There is still a chance that they can stay up. If Leeds United can beat Derby County by eight goals next Sunday and Hull City lose their match, it will be the team from the east coast that drop, but I can’t see it happening, can you? The fact that this whole, sorry saga has been, in a mathematical sense, dragged out to the last day of the season is fairly typical of the unique way that Leeds have managed to torture their supporters. From the semi-finals of the European Cup to league trips to Walsall and Bournemouth in the space of just six years is quite an achievement. The fact of the matter is, though, that Leeds are, barring a miracle, down, and they’re not being shown a massive amount of sympathy at the moment. Why is this, then? It can’t still be a hangover from Don Revie’s sides of the early 1970s, can it? You have to be over forty to even be able to remember them. Nor can it solely be the fault of the occasionally charmless elements of their support, although they did show a less than savoury side at Elland Road against Ipswich Town yesterday – more on that to follow later on. No, Leeds have proved to become uniquely unpopular for a myriad of different reasons.
You can’t, when considering their unpopularity, leave the characters involved at Elland Road out of the equation for long. Peter Ridsdale may have been incredibly bad for their club, but he has never struck me as being a massively unlikeable individual. Ken Bates, however, is a different kettle of fish altogether. It has long perplexed me why Bates returned to the game again. I mean, it’s not as if he likes football very much – or football supporters, at least. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have tried to electrocute Chelsea fans in the 1980s, or ramp the ticket prices up to be the highest in the Championship when he took over at Leeds. His continuing presence within the game is almost reassuringly “wrong”. He’s like a pantomime villain – lurking in the background. You just feel as if you should be shouting “He’s behind you!”, whenever you see him on the television. I felt that Kevin Blackwell was enormously badly treated by Leeds. He performed a miracle by getting them into the play-offs, but the artificially high expectations of their supporters were exposed by the venom poured upon him by their supporters after their defeat in Cardiff against Watford last May. He had no money to being in any new players, and was forced out at the end of August after just a couple of games, primarily so that Bates could bring in his old mate, Dennis Wise.
I don’t much like Wise, either. I didn’t like him when he played for Wimbledon – he was, to me, the football equivalent of one of those small, yappy dogs – and I didn’t much like him at Chelsea, especially when he took his son up to get the FA Cup against Aston Villa in 2000. He had built the foundation of a decent team at Swindon Town, but he was happy to jump ship at the first available opportunity. Recent interviews with him seem to indicate that he’s not holding himself responsible for the relegation, but he’s had seven months, and used a bewildering array of players over the course of the season – 43 in total. My considered opinion is that the current regime have had long enough to fix the lion’s share of the damage at Elland Road, and have failed to do so. You get the feeling that the current regime will continue to blame Ridsdale and Blackwell for the next ten or fifteen years, if they can get away with it.
Will they be back? Not necessarily. Not straight away, at least. League One is a very competitive division, and one of Nottingham Forest or Bristol City might yet be there next season. There’s a good chance that the remainder of their squad could drift away, and they don’t have the money for decent replacements. It’s not the end of the world, though. Manchester City, Sunderland, Birmingham City and Sheffield Wednesday have all emerged from this division in considerably better health than they entered it in. What everybody at Elland Road needs to do, though, is stop thinking wistfully back to the “better times”, and pull their club back up by the bootlaces.