When they mattered: Leeds United’s blend of the brutal and beautiful

A quick internet search for Leeds United articles in the English broadsheets tells the story. “It’s not that Leeds fans are paranoid, it’s that everyone hates them” reads one headline. “Leeds fans were beyond the pale…with a reprehensible outburst that offended just about everyone” says another story. The articles in question are about why the club tends to attract such loathing, rather than adding to the chorus of opprobrium themselves, but the message is clear enough – everyone hates Leeds.

But why? It could be that Leeds’ penchant for getting into trouble comes from the club’s hometown, the biggest in the rugged county of Yorkshire. From the Celts to the Vikings to the Norman Conquest, The Black Death to the War of the Roses, Yorkshire’s history is bloodier than the average episode of Game of Thrones. To dip into cliché, this is a county where men — standing atop the Bronte Sisters’ wind-blasted moors, cocking a snook at southern softies down in London or even (philosophically rather than geographically speaking) Manchester — are real men.

Maybe it’s because Leeds is the biggest one-club city in England, which can make Elland Road feel like an enemy citadel to timorous away fans, and adds a certain voracity to the atmosphere. Whatever the reason, the ferocious northern pride that pervades the history of this damned Utd, as the club was nicknamed in David Peace’s novel about Brian Clough’s star-crossed 44 days in charge at Elland Road, has often spilled over into ill-disguised aggression and malice.

Perhaps it all started with Don Revie’s all-conquering 1970s side. Led by a cast of gifted footballing rogues that included Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles and Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter, Leeds won two First Division titles, one FA Cup, one League Cup, and two Fairs Cups, as well as reaching three more FA Cup finals, one European Cup Winners’ Cup final and one European Cup semifinal, and coming second in the First Division five times, third once and fourth twice. In 1973, flamboyant Manchester City manager Malcolm Allison described Leeds as the greatest British club side of all time, saying, “They play the best football I’ve seen from any English side ever and probably comparable to some of the great teams that I have seen, like Hungary.”

Yet as Richard Williams wrote in The Guardian article mentioned above, there was always a sinister element to Revie’s side. “That Leeds team could play wonderful football…but, too often, only when they had kicked and cheated their way into a winning position. That strain of cold malice seemed an affront to the all-white strip that Revie borrowed from Real Madrid and was not disguised when a marketing man came up with an absurd attempt to soften the club’s image by having the players present flowers to the crowd before home matches. English football has produced no finer example of cognitive dissonance than the sight of Giles and Billy Bremner handing out roses.”

The troubling blend of light and dark that has long dogged Leeds is reflected in the club’s fan culture. Though Elland Road could and can be an exciting, vibrant place to watch a game, such vibrancy has often spilled over into violence, with Leeds fans earning a reputation for being some of the most thuggish in England during the dark ages of the 1970s and 80s hooligan years.

One such example came at the European Cup final against Bayern Munich at the Parc des Princes in Paris in 1975, France, when Leeds fans ripped seats from the stands and threw them onto the pitch, then fought with French police as they invaded the pitch. The incident earned the club a European ban, and the loutish reputation of the club’s fans, coupled with the cynical aspect of Revie’s teams, soon made Leeds widely disliked by supporters of other clubs, giving rise to “dirty Leeds” and “we all hate Leeds” nicknames. (Although it would be remiss not to suggest that good old fashioned jealousy may also have played a part in Leeds’ widespread unpopularity.)

Like Nottingham Forest and Derby, two other clubs who achieved great success in the 1970s and 80s, Leeds glory days seem inextricably linked to a single, dominating influence in the manager’s office. (Although given the size of the city and the club’s fan base, Leeds’ success was probably built on sturdier foundations than either of those two teams.)

Once Revie left, Leeds didn’t win a major trophy until the 1991-92 season, when a side led by no-nonsense former Sheffield Wednesday boss Howard Wilkinson managed to recapture Revie’s blend of silk and steel, and won the league title in the last season before the Premier League cultural revolution.

The Jekyll and Hyde nature of those Revie sides, and the angels with dirty faces culture that seems inherent to the club, were neatly reflected in that Leeds team. United had been relegated to Division 2 in 1982, but Wilkinson took the club up a year after his appointment by combining the brutishness of the fearsome Vinny Jones and snapping, snarling youth team product David Batty, in some ways a modern day recreation of Bremner, with more skillful players such as youngster Gary Speed and former Man United man Gordon Strachan.

With Jones replaced by Leicester midfielder Gary McAllister in time for the club’s return to the top flight, Leeds suddenly had a midfield quartet as good as any in the country, and decent but unspectacular options up front, with powerful if graceless striker Lee Chapman. As a result, a solid Leeds side finished fourth in the 1990-91 season.

The team’s lack of flair was addressed in February of the following year, when, with Leeds top of the table, temperamental French forward Eric Cantona arrived in Yorkshire. While it seems incredible now, not everyone was convinced that Cantona could cut it in England. “English clubs, it is true, display a certain distrust of foreign players…the British establishment thinks that while a footballer who comes from the south of Europe may have irreproachable technical skills, they do not believe that his body will be able to stand up to the strains of the northern football,” said Cantona, who was rejected by Sheffield Wednesday after a trial before Wilkinson brought him to Elland Road.

Eric Cantona Leeds United

At the time, Leeds was being hotly pursued by a Manchester United side desperate to end a 25 year wait for the title. On the day that Cantona made his debut as a substitute in a defeat against Oldham, Alex Ferguson’s team pulled ahead, and despite Cantona becoming an instant favorite with the Elland Road fans, Man Utd was still on top at the beginning of April – and had three games in hand.

No matter, for the Cantona juggernaut was in full flow. Although the mercurial forward was not a guaranteed starter for Leeds, he brought sinuosity and guile to the team’s often lumbering and pedestrian attacking play, and his talismanic aura meant the title race momentum had shifted across the Pennines.

As Leeds turned the screw with wins over Chelsea and Coventry and a draw away at Liverpool, Man City went to Old Trafford and held United to a point in a stormy Manchester derby. Ferguson’s side, perhaps feeling the pressure of that title drought, went into a tailspin, drawing with Luton and losing to Nottingham Forest and West Ham. After Leeds beat Sheffield United in a morning kick-off on the penultimate weekend of the season, Man Utd lost 2-0 at Anfield, and the title was on its way to Elland Road. Leeds, it seemed, might even build a dynasty as memorable as the one the club had enjoyed under Revie.

But the champagne was to go flat sooner than anyone had expected. Cantona scored a stunning hat trick against Liverpool in the Charity Shield curtain-raiser at Wembley, and produced a sublime performance in a European Cup tie against Stuttgart at Elland Road – “an epic encounter…for Cantona the artist, who said he could not renounce beauty, this was the masterpiece. For Cantona the footballer, who said sublime moments of sporting beauty could provide glimpses of eternity, this was the game that will live forever” wrote Rick Broadbent in his book Looking For Eric.

But Leeds was knocked out of Europe in the next round in a “Battle of Britain” clash against Rangers, and the club’s league form was inconsistent. Worse, an almost inevitable schism was developing between Wilkinson’s meat and potatoes approach and the haute cuisine of Cantona. “I began to have increasing difficulty in decoding the language used by my manager. When I say ‘decoding’ that means understanding what Wilkinson is trying to get at. His comments were strange and rather incoherent, in my opinion,” said the Frenchman.

Whatever the reasons – and there are plenty of rumors, from Cantona having an affair with Lee Chapman’s wife to his inability to fit in with some of the no frills, honest toilers around him – by November Cantona had moved to Old Trafford under remarkably serendipitous circumstances. With him went any hope Leeds had of continued success. This sporting jinx may not yet have the longevity of that of the Bambino, but the vengeance the Curse of Cantona would wreak upon the city of Leeds makes the agony of even the most long-suffering Red Sox fan look like a nettle sting.

As Cantona won four league titles and two FA Cups at Old Trafford, took up Kung-Fu, and became an actor, Leeds Utd would eventually sink without trace, the (Norman) hunter becoming the hunted. The seemingly endless horror film that is the modern day Leeds Utd took a while to get going – the club remained a Premier League force until 2001, fielding a number of strong sides (which included players such as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Harry Kewell, Lee Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate and Rio Ferdinand) under Wilkinson’s successors George Graham, and then David O’Leary.

The darkness never seems to be too far away from Leeds Utd, however, and the club remained dogged by controversy. There was the incident in 2000 when Bowyer and Woodgate were charged with beating up a student in Leeds city center, and that same year two Leeds fans were murdered in Istanbul during fan violence ahead of the UEFA Cup semi-final with Galatasary.

Behind the scenes, the sands were also shifting treacherously. Leeds had invested heavily in order to cling to the Champions League gravy train, and even reached the semifinal in 2000-01 before losing to Valencia. But when the team missed out on qualifying for the tournament the following two years, the size of the financial black hole that chairman Peter Risdale had amassed was revealed. Leeds’ wage bill was unsustainable – first Ferdinand, then the rest of the club’s top earners were sold off as the club tried to tackle an estimated 100 million pound debt.

Despite producing youngsters such as James Milner and Aaron Lennon, Leeds was now in freefall, its top-line talent replaced by lower-paid journeymen. The club was relegated in 2004 – the same year that the club’s training ground, and its cherished Elland Road stadium, were sold off. Although the arrival of controversial former Chelsea owner Ken Bates as chairman staved off administration in 2005, it was to prove merely a temporary stay of execution – in 2007 Leeds went into voluntary administration and was docked 10 points, before being given a further 15 point penalty the next season, by which time the club was in the third tier of English soccer, where it would spend the next three years.

Today Leeds muddles along quietly in the Championship – the last three years have seen finishes in the lower half of the table, and this season is likely to end the same way. Turmoil still rages in the boardroom, with owner Massimo Cellini recently expelled from his post by Football League authorities for tax evasion. Fittingly enough, there are rumors now that lifelong fan Russell Crowe may make an ownership bid. For it would surely take a gladiator to tackle the skeletons in the Leeds United closet – and the club’s uncanny knack of attracting controversy.

“I’ve never known a club like it. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong,” said Kevin Blackwell, who managed the club for three years during its darkest hour.