The celebrations from the Leeds United team and staff as captain Liam Cooper lifted the Championship trophy in an empty Elland Road were at one with the thousands that had congregated outside the stadium.
The relief and pure elation that seemed to emanate from the squad almost made it easy to forget the stadium was empty, although there won’t be a Leeds United fan in the world that wouldn’t have been celebrating in a similar fashion, even if it is from the comfort of their living room.
Whilst hated and adored, Leeds United are not a club that have ever been ignored.
In a relatively short 100-year history, the club only has three League titles and one FA Cup. A record that would almost be equally as impressive as local minnows Huddersfield if it were not for successful spells in Europe in the late 60s and early 70s.
Leeds should be a club built for success; it exists within the UK’s third largest city, as well as one of the fastest growing, and has no local footballing rival to split support. Yet, fans have never experienced constant glory.
Any period of success is hard fought, seemingly built from little, as underachievement and relegation always beckon.
Don Revie, considered the greatest Leeds manager, was appointed in 1961 as his first job in management. He narrowly saved Leeds from relegation to the Third Division whilst under great financial stress. Three years later, Leeds would win promotion back to the top-flight and would finish second on goal difference in their first season back. This marked the start of a golden age, with two of the three League titles coming in this period, along with the FA Cup.
However, despite a period of English football being ‘dominated’ by Leeds, it is hard not to think it could have been even more fruitful. Revie’s Leeds finished runner-up five times in the League and three times in the FA Cup (including a loss in 1973 to then Second Division Sunderland) in the space of just eight years. Two Inter-Fairs Cups (precursor to the Europa League) at least offered some continental glory.
Leeds United’s success in this period gained them the reputation of ‘Dirty Leeds’, a team that would stop at nothing for victory. Contemporary analysists are more complementary to Revie’s Leeds, as a quick search of the highlights of a match where Leeds dismantled Southampton 7-0 might prove.
Leeds were relegated in 1982, just seven years after fans had seen Leeds brush aside a Barcelona side containing Johan Cruyff at Elland Road and a loss in highly controversial circumstances in the European Cup (Champions League) final to Bayern Munich. It would take another seven years, again with the club teetering on the edge of relegation to the Third Division, before Howard Wilkinson managed to turn fortunes around and get Leeds promoted once again.
In similar fashion to the mid-60s, Wilkinson also delivered instant success back in the First Division, with Leeds finishing 4th in their first season back before going onto to winning the last ever First Division title in 1991/1992, just as the Premier League rolled into town and Sky Sports invented football.
Following such a successful season, the Leeds board first made signs of acting in the incompetent manner which would later define the club’s ownership, as star player Eric Cantona was sold to a small club across the Pennines for just £1m.
After a few years of Premier League mediocrity, arguably a welcome change to the previous trend of relegation once success had dried up, Leeds were challenging for Europe again. Leeds became a footballing Icarus – the board gambling the club’s survival on continuing Champions League qualification. Hence, Leeds tumbled down to the Championship in 2004 due to the financial implosion as soon as they missed out on the UCL, with Newcastle United taking 4th spot as Leeds finished 5th in the 2001/2002 season.
Now, they are back, after sixteen years, fifteen managers, five owners, two losses to non-league sides, two promotions and one blessing of the Elland Road turf by Holy Water.
A hugely successful season that was at one point threatened by Covid-19, Leeds finally managed to get the job done under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa. A water-tight defence led by surprise star Ben White, on loan from Brighton, conceded just 35 goals – amongst the lowest ever seen in the division. The attack scored 77, joint second with fellow promoted side West Brom. A more than respectable 93 points meant that what was once a close call, especially with Brentford winning seven in a row following the restart, ended up being a very comfortable title victory for Leeds as they finished 10 points clear of second and 12 points clear of third.
In a history that has been dominated by extreme highs and crushing lows, this season will be easily amongst one of the high points in the Leeds United story. A club put into unnecessary turmoil over recent years by incompetent owners can finally approach the light at the end of the tunnel. A slice of the billions in missed revenue by not being in the Premier League is now closer, with the opportunity to grow the Leeds brand infinite.
The club never lost an international following, particularly in Scandinavia and Australia (emphasised by the fact two of Leeds’ most famous fans are Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Russell Crowe).
The fans that stuck with the team all the way to League One and Histon away have almost been ‘preserved’ by the years away from the increased commercialisation of the Premier League. After all, they are almost literally what kept the club going. The literal ‘limbs’ that are a feature of any Leeds United goal, home or away, are a far cry from the sanitised smartphone atmospheres at some of English football’s most successful clubs today.
In the end, it is the pure passion from the fans that has started the next chapter in Leeds United’s history. No other club had the potential of Leeds, nor the problems. It is perhaps why Kenny Dalglish recommended to current Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani that the club would be the one to buy in English football as they met before Manchester City played PSG in April 2016.
This passion for the club is also perhaps what attracted Marcelo Bielsa, a footballing philosopher held in high regard by some of the game’s most successful figures, including Messi and Guardiola. Despite Bielsa’s lack of individual success, testimony from previous players from Gabriel Batistuta to Benjamin Mendy, show how much he is respected by his players across his career
Bielsa’s passion for football thus married Leeds’ passion for the club, creating an unstoppable force. Bielsa became aware of the ‘us vs them’ attitude found at Leeds more quickly than he perhaps could anticipate, with outrageous treatment from the British media following ‘Spygate’, the eventual fine being paid in full by Bielsa himself at his own insistence.
Bielsa’s unwillingness to stay in a job once he feels it is no longer right for him, perhaps most emphasised by his two-day stint at Lazio, rightfully made Leeds fans anxious but the gamble of his appointment has certainly paid off. It seems to be a reoccurring phenomena that anyone once connected with the club, can’t help but fall in love with Leeds as a fan themselves.
Humble as ever, Bielsa had to be encouraged to the front of the stage by his players to lift the Championship trophy, incidentally the old First Division trophy. As he allowed himself to lift the historic trophy adorned in blue and yellow tags, he broke his usually serious demeanour with a quick grin in delight before quickly passing it off to the next player to lift, unwilling to take the spotlight away from his team for more than a few seconds.
The sleeping giants of English football have just begun to stir – we are back.
Featured Image: Twitter @LUFC
Last modified: 28th July 2020