Leeds United: Rise of the Foxes a lesson for United

Robert Snodgrass shoots in the Leicester City v Leeds United  back in April 2008.
Robert Snodgrass shoots in the Leicester City v Leeds United back in April 2008.
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The second and final meeting between Leeds United and Leicester City as League One clubs had an element of the ridiculous about it. The game pulled in a crowd of more than 25,000, reminding the country of how far below their weight two one-city teams were punching.

On April 13, 2009, Leicester inflicted a 1-0 defeat on Leeds through Steve Howard’s 90th-minute header, winning the title and consigning United to the play-offs. Leeds’ manager, Simon Grayson, took in the celebrations at what was the Walkers Stadium – now sponsored by King Power, the emblem of the owners who transformed City – and said: “We’ve got to use the final whistle as an inspiration. Leicester are celebrating and at the end of May, we want to be celebrating, too.”

Leeds lost in the play-off semi-finals and were left behind as Leicester went up as champions. It was hard not to think of the clubs’ former parity, both in 2009 and in subsequent Championship seasons, when City as 5000-1 outsiders won the Premier League title on Monday.

The hierarchy at Elland Road were once in the habit of using Leicester as an example of reckless expenditure and high-risk management but seven years later the risks have paid off handsomely. The club’s earnings from TV money alone this season will run to £93million, a windfall on top of improbable winners’ medals.

Leeds can relate to something Nigel Pearson said after Howard’s late and decisive header. “From a financial standpoint it’s very difficult to continue to generate enough cash to effectively maintain a club like this,” said Pearson, the coach who took Leicester to the League One title in 2009 and the Championship title in 2014.

“Your best opportunity (to get promoted from the Championship) is your first year back. I think the statistics will show that.”

Leeds found his comments to be true. After their own promotion from League One in 2010, the following year was a sizeable opportunity missed: second at Christmas, in a play-off position with a handful of games to go but ultimately condemned to seventh place by a costly Easter weekend. It is still United’s highest finish in six years and still the only occasion when the club had a foot in the promotion race during the run-in. Given the potential of a high-scoring squad, questions are still asked about why the club and their chairman, Ken Bates, did not commit to spending more money in the January transfer window.

Leeds argued at the time that cash was available to Grayson and Grayson chose not to spend it, for fear of unsettling an in-form dressing room. Grayson has always maintained that he did not have the cash he needed to sign the players he wanted. He is manager of Preston North End now, the side who Leeds will end their sixth successive season in the Championship against on Saturday. United go to Deepdale with little chance of finishing higher than 12th.

At the end of the 2010-11 season, the club sold goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel to Leicester for a fee of around £750,000 up front, rising to more than £1million. Schmeichel will collect a Premier League winners’ medal on Saturday. That deal was done in part because his contract was running down and in part to to help fund signings in a summer window which United’s chief executive, Shaun Harvey, famously described as “looking ugly from the outside”. Leeds’ agreement with Leicester included a 10 per cent sell-on clause which might yet yield more money should Schmeichel move again.

Where Leicester were concerned, Pearson’s prediction about life in the Championship was similarly accurate. The club made the play-offs at the end of their first season back in that division but lost to Cardiff City over two legs. The following year, in August, 2010, they were bought out by Asian Football Investments (AFI), a Thai consortium led by Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, a senior figure at retailers King Power. Sven Goran Eriksson was promptly appointed as manager and AFI threw money at him, signing Schmeichel, Jermaine Beckford and other players at considerable cost. Eriksson lasted for little over a year and left in October, 2011, having taken Leicester to 10th place at the end of the previous term.

In the aftermath of Eriksson’s exit, Bates wrote about Leicester in United’s matchday programme, using City’s mediocre performance as a defence of his ownership and a defence of Leeds’ financial attitude – or prudence, as Bates liked to think of it.

“The sacking of Eriksson was not unexpected,” Bates said. “His reign was another demonstration that money does not necessarily buy success and should provide food for thought for those who were complaining that Leeds had not spent enough in the summer.

“At Leeds, we don’t spend money we don’t have and football is a diminishing attraction to rich men who would like a football club as a rich man’s toy.”

Leicester’s owners, however, maintained their outlay, carrying losses of almost £30m in 2011-12, £34m in 2012-13 and £20.8m in 2013-14, the season when the club won the Championship title under Pearson. According to The Guardian, the Football League is still investigating whether the figures for the 2013-14 season complied with Financial Fair Play rules (FFP).

City’s record signing is modest by Premier League standards, around £9m spent on Croatian striker Andrej Kramaric last year, but their extraordinary success this season was not founded on pennies. City’s owners are estimated to have ploughed over £100m in the club. That underlines the view that while money might not bring an instant return, consistent expenditure will get a team there eventually – even though Leicester have confounded the bookmakers this season, and even though much has been owed to the attitude and mentality of Claudio Ranieri’s under-rated squad.

The last time Leeds and Leicester met in any competition, in January, 2014, there was little between them yet so much between them. Schmeichel dealt with Leeds’ best chances at Elland Road and David Nugent earned a barely-deserved victory with an 87th-minute goal. City, though, were top of the Championship and 22 points better off than United.

AFI’s longer-term plan was gathering pace while Sport Capital’s proposed buy-out of Leeds owner Gulf Finance House (GFH) was falling apart. Three weeks later, GFH agreed to sell the club to Massimo Cellino.

There were other contrasts, too. On January 11, Leicester picked up an unfamiliar forward by the name of Riyad Mahrez, recently chosen as the PFA’s Premier League player of the year. That same day, McDermott’s Leeds were thrashed 6-0 by Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough and officials at GFH spoke seriously about sacking him at half-time. Earlier in the week, the Bahraini bank had opposed McDermott’s attempt to sign Ashley Barnes from Brighton, saying the striker’s statistics on ‘Football Manager’ were worse than Luke Varney’s. Barnes went to Burnley instead and has twice been promoted to the Premier League.

Grayson, for his part, did not anticipate any of this. In 2009, sat in Leicester on Easter Monday, it was his belief was that Leeds as a club should be able to match Leicester punch-for-punch. His side were unbeaten in 11 matches before Howard’s goal ruled them out of the running for automatic promotion.

“We had the better chances and were the better team over the course of the game,” Grayson said. “Full credit to Leicester because they’ve shown that they’re consistent. They deserve to go up but we have to make sure we do the same.”

Like many people, he will struggle to comprehend the difference in the clubs’ trajectories since then.