News, views and gossip from the magnificent 72
December 21st 2008 – the once great Leeds United were marooned in mid-table in League One, the third tier of English football. They had lost five games on the spin, including an infamous defeat to non-league side Histon in the FA Cup second round, a run that saw manager and former club captain Gary McAllister fired.
Fast forward just over two years. McAllister’s replacement, Simon Grayson, has recently celebrated his second anniversary in charge at Elland Road. Leeds now proudly sit in the Championship play-off places, just two points off second spot and a long-awaited return to the Premier League, and head to The Emirates Stadium on Saturday to face Arsenal in the FA Cup.
Grayson, or Larry as he’s fondly known, is also a former Leeds player and started his career at Elland Road. He only made two appearances for his boyhood team before embarking on a successful career at Leicester and Aston Villa, among others, but his passion for the club never diminished.
Upon his return to the club, the Whites were enduring quite possibly the darkest chapter of their illustrious history. The club’s glory years of the late sixties and early seventies, when Don Revie led the side to two league titles, two domestic cups and two Fairs Cups as well as the final of the European Cup, were becoming increasingly irrelevant, while their success in the modern era, culminating in David O’Leary’s expensively assembled side reaching the UEFA Champions League semi-final in 2001, looked destined to never be repeated.
Under O’Leary and then-chairman Peter Ridsdale, the future of the club was placed in jeopardy by massive over-spending as the Yorkshire club chased the dream of domestic and European success. What followed was the well-documented financial implosion, the fire-sale of the club’s young stars such as Jonathan Woodgate, Alan Smith and James Milner and, just three years after their epic semi-final against Valencia, relegation back to the second tier.
The slide didn’t stop there, of course. After briefly flirting with a return to the Premier League, the financial implications of living the dream under Ridsdale and O’Leary continued to put the club’s fortunes on the pitch and their very existence off it under threat. Three years after the low of relegation from the top division came an all-new low as United fell into the third tier of English football for the first time.
Dennis Wise and Gus Poyet, and then McAllister, overcame a 15-point deduction to reach the League One play-off final but Doncaster denied them an instant return to the Championship, and the following season saw Leeds heading for their lowest ever Football League finish.
And then came Grayson. With the club sitting well outside the top six, 'Larry' left Blackpool for Elland Road and his arrival oversaw a dramatic change in fortunes. His new side went on to finish fourth, but missed out on a second successive play-off final after a two-legged semi-final defeat to Millwall.The form that had seen United surge into the play-off picture the year before continued into last season. Grayson’s side won the first eight games of the season, a club record start to a campaign, and their impressive form continued, leaving them top of the pile at the halfway point. Grayson then celebrated a year in charge by leading his side to a famous 1-0 win away to bitter rivals Manchester United in the FA Cup before eventually losing to Tottenham in a replay in the following round and, despite a subsequent drop in form, they went on to secure an automatic promotion spot, finally ending their three-year stay in League One.
Leeds United is a massive club. They continued to attract fantastic support throughout their spell in the third tier and can boast of one of the biggest average gates outside the top flight, but with a huge fan-base comes huge expectation as they battle to be back where they supposedly belong.
No club has a right to play at any level, despite the opinions voiced by fans of a number of ‘sleeping giants’. However, not even the most optimistic, nostalgic or demanding Leeds fan was expecting a real promotion push in their first season back in the Championship.
But Grayson added sensibly in the summer, blending Championship experience with promising home-grown players such as Bradley Johnson and Jonny Howson to create a balanced and exciting side. Argentinian striker Luciano Becchio has more than filled the void left by Jermaine Beckford and if Grayson can keep hold of his players, like Becchio and young winger Max Gradel , while continuing to add sensibly during the transfer window, there is now reason why he can’t lead them to successive promotions.
Simon Grayson is a proud Yorkshireman and the Whites have a place in his heart, two attributes that were always going to endear him to the hordes of expectant United fans.
And having now overseen the first stages of the awakening of the most mighty or all the sleeping giant, his reputation among Leeds fans and the wider footballing community is only going to grow in line with the recovery of Leeds United.
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