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Sports

Leeds are back after 16 years of misery, mediocrity and incompetence


“Leeds scum are back” – the last time Leeds were promoted to the top division, in 1990, the Mirror expressed the feelings of many. The phrase was reclaimed as a badge of pride by their fans, proud to be unfashionable and disliked. Now that a long-awaited return to the Premier League has been secured, we’re back, a ghost from the original Premier League, here to haunt the pristine image of the global cash cow it’s become in our absence. We return as outsiders, humbled by the time away, as awkward as our enigmatic manager.

For Leeds fans like myself, the past 16 years have been a hellish combination of incompetent and malicious owners, arrogant managers and mediocre players. We occasionally appeared on the sports bulletins when Ken Bates or Massimo Cellino said something particularly outlandish but the norm has been mainstream anonymity and relentless mockery. In January 2014, Huddersfield fans channeled Joy Division to sing “Leeds are falling apart again” at Elland Road and the song began to ripple around Championship stadiums whenever another collapse was in prospect. Sky Sports even chose to pipe the song in during the 5-0 victory against Stoke as promotion came closer, reminding us of the misery we were trying to leave behind.

Arsenal or Spurs fans, who we never stopped regarding as our peers, might bristle at finishing below the top four of the Premier League, but they will never know how it feels to be steered towards 15th place in the Championship by Neil Warnock or Steve Evans, in a half-empty stadium, watching hoofed football orchestrated by Michael Brown or Steve Morison.

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For 16 years, we were run into the ground, patronised, over-charged, teased and angered by those representing us who had none of the dignity and magic of Norman Hunter, Jack Charlton, David Batty or Lucas Radebe. We kept going to watch this failing club because a Leeds away day was still fun, but as Leicester, Southampton and Sheffield United passed us on the way up, it felt as if it would never be our turn.

Marcelo Bielsa has transformed the confidence of Leeds players such as Luke Ayling.



Marcelo Bielsa has transformed the confidence of Leeds players such as Luke Ayling. Photograph: Javier García/BPI/Shutterstock

I saw Leeds win the league when I was 11 and reach the Champions League semi-final when I was 20It seemed it could never end. I sometimes wish the semi-final had never happened; at least we would have avoided a decade and a half of introductions to articles and commentaries reminding us of it. I was 23 when Leeds went down, I’m 39 now. I gave my 20s and 30s to hoping our luck might change, despite there being whole years in the 2010s when nothing good happened. I didn’t see us win in person for four years. Highlights of ineptitude were losing 5-1 at Luton in 2006, 3-1 at MK Dons in 2008, losing 3-0 twice to Swindon in one season, the legendary 5-0 home defeat to Blackpool in 2011, years of losing heavily at Watford, the annual defeats by a pumped-up Millwall.

Times have been hard and not much fun for Leeds fans.



Times have been hard and not much fun for Leeds fans. Photograph: Tim Keeton/Getty Images

We appointed Dave Hockaday and I still don’t know how or why. We sold every good player we had, we didn’t spend any money on anyone, we didn’t own our ground and the fanbase was bitter and self-loathing. We would look up at Bournemouth, the ‘little’ team we had humbled in 1990 on the way up and resent the karma that this well-run club had taken Lewis Cook from us, the best young player we had seen for many years. The Championship is probably the greatest league in Europe for excitement, but we managed to avoid anything interesting happening on the pitch season after season.

Then, Marcelo Bielsa arrived in June 2018 and the greatest football I have seen at Elland Road came with him. The owner, Andrea Radrizzani, deserves thanks for saving Leeds from the chaos of Cellino’s stewardship and re-injecting some ambition. No decision was more crucial than appointing Bielsa, despite Radrizzani often seeming baffled by him.

Within two months Bielsa had turned a squad of apparently average, but enthusiastic, players into fit and meticulous machines. This was unlike anything we had seen, the transformation more sudden and dramatic than anything Don Revie or Howard Wilkinson, for all their brilliance, had done. Forget the ‘El Loco’ nickname, forget the Spygate hype, Bielsa is serious, shy and sensible, a perfect tonic after years of real madness.

Bielsaball is a pleasure to watch, even when we don’t win, even when we suffered the misery of the play-off defeat against Derby. Bielsa, this flawed dedicated obsessive, with his sense of justice and beauty in football, is the perfect match for a fanbase just as flawed, damaged and dedicated. I wish it hadn’t taken 14 years, but if that was the purgatory needed to be rewarded with the two years of Bielsa’s perfect football, I will forgive every minute of it.

Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling and Patrick Bamford will not be the greatest players the Premier League will have seen, but in Bielsa’s hands they have the confidence and the preparation to do anything, to beat anyone. This is what he does – craft imperfect raw materials into something much greater, pressing high and never getting tired. That motivation to over-perform is not so far from what we had with Howard Wilkinson, who took Leeds up in 1990.

The Leeds scum are back, but this time you might like us a bit more. Not that we care what you think anyway. When fans are allowed back, a full Elland Road, now full of pride rather than shame, might be a shock to newer fans of other teams. The Football League is a great motivator, but we aren’t going back to the mockery and the mediocrity of it. After 16 years, we are back to change the Premier League.



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