No.3 the fall and fall of Leeds United – 2nd May 2004: Bolton Wanderers 4-1 Leeds United
In the history of the Premier League, the perils of a club spending beyond its means have been well documented. Nevertheless, before Leeds United were relegated in May 2004 it seemed difficult to fathom that a league of such incredible wealth could allow one of its major players to fall so spectacularly, and in fact so few fans were properly aware of the financial ramifications of the ever expanding transfer market.
Leeds’ story of relentless pursuit of domestic and European glory is one of almost Icarus proportions. From a Champions League semi-final against Valencia in 2001 to falling through the trap door into the Championship three years later, the Yorkshire club suffered a dramatic collapse of fortunes after missing out on European football and paying extraordinary money on too many players.
Under the watch of David O’Leary, Leeds were a collection of promising young players at the turn of the century, and as the fortunes of Arsenal and Liverpool fluctuated, the Whites became realistic contenders for the Premier League title.
With Champions League football a tantalising possibility, O’Leary, backed by an equally ambitious chairman, Peter Ridsdale, pursued a ruthless transfer policy, identifying and obtaining targets all over the division. Robbie Fowler, Rio Ferdinand, Seth Johnson – all names synonymous with the overspend at Elland Road.
The problem for Leeds was that there was no margin for error. The Champions League run of 2000-01 was exciting for fans, but the failure to secure a second consecutive season at Europe’s top table was the eventual spark for the club’s demise.
O’Leary departed a disillusioned and bitter voice against the Leeds boardroom, Ridsdale in particular. The failure of the team to recoup the money spent so lavishly on the squad, and ever fracturing morale of the dressing room meant that by the summer of 2002, the former Republic of Ireland international’s position was untenable.
The board tried to talk up the possibility of a new stadium, brushing off talk of the damage inflicted by failures to land silverware, however with the financial underbelly of the club being caught in an avalanche of false promises and failed targets, such plans lay in ruins.
Had it not been for an extraordinary win at Highbury in the closing weeks of the 2002-03 campaign, the fall of the club could have been even faster. Having topped the table in the early weeks of the season, Leeds, now managed by Terry Venables, capitulated. The sale of Rio Ferdinand was a sure sign that a failure to secure a seat at the top table of European football had crippled the club’s ambitions.
By the time Leeds met Bolton in May 2004 the writing was not so much on the wall as written in Braille for the blind. Such a dramatic submission in little over two years left the club with little hope of survival.
Almost every single jewel in the club’s crown had been sold to stave off administration, and whilst the team playing in white were still given the ‘too good to go down’ tag, the desire and hunger of key players was non-existent.
At the Reebok on what Sky would now label; ‘Desperation Sunday’, Mark Viduka gave the travelling fans hope of a miracle, converting an early penalty. But after the Australian was needlessly sent off for an elbow on Bruno N’Gotty, the fight went out of Leeds – the 4-1 defeat confirming relegation. “Nobody has a divine right” concluded caretaker manager Eddie Gray, as he presided over the post-match naval gazing.
In the years since Leeds last played in the Premier League the words; “going into administration” and “winding up order” have been regular phrases in the vocabulary of football fans. Portsmouth’s fall from grace last season was arguably more sudden and severe, becoming the first top flight side to slip into administration. However, it was the demise of Leeds that represented the end of the innocence surrounding football club spending and the price of failed ambition.
For a full list of the reasons why Seth Johnson was a brainless purchase, head to my Twitter page.