Football in 19th Century Leeds
The city of Leeds was slow to embrace the surge of the round ball game in the latter part of the 19th Century, preferring to concentrate on the more established sports of Rugby League and Cricket instead. These sports had been present in the Headingley area since the 1860s. Oddly enough, football or “soccer” was seen as a “game for Southern jessies” throughout much of the century and was slow to catch on amongst the working classes of Leeds.
There were several attempts to introduce the game to West Yorkshire. In 1877 a group of Sheffield men made the 30 mile trip north and hosted a what is recognised as the first game of football in the city of Leeds at the Holbeck recreation ground. Although the exhibition match between two teams from the steel city was well attended, most of the spectators were Holbeck Rugby supporters and the match was given a lukewarm reception. However, on the strength of this a handful of amateur football clubs were formed, namely, Rothwell, Hunslet Wesleyans, Meanwood and Leeds FC, who played at the Star and Garter ground in Kirkstall.
These clubs struggled to build up a following and one by one disbanded through the 1880s. Another incarnation of Hunslet formed from a group of steel workers in the early 1890s went on to dominate the local football scene throughout the decade. They even enjoyed a mini-FA Cup run to the second round proper, before falling to those Victorian FA cup heavyweights, Old Etonians.
The development of a city football club in Leeds began when Holbeck Rugby Club bought the familiar sounding “Old Peacock Ground,” on Elland Road and shared it with a small football club called Leeds Woodville. The first major football match in Leeds took place in 1897, when local side, Hunslet beat Woodville 1-0 in the final of the Workpeople’s Hospital Cup. An attendance of 7,000 people at the ground showed there finally was an appetite for the sport and that it was about time Leeds had a football team of its own. The city already had the tag of being the largest place in Britain not to have one.
The first club -Leeds City 1904
The demise of Holbeck Rugby Club, after they failed to secure a place in the elite Northern Union in 1904 made Leeds Woodville the sole occupants of Elland Road. Local rivals Hunslet FC had also disbanded and there was a growing thirst for a properly run team to represent the city of Leeds.
A meeting at the Griffin Hotel led to the formation of Leeds City FC and a place in the West Yorkshire League. The club’s founders had large, ambitious plans for the club and wanted to see them rival the current powerhouses of the English game, Preston North End, The Wednesday and a recently renamed club called Manchester United.
There was no direct promotion from the little old West Yorkshire League into the National Football League Division Two in those days. In order to gain recognition the new club arranged several high profile friendlies, often at the expense of scheduled league fixtures against more moderate local opposition.
The plan worked and in 1905, Leeds City were awarded football league status in Division Two, along with another recently formed Yorkshire club, Hull City, Stockport County and Clapham Orient. In their first season they finished in a respectable 6th place.
Leeds City continued to play in the 2nd tier of English football falling steadily down into the lower reaches of the division during the rest of the decade, before improving under the stewardship of Herbert Chapman after 1912. As the First World War broke out, Leeds City were one of the favourites to gain promotion to Division One, but then, as is a somewhat recurring pattern in the history of this club, scandal broke out, which brought the fledgling club to an end.
The demise of Leeds City and the birth of Leeds United – 1919
Over the 1st World War Years, normal Football League fixtures were suspended. In its place unofficial localised leagues sprang up and were competed by teams who would have normally played in the Football League. Leeds City joined a league known as “The Midland Section,” which they played in during the 1916-17 season, against teams such as Huddersfield Town, Hull City and The Wednesday. To make up the numbers clubs would often pay “guest players” to turn out for them. This practice was widespread among all teams, but the FA decided to make an example out of Leeds City.
Perhaps the first name in Leeds United’s colourful history who would not be welcome in the Old Peacock pub for a pint is Charlie Copeland. He had played for the club in the post war years, but had fallen out with them over a pay dispute, which had gone unresolved at the outbreak of war. Copeland got wind of these payments being made to guest players and reported it to the FA. In September 1919, Leeds City were summoned to appear at court in Manchester (of all places). When the club could not produce their financial records for these payments by the deadline of October 6th, they were suspended mid-season from the Football League- the only club in history to have ever endured this punishment. In an ironic twist, Leeds City at the time were riding high in the league and their last ever fixture was a 4-2 victory against Wolves. On the way home the team coach gave a lift to none other than Charlie Copeland… yet without him, there may never have been a Leeds United.
It was not long before a new football club for Leeds was born. Their predecessor had built up a large fan base in the city and had their own ground. Bizarrely the new club was formed on the same day, 31st October 1919, as an auction of Leeds City’s players was taking place at the Metropole Hotel- perhaps the first ever transfer window of sorts in football history. The new team would play in the Midland League. A new manager was put in place, Arthur Fairclough and a wealthy new chairman, Hilton Crowther was in charge of the finances. The new Leeds United were ready, once again to take on the very best in English football.
Yo-yo team -1920s- World War II
After just one season in the Midland League, the new Leeds United were re-instated into Football League Division Two. Further local controversy followed Leeds in their inaugural season, when their chairman, Hilton Crowther, who ran both Leeds and neighbours, Huddersfield Town, wanted to merge the two clubs. Public outcry, especially in Calderdale stopped this and a group of Terriers supporters bought him out of the club to leave him in sole charge of Leeds. Here began one of the region’s fiercest rivalries. This did not stop Crowther introducing a blue and white striped kit for the new Leeds team of the 1920s.
After a few years establishing themselves in Division 2, the team managed to gain promotion to Division One for the first time in the 1923-4 season. Not bad for a club which did not exist six years previously. They struggled and were eventually relegated in the 1926-7 season, prompting the manager’s resignation, before winning promotion again and finishing the decade strongly with an impressive 5th place finish in the top flight at the end of the 1929-30 season, under new manager, Dick Ray.
The early 30s saw Leeds yo-yo from the first and second divisions once again. This era also saw one of the club’s first ” hardmen,” join the team, Wilf Copping,. He had a saying, “the first man in a tackle never gets hurt.” – a mantra which many a midfielder who has pulled on the white shirt has followed ever since.
Ironically, in 1935 Dick Ray was replaced by one of the Leeds City players cited by Charlie Copeland for receiving illegal payments during Word War One, Billy Hampson and Leeds United managed to maintain their top flight status until the outbreak of the Second World War.
A star is born 1945-1961
After the suspension of normal football league fixtures during the war, unofficial leagues were formed once again, although due to the Leeds City case, restrictions were put in place for the payment of players. Leeds played in the “North East Division,” which included teams from Newcastle and Bradford. Elland Road had been taken over by the army, but allowed football to take place there on Saturdays to boost morale. Crowds were low and the teams unbalanced, with players borrowed from opposition reserve teams and even the odd spectator asked to pull on the now yellow and blue quartered shirts.
As the war went on and things became more desperate, the now chaotic North East Championship included 36 teams before expanding further in 1943-4. The club used 70 players in one season and it was very difficult to field a consistent team, due to them being called into service. This led to a decline in Leeds United’s fortunes and even during these hard years, where football was secondary to survival, they became a bit of a “joke team.”
When football did resume in the 1946-7 season, the team had not really recovered from the turmoil of war and endured the worst season in their history, finishing bottom of the table with only 18 points and relegation to Division 2.
Leeds went through a series of managers to try and reverse their fortunes. Hampson was sacked in ’47 and replaced by the inexperienced Willis Edwards, who only managed 18th place in his first year. He was replaced by Major Frank Buckley, who improved the team’s performance, finishing 5th and took the club to their first ever FA Cup quarter final in the 1949-50 season.
The Major also made one of the best signings in the club’s history, John Charles. At the tender age of 17, the Welshman was given a trial and moved up to Yorkshire to play for Leeds United. Considered to be one of the best all round footballers that these shores have produced, even to this day, Charles could play in numerous positions, including centre-half, right back, centre forward and left-half. He first played in defence, but was converted to centre forward in the 52-53 season to devastating effect by new manager, Raich Carter. Replacing Charles at Centre half was a 17-year old Geordie kid, who went by the name of Jack Charlton. With these two starlets in the team, Leeds finally regained top flight status in the 1955-56 season. In the following season John Charles netted 38 goals in 40 games, helping the Whites to an 8th place finish. His form attracted the attention of Italian giants, Juventus and a deal was done at £65,000.
Inevitably, the loss of Charles saw United battle against relegation in the late 50s, a fight they had lost by 1960. Their slump in form was not only down to the loss of their star player, but also a player revolt against their new caretaker manager, Bill Lambton. Lambton’s brief reign as Leeds manager was not without its successes. He developed the club’s youth system and bought a player who would become synonymous with the club, Mr Donald Revie.
The 59-60 season was an unqualified disaster under new manager, Jack Taylor with Leeds finishing bottom of Division one conceding 92 goals. A young, flame haired Scotsman by the name of Billy Bremner made his debut as a right winger during this season. At this point it was impossible to believe what lay in store for Leeds United FC.
The following season saw the end of Jack Taylor’s beleaguered reign, as the team only managed to finish 14th in the Second Division. He was replaced by player-manager Don Revie and the only way was up. Their kit changed from yellow and blue to the familiar all white strip as a new era dawned.
The Revie era 1961-74
The most famous era of Leeds United’s history may never have happened had it taken place today. In Revie’s first season as player-manager the team almost dropped into the depths of Division 3, needing a 3-0 win over Newcastle on the last day to avoid these uncharted waters. An impressive performance from South African winger, Albert Johanesson, who became one of the first black players to play football in England scored twice to save them. To improve things for the following season, Leeds made a sensational bid for their favourite son, John Charles. The Italians sold him back to the club for a record £53,000 to much excitement in the city. The club also saw this as an opportunity to raise ticket prices!
Unfortunately for the Yorkshire crowd they were simply not getting their money’s worth. Charles had become used to the slower pace of the Italian game, which meant he struggled to adapt to the rough and tumble of English football in the 1960s. He was sold to Roma, a shadow of his former self, where he played for one season before finishing his career in his native Wales at Cardiff City.
This expensive flop, which the club had fortunately managed to recoup the money on and struggling league form prompted the young manager to re-think his strategy. The youth system put in place by Bill Lambton in the late 50s was beginning to bear fruit. Revie decided it was time to give these lads their chance.
During the 1962-63 season, Revie gave debuts to Paul Reaney (17), Rod Johnson, (17), Norman Hunter (18) and Gary Sprake in goal. Following close behind was Peter Lorimer, who at 15 years and 289 days became the youngest Leeds United debutant. His emphasis on youth, along with more established stars, such as Charlton and Bremner saw a marked improvement in league form which saw them just miss out on promotion by four points.
The following season, Revie strengthened. He persuaded Johnny Giles to cross the Pennines from Manchester United and drop down a division. Another shrewd signing was Alan Peacock from Middlesborough, whose goals helped Leeds win promotion back to the top flight once again.
Looking back at Leeds’ history so far, the team has usually struggled to adapt to the step up to the top flight, resulting in eventual relegation back to Division 2 and another struggle. This time it would be different. The Yorkshire team took the division by storm in the 1964-5 season, finishing second on goal difference to Manchester United (something which has rankled with fans ever since) and reached their first ever FA Cup final, losing 1-0 to Liverpool.
An appearance in the cup final saw Leeds’ first foray into European Competition in the Inter City Fairs Cup. They reached the semi-final in their first season and the final the season after, losing out to Dinamo Zagreb over two legs.
The late 60s saw the youngsters blooded by Revie earlier in the decade become men. Leeds won their first major trophy in the shape of the recently launched Football League Cup, beating Arsenal in the final A European Fairs Cup win in the 1966-67 season over Hungarian outfit, Ferencvaros was the shape of things to come. Arguably the 1968-69 season was the best in the club’s history. They stormed to their first ever league title in impressive style, going 28 matches undefeated, conceding just 26 goals and tallying 67 points, six points above second placed Liverpool.
New additions to the squad had seen the emergence of Eddie Gray, Paul Madeley and Mick Jones to go with the likes of Bremner, Lorimer, Giles, Reaney, Sprake and Hunter. To complete the jigsaw, Revie splashed out £165,000 for Leicester’s Allan “Sniffer” Clarke. Leeds could not repeat the joy of the previous season, but finished runners up in the league to Everton and lost to Chelsea in the FA Cup Final. This bad-tempered affair, which went to a replay after a 2-2 draw at a mud-soaked Wembley against Chelsea, spawned a rivalry with the club which exists to this day. The West-Londoners won 2-1 in the replay at Old Trafford in a tie renowned for its dirty play and hard tackling from both sides.
Once again Leeds United were challenging for major honours at the turn of the decade and may have won their second title had it not been for the intervention of referee Ray Tinkler, who in a crucial game against WBA awarded a goal by Jeff Astle which was clearly offside. Leeds were runners up by one point to Arsenal. Mr Tinkler’s decision could not stop them winning the second European Fairs Cup after beating Juventus 3-3 on the away goals rule.
The Leeds team of this era were noted for their physical style of play which won few fans in wider football analysts. Their tendency to commit a lot of fouls and tackle hard gained them the reputation, “Dirty Leeds,” something which is chanted by away fans at Elland Road to this day. Football in this era was generally more physical than today, where the laws of the game tend to favour the attacking team. One of their most fearsome critics was the Derby County manager Brian Clough, who had constantly made comments about the nature of Leeds’ style of play.
Another controversy came on 4th March 1972 when, at the end of a 7-0 drubbing of Southampton. The Revie team, now at their peak passed the ball 39 times as their hapless opponents struggled to intercept the ball. While Leeds fans lapped this up as being one of the best matches they had ever witnessed, other football observers accused the Leeds team of “showboating” or “taking the mickey” out of their opponents.
The team failed to win the league, but won the FA Cup for the first and only time in their history, seeing off Arsenal 1-0 thanks to an Allan Clarke header.
Revie’s crowning glory came in the 1973-4 season when they won the league for a second time, losing only four games in the process and remaining unbeaten until February. During the summer of ’74, Don Revie was offered and accepted the England national job, leaving Elland Road after 13 glorious years. In the process he had turned a club from 2nd Division strugglers into English champions and European cup winners, building a team drawn largely from its youth team.
One of the greatest games in Leeds United’s history, a 7-0 victory over Southampton
Fall and Rise 1974-1990
After the departure of Revie to manage England, Leeds needed another high profile figure to carry on the work of their predecessor and keep the club at the very top of English football. While there were other candidates for the privilege of managing a team at the very top of their game, the Leeds United board turned to one of their fiercest critics, Brian Howard Clough.
Having won the league title with Derby County in 1972, just pipping the great Leeds team by one point, he fell out with the chairman the following season and left the club under a cloud. The outspoken manager was exiled to lowly Brighton Hove Albion, where he had just suffered the ignominy of a 4-0 FA cup defeat to minnows, Walton & Heresham. He fancied a return to the big time and accepted immediately once the call came from the offices at Elland Road.
Having labelled the Revie team as “dirty” and “cynical,” during his time at Derby he was now going to set about getting the team to play the game his way. Of course, both fans and players have long memories and now that Clough had rocked up in town, they were determined to make life difficult for him.
To make things worse, during his first team meeting in the summer of ’74 he told the players to “As far as I’m concerned you can throw all your medals in the bin because you got them from cheating.” Before him sat players who had been at the club since they were teenagers and had sweated blood to get the team to the very top of European football from near Third Division obscurity. He also said that if injury prone crowd favourite, Eddie Gray were a racehorse he would “have been put down.” Mutiny. On the field, in Clough’s first competitive match , the Charity shield opener against Liverpool, Billy Bremner was sent off after a punch up with Kevin Keegan, sparking more controversy surrounding the nature of Leeds United’s playing style. One win in seven, with a mutinous dressing room and angry fans forced the Leeds United board to get rid of Clough after just 44 days. Surprisingly this is no longer a record for the shortest reign as Leeds manager.
His replacement was the steady Jimmy Armfield, who brought the dressing room back together and managed to steer Leeds to a respectable 9th place in the league. Despite struggles on the domestic front they managed to reach the final of the European Cup, losing out to Bayern Munich after yet more refereeing controversy. The final, played in Paris on 28th May 1975, would be the last time that the great Revie team would ever play together.
The following season Mick Jones and Norman Hunter left the club, followed by the Elland Road faithful’s favorite son, Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles in the 1976/7 season. A new era was dawning for the Whites as new players came into a changing team. They kept their Division One status comfortably by finishing 5th and 9th, but after the highs earlier in the decade the board and fans wanted more, leading to Armfield’s sacking in 1978.
Jock Stein, the Scottish maverick manager was next through the door, but proved to be another 44 day wonder, albeit less controversial than Clough’s. His country came calling after the Scottish World Cup debacle under Ally McLeod (who believed they would actually win the 1978 World Cup, but went out in the group stages after defeat to Peru.) Jock Stein became the new Scotland manager and was replaced by Jimmy Adamson.
Initially the new man did well, leading the Whites up to 5th in the 78/79 season. A disappointing 11th place position the following season and a bad start to the 80/81 campaign put paid to his time at the club.
Allan “Sniffer” Clarke, an integral part of the Revie team now turned his hand to management, but he could not live up to the achievements of his playing days. The results were relegation to Division Two in the 1981-82 season and a dramatic fall from grace in a decade.
With a clean slate, another ex-Revie-ite, Eddie Gray took up the reins. His job was to re-build the team and get them back where they belonged. First of all he looked at what he already had in his youth system. Dennis Irwin and Scot Sellars were given their chance, along with the talented Andy Ritchie, a signing from Southampton. At the other end of the age spectrum, the 37-year old Peter Lorimer returned to turn out for his old team mate.
As the Eighties wore on, despite a promising young team being built by Gray, they failed to trouble the top of the Second Division table. By the 84/85 season, after a bad start the board’s patience ran out and they sacked him. This was not to be the end of him at the club though. So, the club turned to yet another former legend, this time – the biggest of them all, Billy Bremner. Perhaps his drive and determination could put Leeds back to the promised land. Sellars and Irwin moved on, Ian Snodin joined along with a young David Batty, who was promoted from the youth team. In 1986-7, Leeds reached the playoffs, narrowly missing out on promotion in the final against Charlton Athletic. A disappointing 7th place finish and a poor start to the 88/89 season saw the back of Bremner, who was replaced by Howard “Sergeant” Wilkinson.
Howard Wilkinson, who had enjoyed success with Sheffield Wednesday, where he won promotion with them in 1984 and led them to an impressive fifth place in ’86. A strict disciplinarian he would instill organisation and teamwork into his teams. A combination of youth, in shape of Gary Speed and Batty, together with shrewd moves in the transfer market saw him build a squad which would achieve the ambitions the fans and city craved once again. The wee Scotsman, Gordon Strachan escaped the clutches of Alex Ferguson at Man United, while Lee Chapman, Mel Sterland, Chris Kamara, the skilful Gary McAllister, goalkeeper John Lukic and hardman, Vinnie Jones arrived to form the nucleus of the team. Leeds finally won promotion back to the 1st Division after an eight year exile in May 1990 and a highly interesting period of the club would lie ahead as both English football and Leeds United were to change beyond recognition.
Boom and Bust 1990 – 2004
Leeds United were back in the top flight, but few expected them to trouble the big teams of the day, the confident trophy-laden Liverpool, a resurgent Arsenal, who had won the league in dramatic circumstances in ’89 and the re-awakening bear from across the Pennines, Manchester United. Sure, Leeds had some solid pros and a manager who would make them difficult to beat, plus supporters to make Elland Road a tough place to go, but champions in two years? No way!
Strangely, Leeds United were not even surprise packages in the 1990-91 season, as that mantle belonged to third placed Crystal Palace. Almost unnoticed, except by supporters of the club, newly promoted Leeds finished in fourth place, which in today’s currency would mean a place in the Champions League Qualifying stages. However, this was 1991 and times were a little different.
Seargeant Wilko would not rest on his laurels. Further signings, such as Rod Wallace, Tony Dorigo and Steve Hodge brought pace and experience to the squad. By the start of the 1991-92 season, Wilko had baked a good, honest cake, he just needed the icing on the top. Enter the Frenchman, Monsieur Cantona. Exiled from the French football league after throwing the ball at a referee, he was technically retired from the game at the end of 1991. On the advice of Gerard Houllier’ he arrived in England looking for a club. After a short trial with Sheffield Wednesday and a polite rejection from Liverpool he holed up at Leeds United and signed for the club in February 1992.
The steel and industry that Wilko had at his disposal with the likes of Speed, Batty, Chapman and Strachan in the ranks was now embellished with gold. Cantona may have only scored ten goals in just 34 appearances for the Whites, but the impact he made, not just on the field, but also in the wider city during 1992 was a phenomenon in itself.
At the end of the 1991-2 season, Leeds were battling it out for the title with old foes Manchester United, themselves aiming to win the title for the first time since 1967. The race would go down to the wire and a televised game between Manchester United vs Liverpool, watched bizarrely by some of the Leeds team at home; as shown by ITV, saw the Scousers win 2-0 to seal the title for the Whites.
A triumphant Leeds team paraded the trophy around the city centre and jubilant fans turned out in their thousands to cheer on their heroes. From Second Division also-rans in 1988 to the last ever Division One champions in just four years, is for any club quite an achievement. However, football was changing and the game was never to be the same again with the advent of the Premier League and the money from Sky TV. It produced a far more cut-throat industry, meaning that teams like Leeds would have to work even harder to compete both on and off the field. How would they adapt to the changing football landscape of the mid-nineties?
Perhaps the advent of the Premier League, the extra TV money which would flood the game meant there would be no “Wilkinson era” like Don Revie. Still regarded as a hero by Leeds fans to this day, Sergeant Wilko would make one controversial decision that would go down in history as one of arguably the biggest mistakes in the club’s history to date. A random phone call to Manchester United, asking about the availability of former Leeds full-back, Dennis Irwin in November 1992 would result in their prize asset, Cantona being sold to their rivals for £1.2million.
It has been subsequently been referred to one of the most controversial transfers in British football history and one that arguably helped sow the seeds for the dominance of Manchester United over the next twenty years.
As for Leeds, the rest of the decade would see them try desperately to compete and play catch-up. The defence of the title would end before it began and saw them languish in a lowly 17th place by May ’93, a massive 33 points behind Cantona and Manchester United. They did not win one single game away from the home. In the UEFA Cup controversy followed United again, but this time in their favour. A 4-4 aggregate defeat to Stuttgart on away goals, which saw Leeds overturn a 3-0 deficit from the first leg, ended with the match being replayed at a neutral venue after the German side had fielded an ineligible player. Leeds won 2-1 but succumbed to Glasgow Rangers in the next round, during the billed, “Battle of Britain,” tie.
Improvement in the league followed with two fifth placed finishes in the next two seasons and a spot in the UEFA Cup once again. The Mid-nineties saw the emergence of one of Leeds’ most flamboyant talents since the days of Cantona; Tony Yeboah. The Ghanaian striker, signed from Eintracht Frankfurt, became renowned for scoring some spectacular goals,, often winning the Match of the Day, “Goal of the Month” feature. In total he made 66 appearances, scoring on an impressive 32 occasions over his two year spell at the club. Another Leeds cult hero to arrive had been South African defender, Lucas Radebe, who went on to captain the club and make 201 appearances stretching to 2005.
Flamboyant striker Tony Yeboah lit up Elland Road during the Mid Nineties.
A poor start to the 1996-7 campaign saw the end of Howard Wilkinson, as both the fans and new owners, “Caspian,” ran out of patience with the man who had brought them the title five years ago. George Graham replaced him with the remit to replicate his success at Arsenal, earlier that decade.
In 1997, Leeds United were a solid Premier League outfit, but still had some way to get back to the top of the league and become a force in Europe like they had done in the Revie era. As ever they had some good solid pros amongst their ranks, David Wetherall, Richard Jobson, John Pemberton and the evergreen Carlton Palmer; along with a smattering of promising youth, such as Lee Bowyer, Harry Kewell, Ian Harte and Andy Gray. However, finishes of 11th and 13th in 1995-6 and 1996-7 were hardly going to send shockwaves around Old Trafford or Highbury.
The teams above them seemed just that bit better, wiser, stronger and had a bit more va-va-voom. Manchester United were winning everything and anything they didn’t was scooped up by Arsenal or occasionally Chelsea. Newcastle under Kevin Keegan briefly threatened this cosy club but famously could not sustain it. Not content with being Premier League also-rans, Leeds sought to revive the days of the Revie when they were the most feared team both home and abroad.
In the summer of 1997 an ambitious chairman, under the name of Peter Ridsdale took over the running of the club. A Leeds-born self made man, he had come on a mission to take his hometown club back to the top of the football tree and stop that horrible red team from over the Pennines from winning everything in sight.
What was to follow is of course one of the most controversial and written about periods in Leeds United’s history. – The Ridsdale era.
As a writer it’s actually easier to mention anything that didn’t happen during this crazy period – a trophy. The rest was two European semi-finals, several top five finishes, a British transfer record, a court case involving two of its young players, tragedy before a European fixture against Galatasary and in the end financial meltdown which is still felt to this day.
George Graham, the manager at the start of the Ridsdale era was himself mired in controversy. In 1995 he had been at the centre of a transfer bung scandal, over the acceptance of £400,000 for the services of two Norwegian players during his Arsenal days. After serving a one year ban he had returned to football as Howard Wilkinson’s replacement.
On the field, Leeds were improving under Graham and signings such as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, David Hopkin and Alfe Inge-Haaland further strengthened the squad. Youngsters in the shape of defender, Jonathan Woodgate, goalkeeper, Paul Robinson and Alan Smith all made their debuts during the 1997-8 season. Leeds finished 5th that year and the platform had been built to challenge the big boys.
George Graham left the club in October 1998 to take the Tottenham Hotspur job and was replaced by his protegee’, David O’Leary. The Irishman had played for the club late on in his career and had become assistant manager under Graham. His promotion to first team manager, despite having no previous experience in a top job surprised many. However, in his first season in charge Leeds saw them go up to fourth place in the Premier League, helped by goals from Smith, Hasselbaink and Kewell.
Fourth place was nowhere still and more money needed to be spent. In a crazy transfer window generally throughout English football Leeds made several big signings, including Danny Mills (£4.37m, Darren Huckerby and Michael Bridges (£4.5m) as O’Leary led them to third spot and crucially a place in the UEFA Cup (then the secondary competition to the Champion’s League.)
It seemed that Leeds United were to be ever-present on both the front and back pages of the newspapers during this period either side of the Millennium. The second half of the campaign was marred by two incidents which are now forever ingrained into the club’s history. The first was of their own making. Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer were charged with grievous bodily harm after an attack on an Asian student outside the Majestyks night club in Leeds City Centre. The two year legal procedures, trial and bad headlines would marr the club in their quest for glory.
Relative success on the field was stirring a great buzz around the city. In their 1999-00 UEFA campaign, Leeds United reached the semi final against Galatasaray. Much anticipation for the away leg was laced with tragedy after two Leeds fans, Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight were killed by Turkish supporters outside the ground. They are forever remembered by all at the club…
Then the complete madness began. In the 2000-01 season Leeds progressed to the semi-final of the Champions League after beating AC Milan, Lazio, Anderlecht and a strong Deportivo la Coruna’ side to play fellow Spanish team, Valencia in the semis. After a 0-0 draw at Elland Road, there was not a space to be had in any pub or bar in Leeds on 8th May 2001, as the second leg was screened by anywhere which had a telly with access to the ill-fated “On Digital” television network.
In the replay, the class of the Spanish side told as Leeds slid to a 3-0 defeat at the Mestalla and their heroics had come to an end. Amidst the highs of reaching the last four of the biggest club tournament in the world, the larger the fees and wages the board lavished on players to help them maintain their status. Dominc Matteo 4.5m from Liverpool, French midfielder Olivier Dacourt £7.2m from Lens, Aussie striker Mark Viduka, a £6.5m capture from Celtic, Robbie Keane £7m from AC Milan and the daddy of them all, Rio Ferdinand for a then British transfer record of £18m. With only £12m being recouped by the sale of players it equaled a net transfer spend of £30m. In 2016 this may seem, for a top club playing in the Champions League, like the norm, but at the start of the Millennium this was a lot of money. Around this time, a brand new shiny 50,000 capacity stadium was planned for the side of the A1 at Skelton, complete with access from the city’s new tram system.. (ahem!) The new plans were plastered all over the Yorkshire Post and was a symbol of this bright new era for Leeds United in the 21st Century. The foundations were never even dug.
There is no doubt that this Leeds team, including Martyn, Kelly, Harte, Ferdinand, Woodgate, Dacourt, Bowyer, Kewell, Smith, Viduka, Keane, may have been the best to have ran out at Elland Road- although those who remember the Revie era may disagree.
While many people’s attentions were focused on the club’s Champions League run, it was rather easy to forget about the bread and butter of the league. After all, if you are to appear in the Champions League the following season you needed to either win the thing, or finish in the top three of your domestic league. Finish fourth and you were “banished” to the backwaters of the UEFA Cup, (nowadays the Europa League). This meant less revenue coming into the club through TV rights and prize money. It also made it more difficult to sustain the high wages and ambitions of the players at the club.
Despite this the spending continued in a bid to get Leeds back into the Champions League for the 2002-3 season. Robbie Fowler joined from Liverpool for £11m. And then there was Seth Johnson… an injury prone, tough tackling midfielder who stood out in a struggling Derby team of that year. He had even managed to gain one England cap but sadly spent more time in the medical room than on a football pitch.
As legend has it, during the negotiations with the player and his agent and Ridsdale, he had gone into the room aiming to settle for a wage of around £15,000 per week, he walked away with a 5-year contract of £35K per week and a £7m transfer fee. He spent most of his Leeds career with a persistent knee injury and made just 54 appearances in a 4 year spell at the club.
In the season 2001-2 the seeds of Leeds’ demise were being sown. They bombed out of the UEFA cup to PSV in the fourth round and finished 5th in the League, once again outside the Champions League places. The vultures were beginning to fly in from the surrounding hills.
Then a bombshell hit the dressing room. David O’Leary was sacked in 2002. A recently published book, “Leeds United on trial” written by the manager himself, about the Bowyer/Woodgate court case, plus his failure to guide the team into the coveted Champions League positions sealed his fate. He was replaced by Terry Venables.
By now, Leeds had spent £100m in three years, paid for by borrowed money, without the means to pay it back through forecasted Champions League revenue. This critical error of judgement saw the club face financial meltdown.
It turned out that Peter Ridsdale had gambled and lost on Champions League qualification and now the chickens were coming home to roost. The financial figures did not make good reading, a £60m transfer deficit, and a loss of £14m meant they had to take drastic action and “sell the crown jewels” of their expensively assembled squad. First to go was the jewel in the crown himself, Rio Ferdinand for £30m to Manchester United in the summer of ’02, next Robbie Keane to Spurs for £7m, Bowyer, a snip at £300,000 to West Ham and Woodgate, £9m to Newcastle United. The fans grew restless turning their ire on Ridsdale for getting them into this position, where their prize assets had to be sold to their rivals. Their league form didn’t help either, which eventually saw them finish in a lowly 15th, miles away from any form of European qualification.
After a further set of dismal financial results and a debt of around £80m the dream was over for Ridsdale and he resigned from his position as chairman on 31st March 2003. Terry Venables left the club too and was replaced by Peter Reid. The control of Leeds’ horrendous finances fell on the shoulders of Professor John McKenzie, hardly a football man , but someone who it was thought could sort the Leeds United mess out.
He set about cutting a swathe through the club’s high expenditure, from the player’s wages to the upkeep of Ridsdale’s pet goldfish; McKenzie managed to make some savings and redundancies amongst the club’s staff. The gaffe-prone prof, who was once heard talking to Peter Reid about his future in the full glare of the media, resigned after nine months and was replaced by Gerald Krasner.
On the field, things were going from bad to worse in the 2003-4 season. With the sale of the “crown jewels,” plus a heavy reliance on cut-price deals and youth academy graduates, Leeds United’s Premier League goose was cooked with relegation to the second tier of English football for the first time since 1990.
Reality bites 2004-2016
The fall out from the Peter Ridsdale/David O’Leary regime is still being felt by the club to this very day and issues surrounding the club’s ownership and financial instability still lingers like a bad smell over Elland Road.
So to 2004-5 season and finally Kevin Blackwell was appointed permanent manager as Leeds United. Armed with a blank sheet of paper after much of the club’s remaining major playing assets were sold to Premier League Clubs, it was time for a new start and hopefully a bright new dawn.
Viduka, McPhail, Harte, James Milner, a local lad from Horsforth, Nick Barmby, a Venables recruit and Danny Mills all left the club, leaving only Gary Kelly, Lucas Radebe, the hapless Seth Johnson and a few other senior players at the club. Added to that list was the controversial departure of Alan Smith to Manchester United and the arrival of Danny Pugh as a makeweight in the deal. For many this transfer signaled the very end of the once great Leeds United team of the Millennium.
On the plus side there was no better time to be in the youth team at Leeds United, as it may not be long before you got to pull on the famous white shirt. Players like Jamie McMaster, Aaron Lennon, Frazer Richardson and Matthew Killgallon were given their opportunity to show what they could do. Supplemented by pros who knew their way around this division, such as Clarke Carlisle and Michael Ricketts Leeds finished a credible 14th, given the circumstances.
A change at the top saw former Chelsea supremo Ken Bates take over the club. Although old Santa Claus was never a popular man in Leeds he at least gave Blackwell some money to spend in the 2005-6 season and several new signings emerged, leading Leeds to a play off final against Watford which they lost 3-0. There were encouraging signs at least.
The 2006-7 season was seen by many as being Leeds’ year to win promotion. However, indifferent form at the start of the season saw the end of Kevin Blackwell and the arrival of Dennis Wise.
Another steady season was turned into disaster. The finances at the club were once again under scrutiny and a £35m debt was still owed to various creditors. The club went into voluntary administration to avoid being wound up by the Inland Revenue. The penalty for doing this was a ten point deduction for teams which follow this strategy. The deduction sent Leeds United down to the uncharted waters of the English third tier for the first time in the club’s history. Bates effectively set up a brand new company, Leeds United Football Club Limited on the same day the old one was put into the hands of the administrators. Due to their off field dealings and failure to follow Football League insolvency procedures the club started life in League One with a -15 deficit.
Just six years earlier they had been entertaining the likes of Barcelona, AC Milan and Lazio at Elland Road. Now they were being visited by the likes of Hartlepool, Yeovil Town and Port Vale.
Despite this hurdle, the club overtook most of the teams above them to finish 5th. Without the deficit they would have finished second. They lost to Doncaster Rovers in the 2008 playoff final.
The coming of the “new Leeds” effectively dispensed with the problems caused by the Ridsdale era and the club could continue to try and function as a normal football league club once again. The ever unpopular Dennis Wise left Elland Road after a poor run of mid-seasn form and was replaced by ’92 hero, Gary McAllister.
Gary Mac was renowned for his attacking mentality as both a player and manager. His squad reflected his intent with the arrival of two good strikers, Jermaine Beckford and Luciano Becchio. Add a young Fabian Delph and Jonny Howson to the mix and Leeds had a half decent side for League One. A 5-game losing streak put paid to McAllister’s services and the arrival of the enigmatic Simon Grayson. They finished in the dreaded play offs and narrowly missed out on promotion to Millwall.
One highlight of an otherwise miserable time for Leeds United fans was putting Manchester United out of the FA Cup on 3rd January 2010, a solitary Jermaine Beckford goal finally giving the long-suffering Leeds fans something to cheer about. Coupled with this, they finally won promotion back to the second tier.
Back in the Championship, Leeds competed well, finishing in seventh place and narrowly missing out on the playoffs. By 2011 the grip of chairman Bates tightened when he assumed full control of the club. He was never popular with the fans, largely due to his Chelsea connections (a rivalry which went back to the controversial 1970 FA Cup Final) and because of a perceived lack of investment in the club. He once branded the Leeds fans, “morons” and the connection between boardroom and terraces had been broken beyond repair. Grayson went and Neil Warnock came in as the team finished in mid-table.
Off the field the club was facing another takeover, this time from faceless investors, GFH Capital, who agreed to keep the unpopular Bates as club president. The chairmanship was relinquished to Bahraini businessman Salah Nooruddin. Poor form towards the end of the 2012-13 season saw the end of Warnock and the start of Brian McDermott’s reign. Things went swimmingly at the start of the 2013-14 season with Leeds a permanent fixture in the top six and for once a popular manager was at the helm with some money to spend. Luke Murphy became the first million pound signing for eight years, plus the goals of Ross McCormack brought new optimism to the club- at least for a short while.
In January 2014 the apple-cart was upset yet again. With Leeds doing well in the league and a settled manager in McDermott, a change at the top would bring further turmoil to the club. GFH sold the club to the flamboyant owner of Italian Club, Cagliari, Massimo Cellino.
Cellino is the latest in yet another controversial figure to be associated with the club. From Charlie Copeland who grassed Leeds City’s payments to wartime players in 1919, through Hilton Crowther, who wanted to merge the club with Huddersfield Town, to Brian Clough , Eric Cantona, and Peter Ridsdale.
The Italian has been involved in several controversies since he became chairman two years ago. Firstly he was wanted for tax evasion in his native Italy, which resulted in a four month ban from football in 2014, coupled with a further banishment imposed by the Football League until June 2016. This has not prevented him from creating more controversy at the club. His first stunt was to sack Brian McDermott and then re-instate him until the end of the 2013-14 campaign. He finally dispensed with his services and replaced him with David Hockaday, whose only previous experience had been with non-league Forest Green Rovers. After poor results he was replaced briefly by Neil Redfearn and then Darko Milanic. The hapless Slovenian was to endure the shortest ever reign as Leeds manager, lasting just six games and 32 games- even shorter than Clough.
While it is unlikely a book or film will ever be made of Milanic’s 32 days; the turnover of managers under the Cellino regime has made Leeds United almost a laughing stock in the footballing community. Milanovic was replaced until the end of the season by Neal Redfearn. Leeds finished in a moderate 15th place. German, Uwe Rosler was the next to try his luck, but once again his services were dispensed with by the Italian after twelve matches and three months. Step forward current manager, Steve Evans, himself an effervescent character in the game. The future ownership of the club is also “up in the air” and at the time of writing remains unresolved. In recent weeks, further controversies have flowed out of the club, including Cellino ‘s decision prevent Sky Sports cameras enter Elland Road to cover their league game against Derby County on December 28th 2015, which he only relented at the last minute.
At the time of writing, Leeds United are Championship also-rans. The effects of its recent history are once again weighing down a once giant of English football. As history has shown though Leeds United has the capacity to rise once again, given the right owner, manager and team running out onto the Elland Road pitch, cheered on by their ever-loyal fans.