The Story of Leeds United
Yesterday was one of the darkest days in the history of one of England’s most famous and most successful football clubs.
Leeds United were relegated for the first time to the third tier of English football after drawing 1-1 at home with Ipswich Town- they now have to score 9 goals without reply against Derby County to have a chance of staying up- very few people think that is possible.
Only six years ago though Leeds were contesting a Champions League Semi-Final and were amongst the contenders for the Premiership- a young squad full of players with promise were realistically being talked about as challengers for the next ten years- so what went wrong- and what does it say about football in Britain today?
Leeds United are not alone in being a once mighty club that has now fallen through the divisions at a shocking rate- they have predecessors, the former European Champions Nottingham Forest now play in the third tier of English football, and great clubs like Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester City have recently also touched that low base. Leeds perhaps are unique though in the swiftness of their fall- like Icarus they touched the sun and fell swiftly to the ocean floor- and in the way that their demise illustrates the fact that clubs in England are the possessions not of fans but of directors and chairmen.
On 4th April 2001, Leeds United played at Elland Road against Deportivo La Coruna, and beat the Spanish team 3-0 with goals from Alan Smith, Ian Harte and Rio Ferdinand. At the time, Leeds were seen as one of the most promising sides in England- they had finished in the top five in the Premiership every season since 1997, they had a group of young British players- Jonathan Woodgate, Rio Ferdinand, Alan Smith, Lee Bowyer, Ian Harte, Robbie Keane, Stephen McPhail and others and looked in prime position for some kind of trophy at some point.
However Leeds’s situation was not as strong as it looked. Firstly there was the matter of the trial of two of the most important players, centre half Woodgate and midfielder Bowyer for a racist incident at a night club in Leeds- a trial which hung over the club, particularly because there initially was a mistrial. Secondly there was the fact that the Board had massively overspent- leaving the club with debts that were dependent on an unbroken run of success- even with unbroken success there were questions about whether the club could ever pay back the debts that the board had acquired in its name.
The first situation was the most damaging initially- in the 2002-3 season the club led the Premiership, but after the verdicts in January the season collapsed, largely caused by the manager David O’Leary publishing a book called Leeds United On Trial which lambasted many members of the squad. Knocked out of the FA Cup by Cardiff, Leeds were only able to finish fifth in the Premiership, despite spending heavily on two new players- Robbie Fowler and Seth Johnson who they hoped would bring them the League Title in December. So they finished in a European place- and Leeds fans put down the season to the trial and were relative disappointed.
The Board faced a different quandary though- for they had mortgaged the future of the club upon qualifying for the Champion’s League- they took the easy decision to replace the manager- David O’Leary with a new man Terry Venables. However the central problem, as everyone learnt during the season, wasn’t the manager- it was the board. Players were sold constantly during the season despite Venables’s objections in order to finance the repayment of the debt. Perhaps the signature moment was January, when despite the fact that Leeds were recovering form, and were six or seven points off a European place, Venables lost his best centre half Jonathan Woodgate and was not offered the opportunity of finding a replacement. Consequently Leeds limped to fifteenth and barely avoided relegation themselves and Venables was himself sacked to be replaced by Peter Reid.
What the board seemed signally unable to understand in its entire strategy was that it rested upon the performances of 22 young men. Essentially the board had bet over eighty million pounds on the idea that those young men would play at the same standard no matter what- the trial of Woodgate and Bowyer began a process though whereby the players no longer enjoyed playing at Leeds United. As more and more players were sold, and people knew they would be at Leeds only briefly, again minds switched off the job. Essentially the board’s plan might have been financially sensible if you thought of the players as simple assets- but thinking of them as human beings it should have looked to any sensible critic like the crazy idea it was.
The next season was even more disastrous- Reid too was swiftly sacked and replaced by Eddie Gray- and Leeds tumbled to Relegation. By that time the chairman had changed twice- Peter Ridsdale had been replaced by John McKenzie who himself was replaced as Leeds’s financial situation slipped by Trevor Birch. The Club faced debts of upwards of 78 million pounds and was losing at its worst point, 17 million pounds every six months. A detailed analysis of what went wrong is available here: but what immediatly strikes one is the way that Leeds as a club were manipulated and controlled by a couple of people who swiftly moved on to other better things- whereas the fans were left with a club reeling from relegation.
Falling into the First Division, life has not been kind of Leeds. A new manager Kevin Blackwell again struggled with three successive boards with different financial policies. The club almost returned to the Premiership, losing a play off final, but there was little certainty about the future and the club’s team was made up of old professionals, wizened journey men who had had their time elsewhere and came to Leeds for their last games. Last year Leeds were at last taken over by a new chairman Ken Bates, who replaced Blackwell this season with his ally Dennis Wise- but the sense persists that noone really knows what is going on at Leeds financially. Assurances have been made by the Board that the club is solvent- but assurances have been made before, furthermore what will the impact of the new relegation be.
Again the old problems have resurfaced- financial difficulties have meant players have been sold and few bought except on loan. Leeds sold at the start of this season their talismanic striker Rob Hulse, and didn’t replace him. The players thus either on loan or in the team are faced with a situation of uncertainty- they don’t know whether they’ll be at the club next week because they don’t know if the club will have to sell them. Too many players have come in on short contracts- consequently the club’s defensive line in particular has changed from game to game and there is no real sense of a direction or a plan- particularly as the Leeds conveyer belt of youth players seems to have switched off. The club seems still in shock- it needs a young manager to take over and completely overhaul most of the systems- it needs nurturing instead of a series of quick fixes.
Leeds in truth over the last couple of seasons- since beating Deportivo- have slipped from crisis to crisis- the problem has been that the board of the club have often made the wrong decision, and then found themselves desperately trying to save the club. Despite having a large stadium and fanbase Leeds have struggled to find cohesion and consistency on and off the pitch- aiming to get into the lucrative upper tier of football clubs, they overspent so much that they have fallen into the third tier of English football.
The lessons of this all might strike any reader as obvious- don’t spend 78 million pounds that you haven’t got. But it goes a little further than that- because the story of Leeds United isn’t really about the Board or the players or the managers, its about the fans. One of the interesting things is that the fans during all of this have been utterly powerless- as a succession of moneyed men have taken over the club, and led it downwards. Leeds fans have had little control over this process and for them the only emotion has been repeated frustration.
What this means for the longterm of English football is uncertain- there will definitely be more Leedses- the stakes are high and many clubs will take the bet that if they succeed they can pay for getting to success. Partly though I sense a feeling of frustration around many groups of fans of Premiership and Championship sides- there is a sense that football has moved a long way from the fan and that unlike in Spain, the fans have very little control of the way that football is moving. Such a feeling will reinforce volatility- it would mean that the penalties for falling are higher. Clubs like Chelsea- who rest upon the benificence of a Russian billionaire of dubious background- may well find themselves cursing like Leeds the way that chairmen and directors can merely step away from the club leaving it with all the debt.
Whatever happens to English football- the future of Leeds United- a club that has won titles, European trophies, FA Cups and has produced at least one world cup winner not to mention important players for Scotland and Wales- looks dark indeed. Escaping from the first division won’t be easy and another player exodus looks likely- where next Leeds fans (like myself) might ask?
Well there is always the second division… or even non-league football…