It’s been a long time coming, but Leeds United are finally heading back to the Premier League after West Brom lost to Huddersfield on Friday night.
Hard as it might be to believe, Leeds hasn’t seen Premier League football in the 16 years since Peter Ridsdale was squandering millions on fish and some footballers who played like they’d been plucked from a life underwater were wearing their famous white strip.
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But even the catastrophe of the early 2000s shoot-for-the-Champions-League-and-if-you-miss-you’ll-land-in-liquidation approach to running a football club wasn’t the lowest point in the famous old club’s journey to football hell and back.
Here are the depths to which the Lilywhites sunk in during their 17 year’s languishing outside the top flight, and how they fought back.
Clear out the deadwood
The season before they dropped into the Championship, Leeds sold off Rio Ferdinand for £30m, Jonathan Woodgate for £9m, Robbie Keane for £7m and Robbie Fowler for £6m in a desperate effort to replace Champions League mone. They only brought in Nicky Barmby to replace both centre-halves and centre forwards. That’s a tough ask.
Harry Kewell and Olivier Dacourt were shunted on the next season for cut-price fees before seemingly every middling footballer you can think of from the late-nineties – Ian Harte, Dominic Matteo, Danny Mills, Craig Hignett, Steve Guppy, Danny Cadamarteri, Brian Deane, Kevin Pressman, Jason Wilcox, and David Batty – was sent packing from Elland Road once they landed in the Championship, along with the spine of their youthful Champions League semi-final side in Paul Robinson, James Milner, Alan Smith and Michael Bridges and Aussie goal-machine Mark Viduka.
But perhaps the biggest marker of how dire the situation came with the sale of Elland Road for just £10m to keep the club going in 2004.
Find the right owner
The Yorkshire club has seen more dodgy owners than your uncle’s battered Ford Cortina, so they appreciate the importance of finding the right one.
Current owner Andrea Radrizzani has steadied the ship after a turbulent run under another Italian, Massimo Cellino. The former Cagliari and current Brescia owner became known as “the Manager Eater” in Italy after firing 39 head coaches in his time with his first Italian club. He only changed manager six times at Leeds, though it was in less than four years.
He failed to pass the famous “fit and proper person test” first time around when buying Leeds, which, considering those who’ve sailed through it, is saying something.
He did, however, have the pleasant characteristic of being an actual, real, identifiable person, which was more than could be said for the ominously named GFH (Gulf Financial House), from whom Cellino purchased the club in 2014.
The Bahraini based financial instrument presided over a couple of years of stagnation between the Italian and former Chelsea supremo Ken Bates run at the club. Speaking of which…
This isn’t Leeds’ first promotion in 17 years – it’s just that they had to go through another relegation for their last one.
During Bates’ extended run as owner the club fell into administration, meaning they were deducted 12 points in 2006-’07 and doomed to drop into the next tier. You’d think a club the size of Leeds would bounce straight back up, right?
They spent three frustrating years in League One, before nabbing a runners-up spot in 2010 under Simon Grayson. Though this was their lowest point in league position during the last decade and a half, Grayson was their longest-serving manager in all their time outside the top-flight. They couldn’t have fallen much further, to be fair.
This period also saw the departure of the last remaining traces of their Champions League challenging squad, with stalwart Gary Kelly, veteran keeper Neil Sullivan and Chelsea beanpole Tore Andre Flo among the names still active in the side that said hello to the third tier of the Football League.
Those years lingering among the Herefords and Mansfields in League One year saw two playoff defeats to add insult to injury, including a humbling at the hands of mighty Doncaster in 2008 at the new Wembley.
More notable, however, is the two playoff appearances that bookend the Championship years.
2005-06 saw an almost immediate return to the club’s “rightful” place among the mediocre mid-table sides of the Premier League with Rob Hulse and David Healy’s goals lifting a side shorn of almost all its glory day players – Eirik Bakke, still hanging in there – to within a hair’s breadth of promotion.
Well, if a 3-0 thrashing in the playoff final by an Aidy Boothroyd-led Watford side who won just five games in the Premier League the following season counts as a “hair’s breadth”.
While, in 2019, the club’s apparently written-in-the-stars return under an inspirational new manager was cut short at the semi-final stage after they’d slipped into the playoffs spots having seemed set for automatic promotion for much of the campaign. A Frank Lampard-coached Derby County side did the damage over two-legs in the semi-final, aided by some questionable goalkeeping, as the Rams got their revenge for the mind-melting effect “Spygate” had on their young manager.
Get a great coach
That failed effort to return last season looked like it could’ve been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity missed for the slumbering giant, especially as doubts persisted into the summer break about the future of the man who’d masterminded their rise from Championship also-rans – they made the playoffs just once in 12 seasons in the Championship before 2019 – the Argentine obsessive, Marcelo Bielsa.
Hailed by many, including Pep Guardiola, as one of football’s greatest coaches, Bielsa’s CV is light on trophies and titles, but he has proven an inspirational figure among both fans and players at club desperately in need of a spark. His most notable stint in Europe before Leeds was with a Bilbao side that shredded an Alex Ferguson-led Man United in 2012’s Europa League, enough to endear him to Leeds fans before even taking charge.
But that side burnt brightly only to fall away, losing both the Europa League and Spanish Cup finals within weeks of each other and their promise dwindled in the following campaign before he departed.
And, once the totemic Argentine had decided he’d like to hang around for one more year at least, the fear that his Leeds side could have followed the same trajectory as the Basque team under his guidance will have wracked many of Elland Road’s faithful opening this campaign back last August. But while there have been some anxious moments – it is the Championship, after all – the hard-pressing, hard-running style hasn’t worn out the enthusiasm of his squad yet.
How it will fare at the higher level remains to be seen – this is a coach who quit Lazio two days after signing a contract – but what is certain is Premier League in 2020/’21 1ill be more exciting for the arrival of El Loco and his team.