TEN years ago today, Leeds United were looking down on English football from the summit of the Premier League.
Nine games into the 2001/02 season, David O’Leary’s team (Ferdinand, Kewell, Smith, Viduka, Bowyer, Dacourt et al), who had reached the Champions League semi-final just five months previously, were still unbeaten and a point ahead of Arsenal and two ahead of Man United at the top. They were just about to go to Old Trafford and come away with a 1-1 draw.
What a difference a decade makes. Or, more accurately perhaps, what a difference a few years make. That magical period around the turn of the Millennium when Leeds threatened to once again rule English football all unravelled quicker than you could say “Peter Ridsdale might have spent a little above his means.”
Basically, after maintaining their fine start until the turn of the year, a 3-1 defeat at Newcastle in January 2002 saw them leapfrogged by the Geordies at the top of the table and set in motion a two-month form slump which left them unable to even make the Champions League. That wasn’t part of Ridsdale’s overly-optimistic plan and, as a result, the team fell apart rapidly and lurched towards financial disaster.
Incredibly, from topping the league in early 2002, this proud club were relegated in May 2004.
Amid one financial calamity after another and a host of managerial changes, the Whites spiralled into the third tier in 2007 and spent three seasons there before the shrewd management of Simon Grayson restored them to the Championship for the start of the 2010/11 season. After narrowly missing out on the play-offs when a promising campaign fizzled out last time round, the Whites, seven and a half years on from exiting the top flight, finally look ready to return to the big time.
Where once they were hated by envious rivals, now they are merely pitied. “What’s happened to Leeds?” has been one of the most common utterances in football over the past decade. There’s almost a sense that they’ve served their time for being Dirty Leeds back in the 70s, a time depicted in the famous novel ‘The Damned United’. They could well get their wish next season because Grayson’s free-scoring, fifth-placed team are currently the form side in the Championship and sit three points off second with a game in hand. They don’t have any superstars and certainly wouldn’t be equipped to take the top flight by storm with their current squad, but the main thing is they seem to be back on their financial feet and also have a team that looks like it can win promotion from a league which possesses no obvious favourite.
In typical Leeds fashion, there’s a good Scots connection at the heart of things. In fact their two key man are Scots. Robert Snodgrass, who has been their talisman for several years now, has the most assists in the division, while the irrepressible Ross McCormack is the league’s joint top scorer. Their assistant manager is former Hearts player Glynn Snodin, while ex-Tynecastle defender Paddy Kisnorbo is a cult hero. Even on-loan Celtic centre-back Darren O’Dea has chipped in with vital goals in their last two games.
I may be biased given my leanings towards the West Yorkshire club, but, having seen first-hand the incredible away support they carried during their time in the doldrums of League One, there is no group of fans anywhere in the land who merit success this season more than this beleaguered but eternally loyal bunch.