The Last Champions
Here’s a conundrum for you. What have Liverpool, Ipswich Town, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest got in common?
Well, some of the better-informed anoraks out there (and it’s a noble fraternity of which I’m proud to be a member) tend to have the solution to riddles like this pretty much at their fingertips. For the rest, the answer is that all of those clubs, since what I will loosely term the “modern era” of football started around 1960, have gained promotion to the top-flight and then gone on to win the actual title of Champions of England within a space of a mere one or two years.
Imagine that, if you will – a truly phenomenal achievement. Arguably, Leeds are the ace in the pack, having achieved similar heights twice. Revie’s promotion-winners of 1964 took five years to be Champions, but were contenders on all fronts from their very first season in the First Division.
Both Forest and Ipswich, some 16 years apart, stormed the First Division citadel in their very first season up. Leeds United, in 1992 and Liverpool, way back in 1964, each took just one year longer. Leeds are not known as the Last Champions for nothing; their 1992 Title success marked a watershed in the English game. Whatever the merits of the few Premier League era champions, it’s certainly true that Leeds will stand as the last club to muscle its way into the top flight as if they owned the place, breezing to the ultimate prize in such a very short time. Since the Murdoch revolution, only Blackburn have come close to matching such a quick-fire achievement, and they followed the “spend, spend, spend” path to success in taking three seasons after promotion to edge their first title since before the Great War.
One thing that’s virtually certain about all of these achievements is that they won’t be emulated anytime soon. And that regrettable fact is at the centre of everything that’s wrong with football today. What we have now, as opposed to those exciting years when some batch of pretenders would upset the top-flight applecart, is a mere procession – with the cast varying only slightly from year to year. The Premier League is often referred to as three divisions within one league, and that’s very difficult to argue with.
Firstly, there’s a cartel of the super-rich at the top, where the finances of the game dictate that a few established clubs will fight it out for the major honours every year. Such are the favourable conditions for these elite clubs that it’s really very difficult for any of them to slip out of contention – it would take something approaching incompetent management for such a calamity to happen – yes, Mr Moyes, I mean YOU. Take a bow, you’re a hero to thousands.
Then, of course, there’s the “dog-eat-dog” league at the bottom, where the same few clubs every year are hoping to finish just above last season’s promoted clubs and thus avoid relegation. Exciting – but not in a good way.
Lastly, in the middle, there’s that awful, bleak hinterland occupied by the likes of Stoke, Aston Villa, Newcastle and West Ham; clubs unlikely to affect the picture at the top or at the bottom, and who – you suspect – are happy just to continue making up the numbers, banking those Premier League payments year after year and settling for last spot on Match of the Day. They’re happily riding the gravy train with no thoughts or ambitions for glory – and their fans appear to accept this. But what a monochrome, depressing existence it must be. Is this what we want for Leeds United?
The fact is that, if and when United DO go up – and especially if we have a few quid in the bank courtesy of Signor Cellino – then this twilight, neither-here-nor-there, average, mediocre middle bit of the Premier League is likely to be the realistic upper limit of our ambitions. That’s if we’re rich and clever enough to haul our way clear of the grim struggle at the bottom, of course. Maybe also, there might be a run in the Capital Fizzy Carlsberg Milk Cup (or whatever it’s called) to look forward to with sweaty palms and fevered brow. Oh, the excitement of that – IF we don’t get knocked out early doors by the Under-17’s of Arsenal FC.
This question of how things would be when we finally gain entrance to the Promised Land is a relevant one that’s all too easy to overlook in our current mood of frustrated aspiration. We’ve been wanting to get back up there for so long – and we’ve suffered so many setbacks and disappointments along the way – that the reality of what might await us once promotion is secured has not really occurred to us. Sure, there have been some saying, well, we’ll budget for relegation, pick up the parachute payments and come back stronger – but look how often that’s actually worked. Look at Wolves, look at Middlesbrough. They’ve come down rich and never really looked like getting back. And how enjoyable is it up there if you’re sinking? Do the fans of those struggling clubs look as if they’re enjoying themselves, shipping six goals here at Arsenal and maybe seven there at Man City? It doesn’t look fun at all, not to me. But these depressing scenarios have been off our radar, all the time we’ve been fighting vainly to make our mark one level below, thinking of the Premier League as the Holy Grail. It hasn’t truly occurred to us that it might not be fun when we do get there. It’s as if, preoccupied with our second-tier travails, we haven’t really thought about it too much.
Around twenty-five years ago, the feeling of anticipation generated by a run to promotion for Sgt. Wilko’s boys was a very much more positive thing. Sure, we looked at those opening fixtures with a slightly tremulous smile, noting that Everton away and then Man U at home was a rather stiffer proposition than the likes of Port Vale and Oxford. But we girded our loins, so to speak, and went in with spirits and expectations high and – thanks to our redoubtable heroes in white – we were not disappointed. But how optimistic would we be now about, say, Man City at home followed by a trip to Liverpool? Thanks to Mr Murdoch, it’s a case of lambs to the slaughter for any club going up against these top-end clubs – unless you have a lot of cash to splash out. And even then, along comes Financial Fair Play to clip the wings of the “new money” boys, protecting the interests of those with established income streams from global markets. The Cartel certainly intends to remain the Cartel.
For all of this, I blame one man above all others. Mr Murdoch, je t’accuse. At the time he bought the game, Man U hadn’t been champions since the days of black & white TV, and yet their careful marketing and packaging of their history – particularly the lucratively tragic parts – had garnered them a worldwide support and the status of everybody’s second-favourite club, along with massive overseas markets. The restructuring of the game at the start of the 90s, with its abandonment of trickle-down economics, was a godsend for such a cash cow – despite its solid and consistent record of under-achievement since 1967. Man U were the archetypal Premier League champions, a figurehead brand to lead the new League to the forefront of global sport and merchandising. It was all so glitzy, glamorous and tacky, a festival of fireworks, cheerleaders and the twin misogynists who so aptly summed-up the spirit of the whole thing: overgrown guffawing schoolboys Andy Gray and his hairy chum Richard Keyes. All that glitter, all that sniggering sexism, all that tawdry scrambling for profit – and invariably champions to embody it all, except in those seasons when the likes of Arsenal stood up for the game’s soul. It was indeed a ‘whole new ball game’, as the marketing men would have it – but somewhere in the making of this revolution, a golden dream died – killed by Murdoch and buried under a vulgar heap of branded tat.
It is that golden dream we’re still missing today, nearly a quarter of a century on. Many thousands of football fans have grown up watching a game enslaved to this artificial agenda, shorn of the fiery ambitions which used to propel rejuvenated clubs from obscurity to the very top of the game. That type of overnight success almost literally cannot happen now; the bleak reality for promoted clubs is of a bitterly hard struggle before them, with survival the best prize they can really hope for. Should Leeds United succeed in gaining promotion, this season or next, then that is very much the reality that awaits us. And, because we’re Leeds – because we’ve scaled the heights and reached the stars before – we’ve a duty to ask ourselves: is this really what we’re going to settle for – or can we (because we’re Leeds) expect and demand better?
The answer to much of this almost certainly lies with the man currently awaiting the League’s pleasure, as they mull over the question of whether he’s a fit and proper person (or at least as fit and proper as some of the crooks the League has previously sanctioned). If Massimo Cellino knows his history, and if he’s managed to suss out the character of the support while he was imprisoned inside Elland Road on that turbulent Transfer Deadline night, then he should by now have some awareness of the demands likely to be placed on his ownership post-promotion. He should know that Leeds fans are never going to be childishly grateful just to be a part of things; that mere survival and the acceptance of regularly being ripped a new one by the Premier League big beasts – that’s never going to be enough. If he does know all of that – if he takes it all on board and still wants to be the force behind the club going forward – if, moreover, he has a plan which will blow away all of the worries and fears of promotion in the Murdoch era – then every single Leeds fan must surely get right behind him. These are very big ifs, as we all know – but it’s an apt enough time to raise all of this – because the new era of Massimo the First could well start as soon as Monday. The Middlesbrough game could possibly be the last of this period of twitching uncertainty. There are some signs pointing that way – the social media twitterings of the younger Cellinos and the fact of the signing (on loan) of a quality keeper in Butland, for instance. Great changes may just be afoot.
Whether those changes are great enough to buck the trend of Premier League history and see us gatecrash the top end of the big time, remains to be seen. The summer between any promotion and our return to top-level action will be very interesting indeed and will tell us a lot about whether we’re going to make an all-out assault on success. It’s a very hard ask indeed. But we are Leeds – and so that’s what we should expect and demand.