The end of the affair

September 25, 2006
By Norman Hubbard
(Archive)

Club anthem Marching On Together implies a unity that is often absent in Leeds.

GettyImagesKen Bates: His relationship with Blackwell is, finally, at an end.

Certainly, chairman Ken Bates and manager Kevin Blackwell are no longer united; the latter was summarily sacked last week.

The marchers, meanwhile, are a depreciating band: there were little more than 7,000 at Elland Road for the Carling Cup tie against Barnet and it was less than half full for the visit of Birmingham City on Saturday.

Leeds, however, may draw consolation from the likelihood their nadir is in the past, however recent. Blackwell departed with a proud club lying 23rd in the Championship, their lowest league position for two decades. Victory against Birmingham changed that.

After witnessing stagnant and sterile football, Saturday's was as exciting a game as the Elland Road regulars had seen for some time. John Carver, the caretaker-manager whose positive approach engineered the return of the feelgood factor, was told afterwards:

'You could be arrested for entertaining.' Despite the tradition of bloody-minded conservatism that is integral to the image of Yorkshire folk, even the local police force are not empowered to intervene for that.

If anything reaches court, it is more likely to be the ongoing dispute between Bates and Blackwell amid suspicions the former Chelsea chairman is reluctant to authorise a pay-off.

They contributed to a bizarre episode in the summer when David Livermore was recruited from Millwall and promptly sold without playing a game, with the suspicion that the midfielder was wanted by chairman and not manager.

The opening shots have been fired in their PR war though, in truth, they were months ago. If they were Blackwell's attempts to deflect from deteriorating displays, regular listeners became anaesthetised by mentions of Leeds' debts and repeated assertions of how far they had progressed under his reign.

While Blackwell took over against a backdrop of near-bankruptcy, however, his last 18 months in charge were marked by drastic debt reduction under Bates.

And, in this instance, it is possible to distance footballing flaws from financial worries; they were not responsible for Blackwell's predilection for slow central defenders, or the marginalisation of Robbie Blake, perhaps the finest inside-forward in the Championship.

Nor was there a direct correlation between the instability that had plagued Leeds and their negative tactics and eschewing of passing football, especially in recent months.

Moreover, as Bates outlined in his programme notes on Saturday, Blackwell benefitted from greater funding than the majority of his Championship counterparts. Since his takeover, a net outlay of over £3 million in transfers, plus an annual wage bill in excess of £12 million, compares favourably with most of their competitors.

Including Watford. Managed by Adrian Boothroyd, formerly a member of Blackwell's coaching team, their play-off final performance exposed Leeds' fear of pace and power, however unrefined.

It served as a microcosm for the final three months of their season. When Sheffield United's faltering finish made automatic promotion an unexpected possibility for Leeds, they cracked under the pressure. In the ensuing goal drought, caused by unadventurous football, Blackwell's attempt to lighten the mood proved painfully unfunny.

A declaration of 'we couldn't score with the missus' amused few, while implied criticism of the strikers appeared to alienate top scorer Rob Hulse.

Blackwell's demise, in other words, is not merely the consequence of the first eight games of this season. His successor will soon become aware of the demands of managing Leeds, especially in the current climate.

EmpicsClaudio Ranieri: One of a host of big names linked to the vacancy.

Perhaps it is a consequence of the newest, most lucrative Premiership television deal to date, but Championship chairmen seem increasingly trigger-happy - after a period of comparative calm in the boardrooms. Even at Leeds, Blackwell's reign outlasted the combined stays of Terry Venables, Peter Reid and Eddie Gray.

The uncertainty of Leeds' position in the footballing firmament is reflected by the diversity of the supposed candidates. The names of Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli figure alongside less glamorous figure like Steve Tilson and Dave Penney in the betting. Sven-Goran Eriksson is priced at 150/1: surely even Leeds are not that desperate? And they certainly are not that wealthy.

In the short term, Carver's candidacy has been aided by the manner of victory against Birmingham. At least his brief playing career was as a left back (Bates once declared that goalkeepers do not make managers, only to take over Leeds, managed by a former shot-stopper in Blackwell).

But the similarities of his CV with that of his former boss may hinder Carver. Like Blackwell in 2004, he is a highly-regarded coach looking for a first managerial position.

With promotion, despite a slow start, the objective remains promotion; recruitment of a proven manager is usually judged the likeliest manner of achieving it. But who? Chants of 'we hate Chelsea' echoed around Elland Road on Saturday, suggesting that neither Claudio Ranieri nor, particularly, Dennis Wise would be the most popular candidate.

Should either be appointed, unity could remain elusive for Leeds.


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