McAllister loss leaves Leeds cold

Simon Turnbull visits the Yorkshire city where enthusiasm for today's Premiership kick-off is in short supply
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The Independent Online
If you wanted to buy a player mobile for your bedroom at Leeds United's city centre shop on Thursday lunchtime the choice, at pounds 2.99 a time, was between Gary McAllister, Gary McAllister and Gary McAllister. You could have also invested pounds 8.99 in a copy of The Captain's Log, helpfully subtitled on the dustjacket as The Gary McAllister Story.

Not so much sent to Coventry as voluntarily lured there, Leeds United's captain once-removed had been left on the shelf. His former worshippers feel they have suffered a similar fate too. As Ian Dobson put it, over a pint in the Scarborough Hotel: "I think we realise this is not going to be our season."

The tattooed gentleman behind the fruit and veg stall, the only animate object to be found parading a Leeds United shirt in the city's vast indoor market (there were a few on hangers at the Leeds Rugby League kiosk) was similarly resigned. "Apprehensive," was his economical response when asked to sum up his mood on the eve of the big kick-off.

He had to be succinct, such was the queue for service. A three-minute stroll away, at The Leeds United Collection Shop in Burtons Arcade, the two ladies behind the till had only each other (and the Gary McAllister collection) for company.

A young boy peered through the window at the white shirt emblazoned with a number nine and the name "Rush". "Come on," his mother said, dragging him in the direction of Habitat next door. "It's just the Leeds United shop."

With the possible exception of Blackburn, where the shorn-off Ss, Hs, Es, As and Rs probably still litter the streets around Ewood Park, it was difficult to conceive of a place on the Premiership map with less collective enthusiasm for the new season ahead. At least on the streets of Sunderland, Leicester and Derby there is the anticipation of a new adventure ahead, albeit tempered by fear of a return ticket to Grimsby and Reading come the May day of reckoning.

In Leeds, even that traditional last bastion of defiant optimism, the club magazine, could not help but betray the gloomy disposition of a football city gripped not so much by fever as placid sufferance.

On pages 14 and 15 of the August edition of the imaginatively titled Leeds United Magazine, Howard Wilkinson pleads for the fans to get behind his team, the rallying call managers usually issue somewhere in between a disastrous start by his players and the arrival of the sack.

Leeds, indeed, kick off at Derby this afternoon as second favourites - second favourites to change their manager before the end of the season, that is. Only Leicester's Martin O'Neill is expected to have a shorter shelf-life than Wilkinson, who has been given 7-4 survival odds by Ladbrokes.

Radio Five Live's switchboard was jammed with Leeds fans calling for the manager's head on David Mellor's Saturday night 606 programme towards the end of last season, when a run of six defeats came after the abject Coca-Cola Cup final performance against Aston Villa. Yet Wilkinson's critics sympathised with his plight this summer as the protracted manner of Leeds' pounds 16.5m takeover by the London-based Caspian media group precipitated the departure of the revered McAllister and left the club as bit-part players in the booming transfer market.

The arrival of Ian Rush, Nigel Martyn, Lee Bowyer and Lee Sharpe has not eased the disappointment of losing McAllister ("We are not going to be able to replace him," the club magazine concedes), let alone rivalled the signings up the road at Newcastle and Middlesbrough.

"I think we're in the second division of the Premiership," Ian Dobson said. "Apart from Liverpool, Man United and maybe Villa, you can't see anyone else winning the title."

The Ooh! Aah! days of 1992, when the dream midfield of Strachan, McAllister, Batty and Speed swept Leeds to the title and when Eric the not-yet Red tormented Eike Immel and Stuttgart are long gone now. Even the false dawn of Tony Yeboah's goals of the month and Monaco hat-trick last year has faded in the memory.

After the machinations of the summer takeover, a season of sights set on consolidation is not anathema to Ian Dobson and his friend, Andy Peterson, a contributor to The Square Ball fanzine. They became fans in the Second Division days of the 1980s. Both in their mid-twenties, they are too young to recall the Don Revie years.

"I think we need to accept a couple of years of transition," Peterson said. "Let's not forget," Dobson interjected. "Man United didn't win a championship for 26 years."

As Leeds United and their followers prepared to embark on a season of not-so-great expectations, it was difficult to decide whether that was a cheering or a sobering thought.

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