Football: From Thorp Arch to Stamford Bridge and back: A week in the life of Leeds

Driven by youthful exuberance and dynamic management, the Premiership leaders are a rising force in English football. Nick Harris went behind the scenes to follow their progress
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The Independent Online
FRIDAY 17 DECEMBER

DAVID O'LEARY said earlier this month that he wants to build an empire at Leeds to rival Sir Alex Ferguson's at Manchester United. "I think the foundations of that empire have now been laid," he said.

This morning at Thorp Arch Grange, the club's impressive training facility near Wetherby, there is evidence he's on the way. A group of academy players (mostly aged 15 and 16) take part in the annual end-of-term singathon. One by one they step up on to a small wall and entertain the first-teamers (Harry Kewell, Alan Smith and Lee Bowyer among them) with a seasonal tune. A case of the out of tune singing to the out of the ordinary, perhaps, but there is a genuine camaraderie here.

Back at Elland Road, the Leeds chairman, Peter Ridsdale, announces the signing of a new player, winger Jason Wilcox, for pounds 3m from Blackburn. He is O'Leary's seventh major signing in a year after Danny Mills, Darren Huckerby, Michael Bridges, Michael Duberry, David Batty and Eirik Bakke. If the media is surprised by Wilcox's signing, so is the player. "No one is more shocked than I am," he says.

Leeds fans, perhaps taken by surprise, do not immediately rush to buy shirts with the player's name. No-one requests a "Wilcox" on their pounds 39.99 replica shirt today. "Office chairs and stools with the crest have gone down well," Rachel Ogden, the retail manager, says of recent trends in fan purchases. "I suppose they go well in the office with the Leeds mouse, mouse mat and screensaver." Other items are not so well received. "We had one person who complained we were selling ashtrays. He thought it was a bad influence on the young, but they sell, so what can you do? We have turned down condoms, though, for the moment. That's a difficult one."

Ogden, a career retailer, spent years with Asda before transferring to football and has overseen a rapid rise in trade. Retail turnover (through four shops, mail order and the Internet) will rise 55 per cent to pounds 5.4m this year. Takings are currently pounds 150,000 a week.

"The whole club is more professionally run than ever before," Ogden says. "We have to compete with major retailers." How many branches of Marks & Sparks, you wonder, have fans wandering in, wearing bobble hats and scarves, spending hours sitting on the floor looking at posters of crowd shots because they're convinced they're in there somewhere? It happens, apparently.

SATURDAY 18 DECEMBER

THE FIRST-TEAM players meet at Thorp Arch at 11am for training ahead of tomorrow's game at Chelsea. The session lasts about 20 minutes and involves a mini-match between "the old" and "the young." It tells you a lot about O'Leary's faith in youth that the "old" side includes the ancient Lee Bowyer (23 next month) and the "young" side includes a full England international (Jonathan Woodgate, 19).

By 1pm the squad is on the train to London. O'Leary decides how and when to travel to all away games, domestic and international, and tells Stuart Priestley, the travel manager, who arranges everything. Priestley is the head of a business arm that has gone from two employees to 16 in a year and turns over pounds 8m annually from business and leisure travel.

"We know people will buy things with a shield on it, a mug, a tie," Priestley says. "We hope that will stretch." To where, exactly? From next year, everywhere it seems, on branded LUFC holidays, including to Dubai ("an upcoming family-oriented leisure destination").

On European football outings, Priestley charters a couple of jets, at pounds 50,000 a day each, to take around 500 supporters to watch at little more than cost price. He charters a separate 120-seat 737 for the players' exclusive use and the rearranged game against Spartak Moscow in Sofia epitomised his exacting standards.

"I got the airline to fly [empty, from Sofia to England and back] to pick up food for the return trip." Leeds could not have taken the food with them because the three-day stay would compromise the freshness.

"Being able to do that [send back a plane] is the big difference between being able to control everything ourselves. You know what normal charters can be like, a bit of fish maybe, and a bit of lettuce. You can't have athletes eating that. If I can make the players comfortable, secure and at home, that's my job. I can't tell them how to kick a ball, but I can get them there in shape."

The players arrive in shape in London today, at 4pm, are bussed to the Chelsea Harbour hotel, have a meal at 6pm and retire.

Young and exuberant they may be, but most don't even stay up to watch Manchester United go top of the Premiership on Match of the Day and some are in bed and asleep by 9.30pm. Back in Leeds, the club shop has started selling "Wilcox".

SUNDAY 19 DECEMBER

MATCH DAY, and the players lie in or rest before a quick walk around the harbour at 11.45am. The pre-match meal is at midday and typically includes grilled chicken with mashed potatoes and beans, washed down with mineral water. The players watch TV or rest until the team meeting at 2pm. Jonathan Woodgate has a nap.

At the meeting O'Leary notes that Manchester United won yesterday but, apart from outlining some technical aspects of Chelsea's game, keeps his advice short and to the point. "You're not afraid to go to the top, just go out and prove it," he says. The team depart for Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea edge the possession for the first hour but the Leeds defence is in superlative form, not least the well-rested Woodgate. Frank Leboeuf loses his rag, and the breakthrough comes when Stephen McPhail scores his first League goal after a well-worked move. He adds another, from a free-kick, and Gianluca Vialli throws away his woolly hat in disgust, exposing his bright red scalp to the elements. The Leeds supporters chant "Peter Ridsdale, there's only one Peter Ridsdale". That the chairman is lauded in the stands speaks volumes.

"We're a young side and I'm a young manager who's learning his trade," O'Leary says in the post-match press conference. "I'm not sure where we'll finish but we're enjoying ourselves."

The journalists want a "We'll win the title" quote and one hack uses that oldest of tactics, the goading lead question, to try to elicit one. "Leeds haven't got what it takes to win," is the gist of what he says. "It's not a serious title challenge, is it David?"

The trace of a small smile crosses O'Leary's lips, and he composes himself momentarily before replying. "I don't think we'll win the League, and when the pressure comes we might bottle it," he says.

If he feels that deep down, there are few signs in his demeanour that show it. He knows well enough not to be drawn by short term media-driven desires for over-the-top predictions.

The players board the coach, stopping to chat and sign shirts and programmes. Michael Duberry receives a warm welcome on his return to his old club, not least from his mum, who hasn't been able to get inside to see her son and has waited by the bus with the autograph hunters.

Traffic is heavy and the coach gets back to Elland Road at 11pm.

MONDAY 20 DECEMBER

TUESDAY 21 DECEMBER

THE PLAYERS have a day off but Elland Road is buzzing from the win, even the staff who didn't start out supporting Leeds. Harry Stokey, the stadium manager, is one of them. "I even watch it on TV now, that's how bad it is," he says.

A rare Liverpudlian who was turned off the game ("because it dominated life on Merseyside to the exclusion of everything else"), he spent 17 years in charge at Headingley before being recruited to Leeds two years ago. His remit includes everything from arranging the big screens for the "beamback" of next Tuesday's match at Arsenal, to making sure the undersoil heating works, to arranging match-day policing, to writing letters to fans whose constant standing becomes obstructive for their neighbours.

The main event of today, however, is an evening awards ceremony for Leeds' "Playing for Success" programme, one of a number of schemes run by the club's ground-breaking community department. The department has ostensibly been created in the last 18 months, since the local council sold Elland Road to the club. With local authority staff closely involved, Community United runs dozens of projects, ranging from adult education courses, "key skills" courses for Kosovan refugees, work with children in care and football in the community coaching days.

"Playing for Success" is a joint initiative between the club, the council and the Department of Education. It sees local children, aged 9 to 13 (and mostly from south Leeds, an area identified for regeneration projects) attend 10-week courses after school to develop their reading, writing and IT skills in the state-of-the-art learning centre under the South Stand.

This evening 120 kids, accompanied by their parents, come to the banqueting suite to receive certificates for their work. The highlight is meeting the young Welsh international Matthew Jones, who makes presentations for two hours. "My jaw aches from keeping a smile on my face," he says. "Different players have different ways of handling their fame. Some keep to themselves and some don't. This scheme might make a difference to some of these kids' lives, and that must be good."

SECURITY AT Thorp Arch is guarded by a formidable character called Jack, who has - without irony given the age of the side - erected signs saying "No football or games to be played by children in this area". Jack's Fort Knox-style scrutiny of every visitor is legendary but the benefit to O'Leary and his players is that they can get on with training without distraction. The atmosphere inside is testament that the method works. Overnight snow has rendered the training pitch unusable so the players' session is in the gym.

Afterwards, those who are not heading back to play in the afternoon reserves' game hang around much longer than necessary, chatting and admiring the Yuletide bottles of champagne each has been given by O'Leary. Alan Smith, who could easily pass for a couple of years younger than his age of 18, skips along a corridor making peculiar "whoop-whoop" noises, while Michael Bridges builds a snowman in the courtyard with the kitman's son. Jonathan Woodgate, meanwhile, wanders around bantering with one of the girls from the sponsorship department who has come in search of autographs for a corporate Christmas card. The players are obviously having a laugh, like any group of young lads, which is (with precocious talents added) what they are. Only a photocopy of the League table on the boot-room door gives a clue to their progress.

The club secretary, Ian Sylvester, has his office at Thorp Arch and has been reading in the newspapers that Leeds have been linked with Blackburn's Matt Jansen. "You know when those stories are true if you read a quote from the [buying] club," he says. There are no quotes from Leeds.

The reserves' match, against Bradford, has been brought forward because of the weather. The Leeds team, including Michael Duberry, Jason Wilcox, Martin Hiden, Alf- Inge Haaland, Danny Mills and Matthew Jones, take to the pitch in front of around 400 fans, who get in free. Leeds go two up but contrive to lose 3-2. Roy Aitken, the reserve team manager, does not seem too unhappy. "At this level the results are not the most important thing, it's giving the players a game, improving their fitness."

WEDNESDAY 22 DECEMBER

THERE'S NO training today or tomorrow, which the players no doubt appreciate given that tonight is their private (fancy dress) Christmas party. Business never stops, however, and Adam Pearson, the Leeds commercial director, is finishing his three-year master plan for 2000-2003. "Our aim is become the clear No 2 club in the country behind Manchester United," he says. "The football is central to everything, and Peter Ridsdale has had the bottle to push on rather than consolidate."

Pearson lists the three biggest deals of the year - Bulmers (pounds 5.5m over three years for "Strongbow" on the shirts), Nike ("not less than pounds 10m over four years" for kit endorsement), and Sky (pounds 14m to become broadcasting agents and take a 9.09 per cent stake in the club). "Sky are like us, dynamic, young, reasonably aggressive," he says. There is also a stadium expansion plan, with construction due to begin next year, when 5,000 seats will be added to the ground and a new leisure complex (6,000-seat arena, auditorium, two hotels, commercial outlets) will be built.The turnover of Leeds Sporting (the parent company) is likely to jump by 20 to 25 per cent this year (from pounds 37m).

Ridsdale divides his time between his office in the Lake District (he runs Tulchan, the company responsible for the Sock Shop and Jumper chains), London and Leeds. He is bullish about his aims. "To start winning trophies and get in the Champions' League because that's where the revenue streams are." Of the Sky deal, he adds: "What Sky can bring is media players on a global scale. The Far East, [where Sky has a sister channel, Star TV] is a market we haven't even started scratching the surface of." Of the next Premier League TV deal, which might see regional broadcasters involved alongside one main rights' holder, he says: "We would then put together Leeds United TV and deals with local cable operators." He adds he is "tentative" about pay-per-view. "We must not forget that the fans are the lifeblood and we can't drain them."

THURSDAY 23 DECEMBER

DAVID O'LEARY is planning training for the festive programme, which includes meeting Leicester at home on Sunday and Arsenal at Highbury on Tuesday. Not a man to disclose his motivational techniques, those close to him at the club consistently cite "fantastic man-management". He is keen to stress again that "we've done nothing yet" but says with a chairman who backs him to the hilt his job is easier. "What I've always wanted is to be a manager at the top level. Peter's had faith in me and it's my good fortune that Martin O'Neill never took this job. I'm delighted the crowd wanted me. That's what made up my mind."

Of his side's chances for the title, he says: "Anything we do now is a learning process. In the next few years, with a bit of luck, we'll be not far off." Explaining the constant need for the "young manager, young team, learning the trade" mantra, he adds: "I can see the headlines at the end of season already. If we finish third, they [the press] will be saying we underachieved. That's the standard the press are setting, you know, that you're doing badly by getting into the Champions' League. That's just silly. I even overheard a member of our staff saying the other day, `thank goodness we beat Chelsea and we're going into Christmas at the top'. I stopped myself from chopping his knees off. There's still a long way to go. I know what's to come. It's not easy."

The manager is always looking for players. "I believe in the policy of going out and getting young players, putting something in place to last for a while," he says. Peter Ridsdale confirms that there are two specific, but unnamed, targets, "one English, one overseas, and don't be fooled into thinking we're just looking for strikers". He adds that Leicester's Emile Heskey is also wanted. "That'd be nice. We've already made one [unsuccessful] offer."

While not content to rest on his laurels, O'Leary knows he already has some gems. "This is the crop," he says with a quiet conviction of the team who are top of the table. "And in a few years, maybe in a few years..." He trails off, pondering on what's yet to come, and then gets back to work.

TOP OF THE PREMIERSHIP

P W D L F A Pts

Leeds 18 13 2 3 32 19 41

Man Utd 17 12 3 2 44 23 39

Sunderland 18 11 4 3 33 17 37

Arsenal 18 11 3 4 32 17 36

Liverpool 18 10 3 5 26 14 33

Leicester 18 9 2 7 26 24 29

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