Leeds United: To The Depths Of League One And Back Again
In the build up to the end of the football season, and thus in my preparations for writing this article, I watched video upon video containing the numbers behind Leeds United’s fall from English Champions and Champions League semi-finalists, to the depths of League One. There will also have been countless articles and videos talking about the recent rise of Leeds United, but that isn’t what this is. This is the story of how Leeds United went from being engulfed by debt and (in a way) footballing evil, to emerge from the shadows of people like Massimo Cellino, to a place where they will once again be able to compete against the best clubs in the country… the Premier League.
To get the full picture of how devastating the fall from the Premier League was for Leeds fans, you only have to look into the history of the club in the second half of the 20th century. In the 1960’s and 70’s Leeds were a powerhouse of both English and European football, with Don Revie being the driving force behind it all. Winning the league twice, the FA Cup once and coming incredibly close to winning the European Cup in 1975, they were the glory days. A decline in the 80’s would be but a hurdle as they returned to the top of the English game in 1992, winning the final ever First Division title, before it would become the Premier League. 2001 would also see an impressive young side reach the Champions League semi-final, only to be bettered by Valencia over two legs. These are the heights that Leeds fans were expectant of, little did they know that only three years later they would be in a very different position.
The 2003-2004 season is one that will be remembered by many, as Leeds United were relegated from the Premier League after an away defeat to Bolton Wanderers. The images from the final whistle showed the players, just as upset as the supporters, as many knew that the financial difficulties the club were under would see them sold in the summer, whilst man fans knew that a proud club was in trouble. Little did those fans know, things were going to get worse.
Tears and a lot of pain
I spoke to lifelong Leeds supporter Adam about what he remembers from that season:
“Tears and a lot of pain… it wasn’t really the poor results I remember, but the whole mismanagement of the club during that time. Also, the fire sale of all our top players. It still hurts thinking about it today.”
Alan Smith and Rio Ferdinand, joined rivals Manchester United, whilst young prodigy James Milner (who would later go on to win the Premier League three times and the Champions League once with Manchester City and Liverpool) joined Newcastle, in order to stabilise the clubs finances and prepare them for life in the second tier of English football. This did not work, however and the club remained in around £100m in debt until they were taken over by a group of local businessmen who would go on to sell even more players and, worryingly for the fans, the stadium and training ground. The club would be bought by former Chelsea owner Ken Bates in January 2005 and he would represent a consortium of owners whose identity was never fully revealed. If Leeds fans were imagining a swift return to the heights of the Premier League, they would be disappointed as even the new owners couldn’t quite steady the finances, leaving Bates no choice but to cut the debts, by placing the club into administration. This was the killer blow that saw a ten-point deduction confirm Leeds’ relegation to League One, the third tier of the English game.
I spoke to 20-year-old Leeds fan Brogan about what Leeds means to her, and she said that she remembers relegation to League one:
“I was only about 5 at the 2004 relegation, but I remember the 2007 one and it was the most chaotic thing ever. You always remember the clubs that supported Leeds through it.”
Three years in League One was the lowest point in the club’s history, but promotion back into the Championship in 2010 saw the club on the rise again. Important players such as Luciano Becchio and Jermaine Beckford had become cult favourites with the Elland Road faithful and, whilst the latter left in 2010, Becchio continued to be an integral player for the Whites as they pushed to try and return to the Premier League but they would still continue to struggle, with manager sackings and owner Ken Bates calling the fans “morons” after complaints due to perceived lack of investment on the pitch. Multiple takeover attempts, and two successful ones couldn’t stabilise what was now seen as not only one of the more mediocre teams in the league, but also one of the most unstable ones, but things were only going to get more peculiar: Enter Massimo Cellino.
The Cellino Era
Massimo Cellino was the owner of Italian side Cagliari Calcio and there was growing speculation that he was interested in taking control of Leeds; however, his reputation was less than gleaming. On the football side, Cellino was known in Italy as “The Manager Eater” thanks to 36 managerial changes in his 22 years at the helm of Cagliari, however things were much worse than just being a trigger-happy owner. Cellino was arrested in February 2013 for attempted embezzlement and fraudulent misinterpretation concerning the construction of the new Cagliari stadium, something that eventually effected his purchase of Leeds United. His conviction meant that he was unable to purchase the club when desired, having to wait a year until the English football authorities considered his conviction spent, somehow making him “fit and proper” to own a football club.
The Cellino era at Leeds would only last 3 years, but it is a three-year period that somewhat defined the mediocrity of the new Leeds United. In the space of Cellino’s three-year tenure, six managers would walk into Leeds, with five of them being relieved of duty. Dave Hockaday, Darko Milanic, Neil Redfearn, Uwe Rosler, Steve Evans, and Garry Monk all highlighted that much was needed in order for the Whites to be competitive again, however the fans would not have to wait for long. In May 2017, Andrea Radrizzani (who already owned a 50% stake in the club), announced a 100% buyout by purchasing Massimo Cellino’s 50% stake. Existing manager Garry Monk resigned only days after the takeover, paving the way for former Spain international Thomas Christiansen to take charge. Christiansen would last only half a season before being sacked after a poor run of games running from boxing day 2017 to February 2018. Paul Heckingbottom was brought in as his replacement, but he too would only last four months before the legendary Marcelo Bielsa was appointed on a two-year contract, with the option for a third.
Brogan reminisced on what she said is her best Leeds memory: “The day we signed Bielsa… it was so surreal. Signing a manager who had been at such good teams you just knew that things were about to change. I don’t think any Leeds fan knew what was about to come.”
Arriving with a reputation
Bielsa arrived in Leeds with a reputation. He has inspired managers around the world, including Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone who are some of the best younger managers in the game. Bielsa has also been described as “the best” by Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Champions League, FA Cup, Copa del Rey, DFB-Pokal, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup winner Pep Guardiola. This was a man who many Leeds fans believed would guide them right to the top.
In the Argentine’s first season at Elland Road, Leeds went the majority of the season in the top 2 but were denied automatic promotion thanks to what many opposition fans called “typical Leeds bottling”, as Norwich City and an impressive Sheffield United secured their places in the Premier League. Once in the playoffs, it was always going to be difficult for Leeds, as their performances had dipped and their energy levels seemed to be letting them down, something that Bielsa required in a player. They made a good start in their playoff campaign, beating opponents Derby in the first leg of their semi-final 1-0, but it was not to be. An impressive Derby performance at Elland Road, assisted by an error from goalkeeper Kiko Casilla, saw the Rams walk away 4-3 winners on aggregate.
Adam said about the tie:
“I was honestly flabbergasted. After doing all the hard work at Pride Park, then getting another goal to go two-nil up in the play-off at home, I assumed we were home and dry.”
As a Yorkshireman who knows many Leeds fans, I could sense the hurt they were feeling. I was in Huddersfield for the playoffs and, whilst it is the town of their rivals, many Leeds fans were out and proud for the second leg, truly believing that this was their time. It was not to be, and the mood had seriously flipped. They had gone from thinking that this was their moment, that their return had come, only for them to fall short and now believed that they had blown their only chance.
After the defeat in the playoffs, Marcelo Bielsa confirmed that he was staying at the club, something that many Leeds supporters had been worried about, and he began preparing his side for another tilt at promotion. The words spoken by Leeds’ chief-executive, Angus Kinnear, on their Amazon Prime documentary rang true with many of the fans:
“We’re not d***ing around with the playoffs anymore.”
A strong start to the season saw Leeds at the right end of the table with only four league defeats by Christmas. This naturally left them as favourites once again, but there was once again a nagging feeling. Every side has a drop in form, it is inevitable when you play as many games as you do in the footballing season that at some point your form will momentarily drop, and the strength of Leeds all season had left some fans wondering if the drop was going to come right at the end of the season, when it would have killed them again. Instead of having a late-season drop off in form, something much worse happened when the Covid-19 pandemic reached England. The pandemic forced all sport in the country to come to a halt, and the entire country to enter lockdown. This left the entire football pyramid wondering what would happen and how the FA would end the season. Should the season be voided, Leeds would be forced to wait another year before attempting to win promotion. This would have been the worst possible outcome, as not only were many player’s contracts running low, but Marcelo Bielsa himself, may have decided not to extend his contract, leaving the club searching for a manager. Football, however, did return and Leeds only lost one game following the restart, as they headed into the final week of the season. If their promotion rivals West Bromwich Albion failed to win against Huddersfield Town, Leeds were guaranteed promotion. They did. Leeds were back in the Premier League.
The celebrations that followed could only be explained as a mixture of relief and pure joy. Thousands of fans gathered outside Elland Road to celebrate with the players despite the ongoing pandemic, but the best was yet to come. Leeds had already been guaranteed automatic promotion, but Leeds would also have been able to tie up the league title should Brentford not be able to win their game in hand. A struggling Stoke City took the lead against the Bees in the first half of the game, and the London side never recovered, handing the title to Leeds. The celebrations were once again back on, and it was another outpouring of emotion that you only really get to see when a side is promoted, or they win the league. It was an outpouring of 16 years-worth of hurt that the Leeds fans had been subject to, from financial collapse, to administration, to owners who are nowhere near fit to be running a football club. Marcelo Bielsa and his side had delivered in three years, the promotion that owner Andrea Radrizzani was aiming for in five.
The question has now changed. Where before it was, “can Leeds go up?” it is now “how will Leeds stay up?” It is one thing to get into the Premier League, but when you are restricted financially, and your rise out of the Championship is as well documented as Leeds’ has been, how do you do stay in the league without having your best talent picked off by the bigger clubs?
In their promotion season, there were a number of players who stood out. Luke Ayling has had the season of his life at right back, Pablo Hernandez has been as influential as he has ever been coming on late to provide the quality that Leeds need but there will be two names that Leeds need to keep before anyone else and they are Kalvin Phillips and Ben White. The former is a Leeds fan through and through and his performances over the last two seasons have prompted talk of moves to the very best clubs in the country, and also England call ups. It would be silly for him to leave Leeds this summer, much the same as Jack Grealish who would have been silly to leave Aston Villa before he got chance to captain them in the Premier League, but there must come a point when, if the big boys come knocking, Leeds must let him go. He could be influential if Leeds are to stay in the Premier League and they could really struggle without his presence and energy in midfield. Ben White is the other player that Leeds will miss, should he not return to Thorpe Arch for training before the start of the next season.
Whilst only on loan from Brighton, White has arguably been one of Leeds’ best players this season and naturally they would want to keep him on a permanent deal for the upcoming campaign, however it won’t be easy. Brighton have already established that they are unwilling to let the young centre-back leave, so it will be incredibly expensive if not impossible for him to return to Leeds. This leaves Leeds in the situation where they need to buy a good number of players who are both cheap enough to avoid the financial punishments that come with spending out of their means, but are also good enough to keep them in the division and the sentiment was echoed by Brogan again:
“I think if we’re being realistic, we just need to stay up. I think our style of football will suit the Premier League, but we do need to bring in a few players to stay up.”
And Adam seemed to agree:
“There has been much discussion about how we’ll do next season and whether we’ll emulate Wolves and Sheffield United or be another Norwich, but we are very different team to them. I think the first objective is to avoid relegation, simple as that. Anything above and beyond that is a bonus. We must be realistic. We are a new team, in a new league. Staying there is all that matters!”
Whether they are back in the Championship for the 2021-2022 campaign of not, one thing is for certain: Leeds United are back.