Welcome to the final article in the regular series of ‘Falls from Grace’. In previous outings, we have enjoyed ourselves with some healthy servings of schadenfreude as we’ve giggled at the memory of Tommy Docherty’s Manchester United, Keith Burkenshaw’s Tottenham Hotspur, and Doug Ellis’s Aston Villa flapping around in the Second Division.
Today it is the turn of Leeds United to come under the spotlight.
The (almost) all-conquering Leeds United side of the 1960s and ’70s got a somewhat bad rep at the time, and to this day appreciation shown to Don Revie’s men is often offered grudgingly, if at all. The reasons for this lack of gushing fawning towards Jack Charlton, Johnny Giles, et al, is normally due to the perceived ‘levels of commitment’ and gamesmanship said to be practised by this particular Elland Road vintage.
Rightly or wrongly, Leeds under ‘The Don’ were hit with accusations of being a dirty side. Indeed, the label ‘Dirty Leeds’ is one that the club hasn’t been able to shake off to this day. As I say, perhaps not totally fair, but there is some substance to the allegations.
Leeds during the reign of Revie were tough – very tough. All the way through the side tenacity reigned with forward players such as Allan Clarke and Peter Lorimer, certainly no shrinking violets and more than capable of giving as good as they got. It was in midfield and defence, though, that the real grit of Leeds showed through with the relatively small players, such as Giles and captain Billy Bremner, particularly aggressive. Acting as if inspired by the diminutive duo, players such as Jack Charlton, Mick Jones, Norman Hunter, and Terry Yorath would regularly join in the fun and quite often matches really would become a war of attrition.
Leeds’ reputation suffered significantly as a result and the side was widely criticised throughout the media. One of the club’s most voracious critics was, of course, Brian Clough, who at one point actually called for Leeds to be relegated due to their poor disciplinary record. His words did not go down well at Elland Road and so that made his appointment as manager after the departure of Don Revie to England all the more staggering.
Promising to clean up Leeds’ image, Clough’s first official game in charge was the 1974 FA Charity Shield against Liverpool. This match has gone down in infamy due to the double-sending off of Bremner and Liverpool’s Kevin Keegan, but a watch of the extended highlights available on YouTube shows us exactly what the Leeds players thought of Clough’s declaration of intent. In what seems now almost fifty years on to be a deliberate snub to Clough, Leeds were at their snarling, studs-showing worst practically all the way through the game. To be fair, Liverpool were not exactly backwards at coming forwards either, and the game was a pretty shocking affair – especially considering it was supposed to be an entertaining curtain-raiser to the new season.
This 1974-75 season was pretty much the last hurrah for this Leeds side as a truly competitive side, as a mid-table finish under Jimmy Armfield following the inevitable parting of the ways with Clough was the best they could manage in the league. The European Cup Final was reached and lost in controversial/hilarious manner (delete as you see fit), but the two-year ban European ban handed out as a result of rioting at the end of the game was certainly no laughing matter.
Leeds grew old and the replacements for Revie’s great players were in the main not up to scratch, so despite a couple of domestic cup semi-finals, and taking Leeds back into Europe via the UEFA Cup, Armfield was dismissed after three-and-a-half years in the job. Jock Stein lasted one day longer than Clough had, and then Jimmy Armfield came and went before ex-playing legend Allan Clarke was appointed.
Unfortunately, Clarke couldn’t halt or turn back the malaise, and at the end of the 1981-82 season, Leeds were relegated. That this demotion came just a few years after Leeds’ almost total domination of the game was shocking enough. The fact that it was eight more years before Leeds would reappear in the top flight only compounded the surprise.
Managers came and went as Leeds looked for a return to the glory days. Seemingly bent on giving each of Revie’s ex-players a shot at the job, the board not only appointed and sacked Clarke but also let Eddie Gray and then Billy Bremner have a go. To be fair to Bremner, he did take the club to within eight minutes of the Promised Land of the First Division in 1987 when the side led Charlton Athletic in the Play-Off Final before succumbing to two late goals. Despite also reaching the FA Cup Semi-final that season, Bremner too had his services dispensed with as soon as things started to go south, and in 1988 Howard Wilkinson was appointed in his stead.
Under Wilkinson, things finally started to pick up. In his second season in charge, the Second Division title was secured with a midfield consisting of the talents of David Batty, Gordon Strachan, Gary Speed and, erm, Vinnie Jones.
A strong fourth-place finish in 1990-91 augered well for the future but it was still a surprise when the Elland Road side challenged for the title in a head-to-head with Manchester United the following season. Buoyed by the talents of John Lukic in goal, Gary McAllister replacing Jones in midfield, and Lee Chapman up front, Leeds kept in touch with the ‘other’ United until the closing weeks of the season when the Old Trafford club rather amusingly self-imploded and lost three games on the spin to hand the title to Wilkinson and his men.
By the end of that season, a certain Frenchman had made a name for himself and was widely credited with helping Leeds over the line in the title race. Eric Cantona had been signed halfway through the season and had contributed in the form of just three league goals but his mere presence had been inspirational.
The following autumn, with Leeds’ title defence already floundering, Wilkinson then made the most controversial decision seen at Elland Road for 18 years when he decided to accept Sir Alex Ferguson’s offer of a million pounds for Cantona. As the Frenchman disappeared out the door and onto four more title medals in the next five seasons, Leeds once more went into demise and finished the season following the title win in 17th place in the 22-team Premier League table, just two points above the relegation zone.
As title defences go it was a pretty disastrous one, and although Wilkinson struggled on for a few more seasons, Leeds were never again to challenge under his stewardship. In 1996, he was finally put out of his, and pretty much everyone else’s, misery and George Graham was appointed in his stead.
Under first Graham, and then his successor and former right-hand-man, David O’Leary Leeds fought their way back towards the top table of English and indeed European football. In Graham’s first full season in charge, the club finished a more than healthy fifth and thus qualified for Europe in the shape of the UEFA Cup. This was followed up with an improvement to fourth the next year after O’Leary took over when Graham decamped for London and the Tottenham Hotspur job.
Year-on progress was maintained with a top-three finish in 2000 and thus qualification for the Champions League where a fairytale ride saw O’Leary lead his charges all the way to the semi-final before an aggregate defeat by Valencia finally ended the dream.
Six years later and the club was in the third flight!
So, what went wrong? Basically, the twenty-first century Leeds dream was built on a wing and a prayer financially, and when O’Leary’s side was unable to maintain regular Champions League football the bottom fell out of the club. Spending beyond their means ultimately led to administration, points deductions, fire sales of players, a revolving door through which managers came and went, and, naturally, struggles on the pitch.
After relegation from the Premier League in 2004, the club continued to decline and further problems in the boardroom led to the double whammy in 2007 of relegation once again and a 15-point deduction from the start of the following 2007-08 season. Three seasons were spent in the third flight of English football for the once-mighty Leeds, during which the nadir was undoubtedly a defeat by non-league Histon in the first round of the 2008-09 FA Cup.
Following eventual promotion back to the Championship in 2010, it was to be another decade before Premier League football would return to Elland Road. The appointment of Marcelo Bielsa in 2018 ushered in a new dawn for the club, although promotion was missed out on in his first season courtesy of a play-off defeat to ‘Frank Lampard’s Derby County’ *
A year later Bielsa’s men made sure of promotion in fine style by winning the Championship by ten points. A solid first season back in the Premier saw Leeds finish in the top half of the table in ninth spot.
Time will tell if Leeds can continue to push on, but it is unlikely that the Glory Days of Don Revie or Howard Wilkinson’s times in charge will ever return. The tale of Leeds, however, is a sobering one in terms of not one but two relatively recent sharp falls from grace.
- The club’s official name during the 2018-19 season.