Ken Bates finally gets to face his former club Chelsea with Leeds in tonight’s League Cup quarter-final. Here he talks to Richard Sutcliffe about his near 30 years as a football club chairman.
WITH Christmas lunch set to be enjoyed at Elland Road and New Year spent in his Stamford Bridge penthouse apartment, Ken Bates is well aware of what impact tonight’s result could have on his festive celebrations.
“A Leeds United win will give me bragging rights over New Year,” says the 81-year-old with a huge smile as the Yorkshire club prepare to host Chelsea in a meeting of his footballing past and present. “I still speak to a lot of Chelsea fans, especially if I am in London on a matchday.
“They still recognise me and still call me, ‘Chairman’. It would be great to be able to say ‘hello’ back over the holidays knowing Leeds are in the League Cup semi-finals after beating Chelsea.”
The first meeting of the two protagonists in one of English football’s most enduring rivalries since Bates took charge of Leeds in January 2005 has been a long time coming.
United’s absence from the Premier League has seen to that, as has the club’s good fortune in cup draws – which has seen them paired with the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal twice – not quite extending to bringing Bates’s club into direct conflict with Chelsea.
That, though, is about to change as the European champions head to a sold-out Elland Road for a Capital One Cup quarter-final that is likely to be played with all the ferocity of a local derby despite the two clubs being separated by the best part of 200 miles.
“I was watching the draw when our name came out and I immediately said, ‘...will play number six, Chelsea’,” says Bates when speaking exclusively to the Yorkshire Post in his East Stand office, whose walls are adorned with photographs and newspaper articles from his near 30 years at the helm of both Leeds and Chelsea.
“Sure enough, that is what happened. I was delighted.”
Bates’s joy at hearing the club where he spent 21 years as chairman had been drawn against Leeds was understandable. Not only will tonight’s tie earn the Yorkshire club a welcome cash windfall but it also offers up the tantalising prospect of a place in the last four of a major domestic Cup for the first time since 1996.
Back then, of course, Bates was at the helm of Chelsea and about to embark on what, at the time, was the London club’s most successful period. In the four years to 2000, the Blues won two FA Cups, a League Cup, a European Cup-winners’ Cup and a UEFA Super Cup.
A first taste of Champions League football was also devoured, something that along with the haul of trophies would have seemed unthinkable to even the most optimistic Chelsea supporter when Bates first arrived at the Bridge in April 1982.
He recalls: “The ground was decaying, rotten and unsafe when I took over Chelsea. A bit like Elland Road was when I came here. Again just like Leeds, Chelsea were also losing money and were profligate at the top.
“For my first game at Chelsea – which was, bizarrely, as a guest of Lord Chelsea, even though I had just bought the club – the boardroom was packed with the directors, their kids and a load of hangers-on. They were tucking into a five-course meal, with the finest of wines, and then the port and brandy came out.
“Even the coffee came with cigars being passed round. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. When I abolished it before the next home game – as I did with the rose Champagne that I had found available in the Leeds boardroom at my first game – there was the usual outcry along the lines of, ‘But we have always done this’. So I just said, ‘Well, bloody pay for it then’.”
Fast forward more than 30 years from that first afternoon as Chelsea chairman – when a 1-1 draw with Oldham Athletic was watched by a crowd of less than 9,000 – and Bates is preparing to welcome his old club and a few familiar faces.
He said: “Frank (Lampard) might play and it would also be good to see John Terry. All the Leeds players were down in London for their Christmas party recently and in fancy dress at a nightclub. John was there and I understand our lot were surprised to hear John ask, ‘How’s the chairman and Suzannah?’
“It would be nice to say ‘hello’ to them after the game.”
Should Roman Abramovich be among the visiting Chelsea dignitaries tonight, it is unlikely Bates would be quite as well disposed to the Russian as he is towards the two players who have been the bedrock of Chelsea’s more recent success.
The pair’s relationship ended acrimoniously just a few months after Bates had sold his shares in the Blues during the summer of 2003 and their paths have not crossed since the Champions League semi-final that Claudio Ranieri’s side lost in Monaco a little under a year later.
Asked about Abramovich, however, the United chairman opts to keep his counsel. Even when talk turns to the recent sacking of his friend Roberto Di Matteo –Bates and wife Suzannah are godparents to one of the Italian’s children – Bates replies: “It would have been nice to see Robbie again but, in terms of what happens, it is not for me to comment on how other clubs are run.”
With Leeds having not faced Chelsea since the day they bowed out of the Premier League in May 2004, with a 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge, tonight’s tie has understandably caught the imagination of both sets of supporters.
That victory for the Blues – when Kevin Blackwell was in temporary charge of the visitors – is the only one of the 35 Leeds-Chelsea contests since the start of the Eighties in which Bates was not involved with the Londoners. He must, therefore, have plenty of memories from the other 34 meetings?
“The one that really stands out is when Chelsea beat Leeds 5-0 in 1984 to win promotion,” says Bates, who oversaw 11 Chelsea wins, 11 draws and 12 defeats against Leeds. “I’ve often wondered who on the groundstaff left the scaffolding poles around so the Leeds fans could smash up the scoreboard.
“But there have been plenty of others, including 1999 when Leeds won 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. Peter Ridsdale stood up and applauded the goals, which upset some of the Chelsea fans below. One of them wrote a very abusive letter saying it was inappropriate of him to behave like that in a directors’ box. I passed it on to Peter and said, ‘Maybe you should reply to this’.
“He wrote back and apologised to the fan for any offence caused but then added, ‘You must understand that it is so rare Leeds win at Chelsea that my customary good manners were overcame by jubilation’. I thought that was a bloody good reply.”