Graham Kelly: Leeds players' action recalls earlier club's demise

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The unanimous initial refusal by the Leeds United players to accept a wage deferral last week was not the first occasion players from that city have stood firm against such a proposal. There is a similarity between what happened at their predecessor club, Leeds City, and the current farrago at Elland Road, as the players stand accused of betrayal for refusing to accept the role of martyrs following the club's serial mismanagement.

Back in 1914, Britain had been the only country to enter the First World War without compulsory military service and, as the football season approached, the question arose as to whether football should be suspended so that personnel should be free to volunteer. The Football League caused dismay by carrying on.

At Second Division Leeds, the manager Herbert Chapman, his players and fellow officials donated five per cent of their wages to the national relief fund, while their Elland Road ground was used by the military.

When it became clear, contrary to the League's expectations, that the war was not going to be over quickly, gates fell by half and players found it difficult to concentrate. The League drew up a scale of wage cuts whereby players on £5 a week (the maximum) took a 15 per cent cut and those on £3 to £4 took a five per cent cut, the money being placed in a fund for clubs in financial difficulty. City's players rejected the cut, saying any such action should be voluntary.

Lord Kitchener's recruitment campaign commenced and uncertainty about football increased further. After City finished 15th in the Second Division in 1915, their wobbly finances led to the appointment of a receiver, who sold the company to a consortium led by a Mr J Connor, of the West Riding FA. The Football League had no option but to replace the championship with temporary regional leagues, Leeds being placed in the Midlands section.

By early 1916, pressure was mounting for conscription. In a last-ditch attempt to avoid it, the Government introduced a scheme whereby men "attested" their willingness to serve if called upon. Chapman, Connor and most of the City players duly "attested". Chapman then took a job in a munitions factory, continuing to advise the club and his successor, George Cripps.

Midway through 1918, Chapman began to devote more time to the club as secretary/manager in between his duties as factory manager, but in December he suddenly resigned to take another job outside football. A week later, Cripps also left and the account books ended up in the hands of a solicitor with instructions that the contents were not to be disclosed under any circumstances. Indeed, the full story has never been told.

Later, the full-back James Copeland reported the club to the Football Association following a contractual dispute. A League commission demanded the books, Leeds refused to produce them, and so the League expelled them.

The League president, John McKenna, explained: "So long as they refused to give up those vital papers, we could have no way out other than by expelling them.

"The stables must be cleansed. The authorities intend to keep the game absolutely clean."

Chapman, Cripps and Connor, together with three other directors, were banned from all football and the Leeds players were auctioned off at knockdown prices. Cripps's family long believed McKenna's words concealed much worse machinations at other clubs.

A new club, Leeds United, succeeded in their application to the Second Division later the same year, 1920. The following year, Chapman managed to convince the League that he was innocent and he was allowed to take up the position of manager at Huddersfield Town, taking them to three consecutive titles before moving on to his glorious and innovative time at Highbury.

It is intriguing that the greatest manager of them all should have this merest whiff of scandal attaching to his illustrious reputation, as did the formidable Sir Matt Busby following the Granada exposé about payments for youngsters.

Meanwhile the BBC Radio Five Live presenter Jonathan Pearce seemed unaware that the summariser Jimmy Armfield remains on the payroll of the Professional Footballers' Association when questioning him about the Leeds United players' decision. As was pointed out elsewhere at the weekend, Roque Junior, signed under Professor John McKenzie's more recent "financially realistic" regime, cost about £240,000 per game, so why should the players be cast in the role of bad guys suddenly?

As Leeds contemplated administration, so Wimbledon were hoping to be able to exit this unhappy state. I will not shed too many tears over the millions lost by the former owners who presided over the move to Milton Keynes, but it is with causes such as that of the ex-manager, Terry Burton, who is likely to get nothing, that the League Managers Association deserves success. The Football League should protect its contracts.