Football clubs go through ebbs and flows, to use the well-worn phrase. In the First Division, during the years before Sky TV and the Premier League, this happened a lot, with all manner of teams from Wolverhampton Wanderers to Ipswich Town having years of trophy smattered glory days only to be followed by plummeting falls to the Second Division and sometimes beyond. In this era, nothing was set in stone, no places guaranteed. Compared to today’s structured Premier League, the old First Division was much more given to mobility and unpredictability at the higher end of the table.
Indeed, up to the late 1990’s, the concept of a group of sides controlling the higher positions in England’s top league was something that just didn’t happen. Of course dominance at the very top occurred, most markedly displayed by Liverpool’s procession of league titles won throughout the 70’s and 80’s, but one is hard pressed to find any sign of clubs firmly established in the top spots year on year. Rather, if a team had decent enough players and was managed properly, they would have a realistic chance of domestic glory. Just looking at the top 4 places of the First Division from the beginning of the 1960’s to the early 90’s reveals a mix of teams practically every time, with numerous stories of unlikely clubs occupying the top positions.
Take QPR, relegated in 1979 from the top tier just three years after coming inches from winning it, or Watford, who in the 1982/83 season finished second in what was their first ever appearance in the top flight. The stories continue, and are very fittingly exemplified by Leeds United’s domestic trajectory from the Don Revie years to the establishment of the Premier League. Struggling in the Second Division at the start of the 60’s, Revie’s arrival heralded a promotion to Division 1 in 1964, followed a year later by a second placed finish, with The Whites going on to win the league in 1969′ and 1974′ in a great period of dominance.
As if to confirm this theme of drastic mobility, Leeds went on to achieve league success in practically the same way some twenty years later. This time it was Howard Wilkinson’s turn to showcase the mercurial nature of the First Division, as he led The Whites to promotion in 1990 after 8 years of isolation in the second tier, following that with a fourth placed finish the season after, going on then to win the league in 1992, capping off an incredibly rapid surge to the very top of league football just two meagre years after promotion was achieved. Think of that happening today, it is unimaginable. Barring Blackburn Rovers’ league victory in 1995, and Manchester City’s in 2012, only three clubs have won the Premier League title; Manchester United lead with 13, whilst Arsenal and Chelsea have won 3 each. With the admittance of 4 English teams into the Champions League instead of just two in the 96/97 season, along with the television and sponsorship exposure this brought about, the gap between the larger, more successful sides has grown to such an extent that to look at the top of the Premier League now is to look at an exclusive group of uber-rich teams, heavily entrenched in a kind of monied realm of self-perpetuating grandeur.
For the monied clubs that now control the top spots in the Premiership, finance has become an essential tool, enabling them to cement their status in and around the higher places in the league. There were ‘top clubs’ so to speak, before the inception of the Premier League, like Arsenal and Tottenham, who you might expect to achieve more than others, but they were never able to sustain a dominance or rake in enough money to prevent slips down the league. Clubs like these held an advantage through where they were based, as clubs from large cities, like London in this case. They had a greater pool of players to choose from, as well as a larger fan base than other clubs which led to bigger stadia, all of which built a reputation that remained in spite of the up and down nature of the league. Teams like Manchester United and their city rivals, Liverpool and Everton, Tottenham and Arsenal, Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Leeds United. These are the clubs that crop up when looking at the final standings in the First Division through the 50’s to 90’s.
It is the only aspect of a power-balance you are likely to find. Some of these clubs, such as Derby and Forest fell away just as the lucrative benefits for those sides that had remained started to tell. Leeds United were one of these teams, steadily moving along through the 90’s until they were able to break into the top four under David O’Leary, remaining there for three years up to the 01/02 season. Starting to warm to the benefits of European football and steadily rising revenue from TV deals, the owners of the club gambled in a truly high-risk style befitting a decade marked by incompetant financial speculation. Taking out high interest loans against the prospect of earning the money from TV rights and Sponsorship revenues, with the proviso that Leeds would be able to qualify first for the Champions League and thus advance in the competition in order to pay off the loans, the club took a massive gamble, and failed. The Whites missed out on Champions League qualification for two successive years, and with the loans unpaid, the owners had created a financial black-hole from which it was impossible to escape, resulting in the selling of the club’s best players, and attendant fall to the Championship in 2004, falling further to League One in 2007.
As a young supporter at the time, and thus not being especially privy to the machinations or jargon involved with high-risk financial misappropriation, I had no idea why such crippling misfortune was being lumped ceaselessly upon the club I supported. I couldn’t understand how a club riding comfortably at the heights of the Premier League and one that had reached the last four of the Champions League just a few years previous could drop so quickly and so far from this level. My club had performed a collapse one would have often seen displayed in Division 1, only this was not the time to do it. This time there would be no swift re-entry into the elite, and many Leeds fans a little more attuned to events at the time would have been glad just to have been re-promoted to the Premiership quickly, knowing that this was now a different time.
The new era that English football was moving into was perhaps symbolised no more pointedly than at end of the 03/04 Premiership season, which saw Chelsea steam into second place in the table, fuelled by billionaire Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, whilst at the opposite end of the spectrum Leeds crashed to a relegation largely brought about by high-risk speculation. The Whites stood at the very cusp, who knows where we could be now if not for Peter Ridsdale’s meddlesome stupidity. Having carved out a cosy little place in the top 6 under O’Leary, one would assume that had the team been kept together, with young players like Aaron Lennnon, James Milner and Ian Harte all coming through, things could have been far rosier than they turned out.
From the season in which Leeds were relegated to the present day, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have made up three of the four top four places in the league on all but one occasion, and whilst teams like Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool have in recent times looked to break into this elite (the former more successfully than the latter two) it speaks volumes about how entrenched in wealth this elite is when one considers the massive amounts of money these teams have had to plough into their individual challenges. Even then, only Manchester City have been able to buy their way into the top four and remain there. For these city clubs now, money reinforces the inherent base strength they have, a natural progression perhaps, as wealth flows through these cities in the heavily commercialised and globalised Britain of today, therefore presenting an irresistible draw to overseas investors, much more so than clubs based in less money swollen areas.
Leeds United though remain one of these established city clubs, and had we remained on a steady path up to the present time, the pickings would have been rich. Take for instance the new, eye-watering television deal for Premier League clubs. Coming into effect as of the completion of the current season, it will see £5.5bn cut between this campaign’s 20 teams, whilst the title-winning team stands to reap a £100m payment for the first time in the League’s history. One may lament, but it is no use, this is how the game works now, and though gross financial malfeasance may have scuttled Leeds United’s path to this latent bonanza, and has continued to up until GFH’s buyout of the club last year, the framework is still there for United to be a powerful force once again.
We are a big club, and despite what other fans would deride as an overused platitude clung to hopefully, it is actually a sound assessment of our team. Boasting a fan base most other clubs can only dream about, a stadium on par with if not ahead of most Premier League sides and a history to look back on with pride, ‘big club’ provides an accurate description. For a club of such a stature, ten years out of the top flight is too long, strangely unnatural actually. Such a stay can only be maintained because of a set of circumstances within the club having such an effect as to effectively hold back any possible re-entry to the Premier League.
Step forward the Ken Bates ownership model, which presided over the club for a solid seven years, including an unfathomable 3 year stint in League One. In and amongst stories of £500,000 private jet expenditures with the club financially hard up, the withholding of transfer funds at a crucial period in the 10/11 season under Simon Grayson, or actively seeking to undermine successive managers, not to mention a vile attitude toward the supporters of the club, Bates’ tenure as chairman was so scarily inhibiting so as to put a cloud over any hope coming out of Elland Road. Through such a long reign of unashamed misanthropy, Bates’ unceremonious removal from the club in June of this year provoked a relief from Leeds fans that one might compare to a people being freed from the rule of an oppressive tyrant.
Pundits and fans alike often talk of ‘doing a Leeds’ practically whenever a team falls to relegation or has to sell its best players due to financial imperilment, like the examples of Portsmouth or Crystal Palace. However, to a club of Leeds’ stature, it was a unique and peculiarly sustained period of malignancy that in effect depressed hopes of rejoining the Premier League or attaining anything resembling a sustainable future. A team of not dissimilar standing that Leeds United should logically have duplicated was the example of Newcastle United. Relegated to the Championship in 2009, The Magpies were able to bounce back into The Premiership at the first time of asking. Leeds were almost able to do that of course, losing out in a play-off final to Watford in 05. However, it was the rot that set in afterwards that has consigned United to an overlong Premier League exile for the past ten years.
With the arrival of GFH however, the mood has gradually changed from wary scepticism over these new money-men to a hope and confidence in the team and its future, furthered this season by Brian Mcdermott’s ingratiating management style and positive results. Slowly but surely the club has turned away from the kind of political infighting and dreary stigma that has blighted the club for most of its time in the lower divisions. There is an openness about Leeds now that appears to have the best interests of the fans at heart. This is long overdue for fans of the team like myself – and what fans. Aside from constantly vociferous and impassioned support during matches, the scale of supporters letting their voices heard online is quite staggering.
In blog after blog, forum after forum, the desire of this giant fan base to opine on events surrounding their club is informative as it is heartening to see. Everything seems to be coming together for us at this moment in time, we finally appear to be being run like a proper footballing outfit, instead of a vehicle for self-glorification or exploitation. Every detail is being looked into to aid the improvement of the club, such as the moulding together of the development squads and the first team, the improvements made to Thorpe Arch, the prospective transfer targets and the lowering of ticket prices. Indeed, when Brian Mcdermott talks of “building something” at Leeds United, one gets a sense that he means it and will try with every fibre of his being to achieve it. In Mcdermott, the club has found a manager who appears not just to effuse a general good-will and hard-working mentality within and around the team, but is just a top bloke in general. Here is a guy it is hard to criticise, such is his all-round friendly disposition mixed with a down-to-earth honesty and calm authoritative tone, the trust he has gained from myself and fellow Leeds supporters is much warranted.
With the recent takeover of the club from a group of local businessmen led by current Managing Director David Haigh, the confidence built over the start of the season has been very much boosted, with the mooted approach for Max Gradel in January just a sweet taster for the coming transfer window. In a sense though, Leeds United have not experienced such a fortunate coincidence in alluring a manager of McDermott’s class or serious investors to the club. After all, this club, this city, and the reputation that has been built along with its vast potential for success are things that don’t simply disappear in the space of a decade.
Brian Mcdermott’s admittance when taking the job in April that he would not have accepted offers from any other club so late in the season gives credence to that. From a financial perspective, expert sport lawyer Richard Cramer’s recent statements about the club made for interesting reading. He stated that Leeds are a team that has been “under-capitalised” for years, and that once Financial Fair Play kicks in, a naturally large club such as ours would be financially better off than most others around us. Perhaps this was what Haigh and his possé of minted compadrés saw when they committed to this investment pledge last month. There is no hiding it, this club represents a potentially vast wealth accumulator, even more so if Premiership football is obtained, which is now of course revelling in its own opulence on a mind-blowing scale.
That isn’t to say that money will be the sole motivator for all of these investors. For example, Leeds fans like David Haigh and fellow backer Andrew Flowers are probably thrilled by the prospect of leading their team back into the promised land after such a long and painful absence, with the possibility of riding the wave of euphoria that would most certainly occur amongst fans if this was to happen a strong attraction also. In any case, to quibble about who is supplying what feels wrong given how Haigh and the new top brass at Leeds have performed as of taking charge. The point is, there will finally be money available to spend for The Whites in January that will most likely top previous years expenditure in January for quite some time.
As I have mentioned before, football is a money-driven game now, whereby good management has to be backed up by generous capital, certainly in the sport’s upper sanctums. For the first time since David O’Leary bought players at will, Leeds have a great chance now to climb back into this world, the world that Championship fans long to be a part of, and where a club like ours could benefit massively in a financial sense. Ultimately, Leeds United can now, after a period of quite uniquely debilitating exile, begin to take the first steps back to that elite level where hierarchy now reigns. Though the days of the First Division are long gone, the legacy of what built Leeds United into the household name it remains today can at last be allowed to grow again, and not before time.