Leeds faithful reduced to a resigned smile

Lessons of a nightmare
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The Independent Football

Leeds United are closer to going down again than they are to returning straight to the Premiership as they prepare to host Championship leaders Wigan today. The match is likely to be one of the biggest of their season. That is a mark of how far the mighty are falling.

Leeds took eight seasons to get back up when they were last relegated from the top flight, in 1982. And their loyal supporters, of which there are still many, are digging in for another long haul.

Debts of over £100 million have been more than halved, the training ground has been sold and leased back, the car park has gone to a casino and the ground was about to go. Now a proposed takeover by an Anglo-American consortium headed by Sebastian Sainsbury could wipe the debts clean this week and give the new manager, Kevin Blackwell, a couple of million pounds to spend too.

But what of today? What of the fans? What is it like to be a follower of a club where a favourite chant is "Champions of Europe" even though they never were, who won the title as recently as 1992, just before the Premiership began. How Chelsea and Liverpool would love to claim that.

David Goodwill knows what it's like. He has played and coached football to a decent standard, but he lives in and for Leeds. That is why he has missed only one match, home and away, in the past 25 years, and that is why he is better placed than most to relate what it is like to support Leeds back down at the wrong end of the food chain again.

"Most of us are resigned to where we are and what we are - a mediocre Championship side," Goodwill said, as he recovered from getting home at four in the morning from last week's League Cup defeat at Portsmouth. "In fact, we are probably worse than that, as we are closer to the bottom than the top.

"In the pub on Tuesday someone said how we had a big game against Wigan. We just looked at each other and started laughing. We would not even have contemplated playing Wigan a couple of years ago, let alone it being a big game."

John Boocock is the chairman of the Leeds United Supporters Trust, and he tends to agree: "There's a massive difference between even a poor team in the Premiership and what we've got now," he said. "When you see Manchester United beating Arsenal, you think, 'Yeah, we were the last team to do that'.

"I know a lot of people who are still going to matches just out of comradeship, not because they expect to see exciting football. However it's dressed up, it's not a football team that's going places."

Lifelong Leeds fan Phil Hoffbrand, a London-based publican, does not get to go to as many games as he would like because of his long working hours and where he lives. He is just clinging on to the will to live, and explained: "I think the accurate description of me would be someone who has become so pissed off with the situation/club that he seriously resents throwing more money at them, and feels very cheated, but like most fans will always support them, and will no doubt be back for more."

Most of the Leeds faithful have remained just that. The club should get the best part of 30,000 for Wigan today, and every club they visit this season are tending to enjoy their biggest gate of the season.

Goodwill, 40, is a member of an unofficial supporters' group called the Maverick Whites. They charter and fill at least one coach to every away game.

"The home fans like to have a go, and we always hear 'You're not famous any more'. We just stand there thinking, 'Why is your ground full then?' Everywhere we go it's full because we still carry a reputation and a following. The fans have always stuck behind the team and I don't think any individual, with the occasional exception of Michael Duberry, has got much stick.

"The sad thing is we no longer have any players who make you think, 'I couldn't do that' or get you out of your seat, just a load of journeymen. Neil Sullivan, the goalkeeper, is probably the only player we have who should be playing at a higher level.

"We accept the financial restraints and think that Kevin Blackwell has done a reasonable job, but it could take four or five years to get back up, if we stay up. The worrying thing is that every game we play away is a like a cup final for the opposition and we haven't got the players to cope with that. It means we have to do well in our home games, and we're not so far.

"That said, this season has made a refreshing change in some ways. We're going to new grounds and new pubs. It gets a bit dull going to St James' Park and Highbury after 20-odd years. "It's great when you go to those places and win - Wigan will enjoy the Premiership for a year or two, but it's not all it's cracked up to be."