The ‘White United’: Tale of a Bumpy Ride

Subhashis Biswas traces the story of a club that promised so much and then went down like the Titanic and is now probably trying its best to resurface

May 2001

02 May 2001 – A Wednesday evening at Elland Road and white faithfuls have flocked in from different corners of the West Yorkshire County. It’s the Champions League semi-finals and Valencia are in town. The locals are, however, planning a trip to San Siro, Milan later in the month for the finals. Some optimists from that part of the world even visualise Rio Ferdinand holding the Champions League trophy aloft in San Siro.

The match began, and the expectation grew as it progressed. Harry Kewell almost scored in from an Ian Harte free-kick. Lee Bowyer struck the woodwork in the 69th minute. Nigel Martyn made some fine saves. Rio Ferdinand cleared off from the goal-line in the dying moments of the match.

White faithfuls were still hopeful as the match ended in a stalemate- Valencia 0-0 Leeds United. With no away goals conceded, David O’Leary and his men still posed a realistic chance of advancing to the Champions League final.

Six days later, at the Estadio Mestalla, things changed suddenly. A brace from Juan Sanchez Moreno and a clinical finish from captain Gaizka Mendieta all but sealed Valencia’s progress to the final within an hour of play. Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell and Alan Smith may have been good strikers and David O’Leary had prepared a group of mentally tough individuals. But scoring three goals in 30 minutes at the Mestalla was simply beyond them. Leeds United thus bowed out of the Champions League, 2000-2001 season at the semi-final stage.

February 2012

Simon Grayson, who had recovered the drowning ship of Leeds and had given it a stable look, had been asked to leave the club, or as they say, been “sacked”. With their 1-4 loss to Birmingham City, Leeds lost significant ground in the race towards Premier League promotion. Ken Bates, previously chairman, and now owner since May 2011, was desperate and gave a clarion call of now or (maybe) never. He brought Neil Warnock into the club as manager. Till publication, Leeds United had 53 points from thirty-six matches.

Danny Pugh, who had once played a game for Manchester United and had a three-year spell with Leeds in the middle of last decade, was signed on again. Max Gradel was sold to St Eitenne. The relationship between fans and Bates was one of love-hate. But with the upsurge in the club’s fortune in the last two years, fans didn’t want to even think of another meltdown. They feared there could be a repeat of what happened in 2003-04. The ship, which was sailing so smoothly, did a Titanic back then and for average Leeds fans, one Titanic was enough in a lifetime.

2002-2004 seasons

To understand the panic of a white faithful, we have to travel back almost a decade. It was just the previous season that Leeds had reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. People were anointing a new force in English football outside the Red Devils, the Red side of the Merseyside, and the Gunners. David O’Leary was being feted as the new whizkid on the managerial block.

Under Chairman Peter Ridsdale, Leeds had taken out large loans against television rights shares and sponsorship revenues that come with a UEFA Champions League qualification and any subsequent progress in the competition. These loans funded some extravagance in the transfer market – Robbie Fowler and Seth Johnson came in for large fees. However, in 2002-03, Leeds narrowly failed to qualify for the Champions League losing out to Newcastle United, and as a consequence did not receive enough income to repay the loans. The first indication that the club was in financial trouble was the sale of Rio Ferdinand to United for approximately £30 million. Ridsdale and O’Leary publicly fell out over the sale, and O’Leary was sacked and replaced by former England manager Terry Venables.

Why O’Leary was sacked, is a thesis in itself. Fallout with team players, ego-clashes, public criticisms, players left demoralised, training ground rows…you name it! And for all you know, this man possibly had a finger in every pie. But this article is not about why O’Leary got sacked, so let us move on.

Before the West Yorkshire people actually realised what had happened, things turned from bad to worse under Terry Venables. From regular 3rd-5th finishes for most of the five previous seasons, the whites started to slide down the table during the 2002-03 season. This was a highly competitive season in the league, as other than West Bromwich Albion (second from bottom with 26 points) and Sunderland (bottom of the table with 19 points), all the other teams had more than 40 points at the end of the league. West Ham was relegated even after securing 42 points and ten wins. Leeds United was almost there as they finished with 47 points. A surprise 3-2 win at Highbury during the end of the season, saved them the relegation blues. Incidentally, this result also meant Arsenal failed to hold on to the premiership title.

Venables could not last the whole season as expected, and Peter Reid took over. But the dream of European football vanished from the heart of Leeds fans. Instead of dreaming big, they were thinking of survival in the top flight of English football.

Their financial condition wasn’t anything to write home about either. On the pitch failures transferred to off the pitch unhappiness. Players like Jonathan Woodgate, Robbie Fowler, Robbie Keane, Nigel Martyn and finally Harry Kewell were sold off to repay the loans. Players who had helped Leeds reach the heights of European football, had thus all left Elland Road.

Next summer, Reid failed to sign Paolo di Canio and Kleberson after protracted transfer sagas. The team started off poorly in the 2003-04 season and Reid was sacked soon. Eddie Gray then took over as caretaker manager till end of the season while Gerald Krasner, an insolvency specialist, took over the administrative affairs at Leeds as chairman. He oversaw the sale of the clubs’ assets, including senior and emerging youth players of any value. Gray was perceived by many to be largely blameless for the performance of the team during the 2003–04 season as the majority of the squad was sold out and despite his efforts, Leeds were relegated after 14 years in top flight.

And there were many more hidden stories. Night club brawls, court trials, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer and drunken stupors. But let’s leave aside the mud-slinging.

2010-11 season

Imagine a fan seated in the empty stands of Elland Road at the end of the 2010-11 League Championship season. The fan was there at the end of the 2002-03 season as well, when his beloved club finished fifth in the Premier League to lose the Champions League spot. He remembers all that happened after that – the selling of players, stadium and assets. He remembers that it came to a situation where the very existence of Leeds United football club and its almost 90 years of history were in question.

He is looking at the empty pitch now. The players, managers and fellow supporters have all left. Leeds United finished with 72 points from forty-six matches and in seventh position; 3 points behind Nottingham Forest, who clinched the last play-off berth for promotion to EPL.

It’s been eight long seasons since Leeds had been in the top flight. Sir Alex Ferguson does not come to the visitor’s room anymore. Neither does Arsene Wenger. Jose Mourinho aka The Special One never visited Elland Road as manager. Once upon a time, Eric Cantona, Alan Shearer, David Beckham, Dennis Bergkamp and the likes were regular visitors to Elland Road. Now they cheer their own teams for hard fought wins against Millwall, Yeovil and South End. Titanic possibly had better left-overs after the ruins.

It was so near yet so far this season as well. The whole of West Yorkshire remembers those dark days, when Leeds United moved from League championship to the third tier of the English football in 2007 for the first time in their history.

And the story continues. But West Yorkshire has restored some pride. Jermaine Beckford scored at Old Trafford to give Leeds 1-0 win over Manchester United in the FA Cup in 2009-2010 season. Once equals, now their paths have clearly diverged between the reds and the whites, but sometimes, life throws pleasant surprises.

Last season, in the FA Cup, they went to the Emirates stadium and drew with Arsenal, and forced Arsene Wenger to come back to Elland Road after a long time. Though Arsene left the stadium happily after a 3-1 win, some of the old white faithfuls grinned.

As the seasons go past the western part of Yorkshire County, dreams grow bigger. Dreams do not have any boundaries. With 10 games left in this season, a good run-in may send them to the promotion play-offs. Good things at Leeds probably happen once in a decade. Back in the beginning of the 1990s, Leeds won the old First Division of English top tier football competition – the last team to win that competition before the razzmatazz of Premier League. Fast forward a decade and we talked about how Leeds were a match away from playing the finals of the biggest club cup competition. And now, after another decade, the fan can probably dream about reinstatement into the top tier, where he thinks the club belongs. It may just be that time.

The dreamy fan slowly starts walking towards the Old Peacock Pub behind the South Stand….he needs fresh memories….big boys will come to town…again…someday!!