Ten years ago this weekend, there were the first signs that life at Leeds United was beginning to fall apart. Having started 2002 as Premier League leaders, then missed out on the Champions' League football that a £60 million debt necessitated, the side managed by Terry Venables suffered a 4-2 home defeat on 17 November by the bottom club, Bolton, in front of a crowd that for once that season had dropped below 40,000. But the most pessimistic of fans could still not have imagined that the subsequent collapse would involve administration, 25 points deducted, three seasons in League One and nine managers in almost as many years – let alone Ken Bates.
Ten years on, after a decade of trauma, the team sit in the bottom eight of the Championship hoping to beg or borrow a player or two, and with the last home attendance of 19,104 having witnessed a 6-1 home defeat by Watford. Chairman Bates, meanwhile, is understood to be talking to three potential buyers who may or may not have the funds and the ability to steer Leeds back to where they ought to be – by most criteria, among the country's top-10 clubs. Going into Millwall's Den this afternoon, they are a long way short of that status.
On Friday morning the Leeds manager, Neil Warnock, was reported by the local newspaper correspondent to be "very despondent", which in the circumstances was hardly surprising. By mid-afternoon he had cheered up a little but confessed: "It's a difficult time. You feel like you're swimming against the tide with your hands tied together." The past week has cost the services of three more players, lost to injury and suspension and, with the proposed takeover delayed again, this Thursday's deadline for emergency loan signings is expected to pass without reinforcements arriving.
Told when he joined the club in February that a takeover was "imminent", Warnock now says: "I don't know what 'imminent' means any more. The chairman's not going to spend a lot of money if he's going to sell [the club] and if I was him I wouldn't either.
"When I failed to get one of my first targets in the summer, the lad [Joel] Ward from Portsmouth, who went to Palace, I knew then not a lot would happen unless the takeover took place."
The three interested parties are: the Bahrain company GFHC Capital, who on Thursday extended their exclusivity deal for negotiations; the American millionaire Preston Haskell IV, who emerged last weekend; and a Saudi group.
Haskell has now tabled a higher offer than GFHC, and Bates must therefore decide what is best for the club and for him.
Haskell is believed to have promised £10m for the January transfer window in the hope that Warnock can revive a challenge for a play-off place, an ambition on which he has not yet given up hope.
GFHC Capital are offering £17m to buy the club, with an extra payment if they are promoted to the financial holy grail of the Premier League. They say the money is ready and waiting and that due diligence has been done.
The consolations for Warnock are that each party have claimed he will remain as manager. He also retains the support of a majority of fans.
"If they turned on me, I wouldn't be here," he said. "They are the reason I stayed this year, really. And if I thought it would help I would probably leave anyway, but I can't see how it would help at this stage."
That backing is confirmed by Gary Cooper, chairman of the 8,000-strong Leeds United Supporters Trust, who says: "We hoped that during the summer the club would for once invest on the pitch, but that didn't happen.
"We desperately need investment and it would be unfair to judge Neil on our current position. He's doing his best to get the best out of a squad of very workmanlike players. We just feel we deserve better than that."
The Trust's beef is with the combative Bates, 81 next month but still taking on all comers, who nevertheless finds a supporter in the former Leeds full-back Danny Mills.
One of those expensive signings in the Peter Ridsdale-David O'Leary regime that "lived the dream", Mills says: "He [Bates] put money into the club when nobody else would, effectively saved them from the abyss. No one has ever really come up with the cash and I think that's what's happened again now.
"I have spoken to Ken and people close to him and he's always said that if people show him the money then a deal is on. But there's no point someone coming in and buying [the club] if it's going to be in a worse situation than before."
The less-than-mighty Whites must feel that anything much worse would be difficult to imagine.
Millwall v Leeds United is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.15pm
From Europe to nowhere: The long road down
Champions' League semi-final against Valencia.
Finish fourth in Premier League for a third successive season.
Average attendance 39,016.
Fail to qualify for Champions' League.
Rio Ferdinand is sold for £30m.
David O'Leary sacked and replaced by Terry Venables.
Peter Ridsdale steps down as club chairman.
Finish 15th with debts of £103m.
Peter Reid replaces Venables but is sacked with team bottom of Premier League.
New "Yorkshire" consortium under Gerald Krasner take over.
Relegated from Premier League.
Training ground and Elland Road stadium sold and leased back; also
Mark Viduka, Paul Robinson, Alan Smith and James Milner sold.
Ken Bates buys club for an estimated £10m.
Finish 14th in the Championship under Kevin Blackwell.
Lose in final of Championship play-offs. Dennis Wise replaces Blackwell.
Average attendance 22,355.
Relegated with 10-point deduction for entering administration.
Wise replaced by Gary McAllister.
Reach League One play-offs despite 15-point deduction but lose final to Doncaster.
McAllister is sacked after a run of defeats including a loss to non-League Histon in FA Cup.
Beaten by Millwall in play-off semi-final under Simon Grayson. Start following season with eight wins.
Win promotion to Championship on last day of season.
Finish seventh after being in play-off places for much of the season.
Average attendance 27,299.
Bates calls protesting fans "morons".
Grayson sacked in February and replaced by Neil Warnock.
Lose 7-3 at home to Nottingham Forest in March.
Finish 14th in the Championship.
Takeover talks with Bahrain firm GFHC. Average attendance 23,283.
Crowd of 17,484 v Charlton is lowest for six years.
Slip to 17th after 6-1 home defeat by Watford.
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