At a time when, once again, there’s a bit of cautious optimism drifting around Elland Road it’s worth reflecting that we’ve been here before, several times in fact since the club returned to what should be its absolute minimum status as a second tier club. In those three seasons, we’ve ridden the traditional roller-coaster; great Cup performances against nominally superior foes at one end of the scale, awful, abysmal defeats against teams we should be easily out-matching at the other. The roller-coaster is a suitable analogy – you go up and down and there are thrills along the way, but ultimately you get nowhere, ending up back where you were and feeling slightly sick.
Is there any real difference this time? Well, maybe. The man we now have in charge is young(ish), undeniably hungry after what seemed an unfortunate dismissal at Reading, and able to point to a Championship record at his former club which is little short of remarkable. Brian McDermott operated on a tight budget at the Madejski Stadium, being forced to sell several of his better players (for a fat profit to the club), and bring through adequate replacements for a fraction of the sum coming in. Yet he oversaw a surge in the league last season from 18 points back to actually pip Southampton for the title, and that doesn’t happen by chance.
So there is possibly cause for optimism for our prospects next season – IF the owners get it right. McDermott has pointed out that he doesn’t want to hear talk of the club backing him – the club should be backing themselves, investing in their own future. He is simply right. His is a message of realism and genuine hope, something we should all appreciate after the confusing messages sent out by Neil Warnock over the past year or so. McDermott has been there and done it, as had Warnock before him. But Warnock’s appointment smacked of desperation and papering over the cracks that were widening as last summer’s takeover saga stretched out to a ridiculous length. McDermott has come in looking a better fit for the club, a round peg in a round hole. It looks very much, just now, as if Leeds United and Brian McDermott need each other almost equally.
Let’s face it, though. Leeds United isn’t going to feel quite right again until we’re back where most of us still feel we rightfully belong: in the top flight, and what is more – pushing towards the top end. Over the past 50 years, that has been the general profile of the club and even after going on for a decade at a lower status, it still looks wrong for that name – Leeds United – to figure outside of the elite. The last real high time we had was promotion from the third level, an escape from a truly shameful period in our history. Thanks, Simon Grayson, you did the job for us. The next peak should be elevation to the Premier League, and we will hope we can thank McDermott for that in the not-too-distant future. But what lies ahead afterwards?
The Premier League is now a big-money cartel, as it really goes without saying. Should we be in a position where promotion to that level appears likely, it will be time – well in advance of the actual confirmation of higher status – to think about exactly what direction Leeds United should be aspiring to. We simply cannot go into this with our eyes shut or blinkers on. Some clubs may be able to go up and budget for immediate relegation, rubbing their hands at the prospect of parachute money. Not Leeds, I would suggest. The weight of history hangs too heavy about our shoulders, the expectations of the fans and their collective pride – a throatily raw and raucous thing – should not encourage or even permit such a negative and unambitious mindset. We have to get there first, but once we do – we have to GO for it, because We Are Leeds. It’s as simple as that. We Are Leeds.
If the people at the top of the club really don’t recognise the import of those three words, then they are certainly not the right people. Mediocrity served Leeds United well for decades, and nothing more was expected of them, not even by died-in-the-wool supporters. Don Revie changed all that, changed it for good; so 24 years after his death, the legacy of the Don still dictates the expectations surrounding the club. However hard it may be to compete these days, in the vastly different game we have now compared to the one that we knew then, that will remain the case because of the worldwide name of Leeds United, and the pride of their followers around the globe, motivated not by glory or trophies, but by the fact that We Are Leeds.
With support like that, with pressure like that, mediocrity is never an option. Once we’re there, we have to go in to win.