As Bad As Things Got: Leeds United, 30th November 2008
In selecting particular events for this series, some clubs are easier than others. The lifespan of a football club contains inevitable highs and lows, and there are simply some clubs for whom the majority of their past has been about either chasing or winning trophies, for whom the “lows” might not look particularly “low” to the supporters of most other clubs. But how on earth do you select one specific moment in time for Leeds United? Returning to the Premier League last season after sixteen years away is the start of yet another chapter in the story of a football club which has spent this century as something of a soap opera, with a rotating cast of villains, the occasional hero, and plot lines that have caused many to grab a bucket of popcorn and look on with interest.
The seeds of what was to follow were sewn throughout the years between 2000 and 2002. The new millenium started badly for the club. It was only twelve days old when Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer were involved in an incident outside the Leeds nightclub Majestyk which resulted in an Asian student being beaten by a drunken mob. Both would later be acquitted after two trials At the end of the second trial, Woodgate was cleared of GBH and convicted of a lesser charge of affray, while Bowyer was acquitted of all charges, albeit with the judge branding him a ‘liar’. Paul Clifford, one of Woodgate’s friends who had been drinking with him prior to the incident, was sentenced to six years in prison after being found guilty of affray and GBH in an attack that left the victim with severe injuries including a broken nose and cheekbone, a fractured leg, and a bite on the cheek.
On the pitch, the second half of the 1999/2000 season would end in tragedy, when two Leeds supporters, Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight, were stabbed to death in Istanbul the night before their UEFA Cup semi-final first leg against Galatasaray. They ended their Premier League season by securing Champions League football for the following season, but it already felt as though a pall was falling over Elland Road. The following season they reached the semi-finals of the Champions League before losing to Valencia, but they failed to qualify again at the end of that season. Unbeknown to most, this failure was sewing the seeds for the calamities that were to follow.
Little did anyone realise at the time, but Leeds United were at the time mortgaging their future on perpetual Champions League football. Although the general public were unaware at the time (and even those with suspicions had little idea of how bad things were going to get), chairman Peter Ridsdale had taken out large loans against the prospect of gate receipts from Champions League games. As Leeds had failed to qualify for the competition, there was simply not enough money coming into the club to repay the debt. The first indication that the club was in financial trouble was the sale of Rio Ferdinand to Manchester United for £30 million, a world record for a defender at the time.
The 2001/2002 season also ended in a failure to qualify for the Champions League, and with this the wheels began to fall off the wagon. Players began to leave in what was starting to look more than a little like a fire sale, and Leeds finished the 2002/03 season in fifteenth place in the Premier League, just five points above the relegation places. Peter Ridsdale resigned from the Leeds board in March 2003 and was replaced by Professor John McKenzie, adirector of international development at the London Institute and an advisor to the Shanghai municipal government, the Tokyo cultural institute and Sarawak University in Malaysia.
McKenzie had to try and turn around a club whose debts had risen to more than £78m, and later that year Leeds reported a British record loss of £49.5m, raising the club’s total debt to £127.5m. And by the time those results were published in October, it was clear that this developing storm had the potential to turn into a catastrophe. Manager David O’Leary, the archiect of those Champions League years, had gone. Ridsdale, who’d sold considerably more than the family silver to pay for it, had gone. Most of the players had gone. The club was sold in January 2004 to a consortium led by Gerald Krasner (who’s now one of the administrators involved in trying to keep Wigan Athletic alive), but the damage had already been done. Leeds United were relegated from the Premier League in 19th place at the end of the 2003/04 season after fourteen years of top flight football.
Clearly, any club that was dependent on Champions League money to stay finally solvent was going to descend quickly into farce without even Premier League money to sustain it. Leeds were trying to find their way with young players they’d brought through themselves, but constant financial fire-fighting meant that promising young players such as James Milner and Aaron Lennon had to be sold to balance the books. In January 2005, just a year after taking control, Krasner sold a 50% stake in the club to Ken Bates. It prevented the club from being forced into administration at that time, but the club’s debts remained above £100m, and the famously parsimonious Bates didn’t seem likely to put much more than the £10m that he’d paid Krasner for his stake into the club. Leeds finished their first season back in the Championship in fourteenth place in the table.
The following season brought improvement on the pitch, and by the end of February it looked as though they might even be capable of snatching an automatic promotion place back into the Premier League. The collapse that followed would foreshadow a collapse that would come to impact Leeds United for the next decade. They won just one of their last ten league matches of the season, and after beating Preston North End in the semi-finals of that year’s play-offs, they were comfortable beaten by Watford in the final.
Some felt at the time that Leeds would push on from their improvement over the course of the 2005/06 season, but they were wrong. The team plummeted towards the foot of the table, and on the 4th May 2007 they entered into administration, confirming relegation to League One. A winding up order brought by HMRC over £6m in unpaid taxes was due to be heard at the end of the following month. The summer of 2007 brought anger and protest to Elland Road. On the 21st of May, 32 of the 36 players in the Leeds squad agreed to defer their wages until the club had emerged from administration, but rival bids were lining up for a contentious sale. Bates eventually re-emerged as owner with an deal that would only return 1p in the pound to the club’s unsecured creditors. After legal challenges, the sale was finally confirmed at the end of August.
The FA and the Football League were unimpressed, and slapped a further fifteen point deduction on Leeds for the 2007/08 season. The team coped well with life in their new division as Bates threatened legal action over the points deduction. At the last minute the matter was put to arbitration, but the result of this was that the deduction stood. Leeds finished the season on 76 points and were beaten at Wembley in the play-off final by Doncaster Rovers. Had the points deduction not been imposed, they would have been promoted automatically.
The 2008/09 season, then, began with Gary McAllister in charge and Leeds started well again, losing just one of their first eight league matches. By the end of November, though, they were starting to wobble again. Five wins and five defeats in the league since the start of October had seen them drop from second to seventh place in the table. Pressures were starting to build again, and dropped into this, on the very last day of November, came the unwelcome attention of a trip to Cambridgeshire to play non-league Histon in the Second Round of the FA Cup. Leeds had started their FA Cup campaign with a win after a replay against Northampton Town, but there was little question that the Histon fixture was a match they could well have done without, before even considering that this match had been chosen to be shown on free to air television.
Histon Football Club, just to the north of Cambridge, had started the new century in the Premier Division of the Eastern Counties League, very much part of non-league football’s nether regions, but their ascent since then had been vertiginous. The 1999/2000 season ended with the club promoted into the Southern League for the first time, and five years later they secured promotion into its Premier Division for the first time. In 2005 they were promoted into the Conference South after becoming champions at the first attempt. A further league title followed two years later, promoting them into the Conference National, and their first season there had been successful, ending in 7th place in the table. This upward curve continued throughout the opening months of the new season, whilst in the First Round of the FA Cup they’d beaten League One Swindon Town by a goal to nil at home.
Red flags were already going off before Leeds kicked off at Bridge Road on the last day of November 2008. ITV’s television cameras were setting up, meaning that millions of eyes would be glazing upon a Leeds team that had been mis-firing in the league. Histon, meanwhile, came into the match having won their last seven successive Conference matches, the last of which had been a 5-2 win against that division’s pre-season promotion favourites, Oxford United. More than 4,500 people had somehow packed into the stadium and rain was lashing down to an extent that the audience at home had difficulties watching through the raindrops collecting on the television cameras.
Six minutes from half-time, it came. A corner from the right hand side taken by Gareth Gwillim was headed down and in from close range by Matt Langston, and Histon had a lead that they wouldn’t lose. Perhaps the only upside of a dismal afternoon for the Leeds supporters who’d made the trip down to Cambridgeshire for the match, was getting themselves heard by a national television audience singing “ITV is fucking shit” very audibly throughout the match. Otherwise, though, it had been an afternoon of the thinnest gruel – the former league champions and European Cup finalists knocked out of the FA Cup by a village team. A new depth had been plummed for a club that had already been through a dizzying amount of lows over the previous five years.
The Histon result turned out to the be the begining of the end of Gary McAllister as the Leeds United manager. They lost their next five successive matches as well, and he was sacked four days before Christmas following a defeat at Milton Keynes. He was replaced by the Blackpool manager Simon Grayson, but Blackpool subsequently reported Leeds United to the Football League, claiming that they rejected five approaches from Leeds to talk to Grayson, and that they had not accepted Grayson’s resignation. He eventually turned their season around and they recovered to finish in fourth place in the League One table. They lost for the second season in a row in the play-offs, though, this time to Millwall, and it wouldn’t be until the end of the 2009/10 season that Leeds would finally return to the EFL Championship.
This match would also turn out to be a high point for Histon. They were knocked out of the Cup in the next round against Swansea City, but finished in third place in the Conference table and went into the play-offs. They were beaten in the semi-finals by Torquay United when a win would have set up a fascinating local derby final at Wembley against Camridge United. Histon’s rapid ascent, however, had been fuelled by money being poured into the club, and that had run out. With small crowds – this was, after all, a village team – unable to sustain the financial outlays of previous years, the struggled the following season and finished only just above the relegation places. They were relegated in bottom place in 2011, eighteen points adrift of safety. It was the first of four relegations for Histon. By 2017, they were back in the Premier Division of the Eastern Counties League, from which they’d emerged seventeen years earlier. It feels odd to say that there were cautionary tales from the travails of Leeds United that Histon might have paid closer attention to, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
For Leeds United, meanwhile, hell was to be replaced by purgatory. Ken Bates stayed on at Elland Road until 2013, replaced by Salah Nooruddin and then the eccentric (and almost ruinous) Massimo Cellino, who in turn sold up to Andrea Radrizziani in 2017. Simon Grayson stayed as manager until 2012 before being replaced by Neil Warnock, the first of ten managers that the club would burn through in eight years before striking gold with Marcelo Bielsa in 2018. For all the ongoing turmoil behind the scenes, Leeds spent most of the last decade in relative stasis just below halfway in the Championship. The club’s return to the Premier League may well have come about under just about the most unusual circumstances, but for Leeds supporters it represents a return to something approaching normality after two decades during which the club has spent considerably more time fighting for its life than challenging for honours.