It’s not safe to identify any one day, defeat or disappointment as the nadir of Leeds United’s fortunes just now. At the moment, takeover and “fresh start” notwithstanding, we appear to be plummeting downhill faster than a greased pig. The loss of top scorer Luciano Becchio – to bloody Norwich City AGAIN – was another notable low point; but Leeds United has long had this unfortunate habit of losing top players in January transfer windows. Worse still, the results since Christmas have been appalling, in the league anyway. Beaten at home by Cardiff, as usual – chucking away a 2-1 lead at Wolves in injury time, and a poor performance to lose away at Middlesboro to a side which had lost several on the spin. In this last game, the Leeds fans were exhorting Neil Warnock, an increasingly isolated figure, to make a change and pep the team up, and he actually applauded them sarcastically, an absolutely fatal thing to do for a manager who was never the most popular. Bad, bad times. And yet, you somehow have that uncomfortable, chill feeling – even as a committed Whites fanatic – that, however bad things may seem, there’s plenty of scope for them to get worse.
Indeed, it’s arguable that things HAVE been worse – much worse – in the fairly recent past, than they are today. The run-up to the 2007/08 season, the club’s first in the third tier of English football, was catastrophic. Administration had brought about the unprecedented penalty of a 15 point deduction, leaving the beleaguered giants 5 wins short of zero points as the season started. But that season turned into a triumph of sorts – promotion was narrowly missed, and the whole points-deduction saga seemed to galvanise the support. On the pitch, the team delivered, particularly in the early part of the season, and a seemingly irresistible momentum was built up. Leeds really were United at this lowest ebb in their history.
At present, in some superficial measures, things are better – but in the most fundamental ways, they appear significantly worse. Obviously, the club now enjoys a higher status within the game – the dark days of League One football are receding into the past, at least for the time being. There have been high spots too, famous Cup victories, including the recent defeat of Spurs, and the odd satisfying away performance. At Elland Road, once a fortress notorious for intimidating opponents, form has been patchy. And yet other Premier League teams have been put to the sword, and generally speaking the team will give anyone a game on their own patch – apart from Cardiff, apparently. The underlying problem now though is more insidious than the acute emergencies immediately post-administration. It is the creeping cancer of apathy that pervades the club now.
It’s not difficult to see the signs of this. Read any of the fans’ forums, and a pattern swiftly emerges. The supporters, by and large, are sick of the way the club has been run over the past few years. Sick of paying top dollar for a distinctly second-rate product. Sick of the club’s habitual prevarications over transfer policy, of seeing our best players form a procession out of the exit door, sick to death of seeing lesser clubs easily out-match us for wages and transfer fees, despite the fact that our turnover and potential remain at the top end.
Leeds United, a great name in English football, by any measure, appears to have been run on the cheap for a long time now. Investment is minimal, the ability to retain promising players practically non-existent. The supporters’ expectations, born of great days in the past, remain high – and why shouldn’t they be? But those expectations show no sign of being met, or even approached. Last summer’s long drawn-out agony of a takeover saga descended too often to the depths of farce, as rumour countered rumour, and we all rode an internet-driven roller-coaster of optimism and despair, over and over again. But once concluded, that saga has not spawned a legacy of more investment and better club/fan relations. We appear to be stuck with more of the same; the changes appear to have been purely cosmetic.
On Saturday 12th January, Leeds United played Barnsley away, a fixture that had produced humiliating three-goal thrashings in the previous two seasons. This time around, it was only a two goal thrashing, but the manner of defeat – the abject failure to muster any real threat up front, and the spectacle of midfield players gazing skywards as the ball whistled to and fro far above them – was too much for the long-suffering band of away fans in Leeds United colours. They complained, loudly. They advised the manager to be on his way. They questioned the fitness of the players to wear the famous shirt. The FA Cup win over Spurs offered some brief respite, but now an almost identical scenario has been played out at Boro’s Riverside Stadium, a ground where we’d previously had a good record. After the match, Warnock spoke learnedly, but with that annoying chuckle in his voice, of the “need to win games” and of how he was baffled at how chances were being missed. We’ve heard a lot of this, all season. The supporters feel they are being taken for mugs, and they have had enough.
All this has been true for a while – but for much of the past year, change has been in the air, and it has seemed reasonable to expect that things might be about to get better. Some of us dared to dream. But after the final whistle at Middlesbrough, it was all of a sudden quite clear that the options for change have been exhausted, and that the future remains as bleak as it has been at any time since top-flight status was relinquished nine long years ago.
Some of the fans – not all, but some – feel that there is now no way back for Leeds – not to anywhere approaching the pre-eminence they once enjoyed in the game. If that’s the case, then the question arises: what is a reasonable aim? To gain promotion to the Premier League, and strive to survive? To become a yo-yo club, with promotion and relegation in successive years, never becoming established in the top-flight? That might be enough for many clubs, but at Leeds the memories of glory are that bit too vivid for the fans to settle for any such precarious existence, scratching around in the hinterland of old rivals’ success.
It may well be that, on a cold night on Teesside, realisation dawned that the club Leeds United once were is now dead and gone. What is left behind may well still be worth supporting, but it is likely to be a pale shadow of what we once knew. Recently, during the transfer window, there were rumours of high profile signings – and you knew, you just KNEW, that we were being softened up for more bad news. Then Becchio was off, swapped for a striker in Morison that Norwich didn’t want, and we heard reports that recent loanees didn’t want to stay “because of the money situation up there”. It all stinks of a club rotten to the core, and dead at the top.
Leeds United – one of the truly great names in English football. RIP.