Brian Viner: Ridsdale is phantom of the opera in epic tragedy of Elland Road

'All that hope, all that promise, snuffed out in three short years'

When the luck turns against you in football, it turns against you toting an AK-47. Take Leeds United - as the receivers very well might. Or Leeds Benighted, as the club should perhaps now be called.

Supporters must have been thinking last week that things could hardly get any worse, when inevitably they did: on Thursday, Alan Smith, the one player whose commitment to the Leeds cause is absolute, was ignominiously sent home from the England team hotel in Manchester.

Following Smith's arrest that lunchtime by West Yorkshire police investigating a bottle-throwing incident at the end of the Carling Cup-tie with Manchester United, the Football Association, in its less than Solomon-like wisdom, took four hours to decide that it would be unseemly to have in the England camp a man on police bail. Smith was duly ordered back across the Pennines. More bad press for the FA, whose top brass admitted to not knowing that Nicky Butt, too, had been on police bail when playing for England in Istanbul. And more disgrace for Leeds.

As I have written before, I hold no affection for Leeds United. For three or four years in the late 1970's I travelled to most of Everton's away games, and the reception at Elland Road was always more scarily hostile than anywhere else. Of course, one should suppress football prejudices formed in one's teens, but somehow one rarely does.

That said, the former Eintracht Frankfurt full-back Schadenfreude no longer looms over the precipitous decline of Leeds United. Nor does the old Panathinaikos centre-half Hubris. I know of no true football fans who take pleasure in the humbling of a proud old club, and those of us whose clubs are also in a parlous financial state should be bloody terrified.

But there is so much more to the recent Leeds story than the financial mismanagement of the Peter Ridsdale era.

There is the trial of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate with its unpleasant continuing reverberations; David O'Leary's astonishingly ill-timed book; the allegations against Jody Morris; the enmity between Mark Viduka and Peter Reid, followed by Reid's sacking and Viduka's apparent redemption; and, lending the whole sorry spectacle a poignancy that Leeds fans must find truly painful, the memories of glorious nights in the Champions' League, and of mounting what at the time seemed like a perfectly credible challenge to Manchester United's domination of the Premiership. All that hope, all that promise, snuffed out in three short years.

Prepare yourselves for 'Leeds United: The Opera', with Bryn Terfel as Ridsdale, a tragic, heavy-jowled, seemingly well-meaning figure, who falls victim to his own ambition and watches a mighty edifice imploding around and then behind him.

Meanwhile, who is the next man to be introduced as the club's potential saviour? According to Balthazar Fabricius, it will probably be Nottingham Forest's Paul Hart. That's the Balthazar Fabricius who is a spokesman for Ladbrokes, incidentally, rather than any of the other Balthazar Fabriciuses you might know, it being such a tiresomely common name. There were two in my class at school.

Anyway, the last Ladbrokes betting list I was sent had Hart at 4-5 hot favourite, followed by Neil Warnock at 7-2, Eddie Gray at 4-1, O'Leary at 7-1 and Gordon Strachan at 8-1. Since then, Strachan has reportedly moved close to finalising a deal, while O'Leary has ruled himself out, and wisely so. Howard Kendall could tell him that managers should never return to the helm of a club they once steered through the good times. At the same time, it seems scarcely credible that Leeds would have wanted O'Leary back.

Whether or not Strachan returns to Leeds, I fancy that Hart's moment may have passed. As a Leeds-supporting friend of mine said: "It's known that he would walk up the M1 to take the job, so if they really wanted him they would have appointed him already."

Whatever, at the other end of the Ladbrokes list, I am disappointed not to find any of those joke "contenders" for the job, such as Osama Bin Laden or George W Bush. It always tickles me to see their odds of 10,000-1 or whatever, suggesting that Ladbrokes are unwilling to make it 1,000,000-1 just in case. On the other hand, it could be said that the joke "contenders" are already well represented by Howard Wilkinson and Terry Venables, both at 66-1. Bookmakers might as well quote Don Revie at the same price.

Other names on the list are not so easily dismissed. Iain Dowie (20-1) and Paul Sturrock (20-1) have both demonstrated their abilities in the lower divisions, and there is no doubt that the example of David Moyes last season made Premiership directors sit up and take notice. Before the former Preston boss resuscitated Everton - a resuscitation that has temporarily run out of puff, I admit - big clubs in search of new managers were inclined to look abroad.

So it is interesting to note that none of the 18 names on the Ladbrokes list are foreign. Struggling clubs are now looking for the next Moyes, rather than the next Arsène Wenger, although I have a feeling that what is needed most at Elland Road is the next Jesus Christ.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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