Leeds United: the return of one of greats – Part 1

Leeds United have finally returned to the Premier League after a 16 year absence. The club were a force in the Premier League and in Europe in 60’s and early 70’s, as well as the late 90’s and at the beginning of the new century.

However a financial implosion caused them to lose their success and were relegated in the 03/04 Premier League season. They even spent time in the 3rd tier of English football.

They have spent 16 years fighting to get back into the big time and have come close over the past few season, missing out on play-off or automatic promotion.

With the club now well-backed by their owners, led by an influential coach and owners of a talented and youthful squad – we could see a real rise to glory for this famous club.

Whilst getting ahead of themselves is never good (look and Fulham and Aston Villa over recent seasons) if the recruitment is any good this summer we could see another promoted side compete for a top-half finish.

In this two-part article I’ll take a brief look at the history of the club, and review the newly finished campaign. I’ll also take a look at the hopes the club has for their fight in the Premier League.

Leeds United – The History

We’re always told to focus on the present – the ‘now’. In the case of Leeds United , however, it’s important for those who don’t know to look at their history within English football.

Their first taste of footballing success was from the Don Revie era. Having created a side that was voted in the top 50 greatest footballing teams by Total Sport Magazine, he is still one of if not Leeds’ most successful manager.

Revie took over the club in 1961 when they were fighting relegation in the 2nd division of the English football League. A win on the final game of the season kept them up.

Revie then implemented a new youth policy and a change of kit colour to an all-white strip – similarly to Real Madrid, and Leeds soon won promotion to the First Division in 1963-64.

In their first campaign in the top flight they finished second to Manchester United due to only goal difference. They also achieved a place in the FA Cup final, however they lost 2-1 to Liverpool after extra time.

The following season, the club again finished second but reached the semi-finals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (the original Europa League). They lost over two legs to Real Zaragoza, despite Revie asking the fire brigade to flood the pitch at Elland Road for the replay (sneaky tactics).

They struggled domestically again the next season finishing 4th, but they did reach the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup final – however they lost to Dinamo Zagreb.

They won their first major domestic trophy under Revie in the 1967-68 season, beating Arsenal 1-0 in the League Cup final. They also reached a second successive Inter-Cities Fairs Cup final against Hungarian team Ferencvarosi.

Leeds won the first leg 1–0, and a month later defended their lead with a 0–0 draw in Budapest. They were finally getting silverware and the club pushed on from there.

Revie left the club in 1974. In his 13 years in charge, Revie guided Leeds to two First Division titles, one FA Cup, one League Cup, two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups, one Football League Second Division title and one Charity Shield.

He also took them to three more FA Cup Finals, two more FA Cup Semi-finals, one more Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Final and one Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Semi-final.

Alongside this he also reached one European Cup Winners’ Cup Final and one European Cup Semi-final. The team also finished second in the First Division five times, third once and fourth twice.

Post-Don Revie struggles and the Wilkinson revival

The subsequent era was a complete farce as they had huge recruitment issues and sacked several coaches (Brian Clough, Jimmy Armfield, Jimmy Anderson, Allan Clarke) as they slipped down the league and were eventually relegated in the 1981-82 season.

The closest they got to promotion back to the top flight was in the 1986-87 season where they lost the play-off final to Charlton under the guidance of former Revie teammate Billy Bremner.

Howard Wilkinson took over the reigns from Bremner in October 1988. They avoided relegation to the 3rd tier, and with the signing of Gordon Strachan they were promoted back into the top flight in the 1989-90 season.

Under Wilkinson Leeds finished fourth in the following first division campaign, and in the 1991-92 season they won the title of the last ever Division one as the top tier, as the next season it was rebranded into what we know now as the ‘Premier League’.

After that though it was more failure as they finished no higher than 13th in the League, underperformed in Europe and the domestic cups. Wilkinson had his contract terminated in the 96-97 season.

The real change from his time at the club was the him and Paul Hart’s work on the youth system and academy – which still produces fantastic young players.

The Highs before the impending lows

George Graham was appointed as his replacement at the start of the 1997-98 season. Using young players from their youth cup winning team and some good signings, he guided them into the UEFA Cup places (again – the Europa League of old). Despite the success Graham left to manage Tottenham Hotspur in October 1988.

Graham was replaced by his assistant David O’Leary and under him Leeds saw some great success. Under O’Leary Leeds never finished outside the top five in the new Premier League. They also achieved qualification for both the UEFA Cup and the UEFA Champions League -enjoying cup runs to the semi-finals in both tournaments. 

However their success was marred by off the field antics, with Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer involved with an attack on an Asian student. The court case took nearly 2 years to resolve. Bowyer escaped a charge but Woodgate was sentenced to community service.

The performances on the field soon plummeted as Leeds went into Financial Implosion. Under Peter Ridsdale they had taken out multiple loans to pay for signings. These were made under the assumption they would stay in the Champions League.

Once they failed to qualify two seasons in a row they couldn’t repay the loans and had to sell players to ease the financial tension. What followed was a fall out between O’leary and Ridsdale, Terry Venables coming in and being sacked after a terrible run of form, and Peter Reid saving them – only to be relegated the next season (2003/04).

In the Championship, Leeds sold their entire squad and had to rebuild using loans and free agents due to the lack of money. They sold the club to Ken Bates as Ridsdale had stepped down, and appointed Peter Reid’s assistant Kevin Blackwell as head coach.

The club didn’t get close to promotion until the 2005/06 season, where they lost the Championship Play-off final to Watford 3-0. After Blackwell had started fairly well with a mid-table and then Play-off reaching season – the loss in the final took its toll and results dropped massively the following season.

With a poor pre-season and difficult start to the 2006/07 campaign – Blackwell was sacked. With Leeds firmly in a relegation battle John Carver was put in place, but his tenure was also unsuccessful and he was later sacked – replaced by Dennis Wise.

The performances didn’t improve under the ex-Chelsea player, and with them seemingly going down they were then placed into administration. The 10 point deduction that followed doomed the club to the third tier of English football. This was the first time the club had dropped below the second tier.

The League One rebuild

During July 2007, Leeds almost faced the possibility of not being allowed to begin their next campaign as HMRC (HM Revenue and Customs) placed a legal challenge against them due to unpaid taxes. If they had still been in administration their season wouldn’t have been cleared.

Ken Bates bought the club back off administrators KPMG and HRMC weren’t in agreement with the deal. Despite the takeover being sanctioned the Football League imposed a 15 point sanction due to issues with administration CV.

Despite this deduction, Wise and his assistant Gus Poyet lead Leeds towards a play-off before they left for Newcastle and Tottenham respectively.

Gary McAllister was appointed in January 2008 and he lead them to the Play-off final, however they lost narrowly to Doncaster Rovers.

Simon Grayson came in to replace him, and the club achieved a Play-off spot once again – but were beaten in the semi-finals by Millwall.

The 2009/10 season saw them have their best ever start to a campaign and also knock bitter rivals Manchester United out of the FA Cup. Despite an awful second half of the season (7 points from 24) they went up as runners-up.

Championship return and severe ownership issues

Leeds returned to the Championship in 2010 with renewed vigour, and spent a good part of the season in the play-off race. However, they faltered towards the end of the campaign and finished 7th – a place outside the play-offs. This was to become a theme for the club.

What followed was a succession of botched ownerships and average campaigns. In May 2011, Ken Bates announced he’d taken 100% control of the club.

Protests against this were dismissed, however Bates sold the 100% stake of the club to a Middle-East private equity group (GFH Capital) in December 2012.

In February 2012 Grayson was sacked and replaced by Neil Warnock, with his contract due to last until the end of the 2012/13 season. The following campaign saw them perform well in the domestic cups but also very poorly in the league.

Warnock left the club in April 2013 and Brian McDermott guided them to safety. Ken Bates then stepped down as chairman.

Ownership issues then ensued: In January 2014, Sport Capital (a consortium involving the managing director of Leeds United’s main sponsors, Enterprise Insurance, Andrew Flowers) attempted to purchase a 75% stake in the club.

On the 30th January, Sport Capital’s takeover failed due to a lack of “financial backing”, it was also shown that GFH had invited a rivalling bid from Massimo Cellino, who owned Cagliari at the time, whilst agreements were being finalised.

In the backdrop of all the commotion, Brian McDermott was sacked by Cellino’s lawyer – despite the Italian not even owning the club. The decision was overruled due to this fact.

After agreeing a purchase in February that year, the Football League stopped the deal in March due to Celino having issues with the Italian court.

Leed’s season took a hug dip as they went from fighting for the play-offs to fighting relegation. They stayed up comfortably after a strong end to the campaign but Brian McDermott resigned.

The Cellino Circus

Despite the deal being blocked in March, Cellino formed a successful appeal and gained ownership in April 2014. The circus that followed was disturbingly laughable.

The confusing appointment of the unknown Dave Hockaday lasted only 70 days before he was replaced by Darko Milanic in September 2014. He only lasted until October and was replaced by Neil Redfearn on the 1st November.

As if things couldn’t get much worse than 3 head coaches in around 5 months – Cellino was then disqualified in December that year after the Football League discovered documents detailing his issues with tax evasion. This ban was to continue until April 2015, however Cellino stated he would not return to the club once the ban had ended.

Redfearn was replaced by Uwe Rosler after the 2014/15 season ended, however Rosler, like others, left early and Steve Evans took over the reigns.

In October 2015 Cellion agreed a deal with Leeds Fans United to sell his majority stake, however he went back on his promise.

After Steve Evans had failed to inspire the team to push up the table, he was replaced by Garry Monk in June 2016.

The 2016/17 campaign played out in similar fashion to pervious seasons – the phrase “Leeds are falling apart again” rang out as they missed out on the play-offs with a poor run of form. They were in the play-off places for the majority of the season.

The Radrizzani Era

The change then began at the club when Andrea Radrizzani purchased a 50% stake of in January 2017. In May 2017 he announced a full purchase of the club.

Radrizzani made several positive changes to the club, repurchasing Elland Road for the first time since 2004 and forming the women’s team.

Monk resigned two days after the takeover, and Tomas Christiansen replaced him. With the club sitting in 10thin February, he was sacked and replaced by Paul Heckingbottom – just days after the coach had signed a new contract at rivals Barnsley.

On 24 May 2018, Leeds announced that 49ers Enterprises had bought shares in the club to become a minority investor.

In June 2018 Heckingbottom was sacked after just 4 months. This proved to be the best decision Radrizzani made as he then appointed the highly coveted Marcelo Bielsa.

With Bielsa appointed and renewed vigour the club made a magnificent start to the season and were pushing for automatic promotion. Yet again a poor end to the season mean they dropped out of the automatic promotion places.

Having dropped into the play-offs, they lost over two legs to Derby with another season condemned to the Championship.

The frustration led into the next campaign – one which will be covered in the next part of this story…

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