Leeds' hopes of survival pinned on Gray

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The Independent Football

The ghost of Christmases past stalks Elland Road this afternoon. David O'Leary laughed when asked if he imagined he could return to Leeds United with his held high. However, his reception will be considerably less than that of another messianic figure who came within an ace of breaking Manchester United's hold on the Premiership but whose legacy was heavy debt and memories of what might have been.

Kevin Keegan's name was chanted from every corner of St James' Park when he returned for the first time in February 2002. The Manchester City team bus nosed its way into the stadium through a Geordie sea for an FA Cup tie and Keegan blew kisses to the vast stand his team had paid for.

O'Leary, now at Aston Villa, will get precious little of this; his legacy is far more questionable. His insistence that he was unaware that he was spending £70 million of someone else's money still rings hollow 18 months after Peter Ridsdale dismissed him following a terse five-minute conversation.

Eddie Gray was more direct. Yes, the club "was essentially spending money it didn't have", he admitted recently. When it was doing most of the spending, Gray, who was never close to the Irishman, was third in line, behind O'Leary and a man who supplanted him as first team coach, Bryan Kidd.

Just as Newcastle recovered their post-Keegan equilibrium only through Sir Bobby Robson, who queued for tickets to see Jackie Milburn play in the 1951 FA Cup final, so it needed Gray, a Glasweigan steeped in Leeds United since he made the first of his 442 appearances for the Yorkshire club in 1965, to oversee the revival.

Should O'Leary blow a kiss towards the Revie stand this Boxing Day, Gary Edwards will be there. He has been watching Leeds as long as Gray has been associated with the club and his experiences are recounted in a book called Paint It White - the title derives from his refusal as a painter and decorator to deck out anything in red. In all these years he has missed one game - a friendly in Toronto in 1968 and that because he could not get a flight from Madrid.

He has seen so much but unlike so many fans whose support teeters on the edge of fanaticism, Edwards has a sense of perspective. In 1973 he saw Leeds attempt a treble of the Championship, Cup-Winners' Cup and FA Cup. Thirty years later the treble they might achieve is relegation, administration and the sale of their few survivors from the O'Leary years.

"This is not the worst I've felt, that was coming back from Paris after the European Cup Final of 1975, knowing we had been cheated. Had we won that game, the whole perspective of Leeds United would have been altered.'' The best was not the run to the European Cup semi-final two years ago. "No, it was beating Barcelona in the Nou Camp when Johann Cruyff was at his peak. The Barca fans held a huge banner of Cruyff in a tank driving over us and on the night we were inspired.

"I have seen too much to be depressed. I can't say if it was right to sack Peter Reid [although Reid candidly told Emlyn Hughes that he deserved to go because of the results]. But we would have definitely gone down under Terry Venables.

''I'm encouraged by what Eddie Gray has achieved. Our great days under O'Leary were with him as first team coach, attacking in a 4-3-3 formation. Something went missing when he was replaced by Kidd, and I'm not just saying that because of his links with Manchester United.''

The team shattered 6-1 at Fratton Park in Reid's final, disastrous game in charge has shown signs of the old panache. They might have beaten Chelsea and Manchester City, while their 3-2 victory over Fulham was as if the last two disastrous years had never been.

There are still shadows hanging over Gray, not least the fact he is not properly qualified to coach the club. He was supposed to have taken out his Uefa licence in the summer but he was sacked by Reid and then, in a twist only Leeds could have managed, he was appointed by the then chairman, John McKenzie, to act as his "football adviser'' and ended up advising McKenzie on the man, Reid, who had just fired him. This however will be less of an obstacle than the opening of the transfer window in five days time.

January has been a cruel month at Elland Road. In 2000 there was the fracas outside the Leeds nightclub which led to the trial of Jonathon Woodgate and Lee Bowyer. In January two years ago, O'Leary published his astonishingly ill-timed book, Leeds United On Trial, which did much to undermine their position as Premiership leaders.

Last January, Venables and his chairman, Peter Ridsdale, eyed each other with contempt and suspicion as they attempted to explain away Woodgate's sale to Newcastle.

Now, having hauled themselves within sight of safety, Leeds face the loss of Mark Viduka to Manchester United and, perhaps even more unpalatable, that of Alan Smith. Viduka, whose churlishness poisoned the dressing-room in Reid's last days, has regained the form that salvaged the club last season.

The loss of Smith would be far more symbolic - akin to Newcastle's sale of Paul Gascoigne - and an admission they are no longer big enough to hold on to a local hero.