Leading Leeds United are the sleeping giants with Arabic spice

Newly appointed club chairman, Salah Nooruddin, speaks to Gary Meenaghan about his passion for football, plans for global expansion and hopes for season ahead.
Leeds United have high hopes for the season ahead.
Leeds United have high hopes for the season ahead.
At the turn of the millennium and a decade before he arrived in Dubai with grand ideas and a grander financial package, David O'Leary was coach of one of the most exciting football teams in Europe.

The Irishman's Leeds United side of 2000/01 stood toe-to-toe with Manchester United and sucker-punched Arsenal; attacked Real Madrid at the Bernabeu and slugged it out with AC Milan in Italy. They were ambitious and energetic and boasted players worth tens of millions of pounds.

Leeds were seen as the future of the English Premier League and yet in truth - and certainly in the club's financial accounts - their future could hardly have been bleaker.

Within three years, and crippled by debts, they were relegated from the top flight.

Another three years and they were playing in the third tier of English football, having voluntarily entered administration.

Yet today, just over 10 years since the start of their final, ill-fated Premier League campaign, there is reason for fans of one of English football's most famous clubs to be at least hopeful - if not downright positive.

After a decade of darkness, there appears to be light at the end of the Elland Road tunnel, and it emanates from the Middle East.

Last December saw a protracted takeover by the Dubai-based private equity firm GFH Capital (GFHC) and this June brought the final nail in the coffin of the controversial tenure of Ken Bates, the club president.

Since then, GFHC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bahrain's Gulf Finance House, have been ramping up their charm offensive and promising to bring stability back to the Yorkshire club.

Salah Nooruddin, the new chairman, appreciates the passion to be found in football. When the Bahrain national team came within a play-off of qualifying for the World Cup, for both Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010, he was so disappointed he was ready to give up on his team.

"I lost hope, but it is in my blood," he says during an interview with The National. "Football is in the blood of everyone in Bahrain."

"Any investment made in football cannot be made solely on financial merit. It has to also be driven by passion and that is what I found at Leeds. This club is more about passion than finances."

So while stability may not offer instant gratification, it will pay off in the long-run, says Nooruddin.

He has spoken with Leeds supporters and found them, he adds, accepting of a three-year plan to gain Premier League promotion.

"There is no rush. You could come in and change things about quickly, but you would lose the identity.

"Leeds are famous for developing players; we have a strong academy and if we foster the youth as we know we can, then this is a sustainable platform.

"Otherwise, it would be a spike, whereby you might get promoted one year, but go back down the next. We are looking more for long-term stability," he says.

Developing home-grown talent has served Leeds well in the past. Academy graduates such as Alan Smith, James Milner, Jonathan Woodgate and Aaron Lennon have gone on to become England internationals.

Nooruddin says he has seen enough scope for growth both on and off the pitch to increase his stake in the club from 3.3 per cent to "a little bit more than" 10 per cent.

"At first, because of the acquisition terms, we were not allowed to talk to the fans, but since June 30, when we took control of the club, that has changed," he adds.

"During these five or six weeks when we had more control, we tried to implement some changes: the atmosphere, the energy, improve commercial business and be more visible. So all of that has shown me Leeds has potential."

The Bahraini businessman has 25 years of experience in the banking sector and says his intention is to add value to the club through a retail operation that currently falls short.

He asks: "Did you know that the Leeds shirt was not available in the malls in Leeds itself?"

Nooruddin is targeting international expansion, particularly in the Scandinavian and Asian markets, as well as the Arabian Gulf.

"Look at a country like China and it's a huge country with a growing fan base for English football. Yes, it is primarily Premier League, but Leeds stands out there because of its rich history. If we can commercialise the name of the club in China, that can be massive. And we are not doing that for the sake of money itself, but rather for the exposure of the club.

"I see Leeds as a sleeping giant and the more I am involved, the more I appreciate that. There were many clubs available for sale in the Championship, but Leeds have a different reputation and it was because of this potential that we were attracted."

Brian McDermott is the manager charged with awakening the Yorkshire behemoth from its slumber. The former Reading manager was given the position in April with five games remaining and led the club to finish 13th. Such was the competitiveness of the Championship that while Leeds were only seven points off relegation, they were also only seven points from the play-off places.

"Last year, the league was very tight. We lost four games in a row, but had we won those four games, we would have made the play-offs. We finished 13th, so I have told Brian let's try to improve and finish top eight this year," Nooruddin says.

To do that McDermott will need reinforcements. So far this season, he has overseen a positive start with two wins and two draws, but with two weeks remaining before the transfer window closes, Nooruddin is ready to sign off on at least two new signings to help improve the club's chances of progress.

"We need a centre-back and a right winger," the chairman says. "Brian is looking and we are supporting him. He is very honest and understanding and showed with Reading that not only does he have a good transfer record, but also has great talent for nourishing youth players - this is really where I want him to focus."

While McDermott takes control of matters on the pitch, Nooruddin plans to strengthen the links between the Arab world and Leeds through a number of initiatives. Discussions have been held regarding creating an academy franchise in the Gulf region much like Arsenal and Barcelona have with their soccer schools. Hosting exhibition matches in Bahrain and targeting players from the Middle East is also on the agenda.

"We have been thinking about players from Egypt and Algeria, but there is not enough time in this [transfer] window," he said. "It is something we will likely explore in the January window or next summer. And why not? We should give Leeds some Arab flavour."

For now, though, Nooruddin is focused on raising the visibility of "Brand Leeds" and raising funds through external investment. The owners have already been approached by investors from China, the United States and Europe and he is also in daily contact with Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family and lifelong Leeds fan. Sheikh Abdulrahman was unsuccessful in a takeover attempt in 2003.

"When I look at Leeds, I have been given a lot of responsibility and I need to stand up to it and begin a new era for this club," Nooruddin says. "It is very exciting. One can make history here."

The history of Leeds United, the fallen giants, is already in place, but the new owners hope the latest chapter, from stability to success, will be written in Arabic, as well as English.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE

Published: August 17, 2013 04:00 AM

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