David Prutton joined Leeds United at arguably the lowest point in its history and here lifts the lid on life under Wise, Poyet, McAllister and Grayson and fighting back from minus 15. Phil Hay reports.
The midfielder was offered the move at the very start of the year; a hospital pass to a club who were halfway down the road to to relegation from the Championship. A former Nottingham Forest player, he chose instead to go back to Nottingham on loan from Southampton. “It wasn’t a big deal,” Prutton says. “For fairly obvious reasons I fancied Forest. I didn’t think Dennis would lose any sleep over me.”
United’s manager took the news badly. “We had this phone conversation where I was as polite as I could be, trying to explain myself,” Prutton says. “He took it all in and then said something like ‘I don’t ask twice. Don’t expect to get a call from me again.’ It was typical Wisey.”
The two men knew each other from their short time together as players at Southampton. Wise moved there in the twilight of his career, well into his 30s. “When he first joined I did an interview and made some quip about how old he was,” Prutton says. “It was just a laugh. I said I’d be mortified if he was fitter than me.
“Either he read the interview or someone told him about it. In our next few running sessions he annihilated me. He had that look in his eyes which said ‘someone’s messing with me and I’m not having it.’ Dennis was like 50 per cent ability, 50 per cent ‘f**k you’. In that respect he managed Leeds at the perfect time.”
In Prutton’s case, Wise did ask twice. Later that year, in the weeks after Leeds entered administration and resigned themselves to relegation from League One, Prutton was among a group of players who took a leap of faith and put their hands up for a season like no other. Most joined on trial initially, with United unable to complete any transfers.
Prutton was 26 and only four years on from a £2.5m transfer to Southampton. He signed a contract with Leeds four days before the start of the 2007-08 season and two days before the club were deducted 15 points for breaching the Football League’s rules on insolvency.
It stands to reason that a footballer like him must have had other offers. “Maybe,” Prutton says, “but I don’t remember any which probably means I didn’t have any worth thinking about.
“I was always one of those players who needed opportunities to grab me. Nothing depressed me more – and nothing depresses me more now – than my agent calling me up with an offer and me thinking ‘do you really need to ask me about this?’
“Leeds were different. It was never really a trial. All Wisey said was ‘come up and train and we’ll sort you out as soon as we can.’ I knew the stories, I read about the crises, but it wasn’t like we were walking into a two-bob club where you washed your own kit and brought a packed lunch. It was still Leeds United with a big training ground and a big stadium.
“At the time they might have needed me. I might have been a good signing for them. But I was lucky to get that move. Football’s all in the timing. I’m not the greatest footballer in the world or the greatest in the two streets next to mine but on a certain day you’re in the right place when someone says ‘sign this, stick this shirt on and run around like a mad bastard.’ Which is pretty much what I did.”
Prutton’s self-deprecation underplays his performances. He took the YEP’s player-of-the-year award for the 2007-08 season, ahead of a 20-goal Jermaine Beckford. Leeds overturned their 15-point deficit in five games and were virtually unbeatable before Christmas. Wise’s squad led League One for a short time on Boxing Day.
“We went into that season with no apprehension,” Prutton says. Even though relegation was more likely than promotion? “Oh, it could have been a disaster. We could have been relegation fodder by the autumn. But Wisey was old-school. He ran us like hell and he made us effective. When I first joined he told me Beckford and (Tresor) Kandol would get our goals. I was sitting there thinking ‘who?’ But he was proved right, with Becks especially.”
For Wise, the wheels came off after the loss of his assistant, Gus Poyet, to Tottenham three months into the season. Outside the club, a connection was drawn between Poyet’s exit and the gradual downturn in United’s results ticking over, particularly after the turn of the year.
Wise brought in Dave Bassett, the former Wimbledon boss, and named the little-known John Gannon as first-team coach but the backroom team fell apart in January when Wise abruptly quit his job as manager to become director of football at Newcastle United.
“Gus going was huge,” Prutton says. “It wasn’t a case of cracks appearing but the interim period was weird. It’s hard to explain. Little comments which would have been taken as a joke while Gus was there started to be taken seriously. We’d been armour-plated with Gus around but with him gone, the place was more tense, more fragile I guess.
“Wisey leaving was even more bizarre. We were staying down south in between games at Luton and Southend. He quit after Luton so the last training session before Southend was taken by John Gannon and Dave Bassett. One of them disappeared during that session and the other one left straight after. Bassett came onto the bus to shake our hands and wish us luck and we said ‘yeah, but what about Southend?’ It was surreal. There was no-one left.
“Gwyn Williams (Leeds’ technical director) took the team that night and whatever his strengths or skills, managing a football team isn’t one of them.” United lost 1-0 at Roots Hall.
Gary McAllister was named as Wise’s successor shortly before kick-off. Leeds rallied under him after a slow start and qualified for the League One play-off final, losing to Doncaster Rovers at Wembley.
“I liked Gary,” Prutton says. “He was good to me. Not everyone felt that way. Andy Hughes was nine-tenths out the door on the day Gary was sacked and he went on to thrive at the club much longer than me. Things change with different managers.
“That play-off final was a game too far. It was a damp squib. I still wonder if we blew ourselves out in the semi-finals (when Leeds overturned a 2-1 deficit against Carlisle United). There was so much euphoria after that. It almost felt like we’d done the hard part. I remember being told once that play-off finals are the worst day out if you lose. I won’t argue with that. It was horrible.”
Prutton continued to play regularly under McAllister but the Scot lost his job halfway through the 2008-09 season and his successor, Simon Grayson, was less reliant on the midfielder. Prutton had become a cult hero at Leeds, nicknamed ‘Jesus’ on account of his beard and long hair, but by the time he left for Colchester United in January 2010 – signing off with a long open letter to the club’s supporters on United’s official website – he felt like a court jester.
It’s something he can laugh about now, aged 33 and in a state of semi-retirement (which is to say that Prutton has been without a club all season) “There was this game, this moment at Elland Road, when I was sat near the bench but not actually in the squad,” Prutton says. “The stadium announcer, bless him, said ‘why don’t we get you on the pitch at half-time?’ My instinctive response was ‘bloody hell, is this what it’s come to? The half-time entertainment. Shall I stick the mascot’s costume on?’ The writing was on the wall. It was time to go.
“It was a relief of sorts to get down to Colchester but I had a funny five minutes in the hotel on the day I went there. It’s that feeling of ‘a couple of hours ago I was a Leeds United player. I hope that wasn’t my last chance at somewhere mega.’ And I mean no disrespect to Colchester.
“I try not to sound twee but the pleasure of being a Leeds player was all mine. Our job at that time was to keep the club on even keel, to stop things sinking any lower than they had already, and in the darkest times I honestly think that all the fans want is to see people on the pitch who give a s***. Because no matter what, they always do.”