“Doing a Leeds”. It’s become a 21st Century football cliché or, more accurately, a refrain increasingly tiresome to the ears of Leeds United sympathisers. It’s hackneyed, it’s boring, it’s irritating. Moreover, almost invariably – when applied to other clubs – it’s nowhere near the truth.
What is “doing a Leeds”, after all? Well, it’s no mere common or garden tumble from grace, we can be sure of that. Most teams at some point will happen upon hard times and experience bad days after the bright sunshine of relatively heady heights. It’s a part of the charm of the game, without which things could get pretty boring. Central to the English condition is a love of seeing some smug, sleek success, happy on its pedestal, firstly wobble and falter, and then come tumbling amusingly down. There’s an inner satisfaction in beholding such a humbling of a complacent success story.
So, it’s a common experience, and even enjoyable – to the onlooker. The distinction between your ordinary, everyday descents into misfortune, though, and the phenomenon of “doing a Leeds”, is the height of the pedestal from which the tumble occurs. To “do a Leeds”, you must not just fall, you must fall precipitately, from a great, dizzying height, scattering riches from your pockets as you plunge headlong into the depths of misery, ignominy and despair. You must have experienced the sweetest of success, the heights of popular fame – and you must then be found grovelling, penniless and distraught in the filthiest of gutters, with barely a rag to your back and the authorities hunting you down for a debtors’ cell with beggary to follow. That’s doing a Leeds.
Following Newcastle United‘s latest piteous showing, as they lost 1-3 to Bournemouth to deepen their peril at the foot of the Premier League, some so-called pundits are expressing fears that the Geordies might be in danger of doing a Leeds if they were to tumble through the top-flight trapdoor come May. To such a suggestion, I can only respond thus: what utter, footling rubbish. Balderdash. Piffle. Crap. Newcastle will be miles off doing a Leeds until and unless they’re struggling in the basement of League Two and looking fearfully down the barrel of the Conference. They simply have not risen high enough to be associated with “doing a Leeds”, merely by a Parachute Payment-cushioned relegation to the Championship – not even if they were somehow to drop right through that division into League One.
Leeds United’s plummet from glory to grief was looked at – and, let’s be honest, gloated over – in the light of their historical success within living memory. The triumphs and disasters of the Don Revie years are the stuff of legends; though the Whites never won as much as they could and should have done, nevertheless they became true giants of the game. Widely regarded as one of the very finest club sides ever to grace these islands, Don’s lads were peerless on their day and set the benchmark for all future incarnations of Yorkshire’s Number One club.
Even after a post-Revie decline, which saw relegation and a measure of despair, Leeds were boldly revived and hit the top of the game again under Howard Wilkinson, powered by a classical midfield four of Batty, McAllister, Strachan and Speed. Three years or so after Wilko found Leeds towards the bottom of Division Two, and only one full season after promotion to Division One, Leeds were English Champions again – the Last Champions of the old-style Football League. Yet more immortality for the Whites of Elland Road, and that pedestal of popular fame (or notoriety) was as towering as ever.
The early 21st Century nosedive was all the steeper for the giddy heights from which Leeds were crashing. Financial disaster, gross mismanagement, a spell in the third tier, the reckless squandering of diamonds produced by the ever-fertile Youth Academy – all of this, viewed in the context of the club’s glorious and honour-laden history, made such a sickening decline almost unique in the annals of football history. “Doing a Leeds” therefore entered the sporting lexicon as an unprecedented extreme; it could be used only as a cautionary example, as there are no comparable instances. Smaller clubs have fallen further; comparable clubs have had bad times. But no club has crashed and burned quite as spectacularly as Leeds.
Newcastle United are a big club with a loyal and fervent following. They, too, have had a measure of bad management, and it looks as though their current failings could well lead to demotion this year. They are not so much flirting with relegation as spreadeagled on their backs, begging the Championship to have its way with them. But to suggest they might “do a Leeds” is laughable. Newcastle have been conspicuous over the last half century for their failure to make a mark on the game’s honours roll. Apart from one solitary Fairs Cup in the late sixties, the Toon Army have not troubled the scorers. Their last Championship was back in 1927, the same year Lindbergh conquered the Atlantic in his Spirit of St. Louis; the same year Dixie Dean scored 60 league goals for Everton. It’s a very long time ago. The FA Cup brought more success for the Tynesiders in the fifties – but in the modern era, they’ve been just another club, winning some, losing some, relegated, promoted; but mostly just watching the football world pass them by.
For the sake of Newcastle’s terrific fans, it’s to be hoped that their club never can be fairly said to have “done a Leeds”. A decline of that magnitude from their current status would realistically see them playing in a municipal parks league on Sunday mornings. The trouble facing the Geordies right now are severe enough, without exaggerating the nature of the perils that might lie ahead.
After this disastrous century so far, we at Leeds don’t have a lot left to us, apart from that glorious history and a mass of vivid memories. It’s a lot more than many other clubs have, but we need to keep special to us those things that mark us out as a club that’s just a bit different. The chilling uniqueness of “doing a Leeds” is one of those things that currently define our beloved United, along with the Revie legacy, the Last Champions and the glow of sitting at the top of the League as the Millennium clock ticked over from 1999 to 2000. Let’s not cheapen or demean any of these things by taking their names in vain, or using them inappropriately.
As for Newcastle United FC? Beware, bonny lads. You’re in danger of doing a Wolves.