Offside, 7 May
The fall of Leeds United was down to bad management, not over-ambition.
And so Leeds United’s protracted Premiership death agony is almost over. The obligatory television ‘grief shots’ of a tearful Alan Smith and a weeping urchin in a ‘Leeds till I die’ t-shirt invited the world to feel their pain. Most of us, however, were too busy having a laugh at their expense.
Next season Leeds’ better players will have departed and their fans will be serenading the residents of Rotherham and Crewe with their famous oratorio of existential self-affirmation: ‘We are Leeds, we are Leeds, we are Leeds.’ Nor will relegation necessarily signal an end to their woes. The threat of administration and a subsequent 10-point deduction still hangs over the debt-ridden club. There is a real possibility that the club could descend into freefall.
‘Should we have spent so heavily in the past? Probably not. But we lived the dream’, former chairman Peter Ridsdale famously said. The Leeds’ story has been spun into a modern version of the Icarus legend, a cautionary parable about the dangers of foolhardy ambition. ‘I’m sure their plight will become a warning to every club which tries to overspend in pursuit of success’, said Ian Rush, who had a brief spell at Elland Road.
However, Leeds United’s downfall was not the result of dream chasing, but staggering financial mismanagement. The Leeds board of directors financed a fantasy-football-style spending spree through high-interest ‘securitisation’ loans. ‘Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a gamble’, Ridsdale recently told the Observer. ‘But at the time, when you were flying high, you were in the top five every year, you were acquiring quality players you think are going to take you forwards not backwards, the whole board and the shareholders believed it was a strategy worth taking.’ (1)
Ridsdale’s strategy was dependent on Leeds qualifying for the lucrative group stages of the Champions League. But the reason that football remains such compelling drama is that money does not guarantee success. Leeds failed to qualify for the Champions League in 2001 but still the board recklessly continued to sanction the acquisition of new players. When they failed to qualify for the Champions League for a second successive season the club found itself in dire financial straits.
In an attempt to appease the creditors, star players were hawked off. Rio Ferdinand went to Manchester United for £30million, but he was the only player to be sold on at a profit. The slump in the transfer market in 2002 wiped millions off the saleable value of the club’s playing staff. Prize assets such as Jonathan Woodgate, Robbie Keane, Olivier Dacourt and Harry Kewell were offloaded relatively cheaply in an increasingly desperate attempt to reduce the debts.
But flogging your family silver to stave off the threat of administration is a short-term measure that is ultimately self-defeating. The fire sale effectively condemned Leeds to relegation from the top flight. Last season Leeds narrowly avoided the drop. This season the first-team squad was reduced to just a handful of quality players (Viduka, Smith, Matteo, Robinson). The rest were overpaid has-beens (Harte, Kelly, Barmby, Wilcox, Batty), overpaid never-have-beens (Bakke, Johnson), inexperienced youth teamers (Milner, Kilgallon), or uncommitted loan signings (Morris, Roque Junior, Domi, Olembe, Sahko). Inevitably Leeds were mired in a relegation struggle throughout the season until Bolton finally put them out of their misery.
Despite the sale of most of their stars, Leeds are still burdened with a wage bill reportedly in the region of £50million, which is simply unsustainable for the First Division. The better players, such as Viduka, Smith and Robinson, will certainly be auctioned off. But who will want to take on the wages of players like Nick Barmby, who reportedly trousers over £30,000 a week? When they dropped out of the Premiership, Manchester City and Sheffield Wednesday found themselves unable to offload their unmotivated high-earners, and look what happened to them.
Apart from Alan Smith and that sobbing ‘Leeds-till-I-die’ child, few people will shed tears at Leeds United’s demise. Football fans will of course seize the opportunity to laugh at the misfortune of others, especially one of the big boys. It’s a great British tradition, isn’t it? The doom-mongers who never tire of preaching about the corrupting influence of money will also be crowing. ‘Little man, know your place. This is what happens when you chase the dream’, they will say.
But just because Leeds flew too near to the sun, it doesn’t mean everyone else should temper their ambitions and settle for mid-table mediocrity. The moral of the story is simple: chasing your dreams is good, but spunking £7million on Seth Johnson ain’t so clever.
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