Liverpool and Manchester City have two of the best recent teams in European football, but Leeds United went toe to toe with them in recent games and took a point from the Blues.
Wolverhampton Wanderers do not have one of the best recent teams in European football, and yet Leeds United traded half for half with them at Elland Road on Monday night, and gave them all three points.
What went wrong? Nothing, really. That was football behaving as it should, a game resisting predictive analysis and acting as it pleases. What would a foregone conclusion be worth in the Premier League? Not £14.95, that’s for sure.
In the emotional support quilt of Leeds United’s Premier League season, though, this game crocheted an unhelpful gloomy square. It’s Wolves from the Championship on Monday then Villa from the Championship on Friday; we’re not spinning vivid satin with Klopp and Pep this week. This is the thread from which United’s true Premier League status will be woven. We don’t want to prick ourselves and sleep for another sixteen years.
There wasn’t much cursed about the Peacocks’ performance, nothing Marcelo Bielsa can’t lift. But after a home defeat it’s difficult to dream peacefully through Monday night, when we are haunted by the prospect of waking up on Tuesday and being forced to play Preston or Blackpool or Forest, not realising it’s all a nightmare and we haven’t woken up at all.
The Championship hung heavy on Monday night in the deserted streets around Elland Road. Last time Wolves were here we had Pierre-Michel Lasogga in the team; remembering is like seeing Jean-Kevin Augustin’s face in a potato. Liam Cooper left the pitch injured that night and was replaced by Matthew Pennington. This time Cooper’s international groin strain got to him in the warm up and Pascal Struijk stepped in; in the commentary box, Sky called up Andy Hinchcliffe. In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby says bluntly that Daisy Buchanan’s voice is “full of money”. If he heard Andy Hinchcliffe chuckling away about Bielsa’s bucket, Gatsby would say it was a voice full of Sky Bet.
Wolves have moved on, to Porto via Shanghai, and United’s 1-0 defeat looks different when what Wolves have done is set against what Leeds are trying to do. Two months ago Wolves were Europa League quarter-finalists, and their results in earlier rounds, like the 4-0 home wins over Besiktas and Espanyol, shared the quality of Leeds’ European results in the late-1990s, when it felt like the club had arrived. Although Wolves lost to Sevilla, the eventual winners, their company in the quarters included Inter Milan, Shaktar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, clubs with that edge-of-success aura about them that Wolves’ two Premier League finishing positions, in a week defined by the idea of the big six, sum up: 7th and 7th. They’re where Leeds want to be.
In the first half on Monday Leeds had Wolves where they wanted them. Leeds forced Wolves’ 3-4-3 into a 5-2-3, that to save themselves they had to switch to 5-4-1, and so the whole game moved into Wolves’ half. Leeds had control of midfield and were dangerous on the wings, where Helder Costa started ready to twinkle against his former club, and Rodrigo caught the mood, ready to help him.
The first chances went to Pat Bamford. With nothing worrying him in midfield, Mateusz Klich made an unchecked run into the box and flicked on Dallas’ cross to Rodrigo, who laid the ball off, but the chance strayed too far into Bamford’s thoughts and he shot well wide. He was more instinctive from a corner, heading Jackie Harrison’s header into the net, but he was well offside. Then Costa had his chance, at the end of a swift move full of lovely touches from Bamford and Rodrigo, but it should probably have been Harrison’s chance, if Rodrigo had seen his space. Costa’s position was more difficult and his shot missed. Attacks started coming from Harrison’s left wing too; a volleyed cross was taken off Bamford’s boot, and from a corner Rodrigo shot at the keeper. For around fifteen minutes before half-time the game hardly left Wolves’ half.
But that’s Wolves game. In the Premier League last season they only won one more game than they drew. Their fourteen draws included four 0-0s and nine 1-1s; they loved nicking points from tight games and had the fifth best defence in the division. Sometimes they threw in a 2-5 at Chelsea or 2-3s with Southampton and Spurs, or the 0-4 at West Ham a couple of weeks ago. But despite that thrilling possibility of imminent collapse they have the intent of George Graham’s Leeds, and have Conor Coady, playing as if destined to sign for a Lancashire club that will ruin his career for £100m, and Max Kilman to take his place when he does. Leeds pushed but couldn’t topple them, and soon had to thank Illan Meslier for a point blank save from Daniel Podence just before half-time, made more difficult by colliding with Luke Ayling on the goal line, and for a diving save ten minutes into the second half, after Podence again ran around in midfield and shot. They thanked VAR, too, for spotting an offside before Romain Saiss shot into the net.
That licence to run around in front of United’s penalty area helped Wolves score with twenty minutes left. Struijk slipped, with Lee Tomlin flashing in his anime eyes as he got up to pursue Raúl Jiménez. Struijk couldn’t catch him, nobody could, and his shot was deflected decisively in off Kalvin Phillips’ bonce.
Where Phillips had been before things went that far was another question. Away with England for two weeks was one answer. Gareth Southgate was watching this from the West Stand with his usual expression, as if blinking away regrets. Perhaps his sorrow this time is for ruining Phillips with two weeks hard plodding from Rice to Mount to Winks and back again. And where is Phillips going now? To the physio’s room for six weeks with a bad shoulder.
The goal came just when Wolves’ second half idea of swinging in from the wings to attack Kalvin through the centre was spluttering out, and after getting what they came for anyway they returned to base in front of the Kop while Leeds reverted to EFL type. They ended the game with Pablo Hernandez, Ian Poveda, Raphinha, Rodgrigo, Dallas, Ayling and Klich all trying to summon up shadows for Bamford, an old game-chasing tactic in which much of the team trades in its brain for Pablo’s and attacks with more hope than intent. Wolves sucked it all up and took their points home. This is how they’ll finish 7th again.
8th would represent a good season for Leeds, but getting there will mean holding their nerve after this and after what happens against inexplicable pace-setters Aston Villa. Leeds didn’t come to the Premier League to duke it out with Van Dijk and De Bruyne only to get beaten on the bounce by mundane clubs from the Midlands, but by Saturday that could be the case. Then it’s Leicester City, our old friends from League One, the 2016 Premier League champions.
We’ve come to a strange place, and how we live here will depend on the tapestry of emotions we weave around the team. To be picked off 1-0 by a visiting Serie A club in the Europa League would be acceptable, perhaps even glamorous. It’s not quite the fucking same when it’s Wolves, but it amounts to the same thing. And that’s where they got by the lessons they learned, and from the evidence in the first half, Leeds are not so far from their class to need worry. ◉
30 years ago today, one of the all time great goals was scored at Elland Road by Roy Wegerle. The Whites faced down the hoops in a topsy turvy encounter that saw lose to the odd goal in five.
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The Whites fell to a deflected second half goal by Wolves after a bright first half display. Full time reaction.
The Whites bring in a Swede called Pontus, but it appears Mike Daniels has forgotten about him. Meanwhile, another old hero rejoins the club to flesh out the reserves, but a shadow is cast as one of the usual suspects is up to his old tricks again.
Ups and downs, ins and outs. Leeds was a miserable place in 2004 and Leeds United a miserable club, 20th and last in the Premiership. But a Tuesday night match at home to 19th placed Wolves was a chance to grasp some decorum.
Leeds had lost eleven of their previous sixteen Premiership games, including a 3-1 defeat at Molineux. They’d lost all their last six, throwing in a 4-1 battering from Arsenal in the FA Cup to make it seven in a row. At the weekend they went to David O’Leary’s Aston Villa and lost 2-0. “We had record gates, record sponsorship, cheques from the Champions League, UEFA Cup semi-finals,” said O’Leary. “I’m just amazed at where it’s all gone.”
Relegation was one thing, and it was looking harder and harder to avoid. “That’s another game gone,” said head coach Eddie Gray, after the Villa game. The thing now was not to be so embarrassing. Michael Bridges didn’t help; forgetting to take his boots with him as he moved on loan to Newcastle, newspapers reported him rustling around in the bushes outside Thorp Arch after dark, where a security guard had left them for him to find.
Reports said assistant manager Kevin Blackwell might also soon be on his way, as Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy wanted him to be no.2 to Giovanni Trapattoni the following season. Manchester United were also said to be considering him as assistant to Alex Ferguson. Eddie Gray just wanted him to help him, now.
Central defender Steven Caldwell had come the other way on loan from Newcastle but wasn’t much help at Villa. David Batty was ostracised, Gray telling him he wasn’t needed because he was switching to 4-4-2 with Seth Johnson and Eirik Bakke; pretty much everyone agreed it had more to do with Batty’s public role in the arguments about wage deferrals. Don’t defer our wages, Batty had said, sell the players who are lining up moves. But the board couldn’t allow someone like Alan Smith or Mark Viduka to leave, despite Newcastle and Middlesbrough’s interest, for fear of a fan revolt. Besides, Viduka was in Australia for much of the transfer window, tending to his father who was critically ill; Viduka had left him in hospital and returned for the Villa game.
“I’m not getting much sleep,” he said. “I am a bit jet-lagged and I am waking up early in the morning to speak to the folks back home. There is no other option.” He wouldn’t agree that relegation was a formality. “We have all got to concentrate on the job in hand,” he said. “The only other choice is to sit on our backsides and wait for relegation.”
Money would help. Ugandan tycoon Michael Ezra was due to be the board’s guest at the Wolves game, after setting a deadline of the next day for them to overcome their reluctance and accept his bid of £60m — around 200bn Ugandan shillings — to buy the club. Chief executive Trevor Birch had deadlines of his own from creditors threatening to put the club into administration.
In a national newspaper feature on the morning of the game, a resident next to Elland Road mused that she’d be quite happy to see the back of United. “If the club goes, it would be great for our property,” she said. The city had tried linking its economic and cultural boom period with the football club, but the old reticence towards the round ball cropped up again in the feeling that things would have been just as good without soccer in Leeds. Another journalist identified how the resulting siege mentality among supporters was as much hindrance as help at Elland Road: the attendance on a cold, sleet-sodden Tuesday night against Wolves was 36,867, the club’s diehard fans determined to back their team to the hilt. The problem was that the players were doing little to deserve their cheers, and a good dose of venomous booing might shock them out of their slump.
Perhaps some of those 36,867 were also there to see if Leeds would succumb to a defeat that surely would finish them; it was not unusual over the years for Elland Road crowds to be boosted by the morbid. The Yorkshire Evening Post had asked on its back page that, if Leeds lost that night, ‘would the last person out please switch off the lights’. And at full-time people might still have been muttering that Leeds had only come up against the one team in the Premiership even worse than them: Wolves hadn’t won away in the top flight for twenty years. And that team had even equalised, Ioan Ganea given an embarrassment of time to hit a deflected shot past Paul Robinson from 25 yards.
But Alan Smith put Leeds ahead early, stopping Caldwell’s knockdown from Jermaine Pennant’s cross becoming a scramble by sticking it into the net from two yards. Just before half-time it was Smith knocking the ball on from a high free-kick: Paul Jones punched it away, but Dominic Matteo shot in from fifteen yards, the ball hitting players along the way but not missing its target, putting Leeds back in front.
Any Wolves resurgence was stopped just in time when, on the hour, Smith beat their defence with one nod of his head, diverting a throw-in away from Paul Butler and around another dozing defender, waving Viduka away as he ran onto the end of his own flick. He fired across the six yard box and James Milner rushed past Denis Irwin at the back post — at 37, Irwin was old enough to be Milner’s father — sticking the ball up into the roof of the net. Was this — confidence? Viduka always had belief, despite putting several opportunities off target and one header against the bar. In stoppage time he was halfway through recreating that goal at Lazio with Smith when he decided to lurch through a Cruyff turn instead. Bearing down on goal, he smacked the ball low inside the near post, and hurdled the hoardings to receive the adulation of the South Stand crowd. They, actually, held back, and it took a while for a few fans to reach him, chased by stewards.
“I thought in the dressing room they had the belief that they were going to win this match and it is vital that they did,” said Gray. “If we hadn’t closed the gap tonight it would have been very hard for us to close it. It is only a starting point — there is a long way to go yet. We are still in big trouble in this league but if we carry on performing like that we can do it.”
Leeds were off the bottom and above Wolves, maybe only on goal difference, but maybe now they could catch Portsmouth, only three points away on the safe shore. Eddie Gray was counting on home form to get them there: Leeds had six games left at Elland Road. That they faced Manchester United away next, then Liverpool at home, didn’t feel so intimidating after a 4-1 win that could have been by six or seven. And while Batty’s treatment haunted the reports and fans’ thoughts, the list of scorers against Wolves felt more important now. Smith. Matteo. Milner. Viduka. Those players belonged in the Premiership. ◉
The second issue of The Square Ball’s 31st season is out now, winning the Premier League.
With Project Big Picture it’s hard to know if we should be in despair at the immorality of the league we’ve recently joined or grateful that at least we’re in before the drawbridge is permanently lifted.
Nobody at Leeds City seemed inclined to worry at the start of October 1919. Yes, there was a joint Football Association and Football League investigation into the running of the club during the Great War. They’d been given a deadline of 6th October to produce the documents the FA were demanding or face the consequences. But pre-war scoring sensation Billy McLeod had come back to the club and scored five as City started the season with three impressive wins, two draws, and a couple of defeats. They’d lost pre-war manager Herbert Chapman to a more attractive office job at Olympia Soap Works at Selby, but were still aiming for the promotion to the First Division that had seemed likely before the war.
The immediate problem on 4th October was travelling to Wolverhampton. There was a rail strike, so the players and directors had to travel by charabanc, a sort of open top sightseeing bus, and attracted curious glances as they set off from City Square. Contrary to reports, the directors had not resigned, and trainer Dick Murrell, manager Robert Hewsion, vice-chairman J.C. Whiteman and chairman Joseph Connor lined up in front of the Leeds Mercury’s photographer. They were ‘going to see the inquiry through’, said the caption.
‘The documents were never made public, but…’
At Molineux, McLeod hit a hat-trick in a 4-2 win, and the team must have been in jovial mood on their way back north. They even gave a lift to Charlie Copeland, their former teammate, whose tip off to the authorities when he was upset about his wage offer had started the inquiry. There must have been some bite to the banter on that long journey.
Copeland had put the affair into the hands of a solicitor named James Bromley, who was well placed to cause problems for Leeds. He had already negotiated a settlement to ensure the silence of City’s wartime secretary-manager, George Cripps, who had tried suing the club for wrongful dismissal after the war, threatening to reveal what he knew about illegal payments to players. He’d wanted £400 but settled for £55, in return for all the documents in his possession. These were given to the club’s solicitor, Alderman Clarke, never to be produced unless all involved agreed.
These were the documents the inquiry now wanted to see, and that the Leeds City directors were, in the FA’s view, obstinately refusing to hand over. Joseph Connor claimed that, because of the agreement with Bromley, it was not within the club’s power to produce them. Perhaps he was calculating that, without evidence of illegal payments, the authorities would have no power to act. If so, he miscalculated, badly. The deadline of 6th October came and went, and then an FA meeting on the 8th.
They couldn’t punish Leeds City for making illegal payments without evidence, but they could punish them for refusing to produce that evidence. The club was suspended indefinitely. Burslem Port Vale, lobbying in the background, took their place in the league. Joseph Connor and J.C. Whiteman, with fellow directors Sam Glover and George Sykes, as well as George Cripps and Herbert Chapman, were banned from football for life, ‘not allowed to attend any football matches or take part in any football matches.’
The auction of players later that October, and the founding of Leeds United to ensure soccer carried on in Leeds, are well known stories. Herbert Chapman managed to overturn his ban on appeal, arguing he’d been working at Barnbow munitions factory during the war, and at the Soap Works when the others declined to hand over the documents. The Cripps documents were never brought to light, presumed lost.
It always seemed an astonishing, brutal punishment, and after writing it up last year in the first edition of my book, 100 Years of Leeds United, the story was one of several that kept nagging at me. Researching it had reversed the long-received version of George Cripps’ role: for years it was thought the players had gone on strike during the war to have him removed, but I found the contemporary account that showed the players threatening to strike in order to have him reinstated, after the club tried forcing him out. That was a hint of more to find, a reason to keep digging.
I found a sound explanation for the FA’s actions in a mid-1980s journal article by Tony Arnold, an academic who was then researching the social and economic factors behind the slow growth of association football in West Yorkshire. His theory resonated when I read it at the start of the coronavirus lockdown this year, when the talk was of footballers giving their wages to the NHS. Football had been slow to stop at the outbreak of war in 1914, despite the Under-Secretary for War saying the game was “not in accord with public sentiment or with the cruel realities of the war.” Some thought it should stop, others thought it should continue as a recruiting exercise. Nobody seemed happy with soccer’s stance.
The scandal overshadows it, but the Great War was the occasion for Leeds’ first association football success. Leeds City were placed in the Midland Section of the new regionalised competitions, that were divided into ‘Principal tournaments’, a league of around thirty matches, and ‘Subsidiary tournaments’, of either ten or six games. City won the Subsidiary in 1915/16, the Principal in 1916/17 and 1917/18, and won a League Championship play-off against Stoke City, from the Lancashire Section, to make them de facto national champions for 1917/18. In 1918/19, City finished 4th in the Principal then 3rd in the Subsidiary. Elland Road had never known such triumphs.
One of the conditions of the regionalised wartime game was that the footballers should play without pay beyond minimal expenses, and severe punishments were threatened for any breaches: clubs ought to be, “Put out of the game for all time,” as John McKenna, the Football League president, put it in 1915. In 1919, McKenna was still president of the Football League, and presiding over the inquiry into Leeds City. Rumours of illegal payments were so rife they were an open secret, but only at Leeds were there concrete allegations, and only at City had they brought so much success, compared to the club’s pre-war status in the middle of Division Two. In Arnold’s view, the soccer authorities were making an example of City in order to earn back the public favour their game had lost in wartime.
Arnold’s article also contained a startling revelation about the Cripps documents the directors refused to hand over. ‘The documents were never made public,’ he wrote, ‘but the author recently managed to trace them.’ Sometime in the 1980s, he’d seen them. There followed a description of the contents: actual expenses for matches, details of an unofficial bank account, letters from players, and a ‘diary’ written by George Cripps, revealing the infighting and distrust between board members at the time.
The documents confirmed, overall, what was suspected all along: that Leeds City, like most other clubs, had made illegal payments to players during the war. They also described how. Money was siphoned into the unofficial account at the Bradford and District bank by recording higher wages to office staff in the proper accounts, falsely accounting for printing costs, and not declaring cash from programme sales. From there the money went to pay the players who brought City their wartime success. The payments were not large, around half the pre-war maximum wage — although there were few clubs who had not found their way around the maximum wage with bonus payments anyway. But fiddling the books in wartime was a different matter, and the Football League’s patriotic reputation was at stake. It says much about the authorities’ intentions that they supported a new club in Leeds on the same day the old one was auctioned off: something had to be seen to be done, but Leeds the city had to have a football club.
And I, with a paperback edition of 100 Years of Leeds United looming — it’s now published, book fans — had to know if I could trace Tony Arnold, who traced the documents that told more of the story of Leeds City’s final five years. I could, and thanks to his excellent filing system, I could see copies of what he found. The full story — inevitably — is in the book, not here, and while that sure is a grab for sales, it comes with a reminder that your local library will let you read all the books you want for free.
The documents raise as many questions as answers, anyway, because the main part — the ‘diary’ — is the testimony of George Cripps, who was brought to Leeds City by Herbert Chapman, but whose account, if made public at the time, would have dropped Chapman right into the middle of the trouble he always avoided by saying he was working at Barnbow. That separation let Chapman overturn his ban and return to football with Huddersfield Town, where he won the FA Cup and two First Division titles, then Arsenal, where he won the same, leaving an indelible mark on the game by practically inventing the job of the modern football manager. If Cripps could be believed, far from blissful ignorance in his war work, Chapman was a central figure at Leeds City throughout, even to the point that his clerks at Barnbow were doing administrative work for the club in 1918.
But how far could Cripps be believed? His claims that Chapman was conspiring with Joseph Connor against him sound paranoid, but then, his pedantic complaints about expense claims — for, ‘drinks + cigars with which [Connor] entertained various people at Newcastle’ — could easily explain their desire to get rid of him. His first and last complaint was that he was never paid enough, and he seems unable to tone his grievance down. Ultimately, if what Cripps had in writing was such a smoking gun, why did he only get £55 for it from Leeds City, rather than the £400 he wanted?
Nobody at Leeds City seemed inclined to worry at the start of October 1919. And that, even after finding a crucial part of the story that was thought lost for 100 years, remains the tantalising question about the end of the club. ◉
(100 Years of Leeds United by Daniel Chapman is out now in an updated paperback edition. You can buy signed copies here.)