How easy it is to fall spectacularly from grace

There is something operatic about the collapse of one of the proudest football clubs
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For King Midas of Phrygia, read Ron Atkinson of Barnt Green. A world which yields easy rewards is also a world in which a man's downfall is but one stupid utterance away. The downfall of an empire is more difficult to analyse, but if Atkinson's fall from grace was spectacularly swift, then that of Leeds United was, in a wider context, scarcely less so.

On Sunday, Leeds were relegated from the Premiership to the Nationwide First Division. Next season, Home Park in Plymouth will be among the destinations for loyal supporters who just three years ago were cheering on their team in one of European football's great arenas, the Nou Camp stadium, Barcelona.

One of their matinee idols then, the Australian striker Mark Viduka, on Sunday afternoon completed his transformation to pantomime villain. Having scored the penalty to put Leeds 1-0 up at Bolton Wanderers, Viduka senselessly got himself sent off. Inconsolable fans then watched as Leeds, down to 10 demoralised men, were hammered 4-1. The fat lady had finally sung, a not inappropriate metaphor. There has been something truly operatic about the collapse of one of England's proudest football clubs.

How it all happened has been picked over endlessly in the sports and business pages. Suffice to say that corporate recklessness was compounded by individual folly, the combination that through the centuries has done for empires much bigger than Leeds United.

One of those follies was the decision of David O'Leary, manager during the great European adventure, to write a self-aggrandising book called Leeds United on Trial. It was published in January 2001, in a week when Leeds led the Premiership and looked unassailable, and covered the consequences of a horrific episode outside a city-centre nightclub, when an Asian student was brutally beaten. Two Leeds players stood accused of the assault. One, Jonathan Woodgate, was convicted. The other, Lee Bowyer, was acquitted, yet branded a liar by the judge.

Woodgate and Bowyer now earn a handsome living at Newcastle United. O'Leary is the successful manager of Aston Villa, and may guide them to a place in next season's Champions' League. Peter Ridsdale, the executive whose ambitions dragged Leeds into the financial mire, is now in charge at second-division Barnsley. The high-earning Viduka will be transferred in the summer, as will striker Alan Smith, a lifelong Leeds fan who on Sunday asked the supporters who idolise him to be understanding in the event of his leaving as well. "I'm not a first-division player," he said.

But they will be first-division fans. They are the only people in this whole sorry mess who can't move on, which demonstrates the central paradox of football: that its followers show extraordinary loyalty to managers and players who, when the chips are down or they are offered more chips elsewhere, bugger off. And this paradox has gathered strength in recent years. When Celtic became the first British club to win the European Cup, in 1967, all 11 players were born within 30 miles of Celtic Park. Tomorrow, Chelsea will attempt to reach the final of the same competition with players who are considered local if they were born within 300 miles of the King's Road.

Yet, irrespective of a team's ever-changing personnel, the fans keep the faith. I have heard it said many times that a man can change his car, his job, his home, his nationality, his religion and his wife, but not his football team. And, let's not be sexist, a woman can change all the above and her husband, but not her team.

On the television news on Sunday evening, a female Leeds fan was shown sobbing following the defeat at Bolton. I know some women, uninterested in football, who find this bewildering. The game is a bastion of male chauvinism, if not sexism, they complain. Any nods to political correctness are often ridiculed, as when the great Pele included two women in his recent list of the 100 finest living footballers.

So why would women embrace a game in which they are in many ways disenfranchised? Well, by the same token, why would Leeds fans continue to support a club that has in many ways betrayed their trust? Why would any of us go nuts over a sport in which men earning £80,000 a week are frequently seen committing acts of petty cheating on the field, or reported as having committed acts of extreme loutishness off it? These are questions I ask myself quite often. And of course, football inexorably finds the lowest common denominator among followers as well as professionals. It brings out the worst in people, from savage hooliganism at one extreme, to the malicious pleasure that many fans - from those who think that Schadenfreude is the Bayern Munich centre-half to those who speak several languages fluently - are taking in the decline and fall of Leeds United.

But it's still the best game in the world, not least because it is the world's game. The most passionate Leeds fans I have ever met lived in the poorest part of Soweto. They had never been out of the township, let alone to the Reebok Stadium, Bolton, yet I don't suppose anyone felt more anguish on Sunday. It will be of scant consolation to Leeds, but there's the magic of football, right there.