A League of mixed emotions for Leeds

Don Revie in 1972
Don Revie in 1972
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United have enjoyed a fractious relationship with the Football League even before the club was founded. Phil Hay reports.

The Football League’s 125th anniversary evokes fond memories for certain clubs and nightmares for others.

Loughborough’s short election in 1895 gave them the dubious pleasure of one win from every five games and the torment of a final season in which they amassed eight points from 68 on offer. They are 136th in the list of win ratios recorded by the 136 teams who have graced the Football League.

At the top end of the spectrum you have Liverpool and Manchester United; 2000-plus victories and counting. The years have been kind to some. For Leeds United the emotions are mixed as the Football League heads into its 125th season, more than 80 of which Leeds have contested. Theirs has been a hard relationship; fractious even before Leeds United were founded. The name of the club as it has come to be was in part the doing of the governing body.

Leeds held a place in the Football League between 1905 and 1919 in their previous incarnation, Leeds City. At the outset the League welcomed them with haste, accepting City into the fold after the club’s first year of existence. Leeds had been floated as a limited company in April 1905 and their major shareholders included a YEP journalist. They were elected the following month alongside Chelsea, Port Vale and others. An application from Doncaster Rovers was turned down.

Playing in blue and gold and based at Elland Road, Leeds City contested 388 league matches either side of the First World War. In that time, Billy McLeod, their County Durham-born centre-forward, top scored with 172 goals and played in a record 289 matches.

In 1914 their manager, Herbert Chapman, addressed the subject of small crowds at Elland Road by saying: “This city is built to support top-flight football.”

He was right; but it was not built to support Leeds City. In 1919 the club began to unravel.

During that year the Football Association and the Football League put together a six-man panel to investigate alleged payments made to players during the war, a flagrant breach of rules. The League had been sympathetic to other offenders but City’s refusal to hand over their accounts provoked the authorities. On October 13, with the matter going nowhere, a statement announced that Leeds City had been expelled from the Football League. “Expulsion can be the only fitting punishment,” the statement read.

History shows that from the ashes rose Leeds United, in spite of an attempt by Huddersfield Town to merge with their neighbours. Hilton Crowther, the Huddersfield chairman at the time, sought League approval for his plan but a two-hour EGM on January 16, 1920 rendered the proposal dead. United had played their first competitive match by then, drawing 0-0 with Barnsley’s reserves in a Midland League fixture. In May 1920, United were included in the Football League’s second division after topping the annual poll with 31 votes.

Peace and harmony persisted with minor exceptions until 2007 when United and the Football League found themselves at odds again, in a way which would change the governing body’s own rules.

The story of Leeds’ administration and ensuing points deduction was so compelling that I was later asked to produce a book on the saga by Mainstream Publishing, a Scottish branch of Random House. United emerged from it bloodied and bruised.

Their insolvency was declared in May 2007, 48 hours before the Championship season was due to end and six days after the club had been relegated. Carrying debts of more than £35million, they were quickly deducted 10 points in accordance with Football League regulations. Against expectations, administrator KPMG did not throw the stricken club open to bids; they instead accepted an offer from a group fronted by chairman Ken Bates before Leeds’ entry in adminstration was announced.

Over the next three months, the mess was spectacular. Bates persuaded the club’s creditors, including a number of anonymous off-shore firms, to accept a penny in the pound to settle their debts.

The Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) was narrowly approved with the required majority of 75 per cent.

It was only when Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs – itself owed £7.7m and set to receive just £70,000 by way of a settlement – began a legal challenge that another way was sought.

After a short and angry bidding process, KPMG sold the club without a CVA back to Bates and the financiers behind him. The Football League considered this a breach of rules requiring all insolvent clubs to exit administration with an agreed CVA. At no stage was expulsion from the League considered but the League seriously considered relegating United for a second time League Two. In the end an additional and unprecedented 15-point deduction was imposed with the support of all but five member clubs and later upheld on appeal. An independent tribunal dismissed a further challenge by Leeds almost 12 months later. Bates called for the League’s board to resign. Its chairman, Lord Mawhinney, laughed in response.

The passing of time does funny things. On Monday of this week, Shaun Harvey – Bates’ trusted chief executive at Leeds and a central figure in the drama of 2007 – became chief executive of the Football League and will take up his post on October 1. He will oversee much of the organisation’s 125th year and the problems that develop. Yesterday it was announced that Coventry City were doomed to liquidation.

Over many years, United have had their fun in the Football League; three promotions, three top-flight titles and the riotous pomp of the Don Revie era. Some of the statistics are mind-boggling – 3,618 matches contested of which 1,508 brought victory and 1,176 brought defeat, equating to 4,486 points in total.

At Elland Road, 46,312,948 people have past through the turnstiles. United’s Premiership years between 1992 and 2004 were a brief interlude in the story, all of which resides in the archives as the club wonder what lies ahead and look for the day when the Premier League becomes their field of play again.

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