Chaos At Leeds Shows No Sign Of Ending


Being from Scotland, and being a Celtic supporter, I have followed the story of British football’s most dysfunctional club, the one at Ibrox, keenly.

Some of what has happened there is without parallel anywhere in the game, except perhaps for the rash of arrests and indictments at FIFA, but only someone who knows nothing about the sport at all can be unaware that one club in the UK has a story of crisis to mirror theirs; Leeds United.

This week they’ve sacked their manager. Clubs do that all the time. But he is the fifth in seventeen months, and even in a sport where directors often act rashly, one eye ever on the finances, this is astonishing, and reveals the depths to which this once great club has fallen.

For Leeds fans, this truly is chaos without end.

It is a monumental collapse; fifteen years ago, this club was in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup losing to Galatasary after a disappointing away reversal and then a hectic 2-2 draw at home.

Their fans would have been forgiven for thinking they were about to experience a golden age.

For a while it looked like they were right.

They made the semi-finals of the Champions League the following year, being beaten by Valencia.

At the time, no-0ne could have predicted what followed.

But that was the high point and everything else was steadily downhill.

The club failed to qualify for the Champions League two years in a row, having already borrowed money on the basis of TV revenues from the tournament.

The next four years were calamitous, as the club fought relegation and tried to cope with the unbearable financial consequences. Every player of value was sold, including the best of their youth academy. The club began disposing of its assets. Their relegation in season 2003-04 was one of the lowest points in their history, but it got even worse.

By May 2007, with Ken Bates now the owner, they had been relegated to the third tier of English football and then darkness engulfed them completely.

They’ve scrambled up to the Championship, and on occasion looked as if they might actually get out of there, but the last few years have been an unmitigated disaster in every way, since Massimo Cellino took over the club and promised them “Premier League football by the end of 2015-16.”

That, of course, is the end of this season and they’re a Championship club still, one that’s gone through an awful lot of managers since the Italian took over the running of the club in April last year. At present, the chances of that deadline being met look slim.

Leeds, as a club, continues to freefall.

That their supporters keep coming back is a testament to their loyalty.

They’ve gone through numerous ownership battles and seen their heart torn out over and over again. They maintain a view of themselves as a sleeping giant – they average attendances at 24,000 for this season, despite eleven years outside the top flight and more tribulations than most clubs experience in their history – but that becomes harder to sustain the longer this run of crisis goes on.

Part of this, of course, is a string of horrible owners, but unlike most football clubs these weren’t people who saw buying a down on its luck English club as either a financial investment or a vanity project. The typical lament – that these aren’t football men – hasn’t entirely applied here.

Ken Bates was at Chelsea for years, and clearly has a lot of affection for the game, even if he thinks fans are semi-literate goons who don’t really understand it.

Cellino owns Cagliari in Italy, so he escapes the charge too.

Perhaps these guys simply underestimated the size of the challenge Leeds face, and why not? The Championship is one of the toughtest, most competitive, leagues in Europe, where any number of clubs can be expected to give you a game if not challenge for promotion or the title itself.

Escaping from that league requires focus, and vision, and guts.

At Leeds, all are in short supply, except for in the stands where the fans continue to passionately support the club despite it all.

This is a club without anything like stability and Cellino, in particular, has no patience to give it to them. He seems to want results, instant results, without the bother of growing the club or developing talent. His quest to find the perfect manager has been mirrored in a number of backroom appointments which boggle the mind; this guy wants to find a perfect balance and never stops tweaking. But it comes at a tremendous cost.

Five managers in seventeen months. That’s almost unheard of.

As a consequence, no-one of any repute would go near the Elland Road job; it’s not a managerial hot seat as much as it’s become a fully-fledged electric chair.

Some of the appointments he’s made have been farcical, of course.

Giving the job to Neil Readfern after initially overlooking him in favour of Darko Milanic (who, on paper, appeared a good choice before lasting just six games) could have paid dividends but the reserve coach had to know his card was marked in light of that earlier rejection.

Milanic had come to the club with success under his belt, but it didn’t save him.

No wins in his six games in charge saw him shown the door, in a staggering display of buyer’s remorse that must have had all of English football wondering just what in Hell was happening at the club, coming, as it did, on the heels of one of the most unbelievable, and predictably disastrous, decisions in the history of the game; awarding the manager’s job at a club with Premiership ambitions to Dave Hockaday, who’s only previous experience in football had been at Forest Green.

From the outside, all this looks a little surreal.

Imagine how it looks on the inside.

Readfern, who clearly loves the club and gave it everything he had, was scathing on Monday when told about Uwe Rosler’s dismissal.

“I don’t want to comment too much on what’s happening, but to build anything or to create anything you need stability,” he told the press.

Most chairmen realise this, but at Leeds the wait has gone on too long for some people. The owner himself has put his reputation (such as it is) on the line by imposing a timescale on his ambitions and that is why so many managers have fallen on the sword in such a short time.

The club will not recover until someone is given the time to put his own ideas in place, and to deliver on what they are.

The revolving door management style at the top of Leeds is the first thing that has to change if they’re to become a Premiership club again.

But there seems little chance of that.

Cellino himself doesn’t seem to have a long-term future at Elland Road, due to FA restrictions, and if he departs, as he’s hinted, that will leave even more chaos and confusion behind him as the club looks for another buyer.

Any manager appointed right now would be highly vulnerable in any change of ownership situation.

It’s already been fifteen years, and there’s no end in sight to the turmoil at a club which was once a giant in the English game and seemed on the verge of greatness on an even bigger stage.

Yet ultimately, and in many ways just like Rangers here in Scotland, it was the pursuit of that higher accomplishment that cost them.

The irony of it all, of course, is that all these years on, domestic television revenues in England are so enormous that they dwarf Champions League income levels completely.

Every club in the Premiership now has resources that would have made the cash prizes back then look like chump change.

This is the reason Leeds are in one big hurry to get back to the top flight … and that big hurry is the reason that they’re still mired in the present morass.

If hope exists at all, it’s in the guise of those fan organisations which want to take control of the club following their string of appalling owners. Even as I write this, the FA has just banned Cellino from running the club again … and they’ve appointed Steve Evans manager.

So, the ownership issues are up in the air again and there’s a new man in the dugout.

This club needs a fresh start, and then time to refocus …. and just take it slow.