Friday, April 17, 2020

What happened to Leeds United?

Leeds sits in West Yorkshire, 200-ish miles north of London, 40-ish miles east of Manchester, roughly the same distance as Sugar Land to Baytown. Imagine that 20 of the best (American) football teams are all in the state of Texas, that's basically the English Premier League. The short answer for "Why am I a Leeds United fan?" is "Because my dad was a Leeds United fan." He grew up in Lubbock, became a missionary in England in the mid- to late-1970s, married my mom, had me, and we moved back to Texas when I was two. I was/am proud of my English heritage. I still have an Ocean Colour Scene hoodie I bought at a concert in Hull, UK. I have many thoughts on Blur vs. Oasis (Oasis).

Leeds United was formed in 1919, a successor to Leeds City (est. 1904) whose demise was forced due to the fact that they paid their players a weekly wage, something that was looked down upon at the time..."the time" being World War I. Leeds United began playing at Elland Road, still their home to this day, and the 14th-largest stadium in England.

Things weren't great over the next 40 years, though they did win the 2nd Division Championship in the 1923/24 season. They got relegated a couple of years later, got promoted a couple of years after that, finished 5th in 1929/30, and that was pretty much it until the 1960s. In the 1946/47 season, Leeds recorded 18 points (three points for a win, one point for a tie, zero points for a loss), the fewest number of points in a First Division season until Stoke tied it in 1984/85. It was bleak. Leeds bounced down and up over the 1950s and were relegated again during the 1959/60 season.

(So, an aside: in most professional football soccer leagues, there is relegation and promotion. If you finish in the bottom three of the Premier League, you get sent down a league to the Championship - what was then known as the Second Division. If you finish in the top two in the Championship, you are automatically promoted to the Premier League. If you finish in 3rd-6th in the Championship, you go through a few playoffs, with the winner moving up. This happens all throughout the Football Association of England and, again, most other soccer leagues).

In March 1961 Leeds United appointed Don Revie as player-manager. Revie played for 18 seasons, scoring 108 goals - four for England - his last three seasons with Leeds United, but time was catching up with him, and he transitioned to full-time manager in March 1962.

Revie shook things up at Leeds: players stayed in better hotels, Revie took an interest in everyone's lives at the club, from the cleaning staff to the players. He let his players do their own thing, but let them know that he was watching, like by telling them to dump their girlfriends if he didn't like them. Revie created detailed scouting reports, setting Leeds up to exploit their opponents' weaknesses and prepare them for their strengths. Revie was superstitious: he thought birds were bad luck, so he got rid of the owl on the club crest and changed their name from the Peacocks to the Whites. Revie developed Leeds' youth academy, bringing in future internationals Norman Hunter and Peter Lorimer. He focused on conditioning, nutrition, and team bonding.

Leeds United won the Second Division in 1963/64 to gain promotion. The following season Leeds finished second to Manchester United on goal differential and were FA Cup runners-up. Over the next ten years Leeds won the First Division twice (1968/69, 1973/74) and finished 2nd four times. They won the FA Cup (1971/72), the League Cup (1967/68), and were European Cup runners-up twice, most notably in 1975 when some Joe West-level BS refereeing saw Bayern Munich win the title.

Revie left Leeds United to manage the England national team - eight years removed from their World Cup win - in July 1974. The Leeds United board appointed Revie critic Brian Clough as the new manager. Clough had managed Derby County to the First Division championship in 1972, edging out Leeds United by one point. It was an interesting move, as Clough hated Revie and Leeds United, allegedly telling his new team "You can throw all your medals in the bin because they were not won fairly." He lasted 44 days (this is the subject of the wonderful movie The Damned United).

After consecutive League Cup semi-final appearances in 1978 and 1979, Leeds were relegated in 1982. Under manager Howard Wilkinson, Leeds won the Second Division in 1989/90 to return to the First Division and won the championship in 1991/92. The 1992/93 season was the first under the new Premier League, and Leeds were founding members. Wilkinson had brought in key players Gordon Strachan and Vinnie Jones (of whom you have likely heard). The youth academy brought in David Batty and Gary Speed. After a couple of good finishes, the board approved the purchase of John Lukic (their first £1m signing), Tony Dorigo, Eric Cantona. In 1992/93 Leeds didn't win a game on the road all year. Eric Cantona was sold to Manchester United, Leeds finished 17th, followed by two straight 5th-place finishes. More inconsistency, and Leeds fired Wilkinson in 1996/97 and brought in George Graham, who had just finished up a 12-month ban for illegally accepting payments from Arsenal.

The youth academy developed Australian Harry Kewell under Graham, and he purchased Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. Another 5th place finish, and Graham left for Tottenham Hotspur. The board promoted assistant manager David O'Leary to the main gig for the 1998 season. O'Leary (with whom my mother is still in love) brought up Jonathan Woodgate to complement Kewell and Ian Harte, and Leeds qualified for the UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League) with a 4th-place finish in 1998/99. The 1999/00 season was marred by an incident in which Woodgate and 1st team regular Lee Bowyer allegedly beat the absolute piss out of an Asian student in January 2000. In the UEFA Cup Semi-Final against Istanbul's Galatasaray, two Leeds fans were killed in a riot. Still, Leeds finished in 3rd place, earning a spot in the Champions League in 2000/01. Leeds made it all the way to the Champions League semi-final, losing to Valencia (this run included a 3-3 draw at Elland Road against Lazio, a game in which I was in attendance with my dad - the only Leeds United game I have ever attended. I had never before - or since - heard tens of thousands of grown adults sing "Ravanelli is a wanker, is a wanker, is a wanker" to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus. I was in love.)

This is where things begin go sideways for Leeds United. The Champions League is an extremely lucrative tournament. Obviously finances in sports have improved over the last 20 years, but if a team were to win every single game in the Champions League, they currently stand to make over 80m Euros. Getting to the Champions League was a priority for Leeds. They spent £6m on striker Mark Viduka, £4.75 on Dominic Matteo, £18m (then an English transfer record) on Rio Ferdinand, £7m on Olivier Dacourt. Injuries hampered Leeds United early on - they lost five of seven games from November 18 - December 26. When they got healthy, Leeds went on a tear: they got points from 15 of their last 16 games. Unfortunately the one loss came at Arsenal on May 5. Manchester United ran away with the title with 80 points, then it was...

2. Arsenal - 70 points
3. Liverpool - 69 points
4. Leeds United - 68 points.

They missed the Champions League by one point. Manchester City, Coventry City, and Bradford City got relegated that season. Out of 18 possible points against the three relegated teams, Leeds United got 11 points, including two out of the first possible nine.

The 2001/02 season saw Leeds United spend in an effort to get back to the Champions League - they brought in Robbie Fowler and Seth Johnson for £20 million. They spent £11m on Robbie Keane. Initially it worked! Leeds lost just two games before January 1, they were top of the Premier League. Then Leeds lost to second division Cardiff in the FA Cup on January 6 that started a run of eight games without a win. Leeds finished fifth, missing out on Europe entirely by five points. Against the four teams that finished above them, Leeds got six out of a possible 24 points.

David O'Leary was fired by chairman Peter Ridsdale, with the explanation that Leeds had spent £100m and not qualified for Europe. As it turns out, Leeds - under Ridsdale's direction - had started to dig their grave, borrowing money for players against future ticket sales and TV money and banking on the return in Europe. Europe didn't happen and finances unraveled. Leeds started a fire sale: Rio Ferdinand was sold to Manchester United, Jonathan Woodgate to Newcastle. Olivier Dacourt was sold, Robbie Keane left, Robbie Fowler was sold (but Leeds still had to pay him £12,000 every two weeks for two years after he left the club. Lee Bowyer was sold to West Ham. Ridsdale stepped down in 2003 with £103m in debt, but didn't think he was to blame.

New manager Terry Venables, faced with the near-impossible task of staying in the Premier League while also watching his best players getting sold off, quit the team with eight games left and was replaced by Peter Reid. Leeds saved their season with an 88th-minute goal from Mark Viduka at Arsenal in the next-to-last game of the year. The last game saw Leeds beat Fulham to claim 15th place in the Premier League. Harry Kewell left after the season was over. One bright spot was the 1st Team debut of 16-year old James Milner, who figured in numerous positive results.

The 2003-04 season was Leeds' last season in the Premier League. While Arsenal went undefeated for the entire season, Leeds fired Peter Reid after getting eight points out of their first possible 36, and replaced him with Eddie Gray, but the loss of quality players proved too much. Leeds United won eight of 38 games and were relegated to the Championship (the former Second Division). From September 15 to February 7 Leeds lost 14 of their 20 games with just three wins and three ties, and failed to win any of their final six games.

In 2004-05, their first season outside of the Premier League or First Division since 1990, Leeds had to sell training ground Thorp Arch and Elland Road. On January 21, 2005 Leeds United was sold to Ken Bates to prevent going into Administration (British for "bankruptcy") for £10m. Leeds finished in 14th place as they continued to sell players, 10 points clear of relegation to League One (the third tier of English football).

In 2005/06, Leeds were pushing for promotion back to the Premier League. Manager Kevin Blackwell went on a strategy of attacking at home and basically just trying not to lose on the road. And he almost pulled it off! In 23 away games, Leeds won eight, tied eight, and lost seven games. At home they won 13, tied seven, and lost just three games with 35 goals for and 18 goals against. Leeds finished in 5th place despite having won just one game in their final ten games of the season. In the lower division playoffs, 3rd plays 6th, 4th plays 5th in a home-and-home. Away goals count more (if Team A wins 1-0 at home and loses 2-1 on the road, they advance despite the same number of goals because of the away goal). Leeds tied Preston North End 1-1 at home, but won 2-0 away in the second leg, and were thrashed by 3rd place Watford in the Playoff Final. Another season of the Championship awaited.

Keep in mind we're also getting into the nadir of the Houston Astros as a franchise. I love pain, apparently.

The 2006/07 was a disaster in myriad ways: they endured four 1-0 losses in their first eight games. They had four managers that season. Leeds lost 17 games of 26 games (with just six wins) by the turn of the calendar year. It was clear that Leeds were going to get relegated so chairman Ken Bates filed for bankruptcy, which carried a ten-point deduction. Bates filed Leeds for bankruptcy while they were still in the Championship, rather than waiting until they were in League One to absorb the points penalty. Leeds were down to the third division of English football, six years after being in the Champions League.

Leeds had to take another 15-point deduction at the beginning of the 2007/08 season after 75% of the rest of the Football League owners said the rules for operating under insolvency were not met by the club. This is the baseball equivalent of starting the season already down five games. They then won their first seven games of the season to wipe out that points deduction. It was the best start to a Leeds season since 1973. Leeds also won seven of their last eight games to finish in 5th place with 76 points. Without the 15-point deduction, Leeds would have finished with 91 points, good enough for automatic promotion to the Championship. Leeds appealed the points deduction, which was denied. Still, they made the League One Playoffs. Leeds lost to Carlisle 2-1 at home in the 1st Leg but won 2-0 in the 2nd Leg to reach the final...and then Leeds lost, 1-0, to Doncaster.

Things got a little better, though Gary McAlister was fired after a string of six consecutive defeats and a loss to Histon in the FA Cup, a team not even in the top four tiers of English football. His replacement, Simon Grayson, took Leeds to the League One playoff (they lost to Millwall) but Jermaine Beckford led all of England with 34 goals and the club actually turned a profit. The following season, 2009/10, saw Leeds finish 2nd in League One to return to the Championship, while they beat Manchester United at Old Trafford in the FA Cup. Grayson was the first manager to complete a full season at Leeds in four years.

Leeds finished 7th in the Championship in 2010/11, but Ken Bates purchased a majority stake in the club, setting up a future showdown in the boardroom. Grayson was fired in February 2012, Bates sold off fan favorites Jonny Howson and Max Gradel. Manager Neal Warnock had promised promotion to the Premier League, and was fired when it was clear that wasn't going to happen. Brian McDermott became the team's 8th manager in ten years. Bahrain-based GFH Capital took over Leeds United in November 2012, who then sold 75% of the team to Massimo Cellino in February 2014. Six weeks later Cellino was accused of tax evasion. Beginning on July 1, 2014, Leeds went through seven managers over the next two years. In December 2016 Cellino was banned from English football for 18 months due to the sale of Ross McCormack. In 2017 Cellino sold Leeds United to Andrea Radrizzani for £45m.

Now, Radrizzani is an Italian media guy, specializing in sports broadcasting rights worldwide. He bought back Elland Road. He cycled through two managers and missed out on the playoffs. The San Francisco 49ers became minority investors in Leeds United. Then, a coup: in June 2018 Radrizzani announced the hiring of former Argentina, Chile, and Athletic Bilbao manager Marcelo Bielsa to a £2m annual salary, the highest amount ever given to a Leeds manager. It was clear that promotion to the Premier League was the goal.

2018/19 was Bielsa's first as Leeds manager, and is well-documented in the Amazon series Take Us Home. Leeds opened the 2018/19 season with just one loss in its first 12 matches. After seven straight wins leading through Christmas Day, Leeds had a rough run of matches from December 29-February 2 in which they lost four of six games. 18 of the 46 matchday weekends saw Leeds in 1st place. They were in 2nd place, an automatic promotion spot, as late as the 42nd game of the season (there are 46 games in the Championship) then...disaster.

Leeds lost to 10-man Wigan Athletic despite an early 1-0 lead, 2-1, on April 19 to drop them to 3rd place and into the playoff spots. A 2-0 loss at Brentford on April 22, a 1-1 draw with Aston Villa (blowing a 1-0 lead after 72 minutes) on April 28, and a 90th-minute goal by Ipswich Town in the last game of the season for a 3-2 defeat. Leeds were going to the Playoff instead of the automatic promotion that just a few weeks earlier seemed so sure.

In the Playoff Semi-Final's 1st Leg, Leeds beat Frank Lampard's Derby County 1-0. No team had ever won the 1st Leg on the road and failed to advance. Leeds lost 4-2 at home in the 2nd Leg to lose on aggregate 4-3. The season was lost, Leeds would spend another season in the Championship.

Enter the 2019/20 season. Bielsa re-upped for another season. Leeds lost four of their first 24 games of the season. Four losses in five games from January 11-February 8 dropped them to 2nd place, then five straight wins from February 15-March 7 saw them outscore their opponents 9-0, the last win, a 2-0 win over Huddersfield, pushed them one point in front of West Bromwich Albion for the overall lead in the Championship. And then...COVID-19.

We don't know when/if English soccer, or any sport, really, will resume. There are nine games remaining in the fixture list, and Leeds have a seven-point cushion between them and 3rd place. OF COURSE this is how Leeds' push for their first season in the Premier League since 2004.

There are numerous comparisons between the Houston Astros and Leeds United: Drayton giving up high draft picks to sign Carlos Lee and Woody Williams is like betting on a return to the Europe. Leeds simply needing to win at home in the playoff against Derby County and something something 2019 World Series. Their steepest declines happened in precisely the same time frame. This is what I do for fun, apparently.