Given the recent troubled times of Yorkshire-based clubs, it should come as no surprise that football has always been a bittersweet thing in the region.
This is none more so true than in the case of Leeds. Long before Leeds United made headlines for overpaying players, eccentric chairmen and bouncing through the divisions, there was another side in Leeds.
They were called Leeds City, and in their brief history they went from being a promising regional club to a team convicted of alleged financial irregularities.
The Beginnings of Something New
The early 1900s were a confused time for football in Leeds. As was so often the case elsewhere, the city’s identity was more synonymous with rugby than with football and indeed it was a rugby side that unintentionally gave birth to Leeds City Football Club.
In 1897 Holbeck Rugby Club bought the rights to a stadium situated on Elland Road. Primarily used for rugby matches, the Old Peacock Ground, as the stadium was then known, had set the rugby team back over £1,000, then a sizeable sum. In a bid to recoup some of their money, Holbeck took the decision to rent the ground out to local football teams.
At first the ground was rented out for once off club games, but soon football began to take hold. As Holbeck began to struggle in the Rugby world, they became more and more dependent on the revenue from paying football teams.
By 1904, Leeds Woodville, a local football side had begun to ground share the Old Peacock with Holbeck. When Holbeck failed to secure a place in the Northern Union’s Division One, the Rugby side folded. Unable to run the stadium by themselves, Leeds Woodville in turn shut their doors, leaving the Elland Road Stadium on the market for new owners.
An impromptu meeting of local businessmen at the Griffin Hotel in Boar Lane in the aftermath of Woodville’s demise led to the formation of a new club. This time, the team would be called Leeds City and those present were adamant that this time things would be different.
Rather than buy the stadium outright, the Old Peacock was rented for a mere £75 pounds for the first year of the Club’s existence with the option to buy the ground should the Club prove successful. It was a frugality that had been lacking in previous times.
In 1904, Leeds City had joined the West Yorkshire League and by the following season were playing their games in the Football League. Such advances did not go unnoticed, with attendances regularly topping over 2,000 spectators, a respectable sum for a city more attuned to the oval ball. It’s estimated that the growing popularity of Leeds City was causing attendance at Rugby League matches in Leeds to drop by as much as 50%.
The first season in the Football League would see Leeds City finish 6th, a remarkable finish for a side only beginning to bite its teeth in professional football. The next decade would witness Leeds finish primarily in the top half of the table and even welcome a certain Herbert Chapman as manager.
Chapman, appointed in 1912, was seemingly on his way to achieving something great with the side, missing out on promotion by only two points in his first season and playing an attractive style of football that was drawing in nearly 20,000 fans a game. Leeds even managed to end the 1913/1914 season with a tidy profit of £400. Hopes were high for the next season.
Such optimism was unfounded however, as Chapman failed to reproduce his magic with the Yorkshire side. In a gruelling campaign, Leeds City finished the 1914/1915 season in 15th place, a stark contrast from the previous year. When the outbreak of WW1 put an end to the professional football league, fans of the club had little to cheer about.
Remarkably it was during the war years from 1914 to 1918 that Leeds City experienced success for the first time.
Playing in the unofficial League Championships, Leeds City flourished. Somehow managing to secure the services of guest players, including stars like Fanny Walden and Charlie Buchan, the team went on to beat the Lancashire-based champions in the Unofficial League Championships and were arguably one of the best teams in England during this period.
The four-year stretch of the First World War seemed to rejuvenate the side and when the 1919/1920 Professional League season began, hopes were high that the team could bring its newfound momentum into the new era of English football. Indeed, with Chapman still at the helm, the side began the season netting ten points from eight games with the prolific Billy Mcleod scoring nine goals.
Just as things seemed to be going in a positive direction for the Yorkshire club, a scandal broke. A scandal that would rock English football and spell the end of Leeds City.
A Scandal Breaks
Ten games into the 1919/1920 Football League Season, City player Charlie Copeland made public a series of grievances against his employers. Before the war, Copeland had received £3 a week with a £1 weekly increase when he played in the first team. It was seen as a fair deal for a man who was constantly in and out of the first team.
In 1919, the Leeds board had offered Copeland £3 10s (£3.50) for playing in the reserves, and considerably more if he played for the first team. Hoping to speed up contract negotiations, the board threatened to release Copeland on a free transfer should he refuse the offer. It was a figure well shy of the £6 that Copeland was asking for.
In a quest to receive what he perceived as his fair due, Copeland offered his own ultimatum. Either pay him £6 a week or Copeland would report Leeds City to the FA and Football League for making illegal payments to players during the war years. Refusing to accept what they perceived as blackmail, the Board released Copeland to Coventry, a decision that effectively spelt the end of the club.
As a parting shot to his former employers, Copeland released a series of documents to the FA disclosing said illegal payments, in July of 1919. By September, Leeds were being asked to account for their actions in front of a commission led by FA Chairman J.C. Clegg.
The commission were stunned when City replied that it was not in their power to do so. Almost immediately, the Commission ordered Leeds to produce the documents by 6 October or else face the consequences.
Incredibly the Club seemed unfazed by such threats. Illegal payments to guest players had been a known secret during the First World War. Leeds’ crime was to be caught. On the field, the team continued to surprise. Two days before the Commission’s deadline the team beat Wolves away 4-2 and even gave former player Copeland a lift back to Leeds on the return trip to Yorkshire. It appeared that there was no ill will or sense of impending danger.
When the 6th of October came and went, the inquiring commission were left with no choice. Leeds City had to be punished. Few would have guessed the severity of their ruling.
The End of Leeds City
Meeting soon after the deadline, the commission suspended City’s next game against South Shields, leaving the club in limbo.
Their wait was soon ended when it was announced that the team were expelled from the Football League entirely. Football League Chairman John McKenna made it clear to reporters that the behaviour of Leeds City was not to be tolerated:
“The authorities of the game intend to keep it absolutely clean. We will have no nonsense. The football stable must be cleaned and further breakages of the law regarding payments will be dealt with in such a severe manner that I now give warning that clubs and players must not expect the slightest leniency.”
Soon afterwards a formal order came from the FA to wind up the club. The decision not only affected the club, but the city of Leeds itself. Something that became clear when Alderman Joseph Henry, Lord Mayor of Leeds pleaded with the FA to show clemency, even offering to take over the club himself.
Henry’s offers fell on deaf ears. Eight games into the 1919/1920 season, Leeds City was no more, and their position in the league was taken by Burslem Port Vale, who inherited City’s points. Some alleged that Port Vale had put undue pressure on the FA to punish Leeds in a bid to secure a league position. It was a conspiracy theory that failed to appreciate that City had refused to comply with the FA.
The punishment for Leeds’ officials and players did not end with the closure of the side. Five City officials were banned for life, including rather surprisingly, manager Herbert Chapman. Chapman later earned a reprieve when it was discovered that he had been working in a munitions factory at the time of the illegal payments.
The biggest victims however were the players. As Leeds City’s assets began to be sold off in the winding-up process, a decision was taken to auction off the players. Alongside goalposts, boots and physiotherapy equipment, every member of the Leeds side was sold at a private auction to thirty representatives from various League clubs.
In the end the entire squad was sold for around £10,000 with star players like McLeod fetching as much as £1,250. Others were sold off for a meagre £100 after would-be buyers complained of exorbitant prices. In this football cattle market, the Football League, who had organised the sale, decreed that no player would be transferred to a team against his wishes but with the prospect of unemployment looming over their heads, many players jumped ship as quickly as possible.
It was a sad end for a team beginning to show real promise. Of course, as modern day fans will know, the football story in Leeds did not die with the end of Leeds City.
In the aftermath of City’s closure, moves were made to create a new team by the name of Leeds United, a side which in future years would have its own financial issues to deal with. That however, is a story for a different day.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.