By Rob Atkinson
Leeds United have achieved promotion to the top League of English football (Football League Division One of blessed memory) on two occasions within my lifetime – 1963/64 and 1989/90. Both promotions followed significant lower status periods – we don’t really do “bounce-back” promotions – and here we are again, a decade away from the game’s shop window, and this time we actually plumbed the depths of the third tier for the first time in our illustrious history. So – talking about history – do those last two promotion successes have anything to teach us today? The answer seems to be: yes, quite a bit. But there’s not much encouragement to derive from the lessons of yesteryear.
The fact appears to be that the last two Leeds United sides to have achieved promotion to the top flight both did it with quality to spare. Both finished as Division Two Champions, and both squads included a number of players who would go on to help add to the Club’s Honours Board. In 1990, the team that pipped Sheffield United for the Second Division title included as mainstays Gordon Strachan, Gary Speed, Lee Chapman, Chris Fairclough, Mel Sterland and David Batty. That’s over half a team, and all of those players figured heavily in the squad that won the last Football League Championship title in 1992. Also appearing in that “Last Real Champions” line-up were four more survivors of the 1990 promotion side: Carl Shutt, Imre Varadi, John McClelland and Mike Whitlow. So TEN members of the promotion squad were good enough to figure in the season that brought the ultimate League honour back to Elland Road. All but Batty and Speed were incoming transfers, some costing what was significant money for the late eighties.
In 1964, the picture was similar, though with more of a bias towards home-grown talent – unsurprisingly given the quality of the youngsters coming through from an outstanding youth policy. The names trip off the tongue: Gary Sprake, Paul Reaney, Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter, Paul Madeley, Terry Cooper and Peter Lorimer. The ultimate success took longer to achieve for Revie’s boys, but all eight of these players, plus the genius of Johnny Giles – purchased for a song from Man U in a transfer Revie described as “robbery with violence” – were major contributors to the side which proved itself the best-ever in 1969. The later transfers in of Mick Jones and Allan Clarke, with the emergence of Eddie Gray from that legendary youth setup, simply applied the final coat of gloss to what was a very fine side indeed. The makings of champions were there in the 1964 promotion team, just as they were for that of 1990.
So what does all this tell us about the here and now? Nothing very happy, to be sure. The squad we have today might – with a few judiciously-selected additions – have some sort of chance of achieving promotion, though you’d have to say the lottery of the play-offs would be the likeliest route. And as a club, we’re famously poor at play-offs. But if we DID scramble promotion – what sort of foundation would there be for becoming a successful Premier League side? Hardly any, in truth. Look through the playing staff we have, and name players who might figure in a Premier League winning side in the next few years. Sam Byram, maybe – and probably, almost certainly – NOT in a Leeds United shirt. So we’re in danger of becoming the Leeds United side least well-equipped in living memory to go up, and stay up to do well. Much more likely though is that – with the element of quality so sadly lacking – we’ll just bob around in mid-table in the Championship, and listen to a load of excuses every week or so.
History shows that, on both the occasions we’ve won promotion in my lifetime, there has been relatively major investment in the team to make that possible. It was more the case in 1990 than in ’64, but the whole game was much more about money by the 90′s – and of course vastly more so today. But even in 1964, players had been added to the squad to see us over that promotion-winning line – Alan Peacock was an England-capped forward, bought for decent money from Middlesbrough. Bobby Collins commanded a fee even as a “veteran” when he moved to Leeds from Everton. In the 1990 side, Strachan, Fairclough, Chapman and Sterland all cost well into the six figures, as did John Hendrie and Vinnie Jones. This was proper investment, speculating to accumulate.
There is as yet no sign of any such visionary attitude from GFH Capital, and now we hear that Brian McDermott is finding things “not as he expected”, poor lad. Well, he probably assumed he was joining a big, ambitious club. He must be very disappointed – he certainly looked and sounded it in one interview I’ve seen in the last day or so. All we are currently hearing are the weasel words “caution” and “evolution”. There is also the gentle grinding of mental cogs as the owners cudgel their brains, trying to find the best way of managing fans’ expectations. Those expectations are understandable, having their roots in a proud and glorous history, from eras past when this club did things properly. Where expectations such as these are dashed, sooner or later there will be rebellion, whether it comes in the form of apathy over match-day attendance, or some more incendiary form whereby dissatisfaction might be expressed.
The owners of Leeds United would be well-advised to do a bit of rooting about in the Club’s history, both to see how things were managed when the people in charge knew what they were doing, and also to advise themselves of what happens with the support – and indeed the management – when they feel they’re having the urine taken out of them. That feeling is abroad right now, and it’s growing in its intensity.
Get your act together, GFH-C, and do it now.