my head chipping in occasionally for balance and perspective.
GFH were never the dream scenario, GFH got lucky and Ken Bates made sure his ridiculous promise of selling to someone who could take the club to the next level was nothing more than the usual rubbish that comes out of his mouth each time its open. you see Ken cant speak from the heart as along with his soul i am led to believe a fellow in red with horns and surrounded by fire bought that decades ago.
.. On his upcoming book
2900 Miles: On that note, a final question: give us a little insight into the book, should we expect Fireworks, and do you have a tentative release date in mind?
Gary Cooper: The publishers think Easter 2015 is most likely.What readers can expect is honesty, truth and a very personal insight into five incredible years. Guts, glory, gore and all, no frills and no bullshit, just Gary Cooper telling it like it was.