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Dec 31, 2009

Bullish Ken Bates eyes return to the top

Ken Bates is back and ready to resume his title as the game's most fearsome, contentious, irascible and irrepressible chairman of all time.

And with his Leeds United side preparing to face old rivals Manchester United in the FA Cup at the weekend, Bates has spoken to ESPN Soccernet about his burning ambition to restore the Yorkshire side to the elite of English football.

At the start of the new millennium, Leeds topped the Premier League, but their fall over the past decade has been spectacular. Having suffered extensively from financial problems and plunged into League One, the club are now looking forward to better fortune in 2010 and currently sit top of the table.

At the age of 78, the most outspoken chairman of his generation has taken the archetypal 'sleeping giant' eight points clear at the top of League One and the former Chelsea supremo has no doubt where the Elland Road club are now heading.

When asked what his ambitions would be if, as expected, Leeds make it to the Championship next season, Bates' reply was instantaneous: "We shall try to get in the Premier League."

And if Bates does make it back at the top, the entire game had better watch out, as he added with tongue in cheek: "They have missed my sparkling repartee and wit..."

Yes, some would have missed his incredible energy and his remarkable aptitude to innovate and aggravate in equal measures. Some might even have thought he had gone quiet and would never be heard of again. But after a series of legal battles and an agenda from a section of the media who have never liked him, he has put Leeds back in a position of potential power.

Bates told ESPN Soccernet: "Leeds might be in Division One, but they are a big club, they have always been a big club, and they remain a big club. It is just that they have been badly run for the past ten years.

"We are in Division One. Yes, that might be the case, but we still have an average gate of 25,600 and there are clubs in the Premier League envious of that figure. More important, we have no debts, we are making money, everything is now under control, we have a good team and a good manager, and how many clubs in the Premier League can say that?

"Leeds United are one of this country's biggest clubs, even now. Only the biggest clubs in the Premier League have bigger gates; the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham and West Ham."

There will be many who have suffered from the lashing tongue of Bates in the past who will be keeping their fingers crossed that some plague strikes Elland Road to deny Leeds access to the Championship, because they will not want to cross swords with him once more.

Has he mellowed with age? I would say he has. He suffers fools even less than he did before but his mind is as sharp as ever. His distaste for Roman Abramovich and his methods is as cutting as ever it was and his empathy with the Chelsea fans remarkably remains intact. Leeds v Chelsea should be an occasion not to be missed. Not that it was ever lacking in bite.

But he also has a generous heart. He takes up charitable causes that touch himself and his wife Susannah and is riveting company when he is in the mood to lighten up.

The game has missed a character who is prepared to voice his opinions without fear, and if Bates does get Leeds back to the Premier League, there will also be those eager to welcome him back.

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