the square ball week: fox tracksBack
In football every success is scored through with the lines of five thousand defeats, and even moments of great glory are inscribed with evidence of great loss.
I always think of John Sheridan’s freekick against Charlton in the play-offs in 1987; his supercharged celebration was a moment of artfully released adrenalin that any Leeds fan could watch for hours, even while knowing the end of the story: we lose.
So it is that we can trace the divergent paths taken by Leeds United and Leicester City over the past couple of decades, back to the point when our fortunes last seemed furthest apart: Rio Ferdinand’s debut at Filbert Street in November 2000.
The greatest glories of the O’Leary and Ridsdale era were still to come: Lazio, Anderlecht, Deportivo La Coruna and Valencia; but buying Rio Ferdinand for £18m was a sign that the glories were coming, and coming forever.
He was presented on the pitch by Peter Ridsdale to 38,084 exultant fans, all at Elland Road to watch Leeds beat Arsenal 1-0, with many thousands more watching on Sky. Ferdinand signing that contract in full view of the football world was peak theatre for the new, modern Leeds United. Had Leeds ever had three better centre-halves than Rio Ferdinand, Lucas Radebe and Jonathan Woodgate? Had any club? And had all of them at once?
In the next game, at mid-table Leicester, the kind of team we were leaving behind by spending £18m on world football’s best young defender, David O’Leary played all of them at once. And Leeds lost 3-1. And there was the first sign of the danger Ridsdale was flirting with by always getting what he thought he wanted: the more we got — Ferdinand, Keane, Fowler, Johnson — the more it weighed us down. And, ultimately, ruined us.
My own view of the entanglement of Leeds and Leicester goes back further. In 1992/93, they were the subglorious subplot that distracted me from the impossible to take implosion of Leeds United’s title defence. Where I lived then, I could get a slightly fuzzy signal from Central TV on the portable TV in my bedroom that meant, while the world decided between the strange treats of the brand new Premier League on BSkyB, or the mysterious exoticism of Football Italia on Channel 4, I could contrarily tune in for an extra ex-Leeds fix every Sunday afternoon, live from the Midlands. Carl Shutt at Birmingham. Steve Hodge at Derby. Neil Aspin at Port Vale. Bob Taylor at West Brom. And Bobby Davison, Mike Whitlow and Simon Grayson at Leicester City.
I’d loved Davison at Leeds, and who could ever resist Micky Whitlow after his thirty yard hammer through the rain against Chelsea? Grayson was a less known quantity, but my 1990/91 Leeds United squad poster had once been everything to me, and he was on it. He missed the play-off final in 1993 when, twenty-two minutes after Leicester fell 2-0 behind to Swindon, Whitlow charged down the left side of Wembley and crossed to Steve Thompson, who made it 3-3. A late penalty won that game for Swindon, but a year later Leicester were back at Wembley to play Derby; this time Simon Grayson led them out as captain, steered them through the game and, in the 86th minute, delivered the cross that Ian Ormondroyd flicked onto Steve Walsh to score the winner. Then Grayson took them up the Wembley steps — in a blue and white bucket hat — to the trophy and a place in the Premier League. By then, I’d looked into his background, read about him in old Leeds programmes and books. A Leeds United player, as far as I was concerned.
Leicester only lasted one season in the Premier League, but the season after that Martin O’Neill took them back up again. If Grayson, Whitlow and Davison had been ghosts of a Leeds United I could have been supporting, O’Neill remains to this day the taunt of a Leeds United that could have been. In 1998 we were jilted by George Graham, and when he took his new Spurs to Leicester the local paper organised a fan protest to convince O’Neill not to take his old job at Leeds.
He didn’t, and we went with David O’Leary instead, whose managerial exuberance took Leeds to the Champions League, Rio Ferdinand, and in his first bold tactical experiment with his expensive new toy, a 3-1 defeat at Filbert Street. By the time we needed the sober brake of O’Neill on our runaway O’Leary train, he’d long gone, to Celtic. We missed him as much as Leicester. Under another ex-Leeds player, Micky Adams, Leicester bobbed between the Premiership and Championship before finally plunging, relegated with Leeds, in 2004. We beat them to League One, in 2007, where they joined us in 2008.
What has happened since is recent enough history not to need recounting in detail: Leicester were promoted as Champions of League One at the first attempt, then stalled in the Championship for a while as Ken Bates and his crew pointed up at them from League One as an example of what a football club shouldn’t do. And now they’re champions of England.
It’s not just them. Down with us in League One were Swansea, Brighton, Norwich, Southampton, Bournemouth. Bournemouth, in our first season in League One, were busy being relegated to League Two. And now look at them. Look at all of them: all of them have taken our players, taken the initiative, and left us far behind.
Meanwhile we were told that they were the ones getting it all wrong. “The reality is this,” wrote Peter Lorimer, then on the board of United, in his Yorkshire Evening Post column in 2011. “There’s a sensible way to chase promotion and a mad way. The mad way is what Leicester are doing: spend millions after millions and hope that the team gels together instantly and gets you out of the league straight away.”
That was not the reality. What Leicester have done since returning to the Championship is consistently invest in the playing squad and staff on the understanding that it maximised their chances of being successful at their primary purpose: being good at football.
The mad way would have been repeating the same failed, disproven philosophy and method over and over, in expectation of different results; that’s one well known definition of insanity, in fact. At Leeds United, since failing to gain promotion from the Championship at the first attempt, a moment symbolised by the sales of Kasper Schmeichel (to Leicester, of course) and Max Gradel, Leeds have made plenty of promises under Ken Bates, GFH and Massimo Cellino, but amid a repeating pattern of player sales outpacing investment in the team, finished 14th, 13th, 15th and 15th. This season, after being promised first beauty, then an outside run at the play-offs, then a top-ten finish, we’re a game away from finding out if we’ll finish 12th, 13th or 14th. Talk to me, again, about the “mad way.”
Ah yes, Steve Evans is still here for that, isn’t he. “If I’m sitting here in a year’s time,” he told his press conference on Thursday, “Then you’ll be sitting with some champagne, a bit like Leicester were today.”
The sadness, and the madness, of Evans’ claim is that its truth is not within his power to prove. For Leeds United to emulate Leicester’s success by this tie next year would require a change of approach and philosophy at the club that is not down to the head coach, whether that’s Evans or anyone, and that is almost as impossible to imagine as Leicester’s 5000-1 dream. And you wouldn’t bet on it happening.
That’s where the tale of our kinship with Leicester, even if it was often only coincidental, ends; hopefully not forever, but who now can imagine anything like what happened to them happening to us? In 1994 I could enjoy Leicester’s success at Wembley for the way it transformed Leeds players I liked, who’d been left waysidewards along the way, into a plucky success story that in no way detracted from the Leeds United I loved.
The plucky success story of Leicester that has gripped the world this season has captivated people who don’t even know that the city of Leeds has a football team. I don’t know whether, compared to Leicester, we do. Twelve year old Leicester fans, who will remember this league title team as intensely as I remember the Leeds team that won the title when I was twelve, were not even born the last time Leeds United were in the Premier League. I don’t know, at this point, what to do with that thought.
In every moment of football glory you can read the traces of the cruel defeats it inflicts, but for the glorious team, you have to understand it historically; in the case of John Sheridan’s free-kick in 1987, history took about half an hour. Andy King’s first season in Leicester’s first team ending in relegation to League One, a bitterness that I’m sure is overwhelmed by the sweets of his three subsequent titles, but remains as the historical pain embedded in his glory.
For the rest of us, the cruelty is felt instantly; only one team can ever win the league, after all, and all the rest are losers. But in the case of Leicester’s Premier League win, for Leeds United, there is more cruel loss written through than we should have to bear. Too much more than there should be. More than it feels like we can ever surmount. 5000-1 doesn’t come close to telling the story of the chasm I feel when I look, as a Leeds fan, at Leicester.