Many football clubs have been stripped of their status in volatile fashion.
But only one has come to define a dramatic downslide of tragic proportions.
The phrase ‘doing a Leeds’ has entered popular vernacular, with pundits and fans alike deploying it when a proud club suffers a fall from grace or faces financial ruin.
The term even has its own Wikipedia page.
Peter Risdale’s inept stewardship left scars on some of Yorkshire’s finest.
As Leeds United hurtled down a farcical wormhole, the pit of which was relegation to League One in 2007, the club fell into something of a slumber.
This season, thanks to an Argentinian and his bucket, one of English football’s biggest clubs has woken up.
With Leeds marching on together in the direction of the Premier League, I visited Elland Road to find out what a return to the top flight would mean to one of the country’s most partisan fan bases.
“I think it would rejuvenate Leeds United entirely,” Thomas Bradley of ‘I’d Radebe Leeds‘ told me.
“The city has probably outgrown the football team in some respects so it’s about time we got back and matched what the city has become.
“Most importantly, it gives the next generation a chance to see Premier League football in the flesh, instead of relying on YouTube clips, DVDs, or even VHS.”
26-year-old fan Sarah McNamara belongs to the younger generation who consider the club’s Premier League existence the stuff of fairy tales.
“I don’t actually remember Leeds being in the Premier League properly,” she said.
“You only hear about it. Actually witnessing it would be a great feeling.
“Every generation seems to have had glory days and I feel like this could be our glory period.”
If Risdale steered the ship into the iceberg, then Massimo Cellino lit the lifeboats on fire.
When the club were finally released from the villainous Italian’s clutches in 2017, new owner Andrea Radrizzani strived to sedate Leeds’ eccentric alter ego.
The managerial appointments of Thomas Christiansen and Paul Heckingbottom were supposed to add stability and pragmatism.
Leeds felt they would benefit from being a bit more boring.
But the Whites will never be able to suppress their tumultuous, unpredictable side; it is embedded too deeply in the club’s DNA.
As recently as last summer, the squad flew to Myanmar for a pre-season tour which was described as ‘morally corrupt’ and ‘deeply inappropriate’ by members of parliament.
Myanmar have been accused of ‘ethnic cleansing’ with the Foreign Office advising against any tourism that isn’t ‘essential travel’.
The club is intertwined with controversy and the fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
Fans of Man United, Millwall, Cardiff, Middlesbrough and several other clubs are partial to a chorus of ‘we all hate Leeds scum’ but you’re just as likely to hear it from the Leeds fans themselves.
The club are content to play the role of English football’s pantomime villain; it suits them just fine.
And so, in June of 2018, Leeds decided to embrace the chaos…
Marcelo Bielsa’s reputation precedes him.
Widely-respected for his detailed-orientated approach, he is heralded by many – including Pep Guardiola – as the best manager in the world.
Before he took charge at Barcelona, Guardiola embarked on a pilgrimage across the Atlantic Ocean to discuss football philosophy with Bielsa.
The conversation – which is said to have lasted 11 hours – reportedly ended with the pair forcing Spanish film director David Trueba to man-mark a chair as they plotted out positional details with the assets at hand.
Revered in Chile and Argentina – Newell’s Old Boys’ stadium is named after Bielsa – his genius is overshadowed only by his erratic nature.
He quit as coach of Lazio after two days on the job and stepped down from his post at Marseille after the first game of a new season.
His history of ill-timed resignations induced mass panic among Leeds fans when Bielsa called an impromptu press conference as a response to the overblown reaction to ‘spygate’.
Instead of standing down, he gave those present a masterclass, detailing the extensive preparation his team perform before every fixture.
As if to demonstrate his obsessive work ethic, Bielsa casually informed the wide-eyed journalists that Derby midfielder Mason Mount had spent four minutes playing in defence in 2018/19.
He also admitted to spying on every team in the league as per his long-time methodology — something Rams boss Frank Lampard would have known if he had read Bielsa’s book, which he claims to own.
Bielsa’s blend of compulsion, turbulence and unbridled brilliance has worked wonders.
And while Derby, Norwich and nine other clubs signed a letter of complaint about ‘Spygate’ addressed to the EFL, the fans believe in Bielsa and his methods wholeheartedly.
“We’re a global team again now, because of his name,” Thomas said.
“He’s getting the best out of players who previously weren’t good enough.
“We love to be hated and other fans hate us. I think it works in our favour.
“It’s us against ‘them’ and there’s essentially 17 or 18 cup finals now.”
The fans are desperate for Bielsa to secure his legendary status, with promotion the only guaranteed route.
Leeds are second in the table, two points behind leaders Norwich, despite an injury crisis that would have derailed most other clubs.
No other Championship club has fielded more Under-23s in their first team this season.
Injury setbacks have prevented Patrick Bamford – the most expensive import since Leeds’ relegation from the Premier League – from starting more than once in the Championship this season.
Aside from left-back Barry Douglas, Bielsa’s preferred starting XI for the majority of the season has been comprised of players who featured in the club’s dismal post-Christmas campaign last season — yet more evidence of the coach’s considerable influence.
And the intense style of football – comprised of pressing, neat passing and a never-say-die attitude – has produced several viral clips.
While Bielsa is undoubtedly the genius behind Leeds’ promotion charge, the team is fuelled by one of English football’s most passionate fan bases.
“We’re one of the biggest cities with only a single team that everyone supports,” Sarah explained.
“It’s not like a Liverpool, Manchester or London [where there are two or more prominent teams].
“Everyone’s united in supporting Leeds United.
“My stepdad messages me after every game and my grandma is on the family WhatsApp, buzzing, really giddy about it.”
Historically, Bielsa’s teams have a habit of succumbing to the physical demands of his tactics and subsequently fading away in the final third of the season.
As the gruelling 46-game Championship campaign approcahes its climax, Leeds may have to rely on the motivational powers of their fans just as much as their coach’s knowledge.
“The Premier League is crying out for a team like Leeds,” Thomas told me.
“There’s a lot smaller clubs and cities that have managed to get there.”
Leeds may be generally disliked but few would begrudge them top flight status.
Their history, stadium and fan base dwarf those of at half the teams currently in the Premier League.
This is a club that would undoubtedly make the world’s most-watched league more entertaining, especially with box-office Bielsa at the helm.
Leeds are often at their best when they resemble a runaway train; allowing momentum to overwhelm precarious stability.
And in ‘El Loco’ they have the perfect driver.
READ MORE FROM FOOTBALL’S FRONT LINES:
- The long road back from the brink — what happens after the fans save a football club?
- How did the ‘club of the future’ become embroiled in the ugliest saga of the season?
- A devastating injury saved this club from extinction and propelled them to the promised land