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TBT: The Demise Of Leeds United

This week’s Throwback Thursday looks back at the fall from grace of one of England’s biggest football teams – Leeds United.

At the height of their existence, Leeds United shared a rivalry with Manchester United that was almost as fiery as the one their northern neighbours shared with Liverpool. Now they are a mere shadow of that club.

The West Yorkshire side was formed in 1919 after Leeds City F.C. were disbanded by the Football League. They have played their home games at Elland Road since the club’s formation and have turned it into one of the most popular neutral venues for English competitions.

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The Don Revie Era

Leeds’ most successful periods came during Don Revie’s legendary 14-year tenure in charge. The former Leeds player took over management of the team while they were in financial difficulty and set about restructuring the entire club.

After saving the club from relegation in his first season, Revie changed the team’s strip to all-white, similar to Real Madrid’s, and introduced a youth policy.

He led the club back into the First Division in 1964 and went on to write himself into the history books of Leeds United, and English football in general. He won two First Division titles, while also finishing second five times.

During his spell, Leeds also picked up an FA Cup and League Cup, while also reaching the latter stages of European competitions. He was lured away from Elland Road with the offer of managing the English national team.

Revie’s legacy is there for all to see after the club erected a bronze statue of him outside Elland Road in 2012.

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1975 – 1996

The club went through a difficult phase after Revie’s departure, working through several managers until they were relegated during the 1981-82 season. Having suffered relegation under Revie’s former player, Allan Clarke, the club again went for a former player to lead them. Eddie Gray was appointed but his young team failed to gain promotion back to the First Division.

Gray was sacked after three seasons, to be replaced by yet another former player and club legend in Billy Bremner. Bremner’s status at the club couldn’t help him though and was also fired after three seasons in charge.

Howard Wilkinson’s appointment to replace Bremner finally delivered the success the club’s board was craving. Instant promotion followed by a fourth place finish in their first season back in the First Division seemed to have put Leeds back at the top of the English game.

Their return seemed complete the following season when Wilkinson led them to the title. Such a turnaround in fortunes was remarkable but it wasn’t to last long. The introduction of the new Premiership format saw them struggle to avoid relegation while competing in the Champions League. Howard was relieved of his position in 1996 but he is still highly regarded for leaving behind a formidable youth system that would go on to churn out top class players.

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The David O’Leary Era

Wilkinson was replaced by the controversial George Graham, with Irishman David O’Leary as his assistant manager. Graham rebuilt the team and helped them to once more qualify for European football in 1998.

However, he decided to leave the club for Tottenham Hotspur, with assistant O’Leary taking over. Eddie Gray, who had previously returned to the club as a Youth Team coach, was promoted to the club’s number two position.

Under this new management, the club never finished outside the top five in the Premier League and in their first season they finished fourth, to qualify for the UEFA Cup. They reached the semi-finals of the competition the following season but were defeated by Galatasaray.

They carried their good form into the league as well; finishing third and qualifying for the Champions League.

Their form in the league suffered slightly but they managed to reach the Champions League semi-finals in 2001, eventually losing to Valencia. O’Leary’s stock in the game was rising so high that it led to him entering the computer industry with Ubisoft’s ‘O’Leary Manager 2002’.

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Peter Ridsdale

Peter Ridsdale became the chairman of Leeds United in 1997 and helped drive the club to the success they achieved. However, he was also a major culprit in their demise.

As Leeds started to achieve more and more success, they had to be seen to be investing in the team to prolong this success. Ridsdale took this too far and, along with the board, borrowed £60 million on the back of future gate receipts. In Ridsdale’s mind, the team would continue to compete in the Champions League on a regular basis, thus providing TV revenue to fund the loan repayments.

As the team’s performances started to decline, so too did the club’s ability to pay back their loans. Ridsdale managed to keep their financial difficulties from the spotlight until he sanctioned Rio Ferdinand’s £30 million move to Manchester United.

Many questioned why they sold one of their biggest assets to a direct rival while they had such high aspirations. The sale would have further repercussions and resulted in a public fallout between O’Leary and Ridsdale, which ended with O’Leary’s sacking.

Former England manager Terry Venables was brought in to try and steady the ship but with low morale amongst the squad and further sales, Venables was also on a collision course with Ridsdale. With the team’s performances becoming increasingly worse, the inevitable happened and Ridsdale sacked Venables.

Ridsdale replaced him with Peter Reid but it was one of his last acts before he resigned from his position. While he once enjoyed a close relationship with Leeds fans, he is now known as the man who financially destroyed his hometown club and set them on their way to relegation.

Rather than own up and accept responsibility for his part in the club’s troubles, Ridsdale continued to deny he was to blame for any of the events, despite the club carrying a debt of £103 million at the time of his resignation. This failed to endear him to the supporters he is supposed to hold the same affection as.

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The Aftermath

Ridsdale was replaced as chairman by existing director Professor John McKenzie. Reid managed to save Leeds from relegation in the penultimate game of the season but after an unsuccessful start to the following season, he was also dismissed.

The team was taken over by a consortium, led by insolvency specialist Gerald Krasner. He oversaw the cut-price sale of many senior and promising young players. Players such as Harry Kewell, Jonathan Woodgate, Robbie Keane, Robbie Fowler and Alan Smith were sold for fee’s way below their value, before and after Krasner’s takeover. The most preposterous being the sale of Lee Bowyer to Birmingham for just £100,000.

This inevitably led to relegation at the end of the 2003-04 season. Unfortunately for the supporters, this was only the beginning of the club’s downward spiral.

New manager Kevin Blackwell was forced to sell or release most of his players, to reduce the wage bill, and rebuild his entire squad. The forced sale of the club’s stadium and training ground in 2004 was also a bitter blow to supporters.

The club was eventually sold to Ken Bates for £10 million, who set about trying to find the club some stability. The team’s on-field troubles continued until they entered administration in 2007, guaranteeing the club’s relegation to League One, the lowest league the club had ever experienced.

Due to the club being still being in administration at the beginning of the 2007-08 season, they suffered another 15 point deduction but still managed to make the play-off final under the management of Gary McAllister. They were eventually promoted back to the Championship in 2010.

Since then, the club has gone through numerous owners and managers, while turning in mediocre performances in the league. The club seems to be a hub for eccentric characters, whether it’s the players, the manager or the owner. Controversy and talking points always seem to be just around the corner.

The most recent example of such talking points is current owner Massimo Cellini retiring the team’s number 17 shirt due to personal superstition. There have also been claims that the players have to pay for their kits to be washed and must bring packed lunches with them to training.

What the future holds for this once great club is unknown, but one thing we can say for certain is Leeds United supporters will never stop shouting for their side until they have been restored to the top of the English game.

 Karl Graham, Pundit Arena.

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