For ten years from the mid 1960’s, Leeds United
were a power in football, built by their manager Don Revie into one of the strongest clubs
in England and Europe. A team of internationals, led by their fiery captain Billy Bremner,
won the football league championship in 1969 and the FA Cup in ’72. Leeds won the league
again two years later and their supporters always believe they only lost the ’75 European
Cup final to German Champions Bayern Munich due to highly controversial refereeing decisions.
Leeds declined in the 1980’s but recovered again to win the final football league championship
in 1992, just before the Premier League was formed. As recently as 2001, a young, exciting
Leeds team under David O’leary was competing with Manchester United in the Premier League,
and reached the semi finals of the Champions League, losing 3-0 on aggregate to Valencia.
Yet within two years, the modern, re-built Leeds United suffered a profound collapse,
from which the club has still not recovered. The Chariman, Peter Ridsdale, admitted the
club had borrowed heavily to by star players, and famously said of the dry success, we lived
the dream. Leeds had to sell the star players, including Rio Ferdinand to Manchester United,
but they were still relegated in 2004 with debts of more than £100m. A group of local
businessman took over, settled much of the debts, sold more players, and even the Elland
Road stadium and training ground to a landlord, but could not keep the club steady financially.
In January 2005, they announced a takeover by Ken Bates, who two years earlier had sold
Chelsea to the Russian olligark Roman Abramovic, and retired to the tax haven of Monaco. Bates
said he was representing a consortium of owners whose identity was never revealed, through
funds registered in off-shore tax havens including the British Virgin Islands. But on his return
to football, Bates too could not make the finances at Leeds work. Wages paid to players
had increased throughout the 2000’s, but the huge gap in income with the multi millions
of pounds paid for television rights in the Premier League, means that clubs in the Championship
struggle to balance the books. Leeds were relegated to League One, the old third division,
in 2007, for the first time in their history, and Bates cut Leeds debts by putting the club
into administration. They stayed in League One for three seasons before winning promotion
in 2010 and the following year, Bates announced that he had bought the club from the unidentified
investors. He then sold Leeds in 2012 to a bank based in Bahrain, gulf finance house,
and they in turn sold in 2014 to an Italian-American businessman, Massimo Cellino. He had been
convicted of tax fraud in Italy, making him unfit to be the owner or Director of a Football
League club, but he returned after a year when his criminal conviction was considered
“spent” in English law. Cellino has sacked six managers in just two years, but his abbrasive
methods have not reclaimed success on the pitch. So Leeds United, still a big city football
club of great traditions, play on in the Championship. In the Elland Road ground that they do not
own, their large body of long suffering supporters wondering how it all went so wrong, but still
singing the glory days of old.