Brian Deane: ‘Leeds forgot to serve the community in the Ridsdale era’
Not every footballer gets a chance to return to their hometown club.
Brian Deane had to forge his own path, away from Leeds, the city he was born and raised in.
He represented Yorkshire Amateurs as a teenager, but broke his leg, and only after a long spell of rehabilitation did he get his break on trial at Doncaster Rovers.
Still studying part-time at Leeds City College, Deane broke through at Doncaster, and went on to catch the eye on the third tier – resulting in Sheffield United signing him for £25,000 in 1988.
The forward scored 30 goals in his debut season with Blades, firing them to promotion back to the second tier, and from there his burgeoning career ran parallel to Leeds’ ascent.
Twenty-four goals followed in Deane’s second season at Bramall Lane, resulting in a second successive promotion. Dave Bassett’s Blades finished second, going up to the top flight alongside champions Leeds.
While Leeds went on to win the title under Howard Wilkinson, Deane helped establish Sheffield United as a top-tier outfit, scoring double figures in three successive campaigns and famously notching the first goal of the Premier League era.
Sheffield United actually finished three places ahead of Leeds in the inaugural Premier League season, as Wilkinson’s side mounted a sorry title defence, failing to win away all year and finishing just two points above the relegation zone.
It was then that Leeds came calling, signing Deane for a club-record £2.9million.
The mid-90s were a transitional time for Leeds United, as the heroes of ’92 gradually moved on while fresh faces arrived in their place.
Wilkinson had struggled to rebuild Leeds into something great, resulting in a disappointing 13th-place finish in 1995-96. But they still had enough about them to go on a cup run.
Deane, Gary Speed and Tony Yeboah scored for fun as the Whites swept aside Notts County, Derby County, Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers, Reading and Birmingham City en route to the League Cup final.
They faced Aston Villa at Wembley. But the occasion proved one to forget for Leeds fans.
“The week before, we played Everton at home and we drew 2-2,” recalls Deane, speaking to Planet Football on behalf of BETDAQ.
“I scored both goals and I got man of the match, then I found myself getting dropped. Then we had the game at Wembley, we lost 3-0 and I was on the bench. So from my point of view, I was just hugely disappointed in the tactics and how we had set up and I couldn’t believe it.”
Deane was introduced for midfielder Mark Ford at the break, but within 10 minutes of the second half Leeds fell two goals behind, and they ultimately succumbed to a deserved 3-0 defeat.
Leeds fans let their frustrations out, chanting, ‘Why is Brolin on the bench?’, evidently sharing Deane’s sentiment that Wilkinson got it wrong that day.
Faith appeared to have been lost in the legendary manager. Wilkinson was approaching a sad end at Elland Road.
“I’m sure that some of the fans looked at that and thought ‘What’s going on?’,” says Deane.
“We didn’t show our best against Aston Villa, we got punished. I remember coming off at the end of the game and our fans were on the left-hand side as we were coming off and they were criticising the manager then.
“They were saying some not very nice things, and I was just disappointed from my personal point of view because I felt that I could have really made a better impact had I been on from the start. But I don’t pick the team.
“It was sad really because Wilkinson had done a lot for Leeds United. If you look at what he had, quite similar to what we’re seeing now, the team were in the second tier and going nowhere fast.
“He came in, brought in some fantastic players. That squad in the end, the one that won the old first First Division, was a fantastic squad. When I joined the club there were some brilliant players.
“He did a wonderful job. I think at that point, that was when the fans started to question certain things that were going on and there wasn’t really a way back from there. I’ll always remember we tried to blood some of the young players and the fans weren’t happy.
“That obviously impacted on the performances of the young players and some of them didn’t recover from that. So that was kind of the beginning of the end for me.”
March 30th 1996 #lufc
A week after the Wembley debacle against Aston Villa, certain sections of the fans at Elland Road against Middlesbrough (lost 0-1) wanted Howard Wilkinson out! pic.twitter.com/m2d00RIW8F
— LEEDS UNITED MEMORIES (@LUFCHistory) March 27, 2022
George Graham: A striker’s nightmare
Wilkinson had enough credit in the bank to see out the season, and was backed with funds in the summer window. In came Lee Sharpe for a club-record £4.5million alongside Nigel Martyn and Lee Bowyer, for over £5million combined, as well as a 34-year-old Ian Rush on a free.
But Sergeant Wilko was sacked five games into the 1996-97 campaign, following a disastrous 4-0 defeat at home to Manchester United. George Graham promptly arrived in his place.
“It was tough,” Deane says of that season.
“There were times when we went out there and we had six centre-halves. Sometimes we had seven. I learnt a lot under George because when he came in it was about getting stability in the team and he made us very hard to beat.
“But as a forward, I took it on board personally, I’m sure Rod [Wallace] did as well… He fell out with Tony Yeboah, which was sad because Tony was a brilliant player.”
Yeboah’s wonderstrikes had long ensured cult-hero status among the fanbase at Elland Road, but the Ghanaian made just seven appearances under Graham.
He was sold to Hamburg in September 1997, after a season in which Deane and Sharpe had finished as Leeds’ joint-top Premier League goalscorers – with just five apiece.
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In spite of scoring just 28 goals in 38 games that season, Graham’s Leeds finished 11th. No side in Premier League history has yielded fewer goals per game.
“It was just frustrating being the top scorer with not that many goals and that was my job,” explains Deane.
“But people don’t always see that. People don’t realise. There were times when we had such a defensive team that George used to say to me and Rod, ‘Look, when you get in that final third, I don’t care what you do.’
“So in some ways, it was a case of, right, just do your best, but we knew that we weren’t going to be doing anything creative. For somebody at that time in their career, it was definitely frustrating because I didn’t get a chance to show people what I could actually do.
“I was happy at Leeds, but I think when they offered me a new contract, I felt that I really had to move on because I couldn’t go through anymore.
“Perhaps we were a team in transition and looking back, George did a brilliant job, but I just felt that if I had stayed, how would that have affected me moving forward? I didn’t want to just drift away. I still felt that I had plenty to offer and that’s perhaps why I ended up going back to Sheffield United with a plan to get promotion.”
Return to Elland Road
Deane only spent half a season back at Bramall Lane. He and strike partner Jan Age Fjortoft were firing Blades’ promotion push, scoring 12 goals each by January, but they were sold on the same day – to Benfica and Barnsley respectively.
He scored seven goals in 18 league appearances for Benfica, amid Graeme Souness’ ill-fated British revolution in Lisbon, but returned to the UK after nine months, signing for Middlesbrough in a £3million deal. Further stints at Leicester City and West Ham followed in a nomadic few years.
During that time away, Leeds were living the dream. They were top of the Premier League at the turn of the new millennium, and would soon be beating AC Milan en route to the Champions League semi-finals.
Graham’s ultra-defensive approach had laid solid foundations for David O’Leary’s exciting youngsters to go and flourish, while big-money signings like Rio Ferdinand and Mark Viduka were living up to their price tags.
That was the boom. Soon enough came the bust. Leeds were relegated amid financial turmoil in 2003-04 campaign. Here’s where Deane comes back in. Eleven years after first signing for his boyhood club as a rising star, he made his return as a grizzled veteran.
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“It felt different because I felt it was a really badly managed club at the time and that was emphasised by the fact that the club nearly went into liquidation,” says Deane.
“For a club like Leeds to go into liquidation, you think, ‘What’s been going on?’
“So all of the major players had been sold or moved on. Even the business plan around the players, like Rio Ferdinand coming in for £18 million, going to Manchester United for £30 million… I don’t think that the club saw a penny of that.
“There was some kind of ridiculous way of financing the deals based on, I think they were leasing the money or something like that. It was criminal. You can’t have success at all costs.
“Leeds United is a club that serves the community and I think sometimes people forget that clubs actually serve the community in many ways. You have to make sure that you have that sustainable plan and that wasn’t sustainable – it was for the here and now.
“I went back and I was fortunate that I lived in the area anyway. I’d been at West Ham and came back up north. I was 37 at the time and so for me, it was a pleasure coming back, but I could also see there were some players there who couldn’t believe that they were still at the club, that they hadn’t been bought yet.
“There were one or two players that were loyal, like Gary Kelly, Michael Duberry. There were some very good players, but I feel that there were some players who just couldn’t wait to get out and get away from the place. And that’s quite sad. Leeds deserved better than what they were given at the time.”
Thirty-seven-year-old Deane scored seven goals on his return, enough to make him joint-top scorer alongside David Healy, but the severely mismanaged club finished 14th in the Championship.
He left after that one season, seeing out his career with short spells at Sunderland, Perth Glory and once again Sheffield United, while Leeds would further toil in the Football League, dropping down to League One for three seasons and taking 16 years to make their Premier League return.
It’s been a long and painful road back, but things look in a much healthier state once again. The club owns Elland Road again, and there are plans for expanding the stadium amid rumours of a full takeover from minority shareholders San Francisco 49ers.
There are also plans to relocate the club’s training facilities away from Thorp Arch, closer to Harrogate than it is to Leeds, back into the city – which is welcome news to Deane, who hails from the Chapeltown area of the city.
“The one thing about when the majority of your best players come from inner-city areas, they’ve got to scrap and fight,” he says.
“I don’t think there’s that inspiration [with the current training ground]. You go out to Thorp Arch, and it’s in a beautiful area don’t get me wrong – I used to live near there and it’s a fantastic facility. But in terms of having a connection with the town, it’s been a little bit distant.
“There’s some real talent in the inner-city areas and I think it would be good to have the focus on in and around the city. That can act as a real inspiration to any youngsters coming through who want to play football or want to look at becoming a professional footballer. If it’s on your doorstep, it’s a lot better. I think it created a little bit of a distance.
“If they could reconnect in the city that would be a huge advantage I feel.”
Brian Deane was speaking to Planet Football on behalf of BETDAQ. This interview was originally published in February 2022.