Friday, March 25, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: March 28, 5:33 PM UK
The fall and rise of Leeds United
Almost a decade has passed since Leeds United reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, a period that must feel like a lifetime at Elland Road. The 3-0 defeat to Valencia in 2001 was to be the beginning of a dramatic fall from grace for the club, as they plunged from the dizzy heights of European and Premier League title contenders to the depths of English football's third tier in just six years.
• Revie: Revered and Reviled
A desire to stay at the top of the game at home and abroad quickly turned into an obsession, and chronic overspending on transfer fees, wages and Peter Ridsdale's infamous £240 goldfish sent Leeds into meltdown, culminating in their relegation from the Premier League in 2004 and further demotion to League One in 2007.
It was former England midfielder Dennis Wise who oversaw that painful second relegation but when he was replaced by Gary McAllister, who won the 1992 First Division title with Leeds, the fans dared believe that a reversal in fortunes could be around the corner. They were to suffer more agony, though, after defeat to Doncaster in the 2008 play-off final condemned them to another year in League One. McAllister was to last only seven months more, leaving in December with the club ninth in the table.
The manager's job had become a poisoned chalice, while the pictures of past glories adorning Elland Road's walls provided a constant reminder of the desperate depths of Leeds' descent. But after years of poor choices at boardroom level, the club's hierarchy finally got it right: appointing former Whites defender Simon Grayson as the new boss.
He guided Leeds to a fourth-place finish in 2008-09, equalling a 40-year record set by the great Don Revie in the process by guiding them to 11 straight home victories, though more play-off heartbreak followed with a semi-final defeat to Millwall. However, Grayson was given the support of the board and began to build his own team; one year later and he had lifted the club out of the League One doldrums.
Despite matching Revie's home record, the former Blackpool boss drew few immediate comparisons with the legendary Leeds chief - an Elland Road deity who inspired the club's ascent from Second Division also-rans to one of the most dominant forces in English football. But 50 years after the Revie revolution began at Leeds - he was named player-manager in March 1961 - Grayson has now taken Leeds to within touching distance of a second successive promotion, this time back to the Premier League.
Grayson's achievements have particularly struck a chord with Eddie Gray, a man whose association with Leeds United spans almost half a century. Gray was signed by Don Revie at the age of 15 and remained at Elland Road his entire career, playing an integral part in the club's glory days in the 1960s and '70s. He later went on to manage the Whites in two separate spells, the second of which saw him fail to keep the ailing club in the top flight.
"It was a difficult time to be part of Leeds United," Gray tells ESPNsoccernet of the 2003-04 relegation season. "Everybody knows now that the players were trying to sell players left, right and centre and club were always looking to make cuts and wage deferments. I'm still disappointed with my efforts at not keeping them in the league, but the writing was on the wall - I think everybody knew that. Then the club went into administration. It was a tough time, but if you spend money you don't have then you have to deal with the consequences.
"It was great when David [O'Leary] was at the football club and we were in the Champions League but obviously the club did not have enough money to sustain the number of players we had. At one time we had Mark Viduka, Michael Bridges, Robbie Fowler, Robbie Keane, Alan Smith and Harry Kewell all fighting it out to play up front. There were a lot of players and to keep that up it would have taken much more money than they actually had.
"Relegation was always on the cards because the club was in meltdown, they were just bleeding money. You can't do that and the most important thing now in football is to get you resources right and live within your means. I think there's a few clubs who have had to learn their lesson the hard way in the last few years, not just Leeds United."
Gray has taken in the ecstasy and agony of Leeds United from a front row seat, but after a decade punctuated by lows, he feels that a return to the Premier League is now more than just a pipe dream. And the former Scotland winger, who was Whites boss when Grayson was plying his trade in the club's youth team, now believes that Leeds - currently fifth in the Championship table - are a much more secure outfit than the one that suffered relegation from the Premier League seven years ago.
"[Chairman] Ken Bates has got the house in order since he has come to the club, without really sacrificing that much," Gray explains. "He's not spent stupid money in the transfer market but he's allowed Simon to get players on loan from decent clubs. What the manager has done up to now has been terrific and I think there is a great chance of getting promotion this year.
"Leeds have got the players for it, players who can change a game. The likes of [Robert] Snodgrass, [Max] Gradel out wide and [Luciano] Becchio up front and Jonny Howson in midfield - there are plenty of goals in that side and, if you have that, you have always got a chance. We have been conceding goals, but we are capable of scoring goals all the time.
"If Leeds get back in to the big league, the crowds will be there and the money will be at the football club so hopefully they can get back among the top group of teams in the country. It's easy for people to claim that's where we belong, but first and foremost we have to realise we are a Championship side right now and we were a League One club last year. We have to get there first and nobody has got a divine right.
"You look at the two Sheffield clubs [Sheffield United struggling in the Championship, Sheffield Wednesday struggling in League One] - they were powerful clubs in the '60s and '70s but football moves in cycles. Leeds United got relegated twice - it happens. When you go down the most important thing is to try to get back as quickly as possible and rebuild the club again and I think that is what Simon and the chairman are doing just now."
But Leeds are far from home and dry. Grayson's side may be just six points off second-placed Norwich and automatic promotion but they are also just four ahead of Reading and Burnley in seventh and eighth. Both of those clubs have a game in hand and their respective visits to Elland Road in the run-in, along with that of sixth-place Nottingham Forest, will be crucial in determining whether Leeds will earn a crack at avenging their Championship play-off final defeat to Watford in 2006.
Gray is certainly not pinning all of his hopes on Leeds earning promotion this season having endured many a disappointment in the past, but he remains optimistic about the club's chances.
"They are definitely on the right track," Gray says. "Simon has rebuilt the squad, brought some new players in and they have been looking good in the Championship. I have no doubt that if we get promotion this year, which I hope we will, he will continue to do the same. All he can do is take it step by step.
"I don't think there's any club equipped to move from the Championship into the Premier League and start challenging the top sides straight away, but that's what Leeds United fans will demand. At the start of this season, people outside the club were saying that consolidation in the Championship would be progress but it doesn't work like that. Once we got there, the fans wanted to win the league and get promotion. It will be the same if they get back to the Premier League.
"I'd love to see them back there, it would be great for everyone at the football club, particularly Simon Grayson. He has done a tremendous job and would be fitting for him and Leeds if it were to happen this season, 50 years after Don Revie first arrived at the club. But if it doesn't go to plan this year, I'm sure it will happen sooner or later."
The expectations of Leeds supporters may well be higher than the average Championship club, but after suffering several false dawns since that semi-final defeat at the Mestalla ten years ago, there are unlikely to be any premature promotion parties at Elland Road anytime soon.
Read more of Eddie Gray's thoughts on legendary Leeds boss Don Revie in Richard Sutcliffe's book 'Revie: Revered and Reviled', a tribute to the late, great boss who arrived at the club 50 years ago this March. The title is available from Great Northern Books and can be ordered here.