By Steve Jennings
So, as The Undertones once sang, “Here Comes The Summer” with Leeds United’s fixtures complete for 2012/13 and all fans heading off to do whatever they do in the summer months ready for a fresh assault on the Championship come August. Brian McDermott has already headed out to take a break as will most of the current playing squad while owners, GFH Capital, are apparently busy looking for appropriate investment to bring much needed funds into the club so they may make money available for the necessary transfers to make the Leeds squad strong enough to battle for honours in the next 12 or so months. With a respectable last five games under McDermott and the team dropping the awful “hoofball” for a passing game most Leeds fans will go into the Cricket season with some positivity while others will continue to speculate whether the owners have the contacts to bring in the necessary wedge or have the ability to run a club the size of Leeds United. I suppose we will have to see if they can, but is it realistic to expect millions to be pumped into Leeds United in one close season? It is true that modern Football dictates that money is key to bringing success. Not a big statement that, bit obvious actually, but are Leeds fans being a little premature expecting wealth to make its way to LS11? I mean has Leeds United ever been a rich club? A truly rich club? Even in the so-called glory years Leeds United seemed to be operating on modest budgets compared to their competitors.
Lest we forget that Leeds United came into existence in 1919 when the city’s previous Football club were forced to disband after financial regularities were brought to light, specifically the alleged illegal payment to players during the World War. Leeds City FC were also struggling to attract the crowds to Elland Road despite the arrival of Herbert Chapman, who would later win three consecutive top flights championships with both Huddersfield Town and Arsenal. Chapman declared about Leeds in 1914; "This city is built to support top-flight football"
But in reality Leeds was, and some would say still is, a rugby city and the early life of Leeds United was modest and played out primarily in the second tier of English Football with a few flirtations with the top flight.
There was a potential disaster for the club as, during the early hours of Tuesday 18 September 1956, a fire gutted the West Stand and scorched large sections of the pitch. The blaze consumed the entire structure, including offices, kit, club records, physiotherapy equipment, dressing rooms, directors' rooms, the press box and the generators for the floodlighting system. The total damage was estimated to be £100,000 and the club's insurance cover was inadequate and the 2,500-seater stand could not be salvaged. The directors decided to launch a public appeal to build a new stand with assistance from Leeds
City Council which raised £60,000 and a £180,000 West Stand was opened at the start of the following season.
There had also been some hope on the field as the club had unearthed a genuine giant of the game via youth development, a genial Welshman from near Swansea called John Charles, who was a big talent at both centre-half and up front. “Big John”, as he was affectionately known, had been the centre of the team since making his debut in 1948 scoring 150 goals in 297 appearances. Charles was ambitious and unsure of Leeds United’s long term credentials so, with all the Italian giants watching his progress, he moved on to play for Juventus for a world record British transfer of £65,000 in August 1957. No club could resist that sort of money.
But the Leeds team sank into decline without Big John and following his departure were languishing near the foot of the second division when the club appointed a new Player Manager after Chairman Harry Reynolds famously wrote the young employee a glowing reference for a similar job at AFC Bournemouth and then decided to hire him at Leeds instead. This was 1961 and the man was Don Revie, and this would change Leeds history forever.
Revie realised early the hugeness of the task as Leeds were not the biggest side in Yorkshire. In fact, if you take attendances into consideration, they were only the fifth biggest sports club in Leeds with Leeds, Hunslet and Batley Rugby League Club’s and Yorkshire County Cricket Club all enjoying higher averages gates than Leeds United. Revie’s first two home games saw an aggregate attendance of 20,000 or so. And there was no money for players so Revie turned to the crop of exciting youngsters available to him and gave chances to the likes of Sprake, Bremner, Cooper, Reaney, Madeley, Lorimer and Hunter to join stalwart Jack Charlton in the side. Revie picked up two bargains in Bobby Collins, whose career looked almost over when he came in from Everton, and young Irishman John Giles who had struggled to hold down a place in the Manchester United side even after their tragedy in Munich.
Revie also bought Charles back for a second stint at Leeds which was an emotional and PR success but financial disaster. Leeds simply could not afford him and a huge increase in ticket prices saw Elland Road practically empty for home games so Revie cut his losses and Charles returned to Italy, this time with Roma.
Revie built a team to take on the best in Europe but rarely did he have cash to splash. He did make some big transfers in his time, notably a six-figure fee for Allan Clarke and was also able to sign Mick Jones and Trevor Cherry for sizeable fees too but really had to plunder local Yorkshire clubs for the like of Peacock (Middlesbrough), O’Grady (Huddersfield) and Weston (Rotherham). He sought good fortune in the lower Scottish leagues as he unearthed Jim Storrie (Airdrie) and later gems like Joe Jordan (Morton) and Gordon McQueen (Partick Thistle) to join the growing number of home grown talent.
Revie was often frustrated with lack of money at Leeds. He was one of the first to identify that squads needed to be bigger with Leeds playing around 60 games per season and missing out on trophies in finals and league titles by odd points. In 1966 he wanted to sign Blackpool’s Alan Ball and agreed fee with club and terms with player. His theory was playing Bremner and Giles in central midfield for 60 games each would bring obvious fatigue but adding Ball meant he could play the three of them 40 games each retaining some freshness. The Board said “no” to the big transfer fee and added wages which they deemed unnecessary. And it has been suggested that Asa Hartford’s “hole in the heart” issues were a convenient excuse for the Leeds Board to veto that move too. Revie often missed out on transfer targets.
And Revie himself agreed twice to leave Leeds for other clubs as Everton (1970) and Birmingham City (1973) both tempted him with wages Leeds could only dream of before obstacles scuppered the moves. In the case of Birmingham there was a clause that a Manager could only join a club for same wages as previously so Revie stayed put for that reason only and Leeds won the league in 1974 instead.
Revie left soon after this league title win for the England job. Leeds had just revamped the West Stand and appointed Brian Clough to replace the Don! Leeds United would end up paying for both these “investments” for many years to come.
Post Revie Leeds were in the doldrums heading down the league and rarely in the hunt for trophies. And the Whites became a selling club as both Jordan (£350,000) and McQueen (£440,000) headed to Old Trafford in quick succession to play for what was then a very average Manchester United side as Leeds simply could not resist such potential income anymore. The first bout of “Fantasy Football” hit the English game in the late 70’s and early 80’s despite the country being in recession. Million pound players were springing up everywhere and Leeds made money available to new Manager Allan Clarke, who invested in Peter Barnes (£930,000), Kenny Burns (£400,000) and the returning Frank Gray (£500,000), but with little positive impact as Leeds headed into the second division for the first time since 1964. This to a backdrop of hooliganism and falling attendances at Elland Road. Leeds sacked Clarke after relegation and appointed Eddie Gray as Player Manager. Gray admitted years later in his book that he only got the job because of money issues. Gray was on a player salary of £30,000 and his new joint wage was £35,000 whereas a new man coming in would command another £30,000 or even more.
Having spent a couple of seasons misfiring in Division 2 Gray also adopted faith in youth and replaced the expensively assembled relegation team with promising youngsters from the club’s youth set up like Sellars, Wright, Sheridan, Irwin, Aspin and Phelan while investing wisely in Linighan (£200,000) and Ian Snodin (also £200,000).
The team was talented but maybe a little lightweight and the fans and Board were demanding a return to the top flight so Gray went after a disappointing start to 1985/86 replaced by Bremner. There was some success after a near relegation that same season. Bremner took Leeds to the Play-Off Final and FA Cup semi’s in 1986/87 but was forced to sell star man Snodin to Everton for £840,000 and was given some of this money to fund his own team of journeymen. But the following season was also disappointing and club legend Bremner was the third ex-player to be sacked as Leeds Manager.
Then in came an outsider, Howard Wilkinson from Sheffield Wednesday. Now much is said of Wilkinson’s financial demands when he arrived at Leeds and it is true to say he spent a few quid. However he also managed to deal magnificently selling off some very average players like Hilaire, Swan, Taylor, Aspin, Blake and Williams for fees between £200,000 and £300,000, as well as trading the two quality players he inherited in Sheridan (£650,000) and Baird (£550,000) to fund the arrival of Strachan, Fairclough, Sterland, Hendrie, Jones, Shutt, Chapman, McCleland and Kamara as he built a team to win the second division and compete in the top-flight.
So when you take in to consideration the total in’s and out’s the deficit for Wilko was about £1.1 million so you could hardly say this promotion success was due to bank rolling by the Leeds Board, it was clever trading of clearing out the old to bring in the new.
Wilkinson lead Leeds to the title, the last champions of the old format and possibly the last team of honest journeymen to win the league before the cash became king? His relationship with money was erratic as he was often let down by his chairmen but sometimes wasted the money he was given. In the summer of 1992 Leeds were reigning champions and Wilko bought Eric Cantona, David Rocastle, and the returning Scott Sellars for a combined £3.75 million – big money for the day. Despite being good players the latter two would hardly feature before heading out in cut price deals and Cantona’s departure remains folklore for the wrong reasons (if you are a Leeds fan) as he was sold off far too cheaply. Some of Wilko’s bigger purchases are some of the worst in the club’s history – Sharpe and Brolin (£4.5 million each), Palmer (£2.9 million) – but he did have player’s sold behind his back like Batty’s shock departure to Blackburn for £2.75 million in 1994.
Wilkinson was often forced to recruit from the bargain bins with limited success as Pemberton had one good season, Radebe became a club legend (and turned down a £10 million move to Old Trafford) and Beesley was shocking. The names Beeney, Strandli, Kerslake, Masinga and Worthington spring to mind too.
But Wilkinson was always gracious and supportive of his chairman’s business decisions often saying: “The money men make the money decisions and I pick the team!”
Wilkinson had a 10-year plan and this included Leeds United producing a team of home grown talent and the Thorpe Arch project. It was as though the great man knew Leeds would never be able to compete for the big signings so best produce and nurture from within to avoid big transfer fees. It was arguably Wilko’s finest legacy as players like Kewell, Smith, McPhail, Woodgate and Harte helped herald a new dawn for the club and Leeds looked champions elect. But his dream only started to bear fruition after he was sacked and it was George Graham and David O’Leary who enjoyed most success from Wilkinson’s vision. Once again it looked like youth would be the future of the club
After Wilkinson came the boom and bust of Peter Ridsdale spending money that we simply did not have and I have said enough about that over the years. Then the fire sale of Gerald Krasner before we had the eight depressing years of Ken Bates when the club sunk to its lowest ebb ever and accepting mediocrity became the new ambition. And many fell for that one! In Bates years home grown players like Carson, Lennon, Kilgallon, Walton, Howson and Delph followed Robinson, Milner, Smith & Harte out the door and were sold for significant profit. It has been alleged that investment in the Academy has been lacking but in this time Howson, Lees and Byram have been introduced to the 1st team and done well so you decide.
So what is the point of this article? Is there a meaningful message from which to draw conclusions or for GFH to gain inspiration? Err no, actually, it is just an observation with some supporting evidence that Leeds United has never apparently been a rich club, we have relied heavily on youth investment and have been fortunate to retain fabulous global support. Yes we have had times in our history when the club performed well in the highest league, the ground has been consistently full and we have sold players for big money but the instability that often plagued the club has lead to Leeds United having incredible highs and lows throughout our potted history.
After 8 years of the Ken Bates building a club “brick by brick” mentality I, like pretty much every Leeds fan, am now impatient and wants the summer to prompt much change. There are players in the current squad that must never wear our white shirt again and we need new players coming in, and players of quality not ones that are signed because they are free or desperate and at the end of their career. We have seen that it doesn’t take much to gain promotion from this league and 2-3 marquee signings with a few hard working battlers will lift the crowd and enhance the squad and I have every confidence that McDermott can identify the players needed. And I believe the owners are not lost when it comes to understanding the prize on offer should they take Leeds back to the promised land of Premier League Football. I will remain very confident going into the Ashes summer.
But I am going to retain a sense of realism. I don’t think our season depends on how much money GFH can yield. This is a time for creating a longer term platform for future success, one eye on today and another on tomorrow. The Academy has produced 1-2 players of genuine ability in recent years and it is important the youth system continues to grow for the long term future of the club. As with Revie, Gray & O’Leary the youth can be Leeds United’s saviour not a trading tool for greedy chairman to fund a Monaco lifestyle.
I am not expecting millions to be pumped into Leeds United this summer nor will I start to bemoan the owners or Manager if not. This can still be a successful season if the right decisions are made and an appropriate plan designed, practiced and upheld. With that will come success on the field and the appropriate rewards, something that seemed lost on Ken Bates and his non-Football income philosophies. Then, and maybe then, Leeds United can work their way to being a rich club!
Marching on together!