Leon Wobschall caught up with former United and England midfielder Jason Wilcox, who had a seat on the Elland Road roller-coaster a decade ago.
Clubs battling against the grim spectre of liquidation is becoming an increasingly worrying trend of the 2011-12 season – and if anyone can empathise with the current plight of Rangers, Portsmouth and Port Vale fans, it’s Leeds United’s.
Thousands of Whites supporters still remember the club’s white-knuckle ride of the first half of the noughties as if it was yesterday – and the adopting of the brace position ahead of a spectacular financial crash-landing.
So do the players. Just ask former United midfielder Jason Wilcox, whose dramatic four-and-a-half year spell at Elland Road took in the rise and fall of one of England’s great clubs.
The Lancastrian, who turned 40 last summer, is currently plotting his way back into professional football on the coaching front after taking an extended time out following an intense playing career with the likes of United, Blackburn Rovers and England.
All-consuming was the operative phrase for Wilcox’s stint this side of the Pennines after joining United from Blackburn in a £4m deal in December 1999.
After helping Leeds get to the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup in the second half of that season, a glamour run to the last four of the Champions League beckoned in 2000-01.
Then...well, we all know what happened next. The wheels started to come off and while United’s board subsequently had to fight a blazing financial inferno which engulfed the club, the players and fans were still trapped in the building.
Wilcox, whose woes were compounded by some debilitating injuries during that turbulent era, remembers the good and the not so good, with a low point coming when players were castigated as mercenaries for not taking 35 per cent wage deferrals in January 2004 while the club burned and threatened to go under.
A deferral of 25 per cent was ultimately agreed to enable the club to keep trading to the end of that horror season of 2003-04, when the fall-out of relegation saw the likes of Wilcox, Mark Viduka, Dom Matteo, James Milner, Alan Smith, Paul Robinson and Danny Mills off-loaded in a massive fire-sale.
Wilcox, who joined Leicester City on a free that summer, reflected: “Overall, I loved my time there at Leeds. It was a fantastic club, but just a real shame that I don’t really think the supporters actually got the true picture of what was going on.
“At the time, it was an absolute roller-coaster. I think the supporters and the players had an unbelievable relationship in the Champions League and Uefa Cup.
“I got to the club midway through the Uefa Cup run and played in the semi-final – it was an unbelievable experience for me. I didn’t play in Europe that much for Blackburn. We did, but it was an absolute disaster!
“We had probably five or six senior players (at Leeds), with a lot of hungry young kids coming through. When we were flying on all cylinders and playing well, we were running over the top of teams.
“We had a lot of pace and power and a blend of youth and experience. But the biggest thing was the team spirit among everybody. But, unfortunately, the club overspent and took risks and they didn’t need to take them. It was built too quickly, I think. Who you put the blame down to on that score, I don’t really know. It was probably a collective group of people.
“The first people to get the brunt of any stick when it’s not going well are the players. We could understand the fans’ frustrations, but there were certain meetings going on at the time between the players and board and what was said didn’t come out to the media in the right way.
“I felt at the time the board put the onus and blame onto the players, saying we weren’t going to defer our wages and all this. It wasn’t really the case; if people sat there and knew what was said in those meetings, I think they’d have a different view.”
After featuring in two unforgettable runs to the penultimate stages of Uefa’s two premier cup competitions, Wilcox’s injury problems started to kick in, much to his regret and frustration.
Despite a brief renaissance at left-back under Terry Venables in 2002-03, the Bolton-born winger’s fortunes nose-dived, along with many others, in that infamous 2003-04 campaign when he first fell out of favour with Peter Reid before undergoing knee surgery in early December – featuring just seven times that season.
Wilcox said: “When I first went there, I was playing at the top of my game. Then I got a bad knee injury and it was one of those where the bone came away and it took me an awful long time to get over that. Although when Terry Venables came in, I had a new lease of life again as I got a run of games under my belt and really enjoyed it under him – I thought he was a tremendous manager.”
Wilcox added: “I was always going to go to Leeds when they were interested.
“Blackburn had got relegated and I was aware of interest from Leeds and knew they’d been watching a few games. Then I got a phone call and Blackburn said ‘We’ve accepted a bid from a Premier League club, will you go?’. I said ‘Well, who is it?’. They said ‘Leeds United’. After that, it was a no-brainer. I think they were second in the league and I went to see David O’Leary and Peter Ridsdale and was extremely impressed with the set-up. It was great times...
“In football, many people always say no-one wants to go and play at Leeds. That’s because the fans are so noisy, although that can work both ways at times – sometimes the fans get frustrated and if the players aren’t strong enough, it can affect them. But I’d much rather have that type of atmosphere. You look at the new grounds now, they don’t have that atmosphere.
“It’s sad to see where the club is now (in the Championship), but it’s a massive, unbelievable club and if I ever had the chance there to go back and work, I’d love to. It’s a great place, a Premier League club.”
After taking an extended sabbatical away from the game Wilcox, who retired from playing after a short spell under Simon Grayson at Blackpool in 2006, eased his way back into the game through the well-trodden media route, working as a summariser for BBC Radio Lancashire while also writing as a columnist for the Blackburn-based Lancashire Evening Telegraph.
But Wilcox, a Premier League winner with Rovers in 1995 who was capped three times by his country, has now taken the plunge into the coaching realm and is currently working at Manchester City’s youth academy alongside a familiar face – former Blackburn and Leeds schemer Scott Sellars, who is academy manager at Eastlands.
On life after hanging up his boots, Wilcox, who has played under several distinguished managerial names such as Kenny Dalglish, Venables and Roy Hodgson, said: “I took a couple of years out as my career had been very intense in terms of fitness and everything and I just wanted a break with my family.
“I’ve done that and now I’m working through my badges. I’ve got my final one this summer and I am ready to work and get back in the game now. I’d like to see how good a coach I can become, although with coaching I don’t think you can look too far ahead.
“But being on the training pitch is something I really enjoy. You ask any footballer, they would all agree with that.
“I’m working at Man City and Scott’s there, who I know from my Blackburn days.
“As a player, he was a bit of a mentor and it’s nice to pick his brains on the coaching side. You have the knowledge, but it’s about putting it in layman’s terms and teaching kids the right things and doing the basics right. With kids’ football, you really, really learn how to coach and it’s a good grounding if I get up to a higher level.
“You take things from the managers you worked under. Some of them I didn’t like, but most of them I did and you take bits from all of them. And I played with some of the best who have ever come through in this country and if I can give something back, that’s what I enjoy doing.”