Marching On Together… In The Premier League… This Whole Time…
You might have heard that Leeds United disappeared out of the Premiership for sixteen years back in 2004. That was largely to do with money, as I’m sure you know.
Leeds had pumped so much into the club that if they didn’t qualify for Champions League football for the 2002/03 campaign, they were pretty buggered. So, they were buggered. They would finish 5th, five points behind Newcastle in the final Champo spot.
That slight difference was all it took. Panic stations were manned and there was a fire sale. Rio Ferdinand left for thirty mil, Robbie Keane and Jonathan Woodgate went for a combined sixteen mil, and Lee Bowyer went for a paltry £300,000.
The 02/03 season saw the mighty Leeds drop from 5th to 15th.
Managers were turning over and the hits kept coming, with Harry Kewell departing soon after the season’s end, as well as Olivier Dacourt and Nigel Martyn. That next season, the side would be relegated to the Championship with yet further necessary departures rubbing salt in the wounds.
Paul Robinson, Alan Smith, Dominic Matteo, Ian Harte, Danny Mills, Mark Viduka, James Milner, and Scott Carson all left and the core of the Leeds squad was unrecognisable as we embarked upon a new decade and a half long chapter.
Even in that time, promising players such as Aaron Lennon and Danny Rose would leave for the top flight.
All of that and David Batty retired.
All of that because of one December night twenty years ago.
As the season of giving is around the corner, for this game of ‘What If…?’ we’re gonna look at the parellel world of Leeds United’s survival in the Premiership.
The date: 22nd December.
The Year: 2001.
The Game: Leeds United vs. Newcastle United.
Final Score: 3–4.
We saw it this way.
But in some universe where that day means that games are only an hour long saw Leeds run out 3–2 winners.
Craig Bellamy gave Newcastle the lead, but Leeds wouldn’t leave the lead be for long as Lee Bowyer equalised seconds later. Viduka and Harte made it 3–1, and on the hour-mark, future Leeds player Robbie Elliott would nudge the score to 3–2.
In real life, Alan Shearer would equalise from the penalty spot and Nobby Solano would sneak around Harte to win the game, but in the universe we’re collectively imagining today — they didn’t.
Leeds run out 3–2 winners and Newcastle drop three points from their tally, leaving them on 68, while Leeds gain the three points, seeing them finish on… 69.
Enjoyable for many reasons.
Nonetheless, the good times roll for Leeds United, as Champions League qualification is confirmed, Ridsdale doesn’t get mad at O’Leary and sack him, and we can afford to keep all of our star players on.
So where do we go from here?
As I said, David O’Leary would stay. He has said he never wanted to leave and though his relationship with Ridsdale was strained enough, qualification to the Champo could well have saved him.
Then, we look at the sales.
Robbies Keane and Fowler were struggling to get past Viduka and Smith into the squad, so maybe one of those still would have gone while O’Leary continued giving Michael Bridges more game time. Bowyer would have stayed, and though Ferdinand was destined for Manchester United, the price here could well have been higher than the astronomical thirty million, and the ability to have found a replacement wouldn’t have been limited to a pair of loan signings (Teddy Lučić and Raúl Bravo) rotating into an unsettled centre-back pairing with the likes of Lucas Radebe, Michael Duberry, Mills, and Matteo, none of whom played more than thirty games in the league.
There’d just been a World Cup and plenty of players looked promising coming out of that, so maybe they’d have scooped up the next big thing. A 25-year old Martin Laursen had just joined AC Milan, but with Nesta following him immediately after, Laursen could have wanted out, not wanting to settle on journeying to England two years later.
Who’s to say a young Lúcio wouldn’t have been susceptible to a bid? Going Leverkusen to Leeds. Would Frank Baumann have filled the void? Ulises de la Cruz was about to move South of the border, maybe he’d have stopped off in Yorkshire before getting to the Midlands. What if the late, great Naoki Matsuda had joined, or what if Leeds outbid Inter’s £25,000,000 offer for Fabio Cannavaro?
They had the dollar and they were in the Champo — very much a side to be considered.
The January of that season, Jonny Woodgate would move to Newcastle, which we ain’t doing now, in fact, we get one of their defenders, so come here… Err… Aaron Hughes! Yeah, that’s right.
Speaking of Newcastle, Leeds would take their place in the Champions League, meaning they were drawn into a group alongside Juventus, Dynamo Kyiv, and Feyenoord, after qualifying beyond Željezničar. You know, them guys.
From there, it would be difficult to imagine us lifting the trophy despite keeping our players, and with the Prem remaining competitive, another Champions League spot wouldn’t be a simple task.
But with the debts still somewhere, that task was still very much a necessary one. The money going out relied on Leeds being a constant success and even if they only sold the likes of Kewell and Ferdinand, prying eyes still could, and likely would, have pounced on the likes of Bowyer, Keane, and Woodgate, as well as bright youngsters like Alan Smith and James Milner. Others may have had little chance, with Aaron Lennon’s mercurial talents only really coming to light in the second division.
The difference is that fair prices will have been paid. Or at least market standard prices rather than heavily discounted ones due to Leeds’ dire financial situation.
Even if Champions League qualification was attained, it would have to be attained again and again, and from there, a berth in the final would be needed year after year. Ridsdale would have found a way to get rid of O’Leary like that. Once he’s out, maybe the promotion of youth dries up, maybe good players still get sold and don’t get adequately replaced, maybe form still suffers even if the finances don’t. Maybe Leeds don’t enter administration, but they still go down.
This stuff seems to have a way of catching up with you. It feels like if we achieved one goal, another massive risk would have been taken to achieve the next one, I mean hey, it worked the first time, right?
Sometimes this timeline is rough, but the others are just as bad.
And we’re back now anyways. I became a Leeds supporter during this so called ‘dark’ period — I fell in love with the side, with Ayling, Berardi, Ankergren, Becchio… And with the squad and staff that got us back to the top flight.
Would we, as Leeds fans, be singing Ridsdale’s praises if his gamble paid off?
Keep it streets ahead,