FANS OF LEEDS UNITED are no strangers to drama both on and off the pitch.
From the glory of the Revie era, to Brian Clough’s infamous 44 day tenure as manager of the “Damned United,” from winning the Football’s League’s final title before the riches of the Premier League changed everything; to the highs, lows and excesses of the Ridsdale years. Leeds United fans have seen it all.
With new owner Massimo Cellino’s reign at the Championship side beginning with managerial changes, questions around his tax affairs, and a bizarre superstition around the number 17 which saw veteran ‘keeper Paddy Kenny frozen out of the club due to his date of birth; Leeds United fans can expect more headlines concentrating on off-field matters.
However, the story of the Yorkshire football club began in far deeper controversy than perhaps anything its supporters have seen since, and still ranks as one of the biggest scandals in English football history.
Ninety-five years ago, in 1919, following an investigation into financial irregularities, United’s predecessors Leeds City, were expelled from the Football League.
The accusation was that City had broken a ban on the payment of players during the First World War.
Although conjecture remains as to the intentions of members of the club’s board and the episode’s apparent whistle-blower, the out-of-contract City full-back Charlie Copeland; when City’s directors refused to hand over their books or co-operate fully with investigators, football’s authorities took their silence as an admission of guilt.
The city of Leeds had lost many of its men during the war, including hundreds of members of the “Leeds Pals” battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment. Among those men were fans and players from Leeds City, including the England international half-back, Evelyn Lintott who fell with 19,000 other men in the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme. Whilst any number of other clubs may have broken the rules, the Football League, sensitive to the feelings of a nation recovering from four years of war, were forced to act on the evidence before them.
The scandal saw Leeds City disbanded and club assets from players to goalposts sold off at auction mid-way through the season, leaving Port Vale the opportunity to join the league and fulfill their remaining fixtures. Leeds United formed in City’s place with the help of a loan from Yorkshire rivals Huddersfield Town. The club returned to Elland Road (the ground they had used since the demise of Rugby League club Holbeck) and were re-elected to the Football League the following year.
To have one club in a city the size of Leeds is a rare thing in English football. In 1914, the then Leeds manager and future Arsenal legend Herbert Chapman declared; “This city is built to support top-flight football.” Many in football still agree and although currently in the Championship, it is the city’s potential to support Premier League football that Cellino has bought into.
Leeds United have won three league titles (the last coming in 1991/92; the final year before the inception of the Premier League), one FA Cup and one League Cup. The majority of the club’s honours came under the reign of Don Revie in the 1960s and 1970s. The club has some European pedigree too, with two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups and a place in the Champions League semi-finals as recently as 2001.
That last great European adventure came at a cost and the prevailing years have seen Leeds United fall as far as League One before re-establishing themselves in the Championship.
Leeds United have risen like a phoenix from the flames before and if stability of management and ownership can be achieved through Cellino, promotion back to the Premier League potentially beckons for the club’s loyal fan base.
Although to rivals they may be forever damned, Leeds United may once again become one of English football’s giants.
A city united, marching on together, may yet rise again.