The gripping rise and crushing fall of Leeds United at the turn of the 21st century

The gripping rise and crushing fall of Leeds United at the turn of the 21st century

The history of Leeds United is littered with so many extreme highs and lows that if it were a movie, it would be considered too far-fetched for release. From the halcyon decade under Don Revie in the 1970s that established the club as one of the biggest in Britain, to Brian Clough’s tragicomic 44 days in charge and the wilderness years of the 1980s, the West Yorkshire outfit has rarely rested in the steady confines of middling stability during its compelling, occasionally illustrious history. 

Never have the highs and lows of the club been so intertwined than during their intoxicating rise and sudden, almost fatal fall at the turn of the century. In the years between 1997 and 2004, the club – in a tale reminiscent of Italian counterparts Fiorentina and Parma – rose to the upper echelons of the Premier League and established themselves as a genuine force amongst Europe’s elite, before falling to their knees in such infamous fashion that the phrase “doing a Leeds” is still used to describe clubs that experience a similar fate.

Despite having won the league as recently as the 1991/92 season, Leeds already felt like a sleeping giant by the time the late-90s arrived. That season, which saw Howard Wilkinson mastermind an unlikely triumph with a team led by the irrepressible Gordan Strachan and featuring Gary McAllister, Gary Speed and a certain Eric Cantona, was the final campaign before the inception of the Premier League. This proved to be year zero in the English game.

This rebranded league, coupled with its lucrative TV deals and expanding global outreach, made it almost unrecognisable to what had come just a few years earlier. This meant that Wilkinson’s title felt like a bygone era by 1997, at which point the club had endured years of watching bitter rivals Manchester United hoover up silverware without seriously threatening for any major honours themselves, save for a League Cup final appearance in 1996 which ended in a 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Aston Villa.

If the previous half-decade represented a relatively dull period for the club, the next five years would provide enough adrenaline to last a lifetime.

Before the start of the 1997/98 season, local businessman and lifelong fan Peter Ridsdale took over as chairman in a move that would shape the club’s future for a generation. The new figurehead was an extroverted, polarising presence, who shared both a love of publicity and a haircut with the current American president.

While he was never likely to be praised for his understated rhetoric, Ridsdale’s hyperbolic promises to restore the club to former greatness were music to the ears of fans who felt that Leeds had been left behind by many of their domestic rivals. Over the next six years he would make decisions that allowed fans to live the dream in the short term, but completely shattered the foundations he’d inherited by the end. 

Read  |  Strachan, McAllister, Batty and Speed: how four names defined a brilliant Leeds team

Although the club had failed to set the world alight in the previous five campaigns, Ridsdale was hardly inheriting a club in crisis. Leeds were a financially stable club with a huge following that saw them regularly pack their Elland Road home with 40,000 fans on matchdays. On the pitch, they managed to secure a UEFA Cup place in his first season with a squad featuring players the calibre of Nigel Martyn, Lucas Radebe and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. 

Despite these considerable attributes, it soon became clear that the most exciting element of the club had yet to be revealed to the public at large. Throughout the 90s, Leeds had been developing a top-class youth team and were ready to unleash perhaps the most talented crop of youngsters seen in the Premier League since Manchester United’s class of ’92. 

Under the guidance of club legend Eddie Gray and Paul Hart, Leeds had produced an arsenal of players who were not only supremely talented, but had also developed a team spirit and winning mentality punctuated by their FA Youth Cup triumph in 1997. Of those players, only Harry Kewell had seen significant senior action prior to the 1998/99 season.  Perhaps the most gifted Australian player of all-time, Kewell was a ridiculously complete player for his age, with his electric pace, abundant creativity and cultured left-footed finishing allowing him to be effective in any attacking position.

While Kewell was clearly the most developed of the bunch, the ’97 youth squad included a number of top talents that would burst onto the scene in over the next few seasons, including future England internationals Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate and Alan Smith, as well as highly-touted Irish prospect, Stephen McPhail.

These starlets were following not only Kewell into the senior squad, but also left-back Ian Harte – an academy graduate on the fringes of the side with a penchant for spectacular free-kicks – and tireless 21-year-old midfielder Lee Bowyer, a £2.1m signing from Charlton who was already a firmly established member of the squad. These players would provide the nucleus of an exciting new era for the club.

While it was perhaps inevitable that the likes of Woodgate, Smith and Kewell would have broken through at some point, their rise to prominence was accelerated by a change in managerial personnel in the early part of the campaign.

Read  |  Lucas Radebe: from being shot in South Africa to national icon and Leeds legend

In October 1998, Leeds were left in the lurch mid-season by George Graham, who ended his solid but unremarkable two-year reign as manager in favour of taking charge at Tottenham. Having previously spent a hugely successful nine years with Spurs’ north London rivals Arsenal, it had been hoped that the prickly Scot would be the man to take Wilkinson’s declining side back to the top with his patented brand of meticulous, defensive organisation. It wouldn’t be long before the future started to look brighter in Graham’s absence.

Despite talk of more established replacements for Graham – Martin O’Neill allegedly turned down the job – the club instead opted for the former managers assistant David O’Leary initially on a caretaker basis. O’Leary, who had enjoyed a decorated playing career under Graham’s stewardship at Arsenal as a centre-half, had been asked by his mentor to follow him back to the capital, but had declined as he didn’t want to be associated with his former club’s bitter rivals. 

When a club appoints the previous manager’s assistant as replacement, it is often viewed as an attempt to continue in the same direction as before, avoiding a dramatic overhaul of tactics and personnel. Anyone who expected O’Leary to merely keep Graham’s steely aesthetic ticking along would swiftly be left in a state of shock.

While many of the gifted youth side had been fringe players at best under Graham, it was clear that rookie manager O’Leary was going to afford them plenty of opportunities to shine. Woodgate and Harte were promoted to first-team regulars seemingly overnight, while the likes of Smith and McPhail were gradually afforded more big-game opportunities. 

Within weeks it became obvious that O’Leary was going to allow his team to play with far more abandon than they had under his former boss. This was proven not only in eye-catching victories like the 4-0 home win over West Ham, but also in defeats such the 3-2 away loss to Manchester United, where O’Leary’s young side were happy to go out on their shield.

The new manager’s high-tempo style of play proved a hit with fans and pundits alike as he guided Leeds to a fourth-place finish. The vigour of Kewell, Smith and Bowyer added pace, flair and dynamism to the consistent goal threat of Hasslebaink up front. Perhaps the sweetest moment of the season occurred when local lad Smith scored on his debut against Liverpool, his classy finish coming at the end of a breakneck counter-attack that was becoming a hallmark trait of the new Leeds. 

The adventure was only just beginning, though, as the next couple of years would see the Whites fans come genuinely close to glory.

Some magazines are meant to be kept

While the previous year had seen a lot of Leeds youngsters prove themselves as Premier League players, the sale of talisman Hasslebaink to Atlético Madrid at the start of the 1999/00 season would mean there would be extra pressure to step up to the plate. The £12m fee for the Dutchman was given to O’Leary to spend, with the club forking out over £20m on signings that season. Once again, O’Leary looked to youth, with the signings of Sunderland striker Michael Bridges and Charlton full-back Danny Mills providing two of the notable summer additions.

This season proved to be a rip-roaring success, with O’Leary’s exciting young side ending the domestic season in a Champions League-qualifying third place, following an excellent run to the UEFA Cup semi-finals in Europe. Impressive as the campaign was, it proved to be a mere dress rehearsal for greater adventures the following year.

Although the 2000/01 campaign provided the peak moments of the Ridsdale era, some of the decisions made in this period would prove catalysts for future despair. Buoyed by the increase in revenue generated by Champions League qualification, Ridsdale gambled the club’s future by taking out a £60m loan against future gate receipts to fund club spending. The repayments of this loan were dependent on the club consistently qualifying for Europe’s top competition, and with the money used predominately on additional players — an asset which can depreciate in market value – it meant that success on the pitch was imperative in order to account for the higher net spend.

Although hindsight shows that Leeds’ previously self-sufficient transfer policy had mutated into extravagance, the details of this weren’t over-analysed at the time, as all was going well on the pitch. The £7.5m summer signing of tenacious midfielder Olivier Dacourt was considered a worthy gamble, and when the club broke the British transfer record to sign Rio Ferdinand from West Ham in November 2000 for £18m, the move was generally portrayed as a club showing serious on-field ambition, rather than a chairman taking a recklessly cavaliere approach to the club’s finances. 

Although the club was now on shaky foundations behind the scenes, there was an abundance of breath-taking moments that occurred on the pitch. Many of them were provided by striker Mark Viduka. Signed from Celtic for £6m in the summer of 2000, the Australian powerhouse proved to be a revelation at Leeds, with his unusual blend of domineering strength and deceiving grace providing the ideal focal point of an otherwise pacey attack. Viduka’s magnum opus that season was undoubtedly his four goals in the thrilling 4-3 home victory over Liverpool, immediately establishing him as a cult hero among the Elland Road faithful. 

While the domestic season was not without considerable high points, it was soon apparent that the league campaign was going to take a backseat to the club’s European adventure. Throughout the Champions League run, O’Leary’s young side had the feel of noisy gatecrashers at an established party, with their fearless attacking style and never-say-die attitude putting many of Europe’s elite clubs to the sword.

Read  |  How Mark Viduka hit his scoring peak with four memorable goals against Liverpool

After a humbling 4-0 away defeat to Barcelona in the opening group game, a Smith-inspired Leeds would go on to produce famous victories against the might of AC Milan, Lazio and Deportivo in a thrilling run to the semi-finals of Europe’s elite tournament. 

With the knowledge of Smith’s post-Leeds career – his eventual move to Manchester United is still a sore point for many fans – it’s easy to forget how effectively he embodied the spirit of the club during this period. His full-throttle style and untampered passion created the feel of a genuine fan on the pitch, and served to add an extra layer of meaning to his key goals on those magical European nights.

Although Valencia would eventually end their European dream, Leeds’ season, at least to the untrained eye, looked like a success. The only problem was that the club finished fourth in the league, one point behind Liverpool, meaning they would miss out on the Champions League and its revenue the following year. This proved to be far more disastrous than anyone could have imagined.

When Leeds fans were standing in the Bernabéu watching their side take Real Madrid to the wire in March 2001, it was inconceivable that they’d see the club relegated in just over three years. It was even more absurd to think that by the end of the decade the club would be playing in the third tier of English football, with finances so dire that the very existence of the club was in serious jeopardy.

Despite missing out of the financial goldmine that is the Champions league, Ridsdale continued throwing money around like it was going out of fashion. The additions of Robbie Keane – a successful loan signing from the previous season – Robbie Fowler and Seth Johnson for a combined £28m made Champions League qualification even more imperative for the 2001/02 season than it was the year before. 

A promising start to the campaign was derailed following a lengthy court case involving Bowyer and Woodgate as the club finished fifth, once again missing out. This second successive failure proved to be catastrophic.

After sacking O’Leary at the end of the season, Ridsdale appointed former England manager Terry Venables as his replacement, claiming the club needed to raise £15m to balance the books. This seemed to be solved by the £30m sale of Ferdinand to Manchester United – but the real extent of Leeds’ fiscal woes were only just starting to appear.

Read  |  Tony Yeboah’s fleeting brilliance in the Premier League

As the 2002/03 season progressed, it emerged that Leeds were approximately £80m in debt and needed to raise money by any means necessary. By the end of the January transfer window, Keane, Bowyer, Dacourt, Woodgate and Fowler had joined Ferdinand on the departure list, often for alarmingly lower prices than they’d been previously valued. The sale of Woodgate, a homegrown talent, caused particular outrage amongst fans, and was followed by an excruciating press conference where Ridsdale, sat beside a despondent Venables, claimed that Leeds were paying for having “lived the dream”.

Venables was sacked in March and Peter Reid was given the task of keeping the crisis ridden club in the division. Ridsdale would soon follow Venables out the door, the extent of the club’s plight leaving his reputation in tatters.

While some inspired performances from Smith, Kewell and Viduka were enough to see Leeds stay up, the club’s finances were in such disarray that further sales of top stars were necessary in order to stay afloat. The players weren’t the only asset being offloaded, with the club eventually having to relinquish ownership of both Elland Road and their Thorp Arch training ground.

The toxic atmosphere and depleted squad resulted in relegation in 2003/04, and confirmation that the Ridsdale dream had well and truly died. Sadly, the nightmare was only just beginning. After three seasons in the Championship, Leeds hit rock bottom, with relegation to League One resulting in administration and the very existence of the club coming under threat. Although they eventually regained their place in the second tier, the last decade has been a period of painful stagnation that has only seen hope of ending this year under the enigmatic guidance of Marcelo Bielsa.

The story of Leeds in this era is a cautionary tale of a club that let ambition turn to recklessness. Although Ridsdale is now considered the villain amongst fans, he was essentially a fan himself who let his romantic vision of glory get in the way of responsible business decisions. The cruel irony was that Ridsdale’s attempts to strengthen the squad with big money signings actually put the club in a position where they had to sell most of the homegrown stars who’d provided the initial platform for success. 

While Leeds still boast an outstanding academy, their diminished stature in the game has meant that the majority of stars produced in recent years have been poached by Premier League clubs before Whites fans can truly enjoy the benefits of these players at their peak.

Despite this halcyon period being tainted by events that followed, the on-pitch memories are still cherished by fans who pine for a return to the glory days. From the magical nights in Milan and Rome to mixing it with the country’s finest, this unforgettable era provided another exhilarating chapter in the white-knuckle ride that is the Leeds United story. 

By James Sweeney @James_Sweeney92

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