From the brink of extinction back to the big-time: The last 16 years has been one hell of a journey for Leeds United
For the first time in 16 years, Premier League football will be played at Elland Road next season. Leeds United have finally achieved their primary objective, officially promoted to England’s top-flight after falling victim to relegation from it way back in 2004.
In the end, they didn't have to even kick a ball for their fate to be confirmed as West Brom's 2-1 defeat to Huddersfield cemented what Leeds have been yearning for for so, so long. The Whites are back in the big-time.
The journey back to the Premier League has not been an easy one, with arguably more lows than highs. Here, we take a look back at the last 16 years, from relegation to Dave Hockaday; from bottling it to Bielsa.
Since their promotion from the old Division Two in 1990, Leeds were mainstays in the top-flight and regularly featured in Europe, famously reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001.
However, financial complications off the pitch had led to a steady demise for the club and, just three years after their miraculous journey in Europe’s elite knockout competition, they found themselves demoted to the Championship at the end of the 2003-04 campaign.
A mass exodus ensued for Leeds, as the club’s main attractions had to be sold in an attempt to stabilise the finances. This signified the beginning of the end - an immediate return to the Premier League seemed impossible, but nobody expected the situation to deteriorate in the rate that it did.
A fall from grace
Leeds' fall from grace really started to take shape in 2007 when they were placed into administration, handed a 10-point deduction and relegated to League One.
Just a season after finishing 5th in the second-tier and missing out on promotion to the top-flight via the play-offs, the Whites had sunk to their lowest ebb, finishing rock-bottom of the Championship thanks to the substantial points deduction and in real financial peril, now faced with trips to the likes of Hartlepool and Yeovil Town in League One.
Leeds were handed another 15-point penalty by the EFL at the start of the 2007-08 campaign, so started their debut season in the third-tier massively playing catch up. Despite this, they still actually managed to reach the play-off final but were beaten by Doncaster 1-0 at Wembley.
Things finally started to look up for Leeds in 2009-10, though; they beat arch rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford in the third round of the FA Cup, and were finally promoted back to the Championship after finishing as runners-up in League One under the guidance of Simon Grayson. Now within reaching distance of the Premier League, the club's 'banter era' appeared to be nearing its end, but it was in fact only just gaining momentum.
Following Grayson’s dismissal in February 2012, Leeds went through a stage of employing incredibly sub-standard managers for ludicrously short periods of time. Neil Warnock and Brian McDermott both endured underwhelming campaigns at Elland Road, before things really took a turn for the worst in West Yorkshire.
Italian entrepreneur Massimo Cellino took over from Ken Bates as chairman in January 2014. By the summer, he had dismissed McDermott and replaced him with Dave Hockaday, a man whose only previous managerial experience came with Forest Green Rovers in the National League, only to then sack him just six weeks later.
Assistant boss Neil Readfern took temporary charge until a replacement was found in the shape of Slovenian coach Darko Milanic. He lasted a month before being sacked, however, replaced by Redfearn who was again entrusted with first-team duties but this time on a permanent basis.
All the while, Leeds are stagnating in the Championship, recording lower-mid-table finishes season after season and going absolutely nowhere, slowly.
Redfearn’s tenure lasted all of eight months, as Cellino opted to hire his fourth manager in the space of a year. In came Uwe Rostler who, yep, you guessed it, was fired after just 12 games in charge by the hot-headed Italian. There is a pattern emerging here..
Steve Evans came in and lasted a little longer (38 games to be precise), before being replaced by Garry Monk in June 2016. Monk guided the Whites to a respectable 7th-place finish in the Championship but ultimately fell short of expectations, missing out on the play-offs by a single point on the final day of the 2016-17 campaign, and resigned from his post as first-team manager in May 2017.
Thomas Christiansen and Paul Heckingbottom each spent time in the dugout at Elland Road following Monk’s departure, before things finally started to take an upward turn following the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa in June 2018.
Bielsa - The turning point
Marcelo Bielsa’s appointment in June 2018 has been one of the best things to ever happen to Leeds United Football Club.
The Argentinian’s arrival sent shockwaves through the footballing world. Here is a man who has managed some of the world’s biggest football clubs, but also a man who is somewhat of an anomaly in the fact that many of his previous roles have come at clubs steeped in rich history, but majorly underperforming and not realising their full potential.
Bielsa counts Newell’s Old Boys, Athletic Bilbao, Marseille, Lazio and Lille on his managerial resume, while he also spent six years in charge of the Argentinian national team, winning Gold at the 2004 Olympics.
All five of those aforementioned clubs are attached to a unique cultural allure, where the supporter base is gargantuan and the historical aspect is what sets them apart from the rest. Bielsa is a stickler for a sleeping giant, that much is clear, and Leeds had been laid at rest since 2004, weather-beaten by financial complications and catastrophic decision-making from the higher-ups.
Immediately, he got to work. Implementing his trademark style of dynamic, high-pressing football Leeds made lightwork of newly-relegated Stoke City in the South American's first match in charge, beating the Potters 3-1. It was instantly recognisable that change was afoot at LS11.
Bielsa’s attention to detail ensures that no members of his squad are ever able to rest on their laurels. His obsession with playing the right way, working just as hard when out of possession as you do when you are in it, has been embedded into the DNA of the West Yorkshire club and it is visible every time you watch them on the pitch.
A moment’s rest is one thing which is never awarded, as Leeds’ relentless press reduces opposing sides to breaking point, while their decision-making when in possession is mostly used to devastating effect.
Bielsaball is now the Leeds United way. Armed with hours of footage relating to the way every single opponent his team faces plays - and the odd apprentice acting as James Bond outside various training grounds across the country - Bielsa’s new-look side are now prepared for the challenges which lie in front of them every week, rather than just hoping for the best.
So close, but yet so far
Last season they were unlucky, given odds of 7/2 for promotion by any means at the start of the 2018-19 campaign, the feeling was that Leeds would finally break out of the second-tier.
And, having led the division for large stretches of the season, momentum started to build among Whites fans as their betting odds to be promoted shortened to just 2/7 last March.
Eventually though, thanks largely to a monumental collapse against Wigan on Easter Friday - where Leeds would lose to the 10-man Latics after initially taking a 1-0 lead at Elland Road - the Whites missed out on automatic promotion, finishing third in the Championship behind Norwich and Sheffield United before coming unstuck against Derby County in the play-offs.
Promotion (at long last)
This time out Leeds have been a different animal. Bar the obligatory wobble midway through the season, where a dip in form did throw the Yorkshiremen slightly off kilter at around Christmas time, on the whole they have blown sides away with their expansive style of play.
Most importantly, though, this season they have started to display a level of consistency that has been missing in previous years.
Priced at 5/1 in the Championship winner betting before the campaign kicked off back in August (6/4 just for promotion), Leeds have again bore the weight of expectation this term; the difference is that this time around they seem to be embracing it.
It hasn’t been completely smooth sailing, of course; between 14 December and 11 February Leeds won only two league games and cries that they were ‘doing a Leeds’ and ‘falling apart’ again rang true around the widespread footballing community.
However, a 1-0 win over promotion candidates Bristol City on 15 February kick-started a resurgence in form, and Marcelo Bielsa’s side went on to win four games on the spin without conceding until lockdown hit in early-March.
Since the restart in June they have been flawless, losing just one of their previous eight games. They have now got their just rewards - promotion to the top-flight and it is thoroughly deserved.
After years of turmoil, uncertainty, ridicule and pain, Leeds have made it back to the Premier League and they have done so in ultimate style. Under Bielsa they are not just a different team on the pitch, but a completely new and exciting identity has been unearthed off of it, too.
The belief has been reinstated and the feel-good factor at Elland Road has finally returned, now the focus must turn to staying where they truly belong for the next 16 years, at least.