Leeds United – fallen giants
‘We’re not famous anymore’ was the chant ringing around Brighton Station as Leeds fans headed for home.
They had just witnessed their team being torn apart by the Seagulls in embarrassing fashion, conceding four goals in 38 first-half minutes in the teams’ recent Championship encounter at the Amex Arena.
Since playing in the Uefa Champions League at the turn of the millennium, as their teams’ fortunes have gone into decline over the last 15 years, so have Leeds fans’ chants, becoming more and more negative. ‘You’re nothing special, we get beat every week,’ is this season’s favourite.
Admittedly, it made a pleasant change from hearing them bang on about their old European exploits at a volume which could probably be heard across the Channel.
Evidently, some people still regard Leeds as a Premier League club in spirit if not reality – but having been the Manchester City of the early 90s, they have become lost in the modern footballing era.
Not too long ago, Leeds were up there challenging the best both at home and on the continent, but look at them now; a club who once sat at Europe’s top table now regarded as an easy three points by teams in the lower reaches of the Championship.
Parc des Princes in Paris must seem a long way away now for the once-mighty Whites. That was the scene of Leeds’ biggest ever match, the 1975 European Cup Final against Bayern Munich, but the side who were all-conquering in English domestic football fell just short, going down 2-0.
“Seasons of overstretching, or as chairman Peter Ridsdale infamously called it, ‘living the dream’, finally caught up with Leeds”
In the early 90s, it looked like the glory days might be back at Elland Road, as manager Howard Wilkinson and the inspirational Eric Cantona guided them to glory in the last-ever season of the old Division One in 1991-92, before the establishment of the Premier League.
George Graham soon replaced Wilkinson, but it was under their next manager, David O’Leary, that things got even better, as Leeds built a hugely promising young squad and reached the semi-finals of both the Champions League and Uefa Cup.
But success on the pitch was being funded by deals off it which would come to threaten the club’s very existence.
Seasons of overstretching, or as chairman Peter Ridsdale infamously called it, ‘living the dream’, finally caught up with Leeds in March 2002, when they announced £13.8m pre-tax losses for the previous year, a situation only made worse by their failure to quality for Europe.
“The club’s financial downfall loomed and, with turmoil both in the boardroom and dug-out, its foundations had gone from concrete to sand”
Within three years of losing out on the champions league spot, Leeds were set to self-destruct, they had chronically overspent in the summer and the giant was ready to topple.
Terry Venables succeeded O’Leary as manager in July 2002, but it was not to be for the former Barcelona and England coach, who lasted less than one season as the team fell down the Premier League table.
Peter Reid took up the reins to rescue the season but even though he started the following campaign strongly, he was eventually sacked the following season. After 13 years, at the end of the 2003-04 season, the Whites fell out of English football’s top flight. They have not been back since.
The club’s financial downfall loomed and, with turmoil both in the boardroom and dug-out, its foundations had gone from concrete to sand.
Leeds started offloading players in the summer of 2002, with Rio Ferdinand moving to Manchester United for £30m, then Jonathan Woodgate leaving for Newcastle for 9m, Robbie Keane heading to Tottenham for 7m and Robbie Fowler switching to Manchester City for 6m.
“Club and supporters have had a huge reality check, and one which shows no sign of coming to an end any time soon”
Leeds also sold their training ground and Elland Road Stadium in 2004-2005 seasons to try and make a dent in their mountain of debt.
Former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates bought 50% of the club in January 2005 for an estimated £10m, but even he could not stop Leeds going into administration in 2007, a move which cost them 10 points and consigned them to relegation to the third tier of English football for the first time in their history.
Their first two seasons in League One saw them reach the play-offs twice only to miss out on promotion, but it was a case of third time lucky in 2009-10 as, under manager Simon Grayson, they finished runners-up and secured promotion back to the Championship.
That season also saw a memorable FA Cup third-round win over old rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford. At long last, things looked to be improving for Leeds.
But when Grayson failed to take the club back to the Premier League, he was duly off-loaded in February 2012, since when Leeds have tried seven different managers – including former Academy boss Neil Redfearn on three different occasions – without any significant improvement.
The arrival of current owner, Italian Massimo Cellino, was welcomed by many Leeds fans as a sign that finally someone with significant financial backing was coming to their aid, but his bizarre personal outbursts and repeated hiring and firing of managers to no great effect have only antagonised supporters even more.
With the end of the current season in sight and manager Steve Evans in charge since October, Leeds currently lie 16th in the Championship. Another season outside England’s football elite beckons for Leeds and their fans.
Over the last 20 years, both club and supporters have had a huge reality check, and one which shows no sign of coming to an end any time soon.
Leeds misses and desperately needs the Premier League – but is the feeling reciprocated? Leeds’ long-suffering fans will have to wait a while longer before they find out if their club is welcomed back.
Photo by Chris Robertshaw via Flickr Creative Commons