Home / Transfers & News / Agony and Ecstasy: What promotion means to a Leeds United fan | Football News

Agony and Ecstasy: What promotion means to a Leeds United fan | Football News

Liam Cooper has captained Leeds United to the Premier League

Liam Cooper has captained Leeds United to the Premier League

Leeds United Football Club. Back to the promised land. They are a Premier League team for the first time in 16 years.

Marcelo Bielsa’s boys secured promotion with two games still to play. Despite 17,000 cardboard cutouts blowing in the wind at Elland Road, thousands upon thousands of fans worldwide will be tearful, emotional, but relieved to see their team back in the top flight.

From a personal perspective, it has been some journey, pardon the pun, following Leeds up and down the country. From the depths of Yeovil to numerous trips to The Amex ending in disappointment, heartbreak at Wembley to decimation at the hands of Frank Lampard’s Derby.

You can rarely say you have ‘seen it all’, but most Leeds fans will tell you that is the very truth. It is impossible to sum up the last 16 years under one piece of writing, so here are some of the highlights. Sit down and grab yourself a drink.

Doom and Gloom

On Sunday May 2, 2004, as a seven-year-old boy I made the trip to the Reebok Stadium with my family to see Leeds try and claw their way back from the jaws of relegation. Alas after an abject display and losing 4-1, the fourth official held up the injury time board. Much to the amusement of the Bolton fans, the Leeds contingent behind the goal began singing, “We’re going down in a minute, down in a minute”.

Who knew that minute would lead to so many ‘ups and downs’ over the next 16 years as Leeds stumbled, staggered and fought their way back to the promised land of the Premier League.

It has been a long road back to the Premier League for Leeds United.

It has been a long road back to the Premier League for Leeds United.

Through every step of this journey would be the Elland Road faithful urging, roaring, singing and sometimes berating their beloved team but always following them. It has been my privilege to have joined the ranks of thousands travelling away to Yeovil, Exeter, Hartlepool and Southend, to name a few.

Following the relegation in 2004, it was almost too good to be true as Leeds nearly bounced back up in 2005/06, but were thumped by Watford at the Millennium Stadium.

Administration followed in the season of 2006/07, which was reflected with the on-field performance of the side, ending the season at the bottom of the pile with a 10 point deduction for their troubles – League One football it was for the foreseeable future.

Fifteen points… you know the rest.

As if that was not bad enough, we began our first season in League One with a 15-point deduction, with many fans split on how the season was going to pan out. Back-to-back relegations? Mid-table mediocrity? None of the above.

Leeds flew out of the blocks, winning their first seven and not tasting defeat until their 14th match. By that time they were already in the play-off places, and that was exactly where they found themselves at the end of the season.

Cue the home grown Jonny Howson.

With the scores tied at 2-2 on aggregate and a tense affair at Brunton Park, Howson drilled home a strike past Kieren Westwood to send the Leeds end into jubilation, but more importantly, to Wembley.

There was no such fortune on the day, which scarred my first real memory of going to the big smoke. As a 10-year-old I started to understand what was at stake and how well we had done to get into this position. The whole atmosphere was electric, and it was even more so inside the ground. Leeds packed their end with a sea of white, while purchasing tickets in the Doncaster end and making their presence felt as they always did.

Doncaster were worthy winners on the day and Leeds never got going, but the feeling of anguish and disappointment at a sport which we were supposed to love was not going to go away, and it was not going to be the last time.

Another play-off defeat the following year to arch-rivals Millwall (the Jimmy Abdou strike still haunts me to this day) left many wondering when we were going to get back to the second tier of English football. It was another dark time in the history of Leeds United Football Club.

The Class of 2010

Much like the Leeds United way, things were always done the hard way. With 38,000 crammed into a raucous Elland Road on Saturday May 8, Leeds needed three points to seal Championship status for the following season.

With reference to making things difficult, Simon Grayson’s side were down to 10 men after Max Gradel was sent off, before finding themselves a goal down on the final day.

Jonny Howson was on hand as he came off the bench to level things up with a sweet strike that found the top corner, before talisman and Leeds legend Jermaine Beckford pounced on a loose ball to raise the roof and fire his team towards promotion.

Jermaine Beckford fired Leeds to promotion in 2010.

Jermaine Beckford fired Leeds to promotion in 2010.

It was his 25th goal of the season in League One, and his performances earned him a move to Everton, much to the disappointment of the thousands of Leeds fans who were singing his praises.

One of his more talked about goals during that season was actually in the FA Cup, at of all places, Old Trafford. A long ball forward by Howson allowed Beckford to latch onto it ahead of Wes Brown and fire past Tomas Kuszczak to send the 9,000 travelling supporters wild.

Although 2010 was one of the happiest years in the recent memory of Leeds supporters, they were by no means done and there was still an abundance of work to do to get back to a place which they so dearly desired.

What was to follow in the next decade will be longstanding in my memory. It often cannot be explained, but below are some of the ‘best bits’, albeit at the time it was frankly, horrifying.

Cellino – The manager eater

Massimo Cellino. To many it was the dawn of a new era. An exciting and enthusiastic owner who laid out plans to develop Leeds into a Premier League club. Acquiring the club not long after the departure of Ken Bates, who was disliked by the majority of the fan base, seemed to bode well in his favour, but things soon turned sour.

After a court hearing following a failed owner’s test, the Italian was finally able to take charge, and from then on it really did go from bad to worse.

Massimo Cellino will be remembered for his controversy and questionable managerial appointments.

Massimo Cellino will be remembered for his controversy and questionable managerial appointments.

Brian McDermott was the first to feel his wrath, with his sacking reported on Transfer Deadline Day in January 2014, and the eve of a west Yorkshire derby against Huddersfield. The off-field matters did not seem to bother the players, who ran out 5-1 victors against their local rivals thanks to a Ross McCormack hat-trick.

It was then reported following the game that McDermott had not been relieved of his duties and was to remain the manager of Leeds. Previous to this was one of the most memorable, and lowest moments as a Leeds supporter growing up.

The players lacked desire, fight, passion, anything you would expect from a struggling side who should have been scrapping for their shirt. Within a week we had been knocked out of the FA Cup at Rochdale, with the 2-0 scoreline probably being polite to us on the day. A short trip to Sheffield Wednesday followed, before they put six goals past us in a display that has to go down as one of the worst in recent history.

McDermott was let go on May 30, 2014, before the Leeds fans were introduced to David Hockaday. Previously the manager of non-league Forest Green, we were introduced to the unknown in a pretty uncertain period.

“The guy wants Leeds to be in the Champions League, he does. I believe over time that will happen. I think it’s inevitable. The timescale I don’t know, I want to be part of that journey, a big part of that journey,” said Hockaday in a press conference.

Unfortunately (whichever way you look at it), Hockaday was sacked after just six games and 70 days in charge, ending with a 4-1 defeat at Watford and an embarrassing 2-1 loss at Bradford in the League Cup, of which I was lucky enough to be in attendance for. Hostile, infuriating, and it still was not the end.

Darko Milanic was the next to walk through the door and lasted just 32 days in charge. A beast who went through managers as quickly as hot dinners was well and truly alive. It did not look like easing up, with Neil Redfearn, Uwe Rosler and Steve Evans the next to follow suit, albeit with longer stints in charge.

Monk’s Near Miss

Did Cellino finally get something right? In the summer of 2016 Garry Monk was appointed as the new manager, having previously led Swansea to eighth in the Premier League, accruing their highest points tally.

Garry Monk should have secured a play-off spot in his first season in charge.

Garry Monk should have secured a play-off spot in his first season in charge.

It was exciting. Could this be the year? The famous ‘our year’ tagline that Leeds were humiliated with? The 2016/17 campaign was heading in the right direction, with a play-off spot almost looking a certainty. One win in their last eight games quickly diminished these hopes and edged Leeds out of the play-offs to seventh place.

Potential optimism surrounded my friends and I as we took the trip to Burton, but that was ultimately the final straw. With a 2-1 defeat we were doomed to Sky Bet Championship football for yet another year.

Andrea the Saviour

It was close but no cigar. With that, came the end of Massimo Cellino’s reign as Leeds owner. Andrea Radrizzani increased his 50 per cent stake to a 100 per cent stake in the club, bringing in Victor Orta as the technical director and Angus Kinnear as chief executive. He was out, and we were thankful for it. It could not get any worse from here on surely? Only upwards right?

It was a bittersweet start, with Monk refusing to extend his contract and resigning from his post as Leeds manager. He moved on and Thomas Christiansen was brought in, the former APOEL manager.

Weirdly, I was in Nicosia, in Cyprus, at the time with my friends and spoke to a taxi driver who recognised our Leeds shirts – he had only positive things to say about Christiansen. One thing he did mention, “He likes to score more goals than he concedes”, implying he was an attack-minded coach but did not focus much attention on his defence.

Andrea Radrizzani bought my friends and I some bottles of vodka in a bar in Leeds in February, 2018. He promised us that Leeds ‘will be back in five years’ and then proceeded to sort free tickets in the Norman Hunter suite for those who did not have them for the game against Brentford at home the next day.

A man of his word, almost! Our friends got the tickets, and we had our wish two-and-a-half years later, rather than five.

Regardless, the 2017/18 term commenced and Leeds went unbeaten in their first seven, topping the table and conceding just two goals. What was the taxi driver on about? We were on cloud nine – even after a 1-0 defeat away to Millwall, we were singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ after being held in the ground, with our team still top of the table. It was good, very good.

Wins were few and far between subsequent to this, with Leeds losing seven of their next 10. Decent periods were in between a six match winless streak, which was when it was time for Christiansen to go. Paul Heckingbottom jumped ship at Barnsley to try to salvage our season, but he too had no such luck and was relieved of his duties at the end of the 2018 season.

The Making of a Mastermind

A long two weeks followed, but Friday June 15, 2018, is marked as one of the most significant days in the resurgence of Leeds. Marcelo Bielsa was approached and brought to the club by Radrizzani, a manager who managed Argentina and Chile, Athletic Bilbao and Marseille, to name a few.

Marcelo Bielsa has given Leeds fans what they have dreamed of.

Marcelo Bielsa has given Leeds fans what they have dreamed of.

With an increased amount of coverage and press surrounding Bielsa’s first league match in charge, against relegated Premier League side Stoke, nobody knew what to expect. A dominant 90 minutes later, Leeds ran out 3-1 winners and left us thinking they had the real deal. He was the first manager since Jimmy Armfield in 1974 to win his first three matches in charge of the club.

As always is the case, there was always going to be some drama or controversy surrounding Leeds, and this came from Spygate. Derby, the opponents of Leeds that week, had alerted police of a man acting suspiciously outside of their training ground. It later turned out to be someone involved at Leeds, and a formal investigation was launched by the EFL.

A Griffin Branch membership card for the 2012/13 Championship season.

A Griffin Branch membership card for the 2012/13 Championship season.

Bielsa later admitted he had sent the man to the training ground but had done the same for all of his opponents. With even more focus on the match in hand, Leeds were rampant in a 2-0 victory over Derby, but it did not finish there.

The Leeds manager staged an emergency press conference in which he demonstrated his thorough research and detail into each and every one of his opponents, something which divided opinion but left the Leeds fans more in awe of a global icon. Leeds were later fined £200,000, yet Bielsa opted to pay it out of his own pocket.

Despite this, Leeds marched on, maintaining a top three spot for 45 of his 46 Championship matches in the 2018/19 season, but the critics of Bielsa’s sides in the past and the fact they may have ‘burned out’ could have been coming to a head, particularly after Sheffield United came to Elland Road and nicked a winner from Chris Basham to boost their promotion hopes and put ours at risk.

There was still even more drama to unfold before the run-in, with Mateusz Klich scoring against Aston Villa when it seemed as though play was going to be stopped for an injury. Marcelo Bielsa ordered Leeds to let Villa put the ball in an empty net, and subsequently won the 2019 FIFA Fair Play Award, again dividing opinions on the club.

Only three wins from eight followed the Sheffield United match, most notably a 2-1 defeat against Wigan, their first away win of the season, with Leeds having gone 1-0 up and Wigan reduced to 10 men. Another dreary trip to London was next and Brentford picked Leeds apart to make the play-offs a near certainty. Who would we play? None other than Frank Lampard’s Derby.

Yeovil away was up there with the pick of the bunch. On a Saturday morning in February 2014, I was waiting outside a freezing Elland Road at 2:30am, when finally the lights of the infamous ‘Wizard’ coach arrived, greeting my fellow members of the Griffin Branch members as I got on.

Somehow we still ended up arriving 30 minutes late at the game, although we got there just in time to see Ishmael Miller hand Yeovil the lead. He then missed a penalty, with Ross McCormack putting us level just after the break. On a windy day that gave us a run for our money in the terraces, up stepped Stephen Warnock to strike one in the back of the net from 40 yards, the ball blowing right over the head of Marek Stech in the Yeovil goal. Over 24 hours later, the bus pulled up outside our home ground, and the three points were in the bag.

Leeds got the perfect start. A 1-0 victory at Pride Park, thanks to a well-worked Kemar Roofe goal, seemed the ideal scenario. A third successive win over Derby going into a rowdy second leg at Elland Road should have given Leeds confidence, with a place at Wembley at stake.

Stuart Dallas put Leeds ahead, and it looked to be plain-sailing from there. A misjudgement between Liam Cooper and Kiko Casilla allowed Jack Marriott to steal in and nick one back, before a capitulation of extreme proportion enabled Derby to seal a place at Wembley, running out 4-2 winners on the night.

Anguish, anger, sadness emanated around Elland Road, but Bielsa had worked a miracle with a squad that was nowhere near enough to be in the position it was.

‘Our Year’

Fast-forward to this current, elongated 2019/20 campaign, Leeds began it with a trip to Bristol City, and I had the pleasure of meeting Marcelo Bielsa with my brother, staying in the same hotel the night before.

With the weight of a city resting on his shoulders, he posed with a stern look on his face and his tactics board in hand, before setting off to see his team win 3-1, with the magician that is Pablo Hernandez conjuring up some magic on the day.

Again it has been another unbelievable season under Bielsa, seeing Leeds win seven games in a row, and another five consecutively before the break, keeping a clean sheet in all of those matches before Coronavirus hit the country.

A special Sky Sports documentary containing archive footage from Marcelo Bielsa’s time in Argentina and contributions from Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola is available On Demand now.

A special Sky Sports documentary containing archive footage from Marcelo Bielsa’s time in Argentina and contributions from Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola is available On Demand now.

Despite the situation, Bielsa and his staff were well prepared long before the lockdown, sending out equipment and training schedules for each of his players to make sure they were maintaining their levels of fitness, and their position at the top of the table.

Numerous cries of ‘null and void’ were rumoured and loomed large, with health at the very forefront of the priorities, and rightly so. It was a waiting game until we were given the green light, and Bielsa could then finish the job he came here to do.

The players have been key, too. Ben White has been a hit ever since he joined on-loan from Brighton, the Rolls Royce of the Championship. Captain Cooper, who was labelled as ‘League One Liam’ for many years has done more than just prove his doubters wrong. He is everything that epitomises Leeds. He gets the club, and the fans know that too.

Kalvin Phillips has been instrumental in the progression of Leeds under Bielsa.

Kalvin Phillips has been instrumental in the progression of Leeds under Bielsa.

Kalvin Phillips. A player newly born under Bielsa and now known as the ‘Yorkshire Pirlo’. Do not be phased, however, as it is his tough-tackling, passion and desire to play for that white shirt which has won our hearts.

The list goes on and on, with Patrick Bamford bringing more to the team than most Leeds fans will ever know, but Leeds have team spirit in abundance, a never-say-die attitude that pushed them on in the dying embers away to Swansea, and of course the ‘Murderball’ sessions in training, which the players hate but has driven them to perform to their highest standards.

Of course, it would be unflattering not to mention the magician, ‘El Mago’, Pablo Hernandez amongst all of this. The Spaniard has been involved with 68 Championship goals since joining Leeds (33G, 35A), bettered by no other league player in that period.

No player has contributed to more Championship goals since Pablo Hernandez's arrival at Leeds

No player has contributed to more Championship goals since Pablo Hernandez’s arrival at Leeds

Despite scoring the winner in that 1-0 away win at his former club Swansea, he knew how much it meant, not only to himself and his team-mates, but the fans and everyone involved at the club. Hernandez, on his day, is the best player in the Sky Bet Championship, and I think that opinion is one that is held unanimously, aside from a Leeds United perspective.

There are so many players unmentioned that I will have done a disservice to, Stuart Dallas for example, who it would not surprise me to see crowned as our Player of the Year. A model professional who does what is asked of him to an extremely high standard.

Radrizzani, Orta and Kinnear have played a huge part too, acquiring the full purchase of Elland Road, allowing the Leeds United Academy to become Category One, capturing Marcelo Bielsa, restarting the Leeds Ladies team, among other important factors. I cannot thank them enough, and thoroughly appreciate their hard work and effort to help get us over the line.

Newcastle away was one fixture we were looking out for ahead of the 2016/17 season. Friday April 14, Good Friday, and what a fixture it was. Eagerly awaiting the 09:24 train to Newcastle, who knew that 12 hours later we would be going mental up in the heavens at an injury-time Chris Wood goal to level proceedings? A place called Gotham was the destination of choice, with more and more Leeds fans packing the pub as the day went on.

A march to the ground was followed by steps, steps and more steps to get up to our spectacular viewpoint. A pretty standard 90 minutes followed, with the said equaliser allowing the Sky cameras to catch me cuddling a stranger in my Fila jacket. A memorable night and weekend following the mighty Whites once again.

The whole Leeds ethos under Bielsa has been completely bought into from the players, and they have been duly rewarded for it. Leeds are a Premier League club.

It has brought me friendships and memories to last a lifetime, but now we can begin to feel at peace, having seen us make the Premier League after the sheer battle it has taken to get there. Our generation that have only seen the bleak and barbaric can now start to feel positive about what may be in store in the future.

What will happen next? Premier League survival? Champions League football again and the heights of Dom Matteo scoring at the San Siro? Premier League champions like the class of ’92? Leeds are back, and the Premier League will be better for it.

That is where the Leeds story ends, for now. It has not been a focus on the years of hurt as Leeds supporters. It is a celebration of how far we have come. Back where we belong after experiencing every emotion there is to have felt. This is for Norman Hunter, Jack Charlton, Trevor Cherry, all of our fallen fans, supporters, heroes we have lost on the way.

Although what lies ahead of Leeds next season is uncertain, for now they can revel in their success and the celebration of getting out of one of the hardest divisions in the world. They are heroes of our city, a one club city.

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