Leeds United: The Fall of the West Yorkshire Giants


Over the years we’ve seen big clubs dropping out of the top league of English football. From Manchester United in the mid-’70s to Newcastle United and Aston Villa in more recent years, but they don’t come as big, shocking or damn right crazy as Leeds United’s story of relegation in 2004.

Leeds haven’t been shy of the headlines over the years. 15 years on from their shock relegation from the Premier League, the club finally look ready to head back to the top flight after many highs and lows over the past decade and a half. The club currently sit 3rd in the championship in a three-horse race for promotion.

With attendances back up and the club taking a new direction, could Leeds United finally be heading back to the Premier League and be playing host to the likes of Man City, Liverpool and not forgetting rekindling that old rivalry with Manchester United?

Manager Marcelo Bielsa has given the Leeds United fans hope for the first time in years. Despite the whole ‘Spy-gate’ controversy, he has settled in well at Elland Road, he has managed at a high level for years, from Argentina and Chile to Marseille and Athletic Bilbao. But the hurt of 2004 is still fresh in the minds to many Leeds fans, seeing how far and fast they fell.

Leeds moving on up

On the turn of the Millennium, Leeds United qualified for the Champions League after finishing 3rd in the 99/00 Premier League campaign. They had a semi-final appearance in the Uefa Cup before losing to eventual winners Galatasaray. With some great young English talent breaking through, David O’Leary was building a fine young squad and attracting 40,000 fans a week at Elland Road

Leeds looked like they could start to challenge for the title. But their neighbours on the other side of the Peak District, Manchester United were dominating English football and Leeds struggled to keep up. 

Big money signings and Champions League football

Leeds had been spending big money and making some great signings over the previous two seasons. However, a dark chapter lay ahead for the West Yorkshire heavyweights. O’Leary had been at the helm already for a couple of seasons. After finishing 4th and 3rd in his first 2 seasons. Leeds Chairman, Peter Ridsdale was confident O’Leary could take them that extra step. He had taken out some large loans in order to bolster the squad with big money signings and larger pay packets to attract better players. The loans were taken out in the prospect the club would achieve Champions League football regularly.

It was May 2001, Leeds had just dropped to 4th after being beaten by Arsenal in the League. However, Leeds had other things on their mind. A 2nd leg battle against Valencia after a 0-0 draw at Elland Road. Leeds had been having a fantastic Champions League campaign beating the likes of A.C Milan, Lazio & Deportivo eventually taking them to the semi-finals.

As financial issues had started to loom they knew it was important to make it to the final to qualify again for the Champions League. Unfortunately for Leeds, a then growing Valencia squad outplayed Leeds with an easy 3-0 victory. This would have an unforeseen detrimental effect on the club and their finances.

Finishing 4th meant Leeds would only qualify for the Europa League along with Ipswich Town and Chelsea. Nevertheless, Leeds would once again bolster their squad in hopes they could push for the Premier League title and make it into the Champions League automatically and become a European heavyweight.

The following season Uefa gave the opportunity for 4 English teams to qualify for the Champions League, 2 automatically and 2 through the 3rd round qualifying.

An unbeaten league start, but early cup exits

Leeds spent close to 32 million bringing in Robbie Fowler, Robbie Keane and Seth Johnson. Which in today’s standards is peanuts, but was a big spend back in the early years of the 21st century. After an impressive start being unbeaten in the first 11 games of the season, Leeds found themselves top of the table and playing some great football.

However, Liverpool were hot on their tails and the pressure began to show. A 1-0 loss to Sunderland and only 1 win in 5 saw Leeds dropped to 3rd. Furthermore, after Newcastle stunned Elland road with a 4-3 win, the Magpies went top of the table at Christmas and knocked Leeds 1 point behind Arsenal and Liverpool into 4th. However, after 3 wins on the bounce over the busy Christmas period, Leeds were back on top of the table on New years day in a tight four-horse race.

It was a 2nd defeat in the space of 3 weeks to Newcastle that was the start of a poor run of form taking them from 1st to 6th after going winless in 7 games. During this run of bad form they also got knocked out of the Uefa Cup. Their only other route to another Champions League campaign after being beaten 1-0 on home soil to PSV Eindhoven. They also had an early FA Cup exit to a then 3rd tier Cardiff City.

Pressure started to mount on O’Leary as it began to look like Leeds would miss out on Champions League football for the 2nd year in a row, something financially Leeds couldn’t afford.

It really wasn’t going to plan

Leeds plans for a new 50,000 seater stadium was also looking in doubt after the ever slimming hope of Champions League football was fading and a financial meltdown was over the horizon, as Peter Ridsdale’s risk and large financial loans weren’t paying off.

As they headed into March and the final stretch of the season the board knew they couldn’t afford any more slip-ups. Leeds were in need of an urgent lift so O’Leary asked the Leeds fans “Back us, don’t barrack us”. They got back into winning ways with 3 wins on the bounce against Ipswich, Blackburn and Leicester before they faced their arch-rivals Manchester United in a 7 goal thriller.

Paul Scholes put Manchester United 1-0 before Mark Viduka equalised, but 2 goals in 3 minutes from the current Manchester United boss Ole Gunner Solskjaer put the Red Devils 3-1 up at halftime over their Yorkshire rivals. Ryan Giggs put the game to rest in the 55th minute as goals from Harte and Bowyer eased the scoreline but were too little too late as Leeds lost for the 3rd time at home that season. Leeds suffered 2 defeats on the bounce after a loss at White Hart Lane 2 days later. Putting them in 6th place and 6 points of a top four spot. 

A difficult summer was ahead for the Leeds faithful after four wins out of the last five matches could only see them finish 5th and in a Europa League spot. Leeds would need to sell players to balance the books as they missed out on Champions League football for a second season on the run as desperation from the board started to set in.

From Rio to Manchester

In the weeks following the final game of the season, Ridsdale decided it was time for a change at Elland Road and O’Leary was sacked after four years in charge. O’Leary’s infamous book, “Leeds United: On trial” probably didn’t help his case. Some fans had accused O’Leary of cashing in on the clubs off the field issues with Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate. He was shortly replaced by former England manager Terry Venables.

The first casualty of the summer came in a controversial move as club captain, Rio Ferdinand moved across the Peak district to arch-rivals Manchester United after an impressive showing at the 2002 World cup. The move went through for just under 30m. Yet, it wasn’t enough to ease the debt. Before the transfer window closed Robbie Keane was snatched up for just 7m from North London outfit Spurs. Which was a bargain even in 2002. 

Venables gets the axe

Leeds spent their first summer in years not being able to spend big, so as no big names came into Elland road, Venables would have to make use of the resources Leeds had. After a positive start to the season, they sat 3rd after 6 games. However, in the following 11 games, Venables would only pick up 1 win, 2 draws and suffer 8 defeats, completely flipping the season on its head and throwing Leeds right into a relegation dog fight as they headed into the busy Christmas period.

A great Christmas period though saw Leeds move away from the relegation zone and give Venables and the Yorkshire club some breathing space. However, as growing financial issues still shadowed over Elland Road, Ridsdale had to break a previous promise he had made when recruiting Terry Venables as manager. Three key players were sold in the January transfer window, Jonathan Woodgate, Robbie Fowler and Lee Bowyer, leaving an empty void in the squad.

As January came Leeds form began to dip again. They were out of the Uefa Cup and after New years day, 6 losses in the following 8 games with only 1 win eventually saw the sacking of Venables after rising tensions between him and the board came to head.

Peter Reid was immediately brought in and lost his first game in charge against Liverpool. However, Reid was going to kick some life into the Leeds players for the final stretch of the season.

Reid gets Leeds back to winning ways

Only 10 days after the sacking of Venables, the lifelong fan and club chairman Peter Ridsdale decided to resign from his position, stating ‘When this criticism becomes so intense that it affects your family and health, it requires clear reflection on the right way forward’. By this point, the clubs debt had built to an enormous 80m.

7 games remained of the 2002-2003 campaign. In Peter Reid’s 2nd game in charge, he knew he needed to grab a win for the club immediately as time on the season ran out. An astonishing 6-1 thrashing of Charlton down at the Valley Parade helped ease some pressure in that final few games. Nevertheless, Reid knew Leeds weren’t quite safe. Following a Draw and a Loss to Spurs and Southampton respectively, Leeds just needed a win from their penultimate game to assure safety.  

They faced Arsenal at Highbury, quickly becoming one of Europe’s top teams. Nobody expected Leeds to go and pick up points at Arsenal. However, Kewell put the visitors 1-0 up after just 5 minutes, Henry equalised before half time but Harte scored in the opening moments of the 2nd half for Leeds putting them 2-1.

Shortly After Bergkamp scored another equaliser for Arsenal, but as the clock ran down, Mark Viduka manage to beat the offside trap and put the ball past David Seaman to snatch the win and secure safety. Many thought the fortunes of Leeds may change now after a winning end to the campaign. When in fact they were about to get a whole lot worse.

Relegation and debt

Peter Reid took charge of his first full season. Many optimists were in hope that they could get back on track. Having said that, many realists were just hoping they could hold on to their Premier League status. However, nobody really expected to see Leeds in the Championship, especially to see where they were only 2 years ago. That summer their financial position meant Leeds couldn’t afford to spend any money on new players. After already selling on some big names in the previous campaign. Leeds had to let go some more key-players in Harry Kewell and Olivier Dacourt. 

With Kewell being sold to Liverpool more pressure laid on Mark Viduka’s shoulders as key goal scorer. Reid struggled to get the squad to gel and performances were poor. Pressure mounted early in the season as Leeds were rock bottom as they headed into November. Reids time at Leeds looked to be heading to an end as the veteran manager couldn’t get what he needed out the players.

In an interview in 2017, Reid said: “You can’t do now what I did in Premier Passions (a documentary filmed while he was at Sunderland) effin and blindin at modern players, they’d just down tools.

“I learned very quickly at Leeds. Mark Viduka’s reaction told me everything. I’ve laid into him and I could see in his eyes he’s thinking I’m a piece of ****.

“As they’re going out for the second half I’ve pulled him over and said, ‘hey listen I’ve only made you an example because you’re the best player’.

“I had to think on my feet. But that was the point I realised I couldn’t do that anymore.”

After another 3 defeats in November including a 6-1 thumping from Portsmouth, Reid was sacked and immediately replaced by Eddie Gray who had managed Leeds between 1982-1985. He was burdened with the task of keeping Leeds Premier League status intact. With the huge pressure, lack of resources and huge crippling debt, it would be one task he would fail. Nevertheless, he would bring around a change in form. After losing his first match in charge he would take Leeds on a 5 game unbeaten run. The following two wins would take Leeds off the bottom of the table and put them within a point of safety by the end of December.

As quickly as Leeds strung together a good run of form, came a bad run of form. This time losing 6 games on the bounce, as they once again sat bottom of the table and 6 points from safety. Their survival hopes started to rapidly fade.

A glimmer of hope

24 games in and Leeds only had 4 wins the whole season, they came up against Wolves who were also struggling and sat just 3 points above Leeds in 19th. An early goal from academy prodigy Alan Smith who had made a name for himself under the David O’Leary era put United 1-0 up. An equaliser from Wolves was quickly cancelled out as Leeds went into the half time break 2-1 up.

Another impressive player to come through the academy, James Milner put Leeds 3-1 up on the hour mark before Viduka sealed their first win in 2 months late on to relight some hope of survival.

Two more massive games awaited in the form of Manchester United and Liverpool. After pulling off a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, Leeds were in hope they could then go on to take something from Liverpool. A busy first half of goals put the game level at half time. It started with a blinding goal by Harry Kewell wearing red against his old team. Celebrations were muted by the ex-Leeds man.

The match finished level and Leeds had now taken 5 points from their last 3 matches and were only 2 points from safety. Nevertheless, Leeds would need to pick up some more wins if they were to have any chance of survival.

The race for survival was starting to pick was up momentum, and within the next 6 games they would pick up 3 wins against relegation rivals Man City, Leicester and Blackburn and another draw against Everton. With only 5 games remaining they were off the bottom of the table but still sat in the dreaded drop zone. However, what they didn’t know is that the 2-1 win away at Blackburn Rovers would be their last recorded Premier League win to date.

As spring arrived the final downfall came for Leeds. It started with a 5-0 thrashing at Highbury from the soon to be champions and invincibles Arsenal team. Then came a 2-1 defeat at home to Pompey who all but secured their Premier League status, Leeds couldn’t afford any more slip-ups from this point as their Premier League status hung by a thread.

Emotions run high

The sun was out and it was a glorious day at The Reebok. Leeds went there with a mission and could not afford to fail. It started so well, Viduka converted a penalty after some early Pressure from Leeds. However, not long after during the heat of the moment in this hugely important match, the big Australian lost his head and was shown his 2nd red card in just a few short weeks for an elbow on Bruno N’Gotty. Leeds would have to play one of the biggest games in the clubs history with 10 men.

They managed to get to half time still in the lead, but Sam Allardyce’s Bolton came straight out of the traps in the 2nd half putting in an emphatic display. Only 10 minutes into the 2nd half Leeds went from winning to trailing 3-1. Some great passing football by Bolton and some defensive blunders by Leeds including an unfortunate own goal by Ian Harte was the straw that broke the camels back.

The final nail in the coffin came from Kevin Nolan, who put Bolton 4-1 up and all but submitted Leeds to relegation for the first time since the ’80s. So much had changed at Elland Road over the previous 3 seasons. From a Champions League semi-final to facing a financial meltdown and the clubs future being in jeopardy. The emotions were plain to see on the die-hard fans of the club. shock, sorrow, frustration.

After relegation was confirmed the clubs financial issues meant they had to sell off the remaining players, bar a few, and build from the ground up as the club were left in tatters.

A new era awaits

Fifteen years on, Leeds have had failed play-off attempts. They’ve been relegated to League 1 and promoted back to the Championship. They’ve been through numerous manager and they have had many highs and even more lows. As the club finally looks ready to head back to the Premier League, their first thing to do will be to put in a plan in place to help them remain there.

They will have their work cut out for them. However, if they can learn from Wolves who see themselves challenging for a Uefa Cup spot in their first season back in the Premier League. Then I believe there will be a brighter future at Elland Road. Furthermore, If anyone is to put Leeds in the right direction, it’s Marcelo Bielsa. With his wisdom and experience, can he be the man to bring some glory back to the sleeping West Yorkshire giants?