A Leeds United fan in their mid-twenties could probably be excused for not actually liking football that much.
Unless you were taken to Elland Road at an early age, there’s a good chance you’ll have missed all the fun stuff: the Champions League, the Premier League, genuinely talented footballers etc.
As someone who began to take an interest in the final two seasons in the top flight before fandom truly got under my skin in the Championship, I’ve ranked every campaign since that initial relegation in 2003-04. Now I’m even more doubtful about this whole ‘football’ thing.
The season which ensured ‘Doing A Leeds’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary. Six years on from playing in the Champions League semi-finals came relegation to League One.
To make matters worse, with one game of the season remaining and relegation assured, Ken Bates entered the club into administration. Leeds were deducted 10 points, but that wouldn’t be the end of the matter. More on that later.
It wasn’t even that bad a side. They were just crap. Really, really crap.
A campaign which started with Uwe Rosler’s promise of heavy metal football only got heavier – not to mention increasingly miserable – with the appointment of Steve Evans in October.
Of all the nothing seasons Leeds have endured in recent years, this one exists in it’s own depressingly forgettable vacuum.
Positives: Wins over Premier League sides Southampton, Everton and Tottenham in the cups. Luciano Becchio’s goal against Chelsea. The emergence of Sam Byram. Brian McDermott eventually coming in to steer the club away from relegation. Ruining Watford’s promotion hopes with a last-minute goal on the final day of the season.
Negatives: Neil Warnock. Michael Brown. El Hadji Diouf. Luciano Becchio being swapped for Steve Morison. Losing 6-1 to Watford at home. Ken Bates selling the club to an equally abysmal ownership. Michael Brown. Neil Warnock.
It speaks volumes about the season under Warnock that a campaign in which Massimo Cellino tried to sack McDermott before he even took over the club and featured getting knocked out of the FA Cup by Rochdale, humiliated 6-0 at Sheffield Wednesday and conceding a combined nine goals in two consecutive home defeats was still preferable to Colin being in charge.
The opening-day victory over Brighton in which Luke Murphy – the first player Leeds had signed for £1million in eight years – scored a last-minute winner while the fans rejoiced “that Chelsea bastard (Bates), he’s out of our club” was pretty much as hopeful as Elland Road felt between relegation and the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa.
In 2014 #lufc have lost to Rochdale, been whacked 6-0, 5-1, 4-2 & 4-1, sacked & restored a manager and had two failed takeovers. It's March.
— CK (@ephemeraljoy) March 26, 2014
The filling in the shit sandwich of three years in League One included a defeat to Histon in the FA Cup and a loss to Millwall in the play-off semi-finals.
Still, the team were generally winning most weeks and it also marked the arrival of Robert Snodgrass, Luciano Becchio and Simon Grayson, so it’s still preferable to Warnock.
A season of pub quiz answers: Dave Hockaday (LOL), Darko Milanic (LOL), Zan Benedicic (LOL).
But then there was a spell when Cellino was banned and Neil Redfearn was in charge, when Leeds were somehow in play-off form with a team including Lewis Cook, Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt and Charlie Taylor all playing out of their skin. For those two months, supporting Leeds was as promising as it has been for me.
The thing is: we’re not allowed nice things, and Redfearn’s assistant Steve Thompson was mysteriously sacked before six Cellino signings mysteriously withdrew from a match at Charlton citing injuries.
Leeds finished 15th. Redfearn left in the summer. None of those young players remain at the club. (LOL.*)
* Not really, I’m crying.
Thomas Christiansen; my man. I’ll never know whether he is any good or not – my suspicion is he will be a fairly decent Watford manager in the next two years – but he will always be my man.
He’ll always be my man because, for the first time since 1990, Leeds spent 24 hours at the top of England’s second division under his watch. And that’s without mentioning how he allowed some little golden gnome called Samuel Saiz torment Championship defences while wearing a huge grin on his face.
Let’s just not talk about how the whole season crumbled after a defeat at Birmingham on December 30, or how we were knocked out of the FA Cup by Newport, or how we ended the campaign being managed by Paul Heckingbottom and in worse form than Sunderland. Let’s. Just. Not.
Sometimes, when I’m hungover or feeling sad, I’ll watch Adam Clayton’s last-minute equaliser at West Ham and I’ll remember.
I’ll remember how we passed and moved; how we twisted and turned; how we hit the bar and slammed home the rebound; how the away end collectively lost its head in euphoria, so much so that a lad I know broke his ankle celebrating that goal at Upton Park.
But then not too long ago I came across the highlights of the 4-1 home defeat to Birmingham later that season, and it forced me to remember how empty and soulless Elland Road became under Bates; how Grayson was sacked in the wake of that result even though we were just three points off the play-offs; how Nikola Zigic scored all four fucking goals; how we let Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny leave on free transfers and replaced them with Michael Brown; how Max Gradel was sold, followed by Jonny Howson and Snodgrass and the rest of the players we loved.
And it forced me to remember how Warnock was appointed manager and we finished 14 points off the play-offs.
A truly unremarkable season as Leeds finished 14th in their first season in the Championship, but looking back, that should be considered a resounding success – we really should have been relegated.
“I managed to get in the team and stay in the team because we basically didn’t have enough numbers to train,” Simon Walton told us in 2016.
“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.”
From the summer after Leeds were relegated from the Premier League to the end of that first season in the Championship, 30 players arrived and 28 players departed – we really should have been relegated.
It’s weird that, looking back, nobody is actually that arsed about the side which has come closest to returning Leeds to the Premier League.
So harrowing was the 3-0 play-off final defeat to Watford, fans have tried to forget about the whole thing, especially given we went and got relegated the following year.
Given the team was functional rather free-flowing and how it is tainted by everything which followed that day at the Millennium Stadium, Eddie Lewis, Rob Hulse and co will have to settle for fifth place.
Leeds were forced to start their first ever season in the third tier on -15 points after exiting administration without a CVA, but that adversity only helped make the campaign more memorable.
“Fifteen points, who gives a fuck? We’re super Leeds and we’re going up” became the anthem as five-consecutive wins wiped out the deficit immediately. It couldn’t last, of course, and Leeds were beaten 1-0 by Doncaster in the play-off final.
The record books may suggest otherwise, but we all know Leeds actually finished second that season.
I’m still not sure how Garry Monk: A) managed to last a whole season without getting sacked by Cellino; and B) turned Leeds into play-off contenders after The Evans Year.
In case you haven’t quite cottoned on to the theme of near misses just yet, Leeds didn’t actually make the play-offs, but it was good while it lasted.
In what was pretty much a mirror to Monk’s season, Leeds spent the majority of the campaign in the play-offs only to run out of steam in the home stretch and finish seventh.
It earns one place higher, however, as this was largely the team Grayson had led out of League One, taking the Championship by storm with an attacking verve and confidence Leeds have only rediscovered under Marcelo Bielsa.
Yes, they were shambolic at the back, but Leeds scored three or more goals on 12 occasions that term and ended the season with a tally of 81 in total. Before Bielsa, the most they had scored in a single campaign since has been 65.
Marcelo Fuckin’ Bielsa has managed Leeds United in the Championship, and that will never not be utterly, utterly amazing.
This might possibly be the most exciting, fun and downright batsh*t mental of all the seasons since relegation, and it’s incredibly tempting to put it at No.1.
But it still ended in heartbreak, although this time even the heartbreak was outrageously enthralling, culminating in a night at Elland Road which will live long in the memory for both good reasons and bad.
Walking back into town after that crazy play-off semi-final defeat, a young boy in tears was comforted by an arm around the shoulder from his dad: “To be honest, son, that was one of the good seasons.”
Given it contained the two happiest days of my Leeds United-supporting life, there was only ever one winner.
Knocking Manchester United, our greatest rivals and the champions of England, out of the FA Cup at Old Trafford made it worth dropping down to the third tier. Admittedly, we went to shit after that result, but that was equally worthwhile for the drama it provided on the final day of the season.
Down to 10 men and trailing 1-0 to Bristol Rovers, an inevitable play-off defeat and the misery of a fourth season in League One was staring the city in the face.
Then Howson – lovely, lovely Jonny Howson – came off the bench to score a screamer, followed by Jermaine Beckford’s scrappy, beautiful winner.
Leeds United actually achieving something. Perfect.
By Rob Conlon