A British baby born when Leeds United were relegated from the Premier League could be legally married by now. Realistically, that’s highly unlikely, but they’re probably not a virgin anymore and they’ve just had their GCSE results. They can drive a moped, join the armed forces, and buy a lottery ticket. During the same period, the world record transfer fee has quadrupled and there’ve been five General Elections. So, what was it like for Leeds fans…?
From European highs to Leeds’ record low
The most startling aspect of Leeds United’s relegation in 2004 was the sheer pace it. Three years to the day before our relegation at Bolton, we were in the Champions League semi-finals. We’d already had to acclimatise from being genuine title contenders in 2001/02 to dogged survivors the following year. And Peter Reid being unable to turn the tide seemed as unimaginable then as it was inevitable in hindsight.
What nobody expected was that the worst was yet to come. Three years to the day after our relegation at Bolton, we’d just been relegated to League One. We started the 2007/08 season on minus fifteen points. After winning the first seven matches on the bounce, we eventually lost in the Play-Off Final against Doncaster Rovers.
Sunkissed away days in Madrid and Milan were now foggy excursions to Hartlepool and Gillingham. I can’t deny it: in a weird way, there was almost a masochistic novelty to it all. I’d never pictured us in the second tier, let alone the third. I was far from alone on that one: it was quite literally the lowest point in the club’s history.
The double-edged sword of being ‘Dirty Leeds’
What became immediately apparent in 2004 was that every other club in the country was absolutely loving it. This was schadenfreude on a whole new scale, and the fact that it was ‘Dirty Leeds’ made it even sweeter. Ricky Allman crying at Bolton was comedy gold for most. And in the Championship in particular, there was a cherished opportunity awaiting.
I’ll get stick for saying this, but Leeds United’s name leapt out from most fixture lists. I’m aware that Derby County and Nottingham Forest have won the European Cup. But for fans from the younger generation, they were largely at home in the second tier. Leeds were fresh on the scene, still in full freefall, and bound to provide a good day out.
A major consequence of this remained throughout the entire 16-year spell. Teams would raise their games against Leeds and often produce some of their best performances. Of the nine teams that beat Leeds in 2019/20, seven lost their following fixture, one drew, and only one won. Granted, that’s partly down to Bielsa-ball, but the “beating Leeds” factor was always there.
This went hand-in-hand with the second major consequence. The intense expectation, and subsequently the severe pressure, that weighed down on Leeds United’s players. Whilst our fanbase was amongst the loudest and largest, it was also one of the most demanding and frustrated. We expected to win every single game for 16 years, and more often than not, it was our downfall.
For years, football was second fiddle
Ownership woes are far from being unique for us fans in the 21st century. But the extremes that we’ve suffered at Leeds would give any club a run for its… ahem… money. Surrounding the 2004 relegation, it almost became a welcome distraction. Ridsdale became McKenzie, and then Birch, and then Krasner, and then eventually, Bates.
It was under Ken Bates that we suffered a long, drawn-out period of misery, heartbreak, and resentment. He was solely to blame for the points deduction in 2007. And he may claim to have saved the club, but he constantly hampered its progress. Just as there was a light at the end of the tunnel, he switched it off and flogged the bulb.
That said, it was under Massimo Cellino that fury became bedfellows with bafflement. In the context of Leeds’ journey of late, for something to be christened ‘Mad Friday’ is quite the coup. But that’s what happened when Cellino arrived as chairman.
He began life at Leeds in 2014 by sacking Brian McDermott before he had the authority to do so. In the early hours of the morning, his taxi from Elland Road was chased off by furious supporters. The following day, he reinstated McDermott at half-time during a match against Huddersfield Town. Two club sponsors and our star striker had threatened to leave in the meantime.
Cellino’s replacement for McDermott in July 2014 was unknown non-league manager Dave Hockaday. He lasted 70 days, and his next job was with Swindon Supermarine. This barely scratches the surface when it comes to the madness under Cellino, but you catch my drift.
A fractured fanbase pushed to the brink
It was years and years of these ‘pulling your hair out’ moments that nearly ruined Leeds’ fanbase. From Peter Ridsdale’s tropical fish to Neil Warnock’s tactics to Darko Milanič’s 32 days as manager. It was an awful long way from feeling like an enjoyable hobby.
The atmosphere at Elland Road in the mid-2010s was fractured and at times poisonous. Boredom fused with despair and often led to anger. Seasons were over in February, the chairmen were making our lives hell, and star players were being constantly replaced by repellent journeymen.
As each year passed us by, a return to the top flight felt increasingly intangible. The stadium started looking tired. Local kids all wore Manchester City or Barcelona shirts. The Premier League became unrecognisable from the competition that we’d left in 2004.
The worst part of this was our hope, passion, and ambition disappearing into a void. They simply weren’t being met by the club. At best, we were the awkward customers – despised and exploited throughout. And our football club went from laughingstock to utter shambles.
It almost felt like watching a tribute band at times. They wore the kit, they wore the badge, they even played at the stadium. But that was where the connection ended. The fans were the only part of the club that truly felt like it belonged there. Until, of course, Andrea Radrizzani finally gave us our club back.
Leeds’ long-awaited return to the top
What’s happened under Radrizzani’s ownership has felt too good to be true at times. The best thing about it is, we’re focused on what’s happening on the pitch far more than in the boardroom. His appointment of Marcelo Bielsa in June 2018 has already made history.
But it’s not just title-winning performances and exhilarating tactics, much as they help. He’s bridged an immense chasm between the club and its fanbase. He’s made us feel like it’s ours again. We adore the manager, we have a connection with the players, and we have faith in the board. We’ve not had all three of those for two decades.
I suppose, in a way, it just makes me grateful to be a Leeds fan. Finishing 14th, 15th, 13th, 13th, and 15th between 2012-2016 was by far the worst period for me. I won’t be alone in saying that I drifted slightly: I was more likely to be seen on the terraces with Blyth Spartans in the seventh tier.
The simple truth is, I’d rather have trauma than mediocrity. But for some clubs, mediocrity is all they’ll ever know. I know that sounds arrogant. I don’t really care anymore. 16 years: it’s been a hell of a ride. What happens from here is anybody’s guess…