Wherever Ken Bates went in football, controversy followed. And his various pursuits have led to his name being questioned beyond the sports arena. The former Chelsea and Leeds United chairman remains one of football's most instantly recognizable figures of the past 50 years, but his rise to power at these two historic clubs is a story that owes much to luck and circumstance. .
After being raised by his grandparents in London, the outspoken businessman began his career in quarrying and construction but, as the Daily Mail reported, he didn't bought his first Bentley only after marrying the daughter of a wealthy Irish squire.
In 1965, Bates met an American businessman, Norman Fowler, who had purchased two islands from the British Virgin Islands using money inherited from the suspicious death of her boyfriend Peter Watson. According to Bareboats BVI, Fowler had tried to infill the two and a half acres of water between the islands as part of development plans, but the sea washed away any early construction attempts.
Realizing Fowler's folly, Bates bought Wickham's Cay from the American for $700,000 (£600,000) and bought an additional 60 acres of British Virgin Islands land in Anegada from the then government. He then succeeded in persuading the local administrator to allow him to develop leisure centers on these lands for an annual rent of just $30,000 (£25,000) a year on a 199-year lease. Not bad for one of the most sought-after properties in the world, which was expected to fetch him around $300m (£250m).
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Bates' plans were controversial to say the least, especially when he insisted that the only locals allowed to set foot in Wickham's Cay or Anegada were those who worked for him. Patsy Lake of the Positive Action Movement explains: “What worried us the most was that after he came to a black country he said the only black people allowed would be the servants. So that meant that either we all had to become servants or we wouldn't be allowed to enter Wickham's Cay.”
Noel Lloyd stepped in. Originally from the British Virgin Islands, he became a political activist with the sole aim of saving the islands from “colonialist” development. Lloyd later explained: “He had a clause inserted into the agreement that the company would have the right to shut off the water and electricity to the village, because he knew what he had in mind and that 'he could see there would be unrest, so it would be like a weapon to subdue us, having control of water and electricity.”
Lloyd led the Positive Action Movement's protests against Bates' development and, given the extent of the resentment, the leaders were eventually persuaded to flip-flop on the deal. However, it took a $5.8m (£4.9m) payment to see Bates' back.
BATES SHOWS HIS CONTROVERSIAL ELECTRIC FENCING IN CHELSEA.
In 1982 Bates bought Chelsea for £1. Some immediately questioned his suitability to become president, given the failure of several deals in the UK and Ireland, as well as the controversy in the British Virgin Islands. He did little to gain support in the mid-1980s when he installed electric fences at Stamford Bridge in a bid to curb hooliganism. Prevented from turning on the power by the local council, Bates eventually had the fences removed.
Having failed to buy Stamford Bridge when buying the club, Bates ran the risk of leaving Chelsea on the streets for much of his first decade in charge of the club, and the Blues were given notice of eviction in 1989. But Bates was lucky when the owners of the land were declared insolvent a few years later, and when the Royal Bank of Scotland took over the freehold, it gave the chairman a 20-year lease on Stadium.
Still, Bates still doesn't manage the club well. In 1992, Chelsea were technically insolvent, having failed to pay a number of creditors. Thanks to legal chicanery involving the transfer of assets and contracts between several business names, the club is saved but the creditors are not paid. Bates adviser John Papi will end up in jail for tax evasion, while the chairman's appeal to Chelsea investors will see Matthew Harding join the Blues board.
Harding injected more than £26m, spending £7.5m on the construction of the new North Stand as well as the construction of a new stadium which provided funds for the purchase of the stadium, but Bates quickly fell out with the benefactor and banished Harding from the council chamber. Even after Harding died in a helicopter crash after a Chelsea game against Bolton Wanderers in 1996, Bates publicly opposed Harding. In 1997, he described the late vice-president as a “bad man”.
With Harding's departure, Bates once again led Chelsea into financial trouble, although he first led them to the Champions League in 1999, and by 2003 the club were in debt to the tune of 80. million pounds. The arrival of a one-time offer from Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich saw Bates pocket £17million, with the club he bought for £1 being placed in equally controversial new hands.
BATES WITH ABRAMOVICH AFTER CHELSEA SALE IN 2003
Bates found a new target in January 2005, when he took over Leeds United, a club that had recently lost money at the hands of spendthrift chairman Peter Ridsdale.
“Ken Bates' motives are to prove once again that he can lead a successful football club. We have solved 80 percent of the problems, Ken will solve the rest, no doubt,” said outgoing president Gerald Krasner. “And when we are back in the Premiership with a few trophies, I will smile quietly thinking that we played a very small part in this achievement.
“He put his money in immediately. He has not done any preliminary research, he is not interested. He sat down, he talked to us man to man, I like the way he does business.”
But pretty soon, it's the same old story. Supposed to be the UK representative of a company based in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands, Bates claimed not to know the exact identities of the club's owners, and whenever the FA tried to determine who owned Leeds United, they received a new flimsy explanation as to why there was no legal obligation to disclose such details.
Meanwhile, Bates was angering fans left, right and center. In the summer of 2007 the Whites were relegated to League One, and when the chairman tried to use the opportunity to place the club into voluntary administration without taking a 10-point deduction the following season, the failed attempt left them lose 15 points when the board did not follow the correct audit trail.
Meanwhile, creditors who had loaned Leeds around £15m over an 18-month period, one registered in Nevis and the other in the British Virgin Islands, have somehow agreed another to write off their debts as long as Bates remained in charge of the club. It was the kind of inexplicable, clandestine maneuver that had become so common in Ken Bates' history.
He eventually found new owners for Leeds in 2012, selling the club to Dubai-based private equity firm GFH Capital for around £52m. That deal had cost Leeds United £500,000 over three years, but Bates called his dismissal “despicable”.
Now retired, Bates still occasionally comments publicly on the state of modern football, particularly when it comes to the kind of international ownership he himself introduced to Chelsea and Leeds. "They should never have allowed foreign owners to buy Premier League clubs," he told The Daily Telegraph in 2021. But without them he would never have gotten the gains he did in either of these giant clubs.
For some, he remains a lovable, outspoken former goalkeeper for their club. For others, the name Ken Bates sends shivers down your spine. The one thing everyone agrees on is that there's never been anyone else like him.
LEEDS 9/2 TO BEAT CHELSEA – BETFRED*
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