Those who know little about football and care even less, may yet be familiar with the parable of Peter’s goldfish. The monthly rental of these decorative cyprinidae remains the most memorable emblem of Leeds United’s profligacy under flamboyant former chairman ‘Publicity Pete’ Ridsdale. Vying for the Premiership title with Manchester United, while powering past the likes of Milan and Barcelona into the semi-finals of the Champions League, Elland Road had rarely known better times than the early noughties. The club was surely destined for a permanent seat at the top table of English football, which it had previously occupied only fleetingly under the loved-and-loathed Don Revie. There had been a solitary First Division Championship in 1992, but nothing else since the early 1970s.
Hubris, nemesis. What followed was perhaps the most spectacular financial implosion in the history of the European game. The details are too tortuous to relate here, except to note that the club ended up shorn of all its saleable assets – ground, training complex and best players. Then, a further ignominy: relegated to the third-tier for the first time, which meant trips to the likes of Yeovil Town and Wycombe Wanderers.
There was no renaissance under the famously irascible Ken Bates, the former Chelsea owner who played white knight when the club looked set to go out of business altogether in 2005. Leeds clambered out of League One at the third attempt. But scant investment in the playing squad further alienated a whopping fan base whose gallows humour was on show during last month’s FA Cup drubbing by nouveaux riches Manchester City. Responding to taunts about conceding two early goals, the Leeds supporters countered: ‘You’re not that special, we lose every week.’
Not (quite) true. But it does prompt one to wonder why an ambitious young solicitor and political activist would undertake one of the most thankless tasks in British sport – trying to restore Leeds United to the position its many supporters (misguidedly, perhaps) consider no more than their due. There is one obvious answer, given that 36-year-old David Haigh is deputy chief executive and general counsel of Dubai-based private equity outfit GFH [Gulf Finance House] Capital. In December, GFH completed a buyout of Leeds for a reported £52m in cash. Bates will remain as chairman until the end of the season, while Haigh has become a director of the club, along with GFH colleague Salem Patel.
From next year, the Premier League’s bottom club will get over £60m from broadcast rights alone, which is more than Manchester City earned in 2012 as champions. And that money is all profit, with no overhead attached. Leeds’ total turnover in the Championship is about £30m. If Haigh and co can secure promotion, there really is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Meanwhile, GFH has denied that it intends to ‘flip’ the club to turn a quick profit, though there are other suitors interested. Indeed Haigh, who was brought up in a Cornwall farming community, is a lifelong supporter of Leeds. And he is certainly more congenial than Bates as far as his fellow supporters are concerned. Boasting a Twitter account and an easy manner, he comes across as an accomplished networker.
Bates, by contrast, has called some of those same fans ‘morons’ for criticising his stewardship, amid protest marches and repeated calls of ‘Bates out’. Last year, Bates was even ordered to pay £10,000 to a former club director (another solicitor) who sued him for harassment. GFH’s acquisition of the club was remarkably protracted, even if the party on the other side of the table was Bates. Unsurprisingly, the youthful Haigh acknowledges that leading the negotiations on behalf of the private equity house was the toughest challenge he has so far faced in business.
He recalls: ‘The process involved six months of tough negotiations spanning the Caribbean, Dubai, Bahrain, Monaco and Leeds with the previous owner, from whom I must say I have learnt a lot. At the same time, I had to deal with a significant amount of sniping from certain sections of the popular press. That was hard to take given that I was working on the acquisition of the very club I’ve always supported, and was not something that as a lawyer one gets much exposure to.
‘It was certainly a valuable learning experience for me personally and I’m thrilled that we have completed the deal; a deal that we believe is the first Islamic bank acquisition of a football club. As I have found to be true on a number of occasions, the hardest challenges end up being the most rewarding.’ Part of the sniping to which Haigh alludes perhaps stems from his arrival unbidden and unheralded in one of the most febrile and (over) publicised environments in British life – football. Sports journalists, a conservative and cynical bunch, like to know who they are dealing with.
UNIVERSITY Southampton, law
ROLES deputy chief executive, chief operating officer, GFH Capital; director, Leeds United; founder and chairman, Conservatives Abroad – Dubai and Northern Emirates; vice-chairman, Gulf Tories
KNOWN FOR negotiating GFH’s buyout of Leeds United from Ken Bates
At the outset very little was known of Haigh, except that he was a lawyer. In fact, he trained as a solicitor at a firm in the West End of London before moving on to Thomas Eggar, which has a number of offices in the south of England. He recalls his time there fondly: ‘I was given a solid grounding in a wide variety of work, which gave me invaluable experience. Indeed, I actually turned down a training contract at a City firm because I wanted that breadth. I have also worked in the Caribbean and Dubai, each of which has given me exposure to very different, but complementary, areas of practice.’ He has also had spells at DLA Piper and Akin Gump.
A legal career was not something that appealed until his late-teens. ‘It was my neighbour, a farmer, who planted the idea in my mind,’ Haigh says. ‘He thought, as I do today, that a law degree sends you down a well-defined path, even if you don’t end up practising as a lawyer. Besides, despite my country roots in Cornwall and Yorkshire, a career in agriculture wasn’t for me.’
Haigh has made his mark outside the law. A few years ago he stood as a Conservative councillor in Lambeth, south London, and his political engagement has not waned since. In 2007 he founded Conservatives in the Gulf and is currently its vice-chairman.
Haigh acknowledges that if his career path appears impossibly exotic, he is delighted by its trajectory. ‘I wouldn’t change what I’ve done to get to where I am today,’ he says. ‘Through this job I have been able to travel to some of the most exciting places on the planet, while also getting the chance to regularly return to London and my family home in the south-west. I am excited with the direction my career is now on, with one foot in the legal word and one foot in the corporate world. In what other career could you find yourself working on litigation in London, going to a beach bar after work in the Caribbean, and only a few years later get involved in the takeover of the club you support, while at the same time living in one of the world’s most multinational cities?’
If Haigh seems to ‘have it all’, at least on his own terms, he extols the opportunities available to lawyers who are not afraid to look beyond the more obvious career goals. ‘I have been lucky enough to work in three contrasting jurisdictions (England and Wales, BVI and UAE), which has enabled me to work with lawyers from many different cultures – particularly Dubai, which is populated with over 80% expats. Of course there are many challenges. For example, the UAE is a civil law jurisdiction governed by codified laws, many of which are now outdated given the rapid development of the country, but the way I see it, is that this has only helped to further enhance my learning experience.
‘Dubai is no longer seen as a "second-choice" destination and there are many lawyers here who are of the same calibre as any you will meet from leading City firms. When I started out, the Caribbean and Hong Kong were the main destinations for expat lawyers. Today, a lawyer moving overseas from the UK might equally find themselves working in mainland China, the Middle East or eastern Europe. And in a few years time that list will be longer, perhaps including India.’
So what makes a good lawyer? ‘Strong interpersonal skills and an ability to work out what you can achieve commercially for the client,’ says Haigh. ‘No one thanks you in business if you deliver the perfect advice note too late for it to be used, or fail to account for the commercial aspects of a transaction. Also, nobody wants to work with someone they find it hard to get along with, no matter how talented that person might be.’ Haigh wants to be liked, clearly. This is not, one surmises, a concern that ever preoccupied the man from whom he bought Leeds United. The mood is changing off the pitch at Elland Road. On the pitch? Not quite yet.
Paul Rogerson Gazette editor-in-chief