Tonight at Elland Road, Leeds United play Sunderland in the Championship (for the sake of avoiding confusion, I will be reverting to these competitions current names, rather than using their old ones). It is, in it’s own peculiar way, a significant match. Have Sunderland really turned the corner under the tutelage of Roy Keane? And as for Leeds… well, they were lovable for a while. Allow me to explain. For the last few years, Leeds have had a surge in popularity. They were the anti-Manchester United. They seemed to have no great plans towards world domination, and they found themselves in the semi-finals of the European Cup and almost winning the Premiership a couple of times. They did it, of course, using a somewhat extraordinarily profilgate financial policy which, when it fell it apart (as it was always inevitably going to), led to the resignation of all concerned and an extremely sudden fall from grace. And then… Ken Bates. Those with so much as a cursory knowledge of football will be fully aware that there are plenty of rogues involved in football, but few come close to Ken Bates. From his shady background in property development, through the purchase of Chelsea, his desire to put an electric fence up around Stamford Bridge, and the (what would have been, had it it not been for the timely intervention of a certain Russian oligarch) financial disaster that was Chelsea Village, Bates has always cut a singularly unlovable figure within the game. Somehow, though, his malign influence within Elland Road feels like we’re returning to some sort of natural order.
Leeds’ original climb to the top was pretty sudden too. Until the early 1960s, they were a fairly average Second Division team until Don Revie took charge. Revie’s team were, at least in their early days, the British equivalent of a catenaccio team. Built on a bedrock of a solid defence marshalled by Jack Charlton, they ground out results, and were effective rather than exciting. They contained few of the flair players that were so popular at the time. There were no Bowles and Marsh or Best and Law at Elland Road. In 1968, they won the FA Cup, and followed it up a year later by winning the League with a First Division record of 67 points. Over the next few years, though, it would be their capitulation in most major tournaments that would prove to turn them into something of a laughing stock. The first cut was the deepest. Going into the spring of 1970, they were charging towards the League, the European Cup and the FA Cup. They blew all three. In The European Cup, they were beaten in the semi-finals by Celtic, in front of 130,000 at Hampden Park. In The FA Cup, the largest British television audience of all time saw them lose the first ever FA Cup final replay 2-1 against Chelsea at Old Trafford. They had taken the lead after 84 minutes of the first match, only to lose the lead two minutes later. All this cup fever had caused a fixture congestion that left them nine points adrift of Everton at the top. The following season, they fared littled better, losing out in the League and the Cup to Bertie Mee’s one-season-wonder Arsenal team, and though they won the Cup in 1972, they through away the League Championship for a third year in a row – this time to Derby County. In 1973, they slumped to third in the League, and suffered their biggest humiliation of the era, when they were beaten by Sunderland (possibly the hairiest team ever to win the FA Cup) at Wembley. It was an afternoon of extraordinary tension. After Ian Porterfield (later to manage Chelsea) gave Sunderland an improbable lead (Sunderland had finished the season mid-way down the Second Division), Leeds threw everything they had at them. The match is probably best known for Jim Montgomery’s incredible double save from Peter Lorimer (so incredible that both BBC commentator David Coleman and ITV commentator Brian Moore took a couple of seconds to clock that the ball hadn’t crossed the line), but it was all to no avail.
The following season, Leeds won the League at a canter, but in the summer of 1974, Don Revie was appointed England coach, and the wheels fell off the wagon. Brian Clough was appointed as his replacement, but last only 42 days in charge. Under his replacement, Jimmy Armfield, they made the 1975 European Cup final before losing to Bayern Munich. Their supporters reacted by rioting to a previously unprecedented level for such a big match. The decline started shortly afterwards, and they were relegated in 1982. In 1991, they got promotion, and a year later scored an extremely popular League Championship win, seeing off Manchester United (albeit for one year only. We all know about Leeds in the 1990s, and the sorry saga of events that followed culminated in Bates taking charge in January 2005. Since then, Bates has continued in the style with which he ran Chelsea. At the end of last season, he bumped the cheapest seat prices up to £25. On top of that, he has engaged his club in a row with Chelsea (having described Roman Abramovich as “a bunch of shysters from Siberia”, and having barred former chairman Peter Ridsdale from Elland Road for the shameful act of celebrating his new club Cardiff winning there earlier this season.
I feel sympathy for Leeds supporters, really I do. They’ve been to hell and back, and now their chairman seems hell bent on turning them into laughing stocks once again. It must be horrible watching former players like Alan Smith, Paul Robinson, Aaron Lennon, James Milner, Robbie Keane and Mark Viduka enjoying success in the Premiership, but at least they’re still going. Having said that, though, given his history, if I was one of them I would be at least suspicious of the motives of someone like Ken Bates being involved at my club.