I’m 35 years old, which is quite a cruel age when you consider it in the context of supporting Leeds United. I was too young to really appreciate football when we won the title in 1992 and didn’t attend a game until 1995, but had found a growing interest in the sport in the years between. My first years following the club were mid-table affairs, with Howard Wilkinson eventually replaced by George Graham when I was around 10. Peter Ridsdale would take over from Bill Fotherby and my teenage years would get a bit more exciting – the exciting addition of JFH propelled Leeds to a 5th place finish.
David O’Leary would come in, Ridsdale would spend and Leeds would continue this journey of attractive, attacking football with young, exciting players. As a teenager (when your interest in football really starts to embed itself in your whole personality) it was scintillating to watch your side win. The following years saw us competing in Europe and threatening to start competing for the top of the Premier League. Viduka, Keane, Rio, Dacourt – we’d started to acquire some really quite incredible players in the pursuit of success. Ultimately, Ridsdale would over-reach and the club’s failure to qualify for the Champions League resulted in a famous fire-sale of assets as drastic panicked measures were attempted to stem the loss of money from the club. Unsustainable ownership in this brief period would go on to blight most of the next two decades.
When Leeds got relegated in 2004 I was in my first year of University and it was heartbreaking. Doubly heartbreaking when you reflect that our “relegation buddies” were Wolves and Leicester… Ken Bates, Kevin Blackwell, a playoff defeat against Watford and then administration. The points deduction secured Leeds’ relegation to League One in 2007, much to the overjoyed sneering of the footballing world.
Our first campaign in League One was where I found my love for being the hated underdog. We had started the season with a -15 point deduction and rampantly stormed out of the gates with indignant defiance, winning 11 of our first 13 games. We would ultimately fail in the playoff final against Doncaster, but the angry reluctance to lie down and die became a defining quality of Leeds in this post-Premier League era.
The following years were blighted by “nearly” moments as Leeds would fail to get promoted and elect to “spin the wheel of change”, selling a pile more players, changing manager and having another go. Again and again this game was played. Ken Bates would strip the club of assets, sell every player of value and then lament that success wasn’t found immediately. We would finish in the playoffs again, and fail to overcome Millwall in the semi final.
Sure, we got promoted against Bristol Rovers in that tumultuous game where Beckford captained the side in his final performance for Leeds, but the point of this story is that supporting this club has been a lifetime of hurt.
From the ridiculousness of GFH to the spiralling madness of Massimo Cellino (and his criminal sabotage of all things great about the club), recent years have been particularly frustrating. Hockaday, Milanic and the yo-yoing of Neil Redfearn. Player mutinies. The club paying fans to push pro-Cellino narrative. The Chairman specifically trying to turn fans against players he disliked. Legal battles against loved figures.
Radrizzani’s appearance started to indicate that more stability was coming. Leeds recruited Garry Monk and started to find enough footballing cohesion that hopes of the playoffs rose significantly. A collapse in form right when it mattered most (winning only 1 of the final 8 games) saw the whites miss out on the playoffs. Monk would then leave and Leeds just as Radrizzani takes over and – honestly – it felt like we were just spinning the wheel yet another time.
When Thomas Christiansen was announced as our new head coach it wasn’t quite the buoyant statement of intent that we had hoped, having finally rid ourselves of Massimo Cellino (a man I came to hate, quite viscerally). Though when Christiansen’s Leeds started the campaign well it all seemed very exciting again – maybe this was our year after all – but in a now characteristic collapse, we only won 4 games after boxing day until the season ended. Christiansen would be replaced with Paul Heckingbottom. A likeable man, but with a CV of no merit and coming from bottom side Barnsley, it didn’t feel like Radrizzani was learning from his mistakes. Unsurprisingly, a man coming from an unmotivated side addicted to losing games failed to motivate Leeds into better form, and we finished mid-table. Like a comfy slipper, mid-table mediocrity had become “ours”, no matter how much we struggled away from its fusty grasp.
Then it happened. Marcelo Bielsa was appointed and, like God inventing light in the bible, things just changed. The entire philosophy of Leeds United changed – and I don’t just mean the footballing side. Even Radrizzani’s intent to undertake community outreach and ‘feelgood’ projects rose. And the football. My word, the football. Breathless, unplayable, endless pressing.
Leeds United under Bielsa became the most exciting side to watch because of the relentless commitment to Bielsa-ball. After years of confused identity and the likes of Evans, Warnock, etc, it was remarkable to see the famous white shirts genuinely scaring opposition. Not because of violence or loud crowds, but because we were genuinely good. Though having spent the entire campaign in the automatic promotion spots, a classic Leeds collapse forced us to gamble on the playoffs – a gamble that would sadden every fan, thinking we were condemned to a lifetime of disappointment.
Bielsa was tipped to leave and it felt like our one proper attempt at success was a single shot, which we missed.
Incredibly, the Argentine agreed to a second season and embarked on another attempt. Without changing philosophy, without changing his demands on the players.
And here we are. A couple of tense games (I’m still not over Barnsley) put us in perfect position to earn promotion – we needed only a single point from Derby, yet without even playing achieved everything we needed to. Huddersfield beat West Brom to secure our Premier League future, meanwhile Brentford lost to Stoke guaranteeing that we would end the season as Champions. By the time we came to play Derby on Sunday the players were tired and hungover – so Bielsa did a particularly un-Bielsa thing and made 7 changes. And we went on and won 3-1 anyway.
After a lifetime of disappointment, listening to stories of the Revie era with only a few brief overindulgent O’Leary years to compare it to, it has been the most emotional few days as Leeds finally made good on an unspoken promise made 16 years ago. That we would be back. With the single best fanbase in the country, it only seemed right that we would return to the Premier League when it seemed like it was losing its way the most. We’ll be back, with a head coach full of heart and conscience, a playing squad full of hunger and fans full of voice.
They won’t even know what hits them.