One of the criticisms laid at the door of the English Premier League is that it is driven by money. Rich teams prosper and become richer whilst the less fashionable clubs struggle to stay alive, let alone compete for honours. A prime example of how money talks in the modern game of football is that of Leeds United. A team who attempted to buy into the football elite but, like Icarus, flew too high - before plummeting unceremoniously from the top flight.
Before the Premiership
Whilst never a 'big' club in the same way that Manchester United or Liverpool FC were, Leeds had enjoyed a period of success in the 1970s, under the great Don Revie, before spending much of the 1980s in the Second Division. However, they started the Premiership Era1 as defending champions2 after Howard Wilkinson guided them first to promotion in 1990, then in 1992 to their first League triumph in two decades. With a team including local hero David Batty and a handful of full internationals, such as the mercurial Frenchman Eric Cantona, the Premiership Era seemed to be dawning brightly for the Elland Road3 faithful.
Sergeant Wilko's Barmy Army - The Wilkinson Years (1992-1997)
Unfortunately, the first Premiership season didn't go too well for Leeds. Failure to win a single away match in the 1993-1994 season left the defending champions languishing in 17th place - only two points clear of the relegation zone. To make matters worse in the minds of the fans, the much loved David Batty was sold to Blackburn. Even more galling, bitter rivals Manchester United ran away with their first title victory in 26 years aided by their new signing Cantona4.
The 1994-1995 season saw a marked improvement as, buoyed by new signings such as Lucas Radebe5, The Whites6 found enough form to propel themselves into a fifth place finish. However, Wilkinson's attempts to rebuild the side were not all successful. This is best demonstrated by the laughable Leeds career of the forward Tomas Brolin, who signed in 1995 for £4.5 million and managed only 19 appearances for the club.
1995-1996 was a largely uninspired season for Leeds, notable only for the club's appearance in the League Cup Final. A triumph over Aston Villa at Wembley would have glossed over a disappointing 13th place finish, but a lacklustre Leeds display led to a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of the Midlands side. Time appeared to be running out for Howard Wilkinson, and early in the 1996-1997 season he was sacked to make way for a new manager. His replacement's goal was to lead the club into the top half of the table and hopefully European competition.
Solid Foundations - The George Graham Era (1997-1999)
The somewhat controversial choice to replace Howard Wilkinson was the former Arsenal manager George Graham. Graham had left the North London club under a cloud, after being accused of recieving illegal payments from an agent whilst signing players, but was placed in charge of Leeds United in September of 1996. What followed was a season of consolidation as Leeds finished in 11th place, despite scoring only 28 goals in 38 games.
As the 1997-1998 season began, Leeds signed the Dutch striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to boost the team's goalscoring ability. Hasselbaink scored 23 goals in his first season, propelling the team into 5th place in the table, and securing the club a place in the UEFA Cup7 for the following season. This season also saw the emergence of the young winger Harry Kewell, who would become a star under Graham's successor.
However, Graham would not stay at Leeds for the whole of the 1998-1999 season, and despite progressing in the UEFA Cup at the expense of the Portugese side CS Maritimo, he left Leeds to return to the capital, this time to manage Tottenham Hotspur. Rumours over Graham's successor were rife, but after failing to secure Leicester City manager Martin O'Neil as a replacement, the Leeds board opted to promote assistant manager David O'Leary. If progress under Graham had been dull yet steady, life under O'Leary was about to become a rollercoaster ride.
Performance at a Price - David O'Leary's 'Babies' (1999-2002)
As O'Leary frequently remarked at press conferences, he was 'a young manager learning his trade' and his team reflected this. A backbone of experienced players inherited from Graham including Radebe, Hasselbaink, Republic of Ireland fullback Gary Kelly and England goalkeeper Nigel Martyn - was fleshed out by the addition of a crop of talented youngsters. O'Leary handed first team places to Kewell and other young players such as Lee Bowyer8, Jonathan Woodgate, Ian Harte9 and a tempramental young striker named Alan Smith. O'Leary also cemented his popularity with the fans by re-signing an Elland Road legend. Newcastle United were persuaded to sell an England midfielder, and Leeds fans were able to sing 'Batty is back!' This blend of youth and experience led to another season of UEFA Cup qualification as the team finished 4th at the end of the 1998-1999 season.
The 1999-2000 season heralded O'Leary's first full season at the helm of the club, and was a time of triumph and tragedy. A superb performance from the side led to Champions League qualification via a 3rd place finish, and a UEFA Cup semi-final following a notable victory over Italian side AS Roma, amongst others. However these achievements on the field were overshadowed by two events off the pitch, one of which dragged the club's name into the dirt and one which saw the lives of two fans cut short.
Leeds United on Trial - Bowyer and Woodgate
In January 2000, midfielder Lee Bowyer, defender Jon Woodgate, reserve striker Tony Hackworth and two of Woodgate's friends were arrested in connection with an attack outside a nightclub on a young man named Sarfraz Najeib. This was immediately pounced upon by the media who branded Bowyer and Woodgate 'thugs'. The pair were excluded from consideration for international duty until the outcome of the trial by the FA, although they were still eligible to play for Leeds. Woodgate's form suffered and he was dropped from the side, but Bowyer would play some of his best football whilst on trial, despite the fact he on occasion had to be flown by helicopter from the courtroom to the ground. Despite a court ruling out any racial motives, the club was claimed to be racist by many sources. This was seen as unfair by Leeds fans who were quick to point out that the club captain Lucas Radebe was a keen campaigner for racial equality, and a friend of Nelson Mandela, and that Leeds had one of the only British-Asian professional footballers of the time, Harpal Singh, on their books. Charges against Hackworth were dropped, Bowyer was acquitted, but Woodgate was convicted of affray and sentenced to community service, however even this disgrace was to pale into comparison after another off the field event, this time in Turkey.
Tragedy - The Murder of Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight
After defeating Slavia Prague in the quarter finals, Leeds were drawn against Turkish side Galatasaray in the UEFA Cup semi final. The result of the match in Istanbul and the return leg at Elland Road are hardly remembered due to the tragic events of the night of April 5th, 2000. Less than 24 hours before the match, having been welcomed to Istanbul by baying Galatasaray fans holding 'Welcome To Hell' banners, two Leeds fans were attacked and killed by a group of Turks. Christopher Loftus, a publican, and his friend Kevin Speight were set upon with machetes following a disturbance in the centre of Istanbul and both died from their injuries. Within hours, the gates of Elland Road and the adjacent statue of Billy Bremner10 were covered in scarves and floral tributes from clubs the length and breadth of the country, as the club mourned the loss of the two fans. Five men were charged with the murders; with one man being sentenced to seven years, and the four others recieving sentences of less than four months each. Galatasaray and the Turkish authorities never issued an apology or any condolences, but Turkish defender Alpay of Aston Villa laid his own tribute to the pair and voiced his regret at his countrymen's actions. A plaque dedicated to the two men is now affixed to the East stand at Elland Road in their memory.
Despite this tragedy, or perhaps because of it, the team bonded and managed their best Premiership finish to date, ensuring that the 2000-2001 season would bring Champions League football to Elland Road. The team was strengthened by the acquisition of Inter Milan's Robbie Keane, West Ham defender Rio Ferdinand, who signed for a club record £18 million and French midfielder Olivier Dacourt. Victory over German side 1860 Munich placed Leeds in the first group stage of the competition, from which they progressed at the expense of Spanish giants Barcelona. In the second group stage a 1-0 victory against the Italian side Lazio11, courtesy of Alan Smith, secured not only progression to the knockout stage but hero status for the Rothwell-born striker. A heroic 3-0 victory over Spaniards Deportivo La Coruna in the quarter final led to Leeds' second European semi final in as many years, as the club became the farthest-progressing English team in that season's competition. Unfortunately the fairy story was to be abruptly ended at that stage at the hands of yet another Spanish side, Valencia. However, the team's domestic form was unable to match its European achievements and a 4th place finish meant that the club would not see Champions League football the following season, despite O'Leary's increasingly extravagant spending.
The 2001-2002 season would prove to be O'Leary's last in charge at Elland Road, as he failed to live up to his promise of delivering Champions League football with Leeds finishing 5th. This failure was to prove disastrous for the club as the board had allowed O'Leary to spend huge amounts of borrowed money that could only be recouped by consistent qualification for the Champions League. Despite signing players such as legendary Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler for a fee reported to be around £12 million, O'Leary had failed to deliver the performance necessary to keep the club solvent. This financial crisis was further compounded by wild spending by the club's board, with Chairman Peter Ridsdale reportedly spending thousands of pounds on goldfish for club offices, as well as buying private cars and providing first class air travel for board members. What had not yet become apparent, was that O'Leary was only to be the first departure from Elland Road, in what would become a sale of massive proportions.
Everything Must Go - Terry Venables' Tenure (2002-2003)
Former England manager Terry Venables was appointed as successor to O'Leary at the start of the 2002-2003 season. Venables was supposed to take the club to the next level, challenging for silverware and returning the club to the Champions League, however his first days as manager were to see the departure of the club captain Rio Ferdinand to rivals Manchester United for a record fee of £30 million. This in itself was not seen as a problem as a resurgent Woodgate was seen as the ideal replacement for Ferdinand in the team. However Venables did not seem to be the tactical mastermind that his media image claimed he was. A change in tactics led to Leeds' star player Kewell being played out of position, the consistent David Batty was dropped in favour of the ineffectual Paul Okon, and Leeds began to slide down the Premiership table after a promising start. As the January transfer window approached, the Leeds Chairman Peter Ridsdale was unable to keep the creditors away from the club. With European qualification looking unlikely, the only way to raise funds was to sell players. First team players like Fowler, Dacourt and Bowyer were all sold for a fraction of the sums they were originally bought for. The team's performance suffered and when Woodgate was sold to Newcastle despite the board's promises to Venables, the manager soon followed suit. With time running out on the 2002-2003 season, Leeds found themselves locked in a fight to stay in the top flight and without a manager to steer them clear of relegation.
On The Brink - Peter Reid takes the reigns (2003-2004)
Peter Reid was to be the man given the unenviable task of keeping a club selling most of its first team players in the Premiership. For the end of the 2003-2004 season he managed it. A notable 6-1 demolition of Charlton Athletic followed by a victory over reigning champions Arsenal, thanks to a late goal from Australian striker Mark Viduka12, were enough to keep Leeds in the top flight, but the sales had to continue. During the close-season Harry Kewell, a player once valued at over £20 million, was sold to Liverpool for a fraction of that amount, the majority of which apparently ended up in the hands of Kewell's agent. As the 2004-2005 season started, a cobbled together side of youngsters - including James Milner, loan signings - such as Arsenal's Jermaine Pennant, and players the club had managed to hang onto - notably Alan Smith, managed to acrue only 8 points from the side's first 12 fixtures. This was obviously relegation form and as such Reid was shown the door following a 6-1 defeat at the hand of newly promoted Portsmouth FC.
Crash and Burn - Eddie Gray, Kevin Blackwell and relegation (2004)
As the club began to implode financially, the board of directors was replaced twice, regaining a modicum of stability under Gerald Krasner who was either unable or unwilling to appoint a new full time manager. As such, a former player, Eddie Gray13 was appointed caretaker manager, aided by the team's assistant manager Kevin Blackwell. However Gray was unable to solve the team's problems on the pitch, despite a heroic draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford, as injuries to Radebe and Norwegian midfielder Eirik Bakke weakened an already depleted side. With three matches to go, Leeds faced Bolton Wanderers knowing that a loss would ensure their relegation from the Premiership. Despite taking an early lead, Leeds were soundly beaten and to the sound of the travelling fans singing 'We're going down in a minute...' the whistle was blown on the game, and on Leeds' time in the Premier League. The following two games served only as a goodbye to most of what remained of the team's best players. Alan Smith went from hero to villan, as despite his assurances that he wanted to stay at Elland Road if possible14, and being carried from the Elland Road pitch on the shoulders of invading Leeds fans, he agreed terms with Leeds' biggest rivals and signed to play in the red of Manchester United. He was followed out of Elland Road by England goalkeeper Paul Robinson, defender Dominic Matteo and promising youngster James Milner. Leeds finished the season 19th, and with only a handful of first team players still contracted to the club.
The Wilderness Years (2004-????)
As of the 2004-2005 season, Leeds United have been playing in the second tier of English football with Kevin Blackwell as manager15. Blackwell has slowly rebuilt the side and new chairman Ken Bates has secured the club's future financially16. Of the team O'Leary took to the semi final of Europe's greatest club trophy, only Eirik Bakke and Gary Kelly remain, with Kelly having recently played his 500th game for the club. in the 2005-2006 season the club reached the final of the playoffs17, coming within one game of a return to the Premiership only to be thwarted by a Watford side under the management of a former Leeds youth team coach. If this progress under Blackwell and Bates continues, then surely it can't be long until Leeds regain their status as one of England's top twenty club teams.