Leeds United are the club which flew too close to the sun. Champions League semi-finalists in 2001. A League One team as recently as 2010. Theirs is a scarcely believable tale of excess, mismanagement and rapid, avoidable, decline.
The only professional team in a city with a population of nearly 800,000 people, failure to lift silverware since winning Division One in 1992 is criminal at a club with the potential the Yorkshire giants have.
Leeds United finished four points clear of bitter rivals Manchester United on the back of the huge success of Eric Cantona joining in January. One of the biggest clubs in the country at the time, it made the fall from grace even more astonishing.
To get a better understanding of what has gone on at Elland Road, Football Whispers spoke to Matthew McKeith, editor of Leeds United website Right in the Gary Kellys.
“That’s why we say we were the last English champions, before Sky took over football,” he says. “Every year it still gets mentioned. When Manchester United brought out the Class Of ’92, the Leeds fans were like, ‘we are the real class of ’92, because we won the league that year’. It’s something the club still celebrates every year.”
That claim may sound like a very insular thing to say, but it is certainly backed up by the fact Howard Wilkinson is the last Englishman to win the league. Money took over and ‘foreign managers’, including Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish, have dominated since.
Matthew was nine years old when Leeds' glory days ended. His first game was in 1993 and the decline had begun. But it wasn’t because they had a bad team. He was able to visit Elland Road to watch Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gary Speed.
Glory came in waves and the success of the 1992 team came 17 years after the Whites had reached the final of the European Cup. Don Revie took over in 1961 and saved the club from relegation to the third division. He implemented the change in the strip to the Real Madrid inspired all-white kit and quickly pushed them up the pyramid. They would win promotion to Division One in 1964, finish runners-up in ’65 and ’66 before eventually being crowned champions in 1969 and again in 1974, finishing second in 1970 to 1972.
Revie’s success was peaked when they won the ’74 title and went all the way to the European Cup final against Bayern Munich in 1975. Controversially beaten 2-0 on the night, the Leeds fans felt cheated by the defeat.
With the game still goalless, Billy Bremner was denied a goal by Sepp Maier’s excellent reflex save and, less than a minute later, a goal by Peter Lorimer was disallowed. Bremner was ruled offside in the six-yard box, but referee Michel Kitabdjian initially indicated that the goal had been given by pointing to the centre circle. Franz Beckenbauer convinced him to consult with the linesman who had run back to the halfway line and had not raised his flag. The referee then incorrectly indicated offside against Bremner.
Revie’s departure ushered in Brian Clough’s disastrous 44-day spell at the club and Leeds' position at the top was under threat. Although Jimmy Armfield rescued the situation to reach the European Cup final in 1975, a glorious era was at an end.
After the spell in the early ‘90s, it took Leeds five years of the Premier League era to make their mark, coming fifth in 1998, fourth and third to qualify for the UEFA Cup and then the Champions League. It’s that David O’Leary team which most remembers so fondly. But, as Matthew explains, that was the start of the club's spectacular demise.
“For me, it didn’t feel real at all,” he admits. “We sold Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to Atlético Madrid for £12million. Then, we must have spent £50-60million over an 18-month period and everyone kept asking ‘Where has the money come from?’
“‘It’s the Jimmy money!’ we were told. That £12million was stretched for so long.”
It’s easy to get caught in the moment. Leeds fans wouldn’t have been complaining at trips to the San Siro and the Nou Camp or watching Alan Smith finishing past Angelo Peruzzi at the Stadio Olimpico. But it’s the obvious price they’ve had to pay since.
“We’d obviously not earned that, we’d never have passed Financial Fair Play now,” Matthew continued. “It was like we were gambling. It was amazing at the time, some of the results, beating AC Milan at home, smashing a good Deportivo team.”
“However, when we were in the UEFA Cup, it was the real players, Harry Kewell, Gary Kelly, Ian Harte, Lee Bowyer and Alan Smith. Before the likes to Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler and Robbie Keane came in. That felt genuine, that was fairytale stuff. With the Champions League, it felt like we cheated our way into it with the amount of money that we spent.”
The biggest mistake that Leeds made during that spell was not building for the future. They sold the ground and the training facilities. The only commodity they owned at the time was the players.
It felt very much a ‘now or bust’ situation and their dramatic slide into League One and the subsequent points deduction show how it ended.
“I hate saying this,” Matthew reluctantly reveals, “Because we are a big club, but it’s where we’ve gone wrong as fans for the past 10-15 years. We still believe we are this massive club and in terms of infrastructure, history and fans we are. But when you are minus 15 points at the bottom of League One, you are not what you used to be.”
As with most clubs that have climbed back up the football ladder, stability is the key to success for Leeds. After the rebuilding job under Ken Bates and the chaotic reign of Massimo Cellino, United fans have now pinned their hopes to new owner Andrea Radrizzani.
The Italian business bought out the controversial and hugely unpopular Cellino over the summer and installed unknown Dane Thomas Christiansen as Garry Monk‘s replacement after he defected to Middlesbrough.
Five wins in seven at the start of the new season suggested the Whites could improve on last season's seventh-place finish. But four defeats in six have brought supporters back down to earth with a bump.
One thing is certain. It's never dull being a Leeds fan.