Leeds United Football Club
Leeds United were formed in 1919 and experienced a relatively obscure first 40 years, never really competing with the top sides but never struggling either. That all changed in 1961 though when Don Revie took over as manager and started to turn the club into one of the most feared names in world football. Between 1968 and 2002 they won 14 titles and regularly challenged for major honours, both domestically and abroad.
However, the success was not to last and in one of the most dramatic reversals of fortune ever seen in the history of British football, Leeds went from Champions League semi-finalists to League One in just six short years.
The Early Years
Financial problems have played a huge role in the history of Leeds United Football Club and not just in recent years. The club would probably have never existed were it not for some wise investment in playing staff.
Back in the early 1900s the main football club in Leeds was Leeds City, not United. The side was a solid division two outfit that looked to be on the verge of big things under future Huddersfield and Arsenal legend Herbert Chapman. Sport and indeed life in general was about to change though and the intervention of the First World War not only put paid to the clubs promotion chances, but also to its entire existence.
Because of the need for young men to take an active part in the war, players were stationed at various posts up and down the country. Due to these circumstances and the fact that no ‘official’ competition took place, it became common practice for teams to sign up guest players from other clubs in a sort of loan agreement. This enabled players who were stationed far away from their own teams to continue to enjoy some sort of competitive football.
Leeds City used this situation to their advantage and became very successful, thanks largely to some of their guest players. This success was tarnished however, when it emerged after the war that Leeds had made illegal payments to some of these players, thus breaking strict FA rules. This was at a time when football clubs were also restricted by a salary cap and the FA, keen to stamp out any financial misdemeanours, decided to make an example of Leeds City and gave the club no option but to disband.
Leeds is simply too big a city and too in love with the game of football to have no professional side and so it was from these ashes that Leeds United was born. After taking over City’s old ground (Elland Road) and being offered a place in the Midland League, the club progressed quickly and successfully applied to join the Football League in time for the 1920-21 season.
Over the next 40 years or so Leeds United enjoyed mixed fortunes, as they yo-yoed between the top two divisions, their one and only title coming in the form of the Second Division championship in 1924, which resulted in their first stint in the top flight.
Leeds got through six chairmen and nine managers in that period as they struggled to find the right man to lead them to success. Then finally, in the spring of 1961, with the club back in the Second Division, soon to be chairman Harry Reynolds finally hit the jackpot, when he convinced his fellow directors to take a gamble and give club captain Don Revie his first taste of management.
The Revie Era
Revie’s success was not instant and it took a while for the 33 year old to find his feet in management, with Leeds struggling in his first two seasons in charge. In fact, the club would have been relegated to Division Three in the 1961-62 season, were it not for a final day victory over Newcastle.
Fortunately for the club, Harry Reynolds, who had since become chairman, kept faith with his young manager and his loyalty was rewarded when Revie led the team to the Division Two championship just two seasons later.
During these first years in charge, Revie placed a huge emphasis on youth, giving first team debuts to future legends such as Billy Bremner, Gary Sprake and, at the age of just 15, the club’s future all time record goalscorer, Peter Lorimer. The tactic paid dividends and, combined with some astute signings, and an inherited star in future World Cup winner Jack Charlton, Leeds looked in good shape on their return to the top flight.
Despite this, even the most optimistic of fans would have been surprised by just how well they did, as the team finished as runners-up in both the league and FA Cup. It could have been even better too – in the cup Leeds narrowly missed out to Liverpool, taking the Anfield giants to extra time before eventually losing 2-1. Meanwhile, in the league, Leeds came even closer to glory, missing out to Manchester United on goal average, after being held to a draw in their final game of the season against Birmingham City.
Over the following two seasons United continued to impress but also continued to fall just short of victory. They finished as runners up in the league for the second successive season and then, in 1966-67, reached the final of the Fairs Cup (now known as the UEFA Cup), only to lose 2-0 to Croatian side Dinamo Zagreb.
It seemed only a matter of time before Leeds finally started converting their good performances into trophies and, sure enough, the very next season the club picked up only its second major honour, beating Arsenal in the final of the League Cup. This victory kickstarted a golden era in the clubs history as they quickly added the Fairs Cup and then, the following season, the Division One Championship to their trophy cabinet. Leeds were often criticised under Revie for playing ugly football and relying on strength over skill. There may have been some truth to the criticism, but the club’s fans certainly did not mind. Their team had become notoriously difficult to play against and, in their title winning season, lost just two league games all year.
Leeds won the Fairs Cup for a second time in the 1970-71 season, beating the mighty Juventus in the final, and yet more success was to follow. Leeds have not before or since won England’s most prestigious cup competition but, finally in 1972 (the competition’s centenary year), United got their hands on the FA Cup, taking victory in a hard fought final over Arsenal 1-0, courtesy of a goal from star striker Allan Clarke.
The only real negative aspect of the Revie years was that, although the club did experience by far the most successful spell in its history, it could so easily have been twice as good. Had they been able to turn all their runners-up spots into titles they would have more than doubled their list of honours. This was particularly in evidence in the early 70s, as they finished as runners-up in the league for three successive seasons and also picked up silver medals in the 1972-73 season in both the FA Cup and European Cup-Winners’ Cup.
However, Revie did claim one more title in his time at Leeds. In what was to be his last and possibly finest season, he guided the club to a second league championship, thanks mainly to a magnificent 29 match unbeaten run, with the club not losing their first league game until the end of February.
Back Into The Wilderness
All good things must come to an end and Revie’s efforts at Leeds had not gone unnoticed. In the summer of 1974 he was offered the chance to take over as England manager and the lure proved just too strong.
The search was on for a successor and the chairman of the time, Manny Cussins, looked to have picked a winner when he hired another leading candidate for the England job in Brian Clough. Unfortunately for the club, the appointment did not work out and after just 44 days at the helm Clough and Leeds parted company. Clough went on to work wonders at Division One rivals Nottingham Forest but, for Leeds, the only way was down.
The decline was not immediate and new manager Jimmy Armfield did manage to steady the ship when he arrived in late September. The club only managed a 9th place finish in the league but in the European Cup they excelled and came within a whisker of picking up football’s biggest prize, eventually succumbing to German giants Bayern Munich in the final.
Revie’s old players were starting to show their age and it was clear that the side needed some fresh faces. Armfield began the clearing out process at the end of the 1974-75 season, with Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles among the first big names to depart. However, the clear out did not have the desired effect and Leeds started to struggle, getting through three managers, including another high profile failure in Celtic legend Jock Stein, and finishing no higher than fifth over the following five years.
In 1980, former player Allan Clarke took over as manager but things simply went from bad to worse for United, Clarke losing his job after just two years when the club’s top flight status ended in 1982, the team finishing 20th and duly relegated to the second division.
Leeds continued to struggle throughout the 80s, both Eddie Gray and Billy Bremner failing to the lead the team back into the top flight, but then finally, with the club slipping badly and in danger of dropping further divisions, United stumbled across their next managerial great – Howard Wilkinson.
Wilkinson took over the struggling Yorkshire club in October 1988 and made an immediate impact, steering the team clear of the relegation zone and eventually finishing in a respectable 10th place. These improved performances pleased fans and board members alike and before long they had even more to smile about, as the new manager led his charges to the Division Two championship the very next season.
With Leeds finally back in the top flight, it was imperative that they strengthened the squad to ensure they stayed there. Sure enough, Wilkinson proved himself not only a good tactician but also a good businessman, adding Lee Chapman to some already successful signings such as Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister. All played their part, with Chapman finishing as top scorer, as Leeds finished the season in a very impressive fourth place.
The club was well and truly on the rise and in just their second season back in the top-flight, Leeds United claimed their third league championship. The club and Wilkinson had shocked everybody, not least Manchester United, who sold Strachan to Leeds just a few years previously and now found themselves finishing as runners-up to the Scot’s new side.
But, unfortunately for Wilkinson, it was the Manchester side and not Leeds who went on to dominate over the following five years, as a League Cup runners-up medal was all anyone had to show for Wilkinson’s efforts before the board grew frustrated and replaced him with former Arsenal manager George Graham, after a poor start to the 1996-97 season.
Graham steadied the ship and brought in future star Harry Kewell. However, despite an array of new talent such as Nigel Martyn and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Leeds failed to make any real impact against the top teams and Graham left the club after just two and a half years to try his luck in charge of Tottenham Hotspur. This could have caused Leeds new chairman, Peter Risdale, to panic but Risdale could see that Leeds had been making progress under Graham and instead of looking elsewhere, appointed from within, with Graham’s assistant David O’Leary taking the reins.
O’Leary’s tenure got off to a good start as the club finished 4th in his first season in charge and then, in his second, gave fans real hope of a bright new era, qualifying for the UEFA Champions League courtesy of a third place finish in the Premiership and, in Europe, guiding the team to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, only to go out 4-2 on aggregate to the eventual winners Galatasary.
There has been much written about Peter Risdale and David O’Leary’s time at Leeds United but one thing that everybody seems to agree on is that Risdale and O’Leary took a huge gamble with the club’s finances and lost.
In the 2000-01 season, Leeds achieved one of their greatest feats, reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League, beating giants AC Milan, Lazio and Deportivo La Coruna en route. However, in a bizarre twist, one of Leeds United’s greatest seasons ultimately proved to be disastrous for everybody involved with the club.
Fourth place in the Premiership is not generally seen as a disappointment, but Leeds under O’Leary had spent huge amounts of money on the premise that the club would qualify for the lucrative Champions League competition every year and back in 2001 only the top three in England earned qualification. Thus a fourth place finish at the end of an otherwise fantastic season resulted in the beginning of the end for a fine young side.
Leeds were going downhill fast and had already had their reputation tarnished even before the financial problems became common knowledge. During the 2001-02 season, two of the club’s young stars Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate made front page news when they were alleged to have assaulted an Asian student outside a Leeds nightclub. Bowyer was cleared of all charges but Woodgate was found guilty of affray and sentenced to 100 hours of community service. The club’s reputation was badly damaged and O’Leary probably didn’t help the situation when he released a controversial book called ‘Leeds United on Trial’. The book detailed the Bowyer/Woodgate case and a difficult season in general, one that ended in a 5th place finish and failure to qualify for the Champions League for a second successive year.
O’Leary had invested around £100 million on new players in under four years at the club, including record signing Rio Ferdinand for £18 million and two players who ultimately proved to be a failure at the club, Seth Johnson and Robbie Fowler, for a combined total of £18 million. Up until their failure to qualify for the Champions League in 2001, things had been looking up for United but after suffering a second successive season of disappointment in 2001-02, the club went into financial meltdown.
O’Leary was the first to pay for the club’s problems, finding himself out of a job and replaced by Terry Venables during the summer of 2002. Not that Venables ever really stood much chance of succeeding, with the club selling off numerous star names including Rio Ferdinand and Jonathan Woodgate in a desperate attempt to get themselves out of debt and himself on a huge salary considering the club’s financial predicament.
Sure enough, the off-pitch problems had a hugely adverse effect on the teams performances and Venables was perhaps unfortunate in that he was dismissed after just a few months in charge, despite having no say in the club’s transfer policy. Peter Reid took charge and just managed to avoid relegation with a game to spare, thanks to a shock 3-2 win away against Arsenal.
Despite selling much of the club’s top talent, Leeds’ finances seemed to be showing little sign of improvement and, after announcing debts of just under £80 million, Peter Risdale resigned as chairman. The 2003-04 season saw no improvement on the pitch either and there was another managerial change with Peter Reid replaced by Eddie Gray in a final desperate attempt to avoid relegation. It was not successful though and in May 2004 Leeds United’s relegation from the top-flight was confirmed, the club finishing in 19th place with just 33 points.
Relegation meant yet more big names were forced into leaving, including England players Alan Smith and Paul Robinson. However, even this was not enough and the club were in danger of going under before Ken Bates took over the chairmanship in January 2005. Bates’ arrival seemed to spark a mini-revival in Leeds’ fortunes and, after yet another change of manager (Kevin Blackwell replacing Eddie Gray), the team recovered from a disappointing 14th place finish in their first year in the Championship to seal a place in the play-off final the following season.
Unfortunately for the club’s fans, Leeds’ Premiership dreams were shot down in flames by a rampant Watford side and another false dawn came to an end. 2006-07 saw Leeds plummet back down the table and by May the club were consigned to relegation and in administration. Kevin Blackwell was duly sacked and Dennis Wise became the next man to take arguably the most difficult job in British football.
Bates has since rescued Leeds for a second time, buying them back out of administration, albeit in shady circumstances that have seen the club deducted 15 points for a breach of insolvency rules. However, despite this setback, Wise’s team have got off to a good start in League One and find themselves in with a real chance of promotion. Whether their financial problems are now a thing of the past and whether Wise can help guide the team back to the pinnacle of English Football remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure, the long suffering Leeds supporters will continue to back this proud old club, be it against Lazio or Leyton Orient.
- First Division – Winners (1968-69, 1973-74, 1991-92)
- Second Division – Winners (1923-24, 1963-64, 1989-90)
- FA Cup – Winners (1972)
- Football League Cup – Winners (1968)
- Charity Shield – Winners (1969, 1993)
- FA Youth Cup – Winners (1993, 1997)
- Inter City Fairs Cup/UEFA Cup – Winners (1967-68, 1970-71)
- Record Attendance – 57,892 (v Sunderland, FA Cup fifth round replay, March 5th 1967)
- Biggest Victory – 10-0 (v Lyn Oslo, European Cup first round, first leg, September 17th 1969)
- Biggest Defeat – 1-8 (v Stoke City, Division One, August 27th 1934)
- Record Transfer Fee Paid – £18,000,000 (to West Ham United for Rio Ferdinand, November 2000)
- Record Transfer Fee Received – £29,100,000 (from Manchester United for Rio Ferdinand, July 2002)
- Record Appearances – Jack Charlton (773)
- Record Goalscorer – Peter Lorimer (238)