Gray thrives on the passion and pain as Leeds fight to the end

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The Independent Football

In bundles of pink and blue, fastened to the railings, bouquets flutter on a motorway bridge close to Leeds United's training complex in the North Yorkshire countryside. Roadside tributes to lost loved ones are commonplace, but this one is different. At the heart of the display is the bright white of Leeds banners, scarves and shirts.

Close inspection of the attached messages reveals the flowers and flags to be a memorial to a recently deceased Leeds fanatic from Wetherby. Yet the crisis engulfing his beloved club is so severe, so threatening, that passing drivers glimpsing the letters "LUFC" and "RIP" may be excused for assuming that some of the faithful fear it will become terminal.

Eddie Gray understands the passion behind the poignancy. He embodies it. Now 56, his affinity with Leeds began when Don Revie took him to Elland Road 41 years ago and has survived the sadness of two sackings. Alone among club insiders, talk of administration and relegation - maybe even extinction -- is nothing new to the caretaker manager.

When Gray became player-manager in 1982, the European Cup finalists of seven years earlier had just taken the drop from the top flight amid a deluge of debts. With Leeds now bottom of the Premiership and £80m in the red, history will surely repeat itself for the 2001 Champions' League semi-finalists unless they take points from today's trip to Aston Villa and Tuesday's visit by Wolves, who are one place above them.

"Nothing's changed for me at this club!" Gray said with a grin as it was noted that malign fate has twice delivered his dream job in the darkest of eras. "Most of my playing days here were in great times. This is just the other side of things.

"People were talking about Leeds going under 20 years ago, too. The big difference now is that there's far more money involved, in terms of the size of the debt and what the players earn. But our club will survive. We've bounced back before and we will again."

His long-term optimism is based not on knowledge of an imminent injection of finance, though the acting chairman, Trevor Birch, continues to work towards a rescue package. It stems from a sense that a one-city club with a fan base like Leeds' will always have vast potential. They have lost everything before, flirting with English football's third tier at their lowest ebb in the Eighties, yet were champions again by 1992.

"We couldn't afford eight years in the wilderness like the club had after we last went down," said Gray. "Look what's happened to Sheffield Wednesday. When they were doing well in the Premiership a few years ago, who would've thought they'd be playing League games with Rushden & Diamonds, who my son Stuart plays for? That's why it's vital we do our utmost to stay up."

Five successive defeats suggest that Crewe, Rotherham and Plymouth will shortly replace Old Trafford, Anfield and Highbury on Leeds' itinerary. Is this season a write-off? "Not at all. I've got a belief in the players here. I still think we've got a chance. It's going to be difficult, sure, but I genuinely believe we can get out of trouble. A couple of back-to-back wins could transform things."

Leeds appeared to be turning things around in December after Gray was summoned back to succeed Peter Reid. "We went to Wolves on a bit of a run and took an early lead. Then Alan Smith scored a bizarre own goal. You could see the players thinking: 'Here it goes again'. It was the same at Southampton when we were 2-1 down and hit the post late on.

"When you watch Arsenal or Manchester United, they play as if they expect to win. When things go against you, that belief goes completely the other way. But you can make too many excuses when things go badly, and a crisis at a club gives everyone an excuse to fail. The boys here have looked bright in training but now they have to show the confidence to express themselves in matches.

"Before we got relegated in 1982, people kept saying: 'They're too good to go down'. I thought it was rubbish because we weren't performing. We've got a lot of good footballers at this club now, but regardless of how good you are technically, you've still got to go out and work hard as individuals for the benefit of the side."

Instability has taken its toll on cohesion and conviction. The price of the spending madness that characterised the club when Peter Ridsdale was chairman and the manager was the man in the home dug-out at Villa Park today, David O'Leary, has kept escalating. One big-name player after another has been sold to service the debt.

"When you're bottom of the league and the only thing people are hoping for in the transfer window is that you don't sell a player, it tells you everything," reflected Gray. "But fair play to Trevor Birch. The only player to go was Michael Bridges [to Newcastle on loan], and he was getting very stale here. There were players we could have got good money for, but we've kept them all.

"Our club has had bad publicity for lots of reasons in recent years. This season, with the financial problems, it's been magnified, and it doesn't help the players. I've spoken to them about the wage-deferral thing and tried to impress on them that they must put it to the back of their minds and concentrate on the football."

Players come and go. Leeds' fans, however, have remained remarkably loyal. "They knew last summer it was going to be very difficult, and they're the ones that have suffered. Some spend all their wages following Leeds United and they want value for money. Yorkshire people are like that - I know, I'm married to one!

"But they're also realists. There's a sense of 'we've just got to put up with this now and then kick on again'. They know it could be hardship for a few years, yet anyone who went through the 1980s with Leeds knows we can recover from all this. They're desperate to stay up, but they'll still back the club, whatever happens."

The irony is that even if Gray keeps Leeds in the Premiership, new owners may have another manager in mind. Could his love for Leeds survive another exit? "Of course," he said emphatically. "When I left in May I was disappointed, but Peter [Reid] had to make his decisions and I thought 'fair enough'.

"I never expected to be back but it's a strange life. I'll just enjoy it while it lasts. If I was out again tomorrow I wouldn't walk away with any bitterness. Leeds United don't owe me anything."

That makes Gray unusual at a club where the creditors are circling, but if his defiance and devotion could be replicated among the players, reports of their demise may yet prove premature.