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Leeds United Return To Promised Land After 16 Years of Pain

This article comes from Guest Writer Gerard Mooney.

15th May 2004 was the last time that Leeds United took to the field as a Premier League team. They suffered a 1-0 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. It marked the end of a 14-year spell in England’s top flight, during which they had been First Division Champions (1992), Champions League Semi-Finalists (2001), and UEFA Cup Semi-Finalists (2002). However, this season marked the end of a horrendous two-year spell for the Yorkshire club, which saw them end up in £100 million of debt due to the poor financial dealings of Club Chairman Peter Ridsdale and his associates, and having to sell their best players and the majority of their club legends as a result.

Over the next 16 years, the club would go through five owners, 16 managers, four Play-Off failures between League 1 and the Championship, one administration, one stadium sale and not a single trophy until this past Saturday, as Leeds were officially confirmed as Championship winners 2019/20 following Brentford’s loss to Stoke City, marking the end of an incredible and, at times, utterly ridiculous 16-year spell.

Following the club’s relegation to the Championship in 2004, Leeds spent three years in the second tier, before being relegated to League 1 in 2007, following a ten-point deduction due to voluntary administration. This marked the lowest point of the club’s existence as they entered the third tier of English football for the first time in their history. Due to this, and the general dislike of owner Ken Bates, attendance at Elland Road was particularly poor, averaging crowds of just under 24,000 during Bates’ tenure.

Leeds managed to make the playoffs in their first season in League 1, despite starting the season with a 15 point deduction for exiting administration without a CVA. However, under the management of former Whites player Gary McAllister, Leeds failed to get promoted, losing to Doncaster in the final at Wembley. In December of the following season, McAllister would be sacked, replaced by Simon Grayson, who would provide Leeds with the best spell of their time outside the Premier League to this point.

Under Grayson, Leeds would be knocked out of the League 1 playoffs at the semi-final stage, this time to Millwall. However, the following season is one of the most fondly remembered in United’s long history. With the signings of Michael Doyle, Max Gradel, Paddy Kisnorbo and Davide Somma adding to the quality of those already in the squad (players such as captain Richard Naylor, Robert Snodgrass, Jonny Howson, Bradley Johnson, Luciano Becchio and previous season’s top scorer Jermaine Beckford), Leeds were one of the favourites for promotion.

That was how it turned out, as Leeds finished second in the league, thus gaining promotion to the Championship. The club also had a memorable FA Cup run, in which they defeated bitter rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford thanks to an early Jermaine Beckford strike. Many believed that this team could go all the way back to the promised land of the Premier League. These hopes were derailed, however, by Ken Bates, who sold the likes of Becchio, Snodgrass, Beckford and Gradel after offering sub-par deals to stay at the club.

This became the trend at the club over the next eight years. Despite changes of ownership to the GFH group, then to the unpredictable Massimo Cellino, Leeds would lose every good talent to come through the ranks of the club’s academy. The poor financial dealings of the managers continued until Andrea Radrizzani took over the club in May 2017.

Radrizzani planned to extend the contract of Head Coach Garry Monk, who had narrowly missed out on the playoffs the previous season. However, the day before Leeds were set to trigger an extension in Monk’s contract, he resigned, which Radrizzani would describe as ‘a shock’. Monk would join Middlesbrough under more lucrative terms later that summer.

Leeds would replace Monk with APOEL Nicosia Manager Thomas Christiansen, with the club saying they ‘wanted to appoint someone who can help us create a winning culture at the club and unite everyone involved with Leeds United, from the players to the supporters’. That same summer, Club Owner Radrizzani announced the purchase of Elland Road, making the stadium property of Leeds United for the first time since 2004.

Despite a promising start in the league, Christensen was sacked in February 2018, following a poor run of results which saw the club sitting tenth in the table. He was replaced with Barnsley Manager Paul Heckingbottom, who never really seemed to get much out of the players. Heckingbottoom was sacked himself on the 1st June 2018, as the club finished in a disappointing thirteenth place in the Championship.

Just two weeks later, Leeds United would make their biggest signing in fourteen years, as the club announced that legendary Argentine manager Marcelo Bielsa was the new head coach of Leeds United. Bielsa signed a two year deal with the option of a third year. It seemed the most unlikely of appointments but it turned out to be a match made in heaven. Chief Executive Angus Kinnear and Director of Football Victor Orta travelled to Argentina to interview Bielsa for the job.

They were shocked to discover that Bielsa had watched every single one of Leeds United’s matches from the previous season, highlighting strengths and weaknesses, and listing his plans of how he would improve the team. He also listed several demands in regards to new facilities for the players, including major upgrades to the Thorp Arch training ground (including basic bedrooms on-site for the players to stay in pre-matchday), and a kilometre long-running track circling the training pitches. Orta and Kinnear quickly arranged a contract and housing for the experienced manager and work for pre-season was soon underway.

Leeds would hit the ground running under Bielsa, winning 3-1 at home to promotion favourites Stoke City on opening day, then winning 4-0 away to Derby County, managed by former Chelsea and England midfielder Frank Lampard. The team was receiving plaudits for their excellent form, as well as the stunning football they were playing under their new head coach. They were top of the table at Christmas. However, the Whites would then suffer a dip in form, collecting only seven points in seven games between the end of December and mid-February, during which time they would be overtaken by Norwich City, who went top of the table and eventually finished there in April.

On the other side of things, Leeds had ‘fallen apart’, failing to win any of their last four league games and dropping out of the automatic promotion spots, losing out to Sheffield United, who finished second. Leeds would still take part in the playoffs, though, where they took on sixth place Derby County.

During the second meeting between these two sides earlier in the season, some bad blood developed between the clubs due to the infamous ‘Spygate’ incident. However, this didn’t have much effect on things on the pitch as Leeds controlled the game for the majority of the first leg, leading 1-0 thanks to a Kemar Roofe goal. Despite an excellent performance at Derby’s Pride Park Stadium, the second leg at Elland Road can only be described as a collapse of epic proportions. Leeds looked to be well in control of the tie when they took a 2-0 aggregate lead thanks to a Stuart Dallas goal after 24 minutes, but Elland Road was stunned into silence as a horrendous mix-up at the back between captain Liam Cooper and goalkeeper Kiko Casilla allowed substitute Jack Marriott to slot the ball home on the stroke of half time.

Derby would add two more goals within 15 minutes of the restart thanks to Mason Mount and a Harry Wilson penalty. Leeds would draw level on aggregate just four minutes after Wilson’s penalty, as Dallas scored a sumptuous solo goal, but it wouldn’t be enough. Jack Marriott scored again in the 85th-minute, not long after Gaetano Berardi was given a harsh red card after he himself was fouled.

Following the game, Marcelo Bielsa described the loss of United’s momentum that April as ‘a decision of God’. There is no doubt that some Leeds fans would’ve been thinking God hated them following a performance like that. The season finished with doubts from fans and pundits alike over the futures of both players and the coaching staff.

Bielsa and his staff did stay on for a second season and relied heavily on the loan market in the transfer window. Jack Harrison was brought in for a second season from Manchester City, with Illan Meslier from FC Lorient in France joining him. Helder Costa from Wolves came with an obligation to buy for £15 million in the summer of 2020, while talented young striker Eddie Nketiah from Arsenal and Ben White of Brighton turned out to be some of the best signings Leeds have made since their relegation.

This season unfolded similarly to Bielsa’s first season in many ways. Leeds had a great start, staying in the top two for virtually the entire season, having a wobble in terms of form in late January into mid-February. How this season differed from the last was that Leeds managed to rediscover their form following their wobble, going six games unbeaten before the league was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

There were fears that the league might not be finished and the season could be declared null and void, but they eventually got back to training in late May. It was panic for Leeds fans, as they lost their first game back to Cardiff City. There were no more worries of the sort for Leeds, though, as they dropped points just once, storming to the Championship title and finishing the season ten points clear of second-placed West Brom.

Nothing ever comes easily at Leeds United but after all the years of dodgy owners, below-average players, and well-below average managers, maybe they deserve this. They deserve to see free-flowing, stunning football with the thumping long-range passing of Kalvin Phillips and the delicate touch of Spanish magician Pablo Hernandez, as the marauding full-backs arrive at the opposition byline.

The Leeds fans deserve a character like Marcelo Bielsa. Once christened ‘El Loco’, the fans recognise him for who he is: a man dedicated to his craft, willing to push himself and his players to the limit to achieve success, understands the passion of the fans, the history of the club’s legendary managers and players who he is surely among now, and the hardships the fans have endured over the last 16 years.

Maybe Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United are meant to be. Maybe this is the perfect match. The fans see themselves in Bielsa, someone who loves the club as much as they do. They’re a match made in heaven and the fans hope they’re together for many more years.

Written by Sports Obsessive

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