The world was supposed to end in 2012 and in that respect it could have been worse.
But when Ken Bates spoke of a “particularly difficult year” in the same week as he sold Leeds United, it was a rare occasion when his comments met with unanimous agreement.
This, in its own way, has been an annus horribilis for Leeds. It does not merit comparisons with 2007 – a time of relegation, insolvency and points deductions – but 2012 has been one of those years: defined by falling attendances, managerial changes and a takeover which took more than 200 days to complete.
If United’s new owner, GFH Capital, delivers on its promise of a bright future and a fresh start then 2012, United’s 93rd year of existence, might yet be defined as the moment when the Championship club turned the corner. But as 2013 approaches, these are Inside Elland Road’s abiding memories of 12 hard and exacting months:
1. Simon Grayson’s Escapology
Only Bates knows when the sacking of Grayson became an inevitability but most of us saw a dead man walking after Leeds finished 2011 with a 4-1 defeat to Barnsley.
“Embarrassing, shambolic,” said a shaken Grayson at the end of a match in which his players made a good fist of hanging him.
Two days later virtually every journalist had started writing his obituary as Leeds trailed to a Burnley side reduced to 10 men.
The divine intervention which came in the form of an own goal from Jay Rodriguez and a comical attempt by Burnley goalkeeper Lee Grant to throw the ball into his own net defied description.
Leeds escaped with a 2-1 win and Grayson escaped with his job. His resistance continued as a red card shown to Sean Scannell helped United avoid defeat at Crystal Palace on January 14, and the combined ineptitude of Alex McCarthy and Arran Lee-Barrett cost Ipswich Town a victory at Elland Road the following weekend – McCarthy handling outside the box and Lee-Barrett resorting to Grant’s style of hapless goalkeeping. By the time Birmingham’s Nikola Zigic ran Grayson through on the final day of the transfer window, the 42-year-old was like General Custer; bruised and bloodied with arrows in his hat.
2. The sale of Jonathan Howson
Such was the reaction to Howson’s transfer to Norwich City that the story published on the YEP’s website drew more readers’ comments than any story written before it, football-related or otherwise. The vitriol aimed at the club over the decision to sell their captain brought to mind the vicious response to the auction of Jonathan Woodgate nine years earlier, albeit on a lesser scale. Howson divided opinion between those who appreciated his subtle talent and those who counted his forgettable games but his departure on January 24 perpetuated the idea that players become more popular and talented in the minds of the public when they step out of the team. Leeds justified the transfer on the basis that Howson’s deal was six months from expiry, Norwich had offered £2million and the midfielder wanted a move to the Premier League, but that logic – and the promise that Howson’s fee would be invested in new players – failed to wash.
As YEP columnist Dominic Matteo said: “I’ve got a horrible feeling that Howson won’t be the last to leave. What chance of someone like Robert Snodgrass being here in August if Leeds aren’t promoted?” No chance, as it turned out.
3. Redfearn’s poisoned chalice and the appointment of Neil Warnock
United think highly of Neil Redfearn – highly enough to entrust the care of their academy to him. Speak to anyone who works with Redfearn and they’ll describe him as a very capable coach. But the answer to the prayers of a major English club who are managerless, rudderless and under heavy pressure? Not really. Redfearn was named as caretaker boss on February 1, the day of Grayson’s sacking, amid whispers that a convincing impact would earn him the job for the remainder of the season. In reality, his fortnight in charge underlined the need for a proven appointment. Though Leeds won Redfearn’s first game at Bristol City, they were beaten at home by Brighton and outwitted away at Coventry on a night when Redfearn was left at the mercy of a dissenting away crowd. Before long, club chief executive Shaun Harvey was flying to Monaco with Warnock and a deal for his services was duly done. Having sat on the story anxiously for almost 24 hours, both the YEP and the Yorkshire Post broke the news on the morning of February 14 and though Warnock took a seat in the stands for a 3-2 win over Doncaster Rovers, United’s nervous demeanour prompted him to visit their dressing room at half-time. He made no criticism of Redfearn, describing him as a “good coach” and a “good bloke”. “But I think he was quite relieved,” Warnock said.
4. The emergence of Sam Byram
United’s academy at Thorp Arch has seen its share of problems but the trickle of produce has not yet dried up. Tom Lees came of age last season and Sam Byram’s development in the past six months goes to show that youth-team squads never fail to surprise. It is doubtful whether Warnock knew Byram’s name before the teenager was asked to fill a hole during the earliest of United’s summer training sessions but he is part of that rare breed of players whose age and inexperience becomes meaningless when set against his ability. Speaking after United’s final pre-season friendly at Burton Albion, Warnock admitted candidly that he had no plans to use Byram extensively this season, not least because of the signing of right-back Lee Peltier, but Byram is one appearance short of 30 in his first full term. To give that figure some context, Aidan White managed a run of five successive outings before Gary McAllister removed him from the firing line in 2008. This mature 19-year-old is destined for big things as the watching scouts of Liverpool and Everton seem to have realised.
Player of the season as things stand? Very possibly.
‘Takeover My A***’ to the uninitiated and an acronym spawned by the many groundless takeover rumours during Bates’ reign as chairman.
United’s supporters scarcely dared to believe that a buy-out was in the offing when talk of foreign investment grew legs in May and the excruciating length of GFH Capital’s acquisition of Leeds left many doubting whether the firm would come good right up until the point when its takeover was signed off on December 21.
Twitter creaked under the weight of constant chatter during the previous seven months, and a thread on the Internet forum WACCOE – aptly titled ‘TOMA’ – attracted more than 135,000 posts, nine million views and the impatient prayers of a restless public.
The thread did not quite break the world record but it bloodied the noses of all and sundry, this floundering journalist included.
If GFH Capital doubts the whirlwind of attention it is stepping into, TOMA should change its mind.