Marching On Together: How England's Most Divisive Club Went From A Champions League Semi To League One And Back

Leeds United was 90 minutes away from the 2001 Champions League Final. 

A lively first leg in the semifinal ended goalless. Leeds had plenty of opportunities in the second half, but the club was happy to earn a home shutout against Valencia in an evenly contested match.

The task ahead was formidable, though. Valencia was unbeaten in its last 17 European Cup matches at the Estadio Mestalla, and the Spanish side was Champions League runner-up the previous season.  

Yet Leeds manager David O'Leary was unfazed: "We will go there thinking we can do it," O'Leary said, "That's been our mentality all season."

Juan Sanchez scored a controversial goal after 16 minutes for the home side as Leeds believed he prodded the ball home using his arm. Leeds responded brightly, but two Valencia goals early in the second half doomed the visiting side to semifinal misery. 

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In the Premier League, Leeds looked to earn Champions League qualification for a second consecutive season, but a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal late in the season relegated the club to the UEFA Cup (Europa League). 

For most clubs this would merely be a disappointment, but Leeds wanted to lift trophies, not just be contenders. So much so that chairman Peter Ridsdale took out large loans in excess of $75 million dollars, gambling on Champions League prize money to pay them back.

During the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons, Leeds' overall transfer balance was in the red by $90 million dollars as stars like Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler and Robbie Keane were brought in on large fees and even larger wages.

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The club faced enormous pressure to achieve Champions League qualification in 2001-02 as failure to do so meant it would have insufficient income to repay its substantial debts.

A strong start saw Leeds go 11 matches unbeaten to begin the season, but the side sputtered in the latter portion of the campaign. A late season defeat to Fulham meant that Leeds would once again fail to secure UCL qualification.

This signaled the beginning of the Leeds fire sale. Rio Ferdinand was sent to Manchester United in exchange for $50 million, but the likes of Fowler and Keane were sold for just a fraction of their original fees. 

The diminished quality on the pitch was noticeable and the club finished 15th, narrowly avoiding relegation. By the time chairman Peter Ridsdale left the club in March 2003, Leeds faced debts exceeding $130 million.

The following season started even more poorly and a flurry of early season defeats put the club in deep trouble. Relegation was confirmed with a 4-1 defeat to Bolton on May 2, 2004.

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Just three years removed from a Champions League semifinal, Leeds United found itself in the EFL Championship. But a club that was going to be earning second division money had to pay international-level debts. 

The squad clearance continued as the club offloaded more than half a dozen first team players, including young talent James Milner. Yet Leeds was still buried under mountains of debt and a massive wage bill. 

The club eyed a financial takeover but instead was forced to sell its stadium and training ground, then leasing the facilities from the new landlords to continue using them.

Leeds' second season in the Championship nearly saw it promoted back to the Premier League, but the club was defeated 3-0 by Watford in the 2006 playoff final. 

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This was a club that expected to be challenging for major trophies; instead, it would be playing in the second tier for a third consecutive season. That third season proved to be a miserable one.

Team morale dropped after the playoff heartbreak, and so did on-field form. With relegation all-but ensured late in the 2006-07 season, the team hit rock bottom. The club was placed in administration for its outstanding debts and the subsequent ten-point deduction cemented Leeds' place at the bottom of the table.

For the first time in club history, Leeds United would be playing in League One. It would also be starting the season with a further 15-point deduction for failing to follow Football League insolvency rules. This deduction ultimately cost Leeds an automatic promotion spot, and the team lost in the playoff final to Doncaster Rovers. 

Leeds needed two more seasons to achieve promotion, but in 2010 the club returned to the Championship.

While Leeds fans experienced some joy during the 2009-10 season, ahead of them lay a decade of Championship purgatory. The team toiled in the second division for eight seasons as a mid-table side before finally earning a playoff spot in 2018-19. 

This was the first season that manager Marcelo Biesla was at the helm, an Argentinian with experience in many of Europe's top leagues as well as six years leading the Argentina national side. He implemented an aggressive, fast-paced style that looked to transition quickly and dominate the midfield.

Leeds performed well under Bielsa, and the club was in an automatic promotion place for much of the season. Powerhouses Kalvin Phillips and Mateusz Klich controlled the midfield, and Pablo Hernandez and Kemar Roofe spearheaded a formidable attack.

While Bielsa brought attractive football to Yorkshire, the 18-19 season also came with massive controversy:

Bielsa admitted to sending a staff member to spy not just on a Derby practice, but for every opponent Leeds had faced so far.

For this sporting infidelity, the club incurred a fine of more than $260,000 from the EFL, as well as a "severe reprimand," though many thought Leeds were lucky to escape a points deduction.

Biesla apologized profusely, and even held a 70-minute press conference to demonstrate how his in-depth match preparations made the effects of his spy system negligible.

Still, the general consensus from fans and coaches was that Bielsa had knowingly damaged the moral fabric of the game, and the manager's actions were labeled as cheating.

Derby County Frank Lampard put it best when asked about the incident:

Many Leeds fans failed to see the harm caused by Bielsa's acts and could be heard singing chants like "We'll Spy Where We Want" and "Stop Crying Frank Lampard" (to the tune of Oasis' "Stop Crying Your Heart Out").

Leeds won the match against Derby 2-0, but in a remarkable late-season twist of fate, three defeats in the last four games saw the team finish third, which set a playoff semifinal rematch against Derby.

Leeds was as tipped as heavy favorites after winning both regular season matches against the Derbyshire club. The Yorkshire side travelled to Derby's Pride Park in the first leg and was the better side, coming away with a 1-0 victory.

Leeds were again 90 minutes away from a crucial final. In the return fixture, Leeds started brightly again and was 2-0 ahead on aggregate after Stuart Dallas tapped home a rebound in the 24th minute. 

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All of West Yorkshire breathed a huge sigh of relief. There was still 75 minutes left to play, but Leeds still seemed to be in control.

Yet on the stroke of halftime, a Leeds calamity at the back gifted Derby a goal as keeper Kiko Casilla collided with defender Liam Cooper as they both tried to clear a loose ball on the edge of the 18, and Jack Marriott slotted home into the empty net.

Derby was suddenly on the front foot to begin the second half, and the Rams grabbed a second goal after less than a minute when Mason Mount tucked the ball home after a slick passing move.

Leeds fans had seen it all before. All of the pressure was on their side. The one-time Champions League semifinalists were facing a team that set the record for fewest points in an EPL season (11) back in 2007-08.

Leeds was the big club. It had the fan base. It had the money. Leeds was supposed to win. Sometimes this mindset helps, but during crucial matches, it places an added burden on Leeds.

The Leeds 11 was feeling the full weight of that burden and just twelve minutes after Mount's equalizer, Harry Wilson converted a penalty to put Derby in front on aggregate. The white-clad Leeds contingent stood in stunned silence.

The final half hour proved to be a thrilling affair. Stuart Dallas equalized for Leeds just a few minutes after Wilson's penalty, but in the 78th minute, Leeds center back Gaetano Berardi was sent off for a second yellow card.

The Leeds defense desperately tried to hold firm, but with five minutes left in normal time, Derby striker Jack Marriott stuck the dagger into Leeds hearts.

After another nimble passing sequence by Derby, Marriott lifted a through ball over a helpless Kiko Casilla and into the Leeds net.

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At the final whistle, Leeds players were in tears and Elland Road was despondent. Much as Leeds had thrown away an automatic promotion spot late in the season, it squandered a two-goal lead more than halfway through a playoff semifinal. 

In an almost a poetic turn of events, Derby County had the last laugh. While Yorkshire mourned, the rest of England celebrated the downfall of one of the country's most hated clubs.

This hatred of Leeds isn't anything new, though. Leeds has long been one of England's most despised clubs for a variety of reasons. The team has long been seen as a violent and nasty club ("Dirty Leeds"), starting with the reign of manager Don Revie in the 1960s. 

When you have a defender named Norman "Bites Yer Legs" Hunter, that's not exactly a term of endearment. 

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This violent attitude is also seen in the Leeds fan base, as during the heyday of hooliganism in the 1970s and 80s the Leeds firm was seen as one of the deadliest groups in England. This behavior has even continued into recent years. Sir Alex Ferguson describes his team's shocking encounter with Leeds fans in 2011:  

"It was frightening at our hotel," Ferguson said, "We had seven police vans round the hotel protecting the team. I don't know why it is like that. I don't understand it. But it is there and it is not nice."

Despite this animosity, Bielsa was determined to lead Leeds to promotion, automatic promotion, this season. The club was once again favorites to be title contenders and it had to face the massive pressure that came with those lofty expectations.

Leeds sat in the top two for most of the year, and a balanced squad overcame a rough patch around New Years to win 12 of its final 14 matches to secure the Championship title.

A club that was fully deserving finally re-earned a place in the Premier League, 16 seasons after its fatal relegation in 2004.

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For a minute, even the most adamant Leeds detractors had to applaud the club for clawing its way back to the Premier League after such a miserable stretch of seasons. Bielsa's squad proved to be Premier League quality, winning the Championship by 10 points.

But then the club and its fanbase reminded millions of soccer fans why they despise Leeds so much:

Frankly, this is a tasteless act that glorifies cheating and shows how little respect Leeds has for other clubs in England.

This superiority complex is shared by much of the Leeds fanbase as well:

"This is Leeds united. Not a small club." Big words from a team that hasn't been in the EPL for most of the 2000s. Yet Leeds fans see themselves level with Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal — the big boys of English football. They can't be bothered with other Yorkshire clubs like Sheffield United, Huddersfield Town, Middlesbrough or Hull City (all of whom have experienced Premier League success more recently than Leeds).

A large, passionate fan base is only one component of being considered a "big club," but sell-out crowds also have to be paired with on-field success.

It's one thing to call yourself a big club when you are a Champions League contender, but after a trio of seasons in League One followed by a decade straight in the Championship, Leeds cannot be considered in the same class as Premier League contenders. 

Until Leeds produces in the Premier League, it will be considered in the same rank as the "smaller" clubs it consistently disrespects. Big clubs are not immune to relegation. Leeds knows that all to well. Newcastle and Aston Villa also found out in recent seasons that club size isn't everything.

But, love them or hate them, Leeds United is back in the Premier League, and sports are always more fun when there is an enemy to root against.

Leeds fans may be insufferable, but they will always be marching on together.

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