Anyone who claims returning from the land of the dead isn’t possible should cast their skeptical eye to the Premier League in September when the 2020-2021 season kicks off. There they’ll find Leeds United, promoted this past weekend, who will be returning from a decade-and-a-half spent in a formless, tortuous land beyond anything Hades ever dreamed of.
The name Leeds might ring a bell for younger soccer fans, and certainly cause a wry grin from older ones. Leeds just weren’t a Premier League team around the turn of the century. They were a power. They fielded one of the most exciting, young teams the Premier League has seen. While Sunderland took the Netflix documentary route to notoriety for their collapse as a club, Sunderland never made a Champions League or UEFA Cup semi-final. Leeds did both. Sunderland never developed a world-class player like Rio Ferdinand who would backstop Manchester United’s last reign of dominance. Leeds did, along with a raft of players in the class just below that like Harry Kewell, Robbie Keane, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer, James Milner, Mark Viduka, and a few others. At their peak, Leeds were the football-version of the pre-Super Bowl Chiefs or Colorado Avalanche, a collection of young players playing deliriously fast and beautifully.
All of which meant Leeds had a hell of a lot farther to fall than Sunderland did some 15 years later. And boy did they. Perhaps no club has ever shotgunned themselves in the face as thoroughly as Leeds United did between 2001 and 2004.
It took Leeds just three seasons to go from battling Valencia for a spot in the Champions League Final to relegation from the Premier League. Then-owner Peter Ridsdale became famous for his largesse (has there been a more famous fish tank in sports?), but it was his borrowing against the expectation of repeated Champions League appearances that did the club in. The massive debts accrued by Leeds missing out on Champions League income in successive seasons, about $100 million by the time Ridsdale was done, caused the club to not only lose the players who led the squad to such dizzying heights, but to sell them for nothing or close to it.
Ferdinand was sold to blood-rivals United for $38 million against then-manager David O’Leary’s wishes. Kewell would depart the next summer for just $5 million. Robbie Keane was sold to Spurs for under $12 million. Woodgate was packed off to Newcastle, who had beaten out Leeds for the final Champions League spot that season, for $11 million. Lee Bowyer and James Milner would eventually follow Woodgate to Newcastle for pennies. Robbie Fowler wasn’t far behind heading to the exit door. Pretty much the entire roster was stripped.
O’Leary would be fired after the 2001-2002 season, and that’s where it all spiraled. Leeds would fall from 5th to 15th that following season, under two different managers (Terry Venables and Peter Ried) as players continued to be offloaded like ballast on a sinking boat, which is exactly what they were. The following season Leeds were relegated with barely a whimper, finishing 19th and again having gone through two managers.
But their hell was only beginning. The club was forced to sell their stadium, Elland Road, and training complex and then had them leased back to them to try and help settle the books. Upon their arrival in the Championship and their utterly ruinous finances, Leeds could basically only sign players either on a free transfer or on loan. They would end up taking 100 players on loan between 2004 and 2017.
From there, the club would bounce between four or five different ownership groups, going into administration (bankruptcy) and two different points-deductions that saw them booted and stuck in League One, England third division, for the first time in the club’s history. Things were so bad that before one season while still in administration, Leeds didn’t even fill out their playing squad until a few days before the season started.
Salvation finally came for Leeds in the form of Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani, who took over the club in May of 2017. He helped the club buy back Elland Road with plans to expand it, and has a new training complex going up in the middle of the city.
Perhaps the most mouth-watering aspect of Leeds’ promotion and eventual stay in the Premier League is Radrizzani’s coup de grace, and that’s hiring real-life Dr. Weird of soccer Marcelo Bielsa as manager.
Bielsa is considered a genius by no less a troika than Pep Guardiola, Mauricio Pochettino, and Diego Simeone, three of the ten best managers in the world. The frantic, high-pressing, three-forward tactics that have become de rigueur for pretty much all top teams now was being employed by Bielsa a decade ago or more. He runs Leeds out in a 3-3-1-3 formation that must’ve looked like an alien landing to the still pretty conservative Championship. His taking the wheel at Leeds is akin to Don Coryell showing up to coach Boston College. He has managed both Argentina and Chile, and in the Argentine, Spanish and French leagues, and now the top two divisions in England.
And he might become the most entertaining manager in the league, though Jurgen Klopp makes that a tough title to grab for anyone else. Bielsa spends his team’s entire match sitting on a cooler. While the various stories of his eccentricity could fill a warehouse, just his time at Leeds, he has basically admitted to spying on other teams, while not needing to, and then ordered his team to surrender a goal after Leeds had scored with an opposing player injured. Bielsa’s practice tradition of “Murderball,” essentially an intra-squad scrimmage where the ball is never allowed to go out of play and no fouls are called, creates affection among fans but is seen by some as part of the reason his teams have faded at the end of seasons. His demands in both training and games have caused more than a few players to puke.
He regularly walks 45 minutes from his home to the training ground, and anyone who has spent a winter in West Yorkshire can tell you this is a less than pleasant experience. Unless you’re the type who likes water repeatedly whipped at you at high velocity.
The return of Leeds United gives the Premier League back one of its most passionate supporters and raucous venues. It is a fanbase that saw its club completely pilfered and left for dead by various goofs and nitwits, through no fault of their own. Leeds are unquestionably one of the biggest clubs in England, and after 16 years, it feels as though a giant wrong has finally been righted.