For more than thirty years, Leeds United have been a club that has not exactly enjoyed ‘second club’ status amongst large swathes of football supporters. The origins of this go back to their immensely successful side of the 1970’s. During Don Revie’s time at Elland Road, he put together a team that stayed largely unchanged for a decade, and combined some enterprising, purposeful football with aggression and a real team ethic. Many fans of other clubs and neutrals alike saw Revie as a man who did not engage with the spirit of the game, and his side as one of gamesmanship and cynicism. Their narrow misses of major honours, which were just as frequent as the successes, were thus seen by many as a form of poetic justice.
This of course was the basis on which Brian Clough made his famous address to the Leeds players at the start of his ill-fated stint as Revie’s successor in 1974, “Well,
However, whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision of the original Special One to take the job in the first place, his view of that successful side became conventional wisdom among all bar the Elland Road faithful. Eddie Gray, a skillful left-sided ball-player, was the one exception largely exempt from the tag but the chant of ‘dirty Leeds’ can still be heard at football grounds today. Forget the League titles, the Fairs Cup Win and the misfortune of the 1975 European Cup final and ignore the fact that Leeds’ 7-0 demolition of Southampton in March 1972 was one of the most clinical displays of pure football seen on these shores up to that point. Any accreditation of their skill and endeavour is through gnashed teeth and their physicality and cynicism are stated above all else when remembering Revie’s team.
Leeds fans Rob Bagchi and Paul Rogerson attempted to drop their white shirts at the door when re-visiting the subject more than three decades later. Their book The Unforgiven stops well short of re-creating Norman Hunter as Mother Theresa, but attempts to redress the balance by recalling the great performances, great results, the stylish football played in Revie’s later years at Elland Road, and to touch on the anti-Leeds feeling cultivated within football as a result of the (not wholly unqualified, even by their admission) labels placed upon their greatest ever side. As they descended into the third tier of English football, the audible lack of sympathy that accompanied their plight on the way down was characterised by a chorus of schadenfreude and black humour. Part of this was due to the events of more recent times, but a great deal of antipathy towards the club stems from events well before the births of many who practice it.
Of course, this was not the first time that Leeds had declined alarmingly as a club in a short space of time. The dark days of the 1980s had seen the club spend eight seasons in the second tier, with Gray and Billy Bremner amongst those unsuccessfully attempting to reconnect the club to its former glories. However, rarely in English football had a club slid as far and as quickly as Leeds did between their 2001 Champions League semi-final and their start to the 2007-08 season in League One with a 15 point deficit. While Peter Ridsdale had been ‘living the dream’ on the club’s behalf from the end of the 1990s, a rapidly accumulating debt had meant that Champions League qualification was not only desirable, but a necessity. The 5th placed finish of the 2001/02 season was therefore a disaster from a financial point of view, and triggered a negative spiral that oscillated between fire sales and diminishing fortunes on the field. Peter Reid was able to save the club from relegation in 2003, but repeating the trick the following year proved beyond a squad that possessed ten loan players at one point. A year of mid-table mediocrity in the Championship ensued.
However, the following season saw the arrival of Ken Bates as chairman, and a sense that a return to the Premier League was imminent. Despite a goal drought at the end of the regular season, Leeds scored a superb 0-2 success at Preston in a bad-tempered and bizarre play-off game that saw two North End players seriously injured, two from Leeds sent off and the game held up for 25 minutes due to a floodlight failure. Had they won the final against the Watford side of Marlon King et al, the subsequent chapter of their history would no doubt have read somewhat differently. As it was, Leeds were caught in the headlights on the big occasion, Matthew Spring played like a man possessed and the Hornets cruised to a 3-0 victory. Leeds never recovered from the hangover, and it transpired that the financial problems of previous years had never really gone away as the club hedged its bets between cutting costs and chasing promotion. As relegation loomed at the end of the 2006/07 season, Bates put the club into administration, at the not insignificant cost of fifteen points.
As it is, this penalty may well be one of the best things ever to have happened to the club. After years of pointing the finger of blame in many directions (more often than not at Ridsdale) the sense of injustice at the authorities for what was perceived as an over-zealous punishment brought a togetherness to Elland Road that had not been seen for some time. Dennis Wise, an original member of Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’ appeared to cultivate a siege mentality among players who wiped out the negative fifteen in precisely five matches. “Nobody likes us – we don’t care.” may well be the chorus of another set of football fans but it seemed appropriate for a club that appeared to be battling the authorities and a public that had ridiculed them as well as their opponents. As it was, assistant manager Gus Poyet left for Spurs, then Wise departed for that ill-fated executive role at Newcastle. His replacement, Gary McAllister, followed the long line of playing legends who had never quite cut it in the Elland Road dug-out, and an appalling 1-0 loss at Histon in the FA Cup suggested that Leeds as a club were stagnating.
Simon Grayson had already started the revival of Blackpool Football Club that sees them in the mid-table Premiership position that they occupy today. For a decade, they had usually been also-rans in the third tier, and had actually been in the fourth in the season when Leeds had reached the Champions League semi-final. He had turned them from a notoriously soft touch into a side capable of going on a ten-match winning run at the end of the 2006/07 season. Having then guided his team to success in the play-offs, the Tangerines consolidated in the Championship and looked likely to do so again when McAllister and Leeds parted company. Of course we all know the job that Ian Holloway completed in style, but it should be remembered that Grayson laid the foundations. Leeds needed a man who knew how to negotiate a safe exit from the third tier, and it was just as well for them that Grayson, as well as displaying an abnormal level of aptitude at his previous club, was a lifelong fan.
Though their results improved significantly towards the end of 2008/09, the playoffs would prove their undoing again as Millwall silenced Elland Road in a tense second leg. However, their start to the 2009/10 season was so impressive that the debate appeared not to be about whether or not Leeds would be promoted, but whether they could score 100 goals an