12 Years A Slave: Have Leeds finally stopped doing a Leeds?

What’s the opposite of Doing A Leeds? It seems typical of English football that there is a phrase synonymous with a fall from grace – which Leeds United are attached to – but not an equivalent for a glorious rise. Doing A Swansea? Doing A Bournemouth? Doing A Leicester? Whatever you do, just don’t Do A Leeds.

Leeds haven’t been very Leedsy this season, however, and it all started with the appointment of Garry Monk as Steve Evans’ replacement. Given that two League One managers in Karl Robinson and Darrell Clarke had, quite understandably, come to the conclusion that working under Massimo Cellino is riskier than a game of Russian roulette, Monk taking on the challenge was a surprise.

Monk’s arrival prompted a brief flutter of cautious optimism throughout West Yorkshire, but the current campaign started with all the hallmarks of another underwhelming nine months of, at best, stasis.

The squad’s most talented player, Lewis Cook, left for Bournemouth and the opportunity to play Premier League football, the pre-season schedule was hastily – some might argue shambolically – arranged, and Cellino was reportedly all set to sack Monk before an 89th-minute goal saved Leeds from being knocked out of the League Cup in only the second fixture of the season.

After picking up only four points from the opening month of the season and as Cellino’s notoriously trigger-happy fingers started to twitch, Monk returned to his principles: Leeds reverted to the 4-2-3-1, which had been temporarily ditched for 4-4-2, and managed to beat Blackburn 2-1 amid a backdrop of almost biblical thunder and lightning.

The result may not have been the Second Coming, but Leeds have since gone on to win 44 out of a possible 57 available points. The congregation of Elland Road have got their faith back.

Of course, Leeds have had their fair share of false dawns in the past. Since relegation from the Premier League in 2004, the recent history of the club is one of light often appearing at the end of a tunnel, only for it to become apparent it emanates from a train.

This weekend, for example, marks 12 years since Ken Bates took over the club. Given his association with Chelsea, Bates’ name would have been low on the list of chairmen supporters hoped for at the time, but his arrival prompted hope of a fresh start and a clean slate for a side still getting to grips with life in the Championship.

On the day Bates completed his purchase of a 50% stake in the club, Leeds sat 14th in the division, after a neat goal from a 17-year-old Simon Walton had earned a 1-1 draw against Cardiff City. Walton’s combative displays that season were earning him comparisons to another former academy product, Alan Smith, especially after he had marked his maiden first-team appearance at Elland Road with a goal and red card in a friendly against reigning UEFA Cup holders Valencia.

Walton admits he could hardly have experienced a more turbulent time to break into the first team.

“It was quite strange for a young lad really, I was just a kid,” he says. “I managed to get in the team and stay in the team because we basically didn’t have enough numbers to train.

“There was all sorts of stuff going on. There were talks about liquidation and we would have to go to all sorts of meetings, but as a young kid you don’t really understand it. A lot of young players played that year, but we were lucky that the senior players around at the time did a lot for us and looked after us, telling us what needed to be told without getting us involved too much.”

From the summer immediately after relegation from the Premier League to the end of their first season in the Championship, Leeds signed 27 players, while a further 25 permanently departed. Given the revolving door nature of the club that season, a comfortable 14th-place finish now seems quite remarkable.

“It felt like there were two to three new players signing, or two to three players going, every week,” Walton says. “It was mental. To be 16 years old seeing that – that wasn’t the picture I had of professional football.

“Gary Kelly had been there for years and was a club legend. He really took me under his wing, looked after me and always made me feel welcome and part of it all. We also had the likes of Paul Butler, Neil Sullivan and Brian Deane.

“It could have gone either way, but we were lucky that we had the right type of people in the squad because if not we could have gone down straight again with everything that had happened. Luckily we managed to steady the ship a little bit.”

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QUIZ: Can you name all 20 of these obscure 2000s Premier League players?

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By the end of that season, manager Kevin Blackwell had been able to sign Rob Hulse, David Healy and Shaun Derry, while the squad was bolstered further in the summer by a number of arrivals including Eddie Lewis, Robbie Blake and Richard Cresswell.

The 2005-06 campaign saw Leeds come closer than they have ever come to returning to the Promised Land. After finishing fifth in the league and beating Preston in the play-off semi-finals, Leeds were 90 minutes away from earning promotion to the Premier League at only the second time of asking.

Just the mention of the play-off final against Watford incites a heavy sigh from Walton. On a day which the midfielder describes as his “worst in football by a long shot”, Leeds were wretched at the Millennium Stadium and resoundingly beaten 3-0. Marlon King – one of the loanees who had passed through the club the previous term but failed to impress sufficiently enough to earn a permanent move – won the penalty for the Hornets’ third in a season in which he finished as the division’s top goalscorer.

The campaign had also been a personally disappointing one for Walton. After suffering a ruptured hamstring in the penultimate game of the previous season, he broke down with another injury after travelling to the European Championships with England’s Under-19s, meaning he struggled to regain his place in Leeds’ first team with the side settled and playing well.

Walton’s misery in Cardiff, where he failed to make the bench, was not due of a lack of appearances, though, but because he knew he was about to be forced out of the club he had grown up supporting.

“I’ve never really spoken about it, but I was told in the week leading up to the game that the club had accepted four or five offers for me. I didn’t want to go. I’d turned down bigger offers in the previous summer. It didn’t feel right to leave and I didn’t want to leave.

“Let’s just say it was made clear to me by the owner at the time that if we didn’t go up I would be sold and I didn’t have the choice in the matter. I was adamant that I didn’t want to go, but the owner at the time… let’s just say he was also pretty adamant and made it very hard for me, so when the game was over I knew exactly what was coming which made the day a lot worse.”

Selling the silver

That summer Walton joined Premier League Charlton Athletic in a deal which saw Leeds receive only £500,000 for one of their most talented young players. Blackwell justified the transfer in the media, saying: “The last thing you want as a manager is for someone to find out that they had an opportunity to move to a higher level but weren’t given the chance to consider it.”

Leeds have made an unwelcome habit of cashing in on their most promising players since dropping out of the Premier League. Walton followed in the footsteps of James Milner, Aaron Lennon and Scott Carson in a list which now includes Fabian Delph, Jonny Howson, Robert Snodgrass, Max Gradel and the aforementioned Cook.

“I don’t think people realised how bad the situation was,” Walton says. “We lost the play-off final and then if you look at the team that started some of the games the following season, it was unrecognisable. Almost anyone that could move at the time had been sold. Some of the players who played wouldn’t have got anywhere near the squad the previous season. It was all a snowball effect from losing the final.”

That snowball effect ending with Blackwell being sacked as manager, Bates entering Leeds into administration in an attempt to clear the mounting debts, and the team being relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time in its history. Having already dropped from Champions League to Championship, the club were already well into writing the blueprint of Doing A Leeds.

Symbolically,Bates’ ownership feels like the point when the decay could have been stopped, but instead, it was allowed to spread.

When Leeds first dropped down to the Championship, there was not so much an expectation but rather a demand that they would make a swift return to the Premier League. Bates was no longer in charge at Elland Road, and the club did eventually scrap their way out of League One and back to the second tier under the management of Simon Grayson, but during the sustained lack of an assault at the top flight under the successive ownerships of Bates, GFH Capital, and Cellino, anger among supporters in time dissipated into apathy, and expectation soon evaporated into hope and, finally, indifference.

And yet suddenly and without warning or expectation, exciting times are back on the horizon. Perhaps it’s the confused logic of a neglected wife being greeted by a husband holding a bunch of flowers, but things feel like they have changed this time around.

Monk’s Leeds are now purring with confidence, brimming with excitement, and oozing with quality. In the former Swansea boss, Leeds possess one of the brightest young managers in the country. The squad, which was feared to be too small, has been propelled by a youthful exuberance generated by the likes of Ronaldo Vieira, Kalvin Phillips, Lewie Coyle and Tyler Denton, while the senior players such as Kyle Bartley and Liam Bridcutt have demonstrated the on-field leadership which has been sorely lacking in LS11 for a number of years.

In the cult of Pontus Jansson, the class of Pablo Hernandez, and the goals of Chris Wood, the Whites have suddenly created a side and atmosphere which suggests the Premier League is not so far away after all. Most encouragingly for Monk, whichever collective XI has taken to the field in past weeks has performed to a level greater than the sum of its parts – an alchemy like no other in sport. Last week’s victory over Derby County may only have been secured by a solitary goal, but it was as dominant and convincing a display as Elland Road has witnessed for quite some time.

The fact that Cellino has already sold 50% of his shares to the altogether more calming influence of Andrea Radrizzani – with the remaining 50% expected to follow in the summer – is also a significant bonus.

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Walton himself now cannot resist returning to the stadium. Having joined nearby Conference outfit Guiseley following a career in which he also represented Ipswich, Cardiff, QPR, Hull and Crawley, Leeds’ recent performances have reignited the belief in their former player.

“I am confident. Having seen other teams in this league, I’ve watched Newcastle and Brighton and I don’t think there’s anything to fear. If you look at our players and the squads around, there aren’t many players you would swap. Look at Aston Villa, they’ve got however much money but we played them the other week and I don’t think one of their players would get into our team.

“It’s consistency. Over the years we’d have played that well against Derby but then been beaten at home by Rotherham. This year we’re just rolling teams over consistently. There’s a long way to go but I can’t see it stopping.

“I honestly do think we’ll get promoted.”

What’s the opposite of Doing A Leeds? We might just be about to find out.

By Rob Conlon

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