Recalling Leeds United’s dire 1996-97 season: ‘The most boring PL team ever’
“Coming away from this match I found myself muttering about how shit and boring and lucky Leeds had been,” is how an Arsenal fansite writer described the experience of losing 1-0 at home to Leeds United in February 1997.
“We all knew as soon as George Graham left Highbury that he’d be back to out-Arsenal us like this one day.”
Arsene Wenger had been appointed as Arsenal’s new manager three months prior and while that writer’s belief was early evidence of the aesthetic, right-way-to-play doctrine that would come to define the Gunners in their prime years, the Frenchman’s revolution was not yet underway: Patrick Vieira was the only non-British or Irish player in their XI as they succumbed to FA Cup elimination to Leeds.
Yet there remains an acknowledgement of what Arsenal once were. After all, their fans ironically readopted ‘Boring, boring Arsenal’ and would proudly chant ‘One-nil to the Arsenal’ as Graham delivered two league titles and an FA Cup. They were masters of grinding out narrow wins by hook or crook. And now Leeds had given them a taste of their own medicine.
A week before Wenger was appointed Arsenal’s manager in September 1996, Graham took the reigns at Leeds in his first role since leaving Highbury under a cloud amid a bung scandal.
Howard Wilkinson, the architect of Leeds’ 1992 title win, had been sacked following a 4-0 defeat at home to Manchester United, but the writing was on the wall ever since the feeble defeat to Aston Villa in the League Cup final earlier that year.
Having finished a disappointing 13th the season prior, the mid-90s represented a slump for Leeds. Gary McAllister and Gary Speed had left for Coventry City and Everton respectively, while Gordon Strachan and hometown hero David Batty departed some years earlier. The famous midfield quartet that delivered the league in ’92 were no more, while David O’Leary’s babies would not yet breakthrough for a couple more years.
Funnily enough, the 1996-97 campaign kicked off in thrilling fashion for Wilkinson’s Leeds. Nineteen-year-old summer signing Lee Bowyer and Ian Harte scored their first goals for the club in a 3-3 draw away at Derby County, with five of the six goals coming in a madcap final 20 minutes.
— Premier League (@premierleague) August 17, 2020
1-0 wins over Wimbledon and Blackburn Rovers followed, but the defensive frailties re-emerged in the 4-0 mauling to Manchester United, Eric Cantona delivering the final blow for Wilkinson’s job in injury time.
Graham was swiftly appointed but found himself unable to make an immediate impact, leading Leeds to five losses from his first six in the league and another defeat to Aston Villa in the League Cup.
Going into November, Leeds hovered just above the relegation zone and no side in the division had conceded more goals. Graham’s miserable start to the job was compounded with a 3-0 defeat away to Arsenal, one of Wenger’s first games in charge.
But soon enough, the Scottish coach’s methods started to bear fruit in a brutally efficient fashion. By the turn of the year, Leeds were unmistakably a George Graham team – risk-averse to the point of parody, yet unarguably solid as a rock.
Before Christmas, they went a club-record five games without conceding, with goalless draws in successive outings against Middlesbrough, Tottenham and Everton. The Entertainers, they weren’t, but they were grinding out enough results to start creeping up the table.
Packing the defence with as many bodies as possible, with Lucas Radebe becoming a top-class operator and Nigel Martyn offering a strong argument to be England’s No.1. Leeds had become a defensive powerhouse.
“Leeds, with a more balanced blend of youth and experience, with the Elland Road casualty list at last having eased, are becoming tough cookies,” wrote Russell Kempson in The Times after Leeds’ supremely compact shape kept Everton’s strikeforce of Duncan Ferguson and Andrei Kanchelskis frustrated in a 0-0 draw at Goodison Park.
“Carlton Palmer, David Wetherall and Paul Beesley provided the solidity, with Mark Jackson, 19, enhancing it after replacing Radebe at half-time. Kelly and Halle patrolled the flanks, up and down repetitively and effectively, while Sharpe and Bowyer flitted to and fro in unison, supporting the defence and supplying the attack.”
On This Day 1997 #lufc
Rod Wallace with the only goal of the game, in Leeds United’s 1-0 FA Cup 4th Round victory over Arsenal at Highbury, with Nigel Martyn in top form. #FACup#90sleeds @RodWallacePSMG pic.twitter.com/OLLi0FP4Y8
— LEEDS UTD MEMORIES (@LUFCHistory) February 4, 2021
It was The Graham Way: at least eight of Leeds’ 11 men were focused first and foremost on nullifying the opposition. It invariably worked. They ended the season with 20 clean sheets – a club record for a 38-game season that’s unlikely to be broken.
The problem was in attack.
A 35-year-old Ian Rush looked immobile and meek, a sad shadow of the legendary goalscorer he was at Liverpool. Three goals in 42 appearances that season was a testament to that.
Tony Yeboah famously produced spectacular moments and scored 32 goals in his first 18 months at Elland Road, but a knee injury kept him out until Boxing Day in 1996 and a clash of personalities with Graham resulted in him making just seven appearances – which brought no goals – before he was shipped out to Hamburg.
Lee Sharpe, a joint-record signing, struggled to justify the £4.5million outlay, but his five Premier League goals during that debut season saw him ending up tied with Brian Deane as top scorer.
Tomas Brolin’s lack of work rate off the ball earned Wilkinson’s disapproval and was always going to doom him under Graham.
“I can’t imagine Brolin jumping for the ball, one of his false eyelashes might come out,” Graham is quoted as saying of the mercurial Swedish playmaker, who never played under the Scot and is said to have financed a loan return to Parma himself just to get away. The macho bravado is not only telling of the wider football culture of the time but particularly Graham’s approach of hard work and physicality.
“There were a lot of shocking things that happened under that management, so in that case I wasn’t too surprised, I just had to laugh,” Brolin bit back later in an interview with FourFourTwo.
“You know the word to describe that behaviour. I won’t say it. No, actually, I will say it. It was bullying. Do you do that sort of thing to a player on your own team? I don’t think so.”
• • • •
• • • •
In the end, Leeds scored just 28 goals. Only one other side – Huddersfield Town in 2017-18 – have remained in the division with such a low goalscoring tally. Not only did they stay up, but they somehow finished 11th.
Their 38 games that season yielded 66 goals in total, seven fewer than any other side in Premier League history. Not only that, but six of those goals (9%) came at Derby on the opening day, while 14 (21%) came during Wilkinson’s five games. Graham’s 33 games that year brought yielded just 52 goals.
That’s 1.57 goals per game. By contrast, in 2020-21, matches involving Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds averaged 3.05 goals per game. Where Leeds scored 28 goals in 1996-97, they notched 62 on their return to the top flight.
That combination of stoic defence and impotent attack saw Leeds top The Telegraph‘s list of the most boring Premier League teams in history (ranked by goals per game) – which incredibly featured Graham’s teams making up half of the top six.
Graham left Leeds in acrimonious circumstances, returning to London to take over at Tottenham in October 1998.
But that one excruciatingly forgettable season would prove useful in laying solid organisational foundations for the years to come. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was signed in 1997, scoring 16 Premier League goals, and 22 in all competitions, as Leeds finished 5th during Graham’s one full season in charge, while the club continued their ascent under his former assistant and successor David O’Leary.
Few will want to relive or remember Leeds’ 1996-97 campaign, but their sheer dedication to mind-numbing tedium earned them a place in football’s history books.