James Lawton: Glorious past gives fans at Leeds hope for the future

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The Independent Football

The official line at Elland Road yesterday was less than apocalyptic, a fact so unlikely so soon after the pain and tears of defeat and relegation at Bolton on Sunday there was a rumour around town that Mary Poppins had joined the board.

In fact, it was more a case of celebrating some small mercies, not least that there is still a Leeds United, still a club with both a passionate following and the means of survival.

A few months ago that would have seemed like the last word in misguided optimism. Today, though no one is talking instant resurrection as a major force in English football, the picture is not without some hope.

Steve Parkin, a local haulage magnate who is as besotted with the club as the late Sir Jack Walker was with Blackburn Rovers, is believed to be days, maybe even hours away from buying Leeds. He would then assume debts which, whatever you think about the morality involved in their reduction, would now appear grotesque only in the real world beyond English football.

A £42m wage bill, which includes £68,000 a week for the talented but apparently utterly witless Mark Viduka, £60,000 for Alan Smith, and £30,000 plus for such less than iconic figures as Seth Johnson and Nicky Barmby, is in the process of being hugely slashed. It must be hoped that in a few days' time, when such basic details as who owns the club and who is left to play for it have been ironed out, Leeds will make their first move to sign a new manager, the much respected Eddie Gray moving to a role which will continue to exploit his knowledge of the game, and love of the club, which at a conservative estimate is worth well in excess of a small mountain of coaching badges.

Gordon Strachan, whose wife is particularly fond of the town, is considered the perfect appointment with the obdurate Micky Adams another name that has been mentioned. Strachan is much loved in Leeds and is widely considered potty enough to take the challenge.

All of the foregoing would amount to not much more than unworldly gibbering but for the one saving element in the story of monumental mismanagement that has dragged the club down so relentlessly over the last three years.

It is the Leeds fans, who, let us be honest, have not always been the most appetising collection of football humanity - not when they were singing lustily about the Munich air tragedy and beating up towns across the country in the late Eighties. But it seems that adversity has brought something more admirable out of the great mass of Leeds' following. They have imagined life without their football club, without its meaning to their identity, and they have raged against the idea of its loss. They have supported players who frankly scarcely deserved such loyalty, but at Bolton on Sunday we saw that it was an emotional attachment that went far beyond the ebbing of hope and the underperformance of one set of players in one season.

The potential new ownership know that for the moment the worst fear of the club's extinction has been averted, and this surely provides huge emotional support for anything they seek to achieve. It is also true that Leeds is a big, prosperous one-club market.

And then there is one final reason to believe in the possibility of the redemption of Leeds United. It is that it has been achieved before. Don Revie took over an ailing Second Division club whose fate was largely a matter of indifference to a town far more concerned with the fate of the Leeds and Hunslet rugby league clubs.

It has long been fashionable in certain morally selective media circles to disparage the achievements of Revie's Leeds. Doubtless there was too much gamesmanship, too much of a drive to stifle the opposition rather exert their own natural superiority - Revie poignantly admitted it to his great lieutenant John Giles virtually on his deathbed - but only the terminally peevish could not acknowledge the inherent greatness of what unfolded before the eyes of the mesmerised Leeds supporters in the decade between 1965 and '75.

In the early Seventies Leeds had graduated to football that was nothing less than imperious and if anyone wants to get into truly serious debate about the greatest club teams in the history of English football they are obliged to examine some of the old film. A classic piece, still shown from time to time, is a keep-ball performance at the end of a slaughter of Southampton at Elland Road, but it is a mere bauble when set against the diamonds that shone at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and Anfield when Revie's men were off the leash.

The tragedy of David O'Leary's fall, in which he was blameworthy only in the matter of his poor handling of the Woodgate-Bowyer trial and his subsequently disastrous decision to publish a book entitled The Trial of Leeds United, was that his naturally aggressive style suggested that his pursuit of glory might well bypass some of the agonies, and the excesses, involved in the growth of Revie's team. Unfortunately, though, O'Leary could offer only the promise of triumph. Circumstances forced him to settle for non-achievement. The charge against Revie was underachievement. It is one worth briefly reconsidering as Leeds seek to benefit from a base of support that was first built into the blood of the town in the days of Revie, when, in 10 years, seven different clubs won the First Division title.

Leeds in that period won it twice, like Manchester United and Liverpool, with the other successes going to Everton, Arsenal, Derby County and Manchester City. Leeds also won the FA Cup, the League Cup and two Uefa Cups. They reached three other FA Cup finals, the first one in 1965 when in their first season in the top division they lost the title to Manchester United on goal average and became the first team ever to register 60 points under the old two-points for a win rule and still not take the championship.

They lost the final to the superb Liverpool team of Roger Hunt, Ian St John and Ron Yeats in extra time, with two players, Jim Storrie and Alan Peacock, crippled. Leeds reached three other finals, in the Uefa Cup, the Cup-Winners' Cup and the European Cup. In those 10 years of intense and unbroken contention for the top prizes they were never out of the top four in the League until, in the summer of 1974, Revie was succeeded first by Brian Clough, then Jimmy Armfield.

Since then Leeds have won one title under Howard Wilkinson, who decided for some reason to take down the pictures of Revie's team, presumably in anticipation of a new empire at Elland Road, an ambition that ran aground when Fifa, the governing body of world football, decided to ban the back-pass, thus preventing the ball from being worked back to the goalkeeper for the tactically crucial hoof down the field.

Yesterday at Elland Road there was no disposition to rub out the past. Indeed, it was seen - rightly - as the most potent reason to believe in the future. Leeds' supporters, if in many cases only by word of mouth, know what is to have a great team. It is a legacy that continues to give life to their battered but still unbroken hopes.

Wenger can afford to be diplomatic

Arsene Wenger's genius for organising a football team may only be exceeded by his flair for diplomacy.

When it was put to him, quite inevitably, that he might bid for the reportedly homesick David Beckham his expressive face was perfectly inscrutable. Beckham was a great player, but of course. He could pass it long, or short, he could do anything you might want. But a bid was out of the question. Beckham was simply too expensive.

Wenger might have asked a few rhetorical questions. Why did he need Beckham? To improve the flow of his team? To provide some much-needed focus, a clear brand of leadership and commitment to the job on the field? Did he need the cohesive force supplied to Real Madrid by Beckham these last few weeks? Would a seven-day-a-week circus help the cause?

But there was none of that. Just a simple, unassailable declaration that some things in life you can't buy, which, when you are the manager of a football team that has been performing like a dream, is probably just as well.