MENTION 15-point penalties to a Leeds United fan and you will probably end up reducing them to tears of pride and joy.
Six years ago, the West Yorkshire giants were in a similar predicament to Hearts in having such a hefty sanction imposed on them.
After a ten-point deduction for entering administration helped relegate them from the Championship, the beleaguered Elland Road club were stunned when they were docked another 15 points at the start of the 2007-08 season after being deemed to have failed to comply with the terms of the Football League’s insolvency policy during Ken Bates’ controversial attempt to take them out of administration.
Unlike Hearts, who have long been braced for a 15-point penalty, Leeds were livid as they felt they were being punished twice, and on a technicality. The fact the decision was made following a vote by rival clubs merely added to the sense of injustice. “It’s laughable,” bemoaned Dennis Wise, the Leeds manager at the time of the decision. “Not only have they taken my arms and legs off, now they’ve cut my b***s off as well. I’m disappointed with the whole thing. Minus 15 points. We have to get 106 points to win the league, 92 points to get in the play-offs and 70 points to stay up. Lovely. Thank you very much. It’s so disappointing, but these players, these fans are going to stick together and be strong and try to achieve it.”
Although not burning with quite the same sense of injustice, Hearts manager Gary Locke will be able to empathise with how Wise felt back then. However, as he seeks inspiration for his own mission improbable, Locke can take heart from the fact it was that 15-point penalty which inadvertently helped spark Leeds back into life after the financial calamity that had led them from the Champions League semi- finals in 2001 to staring at a potential League One relegation battle just six years later.
In contrast to Hearts, the Whites had the relative luxury of a squad of experienced players, while they weren’t saddled with a signing ban. However, the fundamentals were similar in the sense that Leeds, like Hearts, were a bigger club than most of their rivals, and had the backing of a loyal and fiercely passionate fanbase.
After all the worry of summer 2007, Leeds, incredibly, went on to enjoy one of their most uplifting seasons in the modern era. They wiped out the 15-point deficit by winning their first five games and by Christmas Day they sat just a point off the top of the table, headed only by Swansea City and Nottingham Forest.
The fans devised defiant chants to accompany the fightback, while rousing team huddles in the centre circle would be held after every victory. In the end, Leeds, with Gary McAllister replacing the Newcastle-bound Wise midway through the season, lost to Doncaster in the play-off final at Wembley, but it couldn’t detract from a season in which this battered English heavyweight stopped the rot and regained some much-needed pride.
“I would say that was one of the most memorable seasons I’ve ever had,” said Matt Heath, the veteran centre-back who helped Leeds swat aside all before them in that battle against adversity. “The manager instilled a mentality in us that everybody else was against us and it created a great camaraderie. Everyone stuck together and the results we had at the beginning of the season were absolutely amazing.
“In pre-season, there was never any talk of relegation among the players. There might have been a bit of it in the press but the manager didn’t let it affect us. We knew we still had a pretty strong team for that division. It was literally a case of ‘everybody else is against us and we’ve got to stick together’. That’s what the Hearts players and supporters have got to feel this season.”
Points deductions have the effect of weeding out those who are not in it for the good of the team. Invariably, with financial troubles taking hold, there are plenty of opportunities for those who are not up for the fight to depart. In searching for positives back in summer 2007, Wise said: “You know the pleasing thing about it? I’ve just signed Andrew Hughes from Norwich. I told him we were minus 15 points and he said ‘no problem gaffer, we’ll just brush ourselves down and let’s get on with it’. That’s someone who wants to join this club. He doesn’t care. He wants to give it a real go.”
Locke made a similar observation when he welcomed his Hearts players back for pre-season after several had made sacrifices in order to stay. “No disrespect to the players that have been here in the past because they’ve all been great, but I certainly feel we’ve got a squad where everybody wants to be here,” he noted in June.
For Leeds and Hughes, read Hearts and Danny Wilson, the defender who turned down other offers to return and try to help the Tynecastle out of this desperate plight. Heath himself was one of several out-of-contract Leeds players that summer who opted to stay on and battle the 15-point deduction. Likewise, at Hearts, Jamie MacDonald, Jamie Hamill and Ryan Stevenson were among those who took pay cuts in order to stay on for the adventure.
This is the pull that big clubs have, even in the ultimate adversity. “The team spirit we had was incredible,” Heath recalls. “We had no bad eggs in the team, no-one whingeing about not getting a game. Everyone was just focused on wanting to do the right thing for the club.”
It was Heath who got the ball rolling on Leeds’ incredible 2007-08 campaign, scoring an equaliser early in the second-half which paved the way for a hard-fought opening-day 2-1 win at Tranmere. That set the tone for a season in which Leeds would go unbeaten until November. Imbued with a never-say-die attitude, late winners for the men in white became a pleasant habit. Indeed, one of those, incidentally, was scored by ex-Hearts hero Mark de Vries, who joined Leeds on a short-term loan in October 2007 and helped keep momentum going with a decisive 89th-minute goal at home to Yeovil in his second game for the club.
As Hearts prepare to head to St Johnstone for their SPFL Premiership opener on Sunday, Heath cannot emphasise enough the importance of a positive start in such a situation. “I remember that first game at Tranmere. We were 1-0 down at half-time and nicked a 2-1 win with a late goal and that just kick-started our season,” he recalls. “It was so important to win that first game. If we’d lost it, I’m sure it would have been a really different season.”
Despite being widely written off, Hearts players have been consistently bullish this summer on their prospects of avoiding relegation. “The Hearts players are starting in the right manner if they’re saying positive things in the press, so they’ve obviously got the right mentality in their heads,” said Heath, currently a 31-year-old free agent.
“They’ve just got to believe that they can actually do it. If they win the first game and then possibly win the second, it can all just snowball from there. When the 15 points goes down to a single figure, it just disappears psychologically.”
Heath believes the support of the Hearts fans will be crucial to their chances of overhauling their huge deficit. He acknowledges that the Leeds team he played in was made up mostly of “League One-standard players who had hopes of playing in the Championship”, and believes the incredible backing they received, allied to the pride of representing one of the biggest clubs in the country, helped create an air of invincibility about the team. He expects everyone connected with Hearts to follow suit.
“The fans were totally behind us,” he recalls. “When our backs were against the wall, they followed us all over the country and really dug in with us. Looking back, it was actually real great fun just trying to claw back the points.
“We knew we were a club who should be up near the top of the league in normal circumstances, but when we first got off the bottom, it was absolutely awesome.
“Every game was like a cup final. Because of the situation, they were all that bit more important than a normal league game would have been.
“The support we had was a massive factor in what we did. The Hearts fans will feel like the Leeds fans did and really get behind the team. It helped us so much. It would not surprise me one bit if Hearts go on one of the best runs they’ve ever had. They’re one of the biggest clubs in the Scottish league, so good luck to them.”