Grayson dares to dream after ending Leeds' humiliating fall

Having just climbed out of League One, the Yorkshire club are already targeting another promotion. Mark Fleming reports
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The Independent Football

It has been six seasons since Leeds United tumbled out of the Premier League but for the thousands who follow the club with such passionate devotion, the absence feels like a lifetime. The Premier League is still some way away but at least the decline has been stopped in its tracks.

Three years spent in the third tier of English football came to an end on the final day of last season when Leeds gained promotion to the Championship. Compared to their glories of the past under manager Don Revie in the 1960s and 70s, it is small fry but for the club whose dramatic fall from grace has become the ultimate cautionary tale for modern football, the return to the Championship marks the start of the club's revival.

The three years spent in League One has been a humiliation Leeds are anxious to ensure never happens again. Their decline began when they narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Champions League at the end of the 2001 season. Under chairman Peter Ridsdale, they had borrowed money and bought players on the promise of the Champions League and it did not take long for the house of cards to come crashing down.

Relegation from the Premier League in 2004 was followed by another relegation to League One in 2007, after the new owner Ken Bates took the club into administration, incurring a 10-point penalty that ensured relegation to the third tier.

Manager Simon Grayson, who is Leeds born and bred and a life-long supporter of the club, understands the anguish suffered by the club's supporters. In the space of a few short years they have seen their team go from playing Barcelona, Real Madrid and Milan in their run to the 2001 Champions League semi-finals, to trips to places like Hereford United and MK Dons.

As he faces life in the Championship, having masterminded the team's promotion last term, Grayson shares the supporters' determination that the mistakes of the past cannot be repeated.

"The club was in League One for a reason but, as a Leeds fan, it was heartbreaking," he said. "The key was using it as a motivation and inspiration to get out of League One. It's about the prestige of the club and that is why getting out of League One was so huge for everyone at Leeds."

It now falls to Grayson to lead the club back to the top flight. Already, former players such as Peter Lorimer are talking of Leeds being a top-six Premier League club, which is quite some goal considering United finished 46th in England last season.

However, Grayson, who kickstarted Blackpool's current revival before joining Leeds, has done a remarkable job in his 18 months at Elland Road. His achievement was recognised by chairman Bates when he handed the 40-year-old former Leeds trainee a new three-year contract last month.

The paradox for Leeds is that their trials have dampened expectations, yet the sheer scale of the club and its support demands only the very highest of ambitions.

The club's technical director Gwyn Williams said: "You need to have ambitions. You have to aspire. Let's do it now, if we can. Why not? We hope to get there as quickly as possible. But we also know it is our first season back in the Championship. We need to get in there and consolidate.

"There will be a lot of teams thinking like us. We know that. The bottom line is we have to keep our heads above water, to make sure we get to 52 points to avoid relegation. Then, if we can get to around 65 points, we could make the play-offs. And if we have a really good season, then hopefully we can finish in the top two."

Grayson's task is not helped by the need to radically change his team this summer following the departure of five loan players. Defender Alex Bruce became the club's eighth new recruit when he signed from Ipswich last week. Grayson has bought a completely new back four in Paul Connolly from Derby County, Fede Bessone from Swansea City, Bruce from Ipswich and Neill Collins from Preston North End, who are likely to line up in Saturday's season opener against Derby in front of another new signing, goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel from Notts County.

Last season's Player of the Year Patrick Kisnorbo ruptured an Achilles during the final weeks of last season and is not expected back in the centre of defence until November at the earliest.

The attack is also a major headache, having lost Jermain Beckford, who scored 31 goals last season, to Everton. His replacement is free signing Billy Paynter, who scored 29 goals for Swindon last season but has picked up an injury in pre-season.

Winger Robert Snodgrass is also injured, leaving Grayson facing the prospect of putting out an untried team against Derby. Pre-season results have been encouraging after a shocking 4-0 defeat to League Two side Bury, with wins over Brann Bergen and Hartlepool followed by a morale-boosting 3-1 victory over Wolves last weekend.

Grayson said: "Pre-season has gone really well with the exception of Bury. But that may have been the kick up the backside we needed. There's been a lot of boxes ticked right. They've done three sessions a day sometimes and they've worked really hard and done everything that has been asked of them."

How the mighty Leeds fell

May 2001 The club enjoys the high of reaching the Champions League semi-finals, though losing 3-0 to Valencia.

June 2002 Manager David O'Leary is sacked for failing to reach Champions League. Terry Venables takes over.

March 2003 After falling out with chairman Peter Ridsdale, Venables goes and is replaced by Peter Reid. Ridsdale follows Venables out the door, as the club struggles with debts of over £119m.

April 2004 Gerald Krasner's consortium takes control of the club and its debts.

May 2004 Defeat at Bolton confirms relegation to the Championship, and Elland Road is sold later in the year.

Jan 2005 Ken Bates becomes chairman.

May 2006 Leeds almost turn the corner after a comparatively solid season but lose 3-0 to Watford in the Championship play-off final.

May 2007 Relegated to League One after entering administration.

May 2008 Reach the play-off final despite 15-point deduction but lose to Doncaster.

Dec 2008 Simon Grayson succeeds Gary McAllister as manager.

May 2009 Lose 2-1 on aggregate to Millwall in League One play-offs.

May 2010 Jermaine Beckford's winner against Bristol Rovers seals automatic promotion back to the Championship.

Stars of the Championship season ahead: Robert Snodgrass (Leeds United)

The Scottish winger is probably Leeds United's greatest weapon, although he may miss the opening game of the season against Derby on Saturday with a knee injury.

European giants Barcelona wanted him on trial in 2006, but it never happened, and he moved to Leeds in 2008, becoming an instant hit with the Elland Road fans.

Brought up on the tough streets of Gallowgate in Glasgow's East End, Snodgrass (right) has taken to life in Yorkshire and is hugely popular with the fans. Striker Jermaine Beckford, who scored 31 goals last season and has since secured a move to Everton, attracted most attention last season but it was Snodgrass who really caught the eye.

Known as 'Snoddy', the former Scotland Under-21 international can play up front but is better suited to life on the right flank and has scored several spectacular goals with his wicked left foot.

The 22-year-old drew the spotlight last season when he crashed a wonderful free-kick against the crossbar during Leed's famous 1-0 victory in the third round of FA Cup against Manchester United at Old Trafford last season. And before that, he gave Liverpool defender Andrea Dossena a torrid time in a Carling Cup tie at Elland Road. ......... 

Mark Fleming