You could be forgiven for forgetting Robbie Elliott ever played for Leeds United. Eight appearances, two wins, one relegation, zero goals; he was one of 44 players to turn out in what was quite probably the worst season in the club’s history. Robbie Elliott, however, certainly hasn’t forgotten that he played for Leeds United.
Just to jog the memory, Elliott arrived at Elland Road in January 2007 when Leeds were second-bottom of the Championship, and in the midst of one of their numerous nervous breakdowns. The defender’s debut actually came in a rare victory that season, starting on the left of a back four that comprised Frazer Richardson, Hayden Foxe and Rui Marques as the Whites beat Coventry City 2-1 at Elland Road.
But from there on he barely featured, Dennis Wise regularly rotating Eddie Lewis, Armando Sa and Michael Gray at left-back in a desperate attempt to get Leeds to stop — conceding — goals. Like everything else that year, it didn’t work.
“Oh shit, we are in the shit”
Now reaping the rewards of studying sports science while a player, by living in the outrageously laid-back city of Portland while he works for Nike’s sports research lab, Elliott can’t help but chuckle when he reflects on the madness of his six months at Leeds.
“I’ve had family in Leeds all my life, so I used to go watch them play,” he says. “So I knew how big the club was, and it was a really proud moment to turn out for them. It was a disaster of a season though, it was truly bizarre. I don’t think people realised the shit they were in until it was too late.
“I still thought it was great. You had big players there for that league: Shaun Derry, Gary Kelly, big [Tore Andre] Flo came in, Thommo [Alan Thompson] was there — you had a good squad. It was just the club was in disarray really, that’s the top and bottom of it.
“You’d look at the fixtures, and you’d be in the dressing room with the lads after losing going, ‘Well, we play them then and we’ll get the points there.’ Then you lose the next one and it’s, ‘Yeah but we’ll win there.’ And then you’re getting closer and closer and it’s, ‘Oh shit, we are in the shit.’ I think it came as a shock too late to pull it around. It was a disaster.”
Throughout a career in which he represented Newcastle United, Bolton Wanderers, Sunderland and Hartlepool, Elliott experienced the whole range of emotions as a player. As a youngster learning his trade, he rode the momentum of Kevin Keegan’s swashbuckling Newcastle outfit, before suffering a triple leg break and play-off final heartbreak at Bolton.
In West Yorkshire, he was witnessed how Leeds has hardly been the most stable of environments for players to flourish over the past fifteen years, but he also confirms one aspect of playing for the club that fans have long since suspected: the shirt does indeed weigh heavier than those of other teams.
“An interesting thing about Newcastle, is I know when Big Sam was there he said, ‘I know I’ve signed some good players, but I don’t know if I’ve signed players who can play at Newcastle.’ That’s a great point because it is a different animal, and I’d put Leeds in the same bracket. The football club is a little bit different to anywhere else.
“Once you pull on that shirt you’re representing yourself and your family and the fans. You can’t blame the conversations that are going on in the boardroom. If it affects you then you’re in the wrong sport. I think it’s a bit of a cheap excuse.”
With relegation to League One confirmed, Elliott left Leeds in the summer of 2007, aware that his time as a professional footballer was coming to an end. “Once you’re getting out of bed and it feels like an effort you know it’s time to give up. Once it starts to feel like a job then you need to get out.”
“Batty could have been a serial killer and we wouldn’t have known”
He was convinced by Danny Wilson to spend one final season at Hartlepool, where he returned to Elland Road for one last time as Leeds wiped out the fifteen-point deduction with a 2-0 victory. Galvanised by a siege mentality brought about by such trying circumstances, Super Leeds were going up.
The wheels began to fall off a month later when Gus Poyet left to become Juande Ramos’ assistant manager at Tottenham, leaving supporters to suspect the Uruguayan was the brains behind the operation and not Wise — a notion Elliott rejects.
“They were a good team together,” he says. “You could see Gus was going to be a manager outright by himself. Wise gets battered, and he gets battered even more at Newcastle then he does at Leeds, but playing for him, if you did right by him on the pitch he’d fight for you.
“That’s all you ever ask of a manager. I treat people how they treat me and he was great with me, I’ve got no qualms about how I was treated there at all.”
While chatting to Elliott over a coffee in downtown Portland, it becomes increasingly apparent that he still can’t quite believe how lucky he was to have a seventeen year career as a professional footballer, establishing himself at his boyhood club during one of the most exciting periods in their history.
At Newcastle he played with such attacking talent as Alan Shearer, David Ginola, Tino Asprilla, Peter Beardsley and Les Ferdinand, so there is one remaining question that needs to be answered.
“What was David Batty like?! I still don’t know! He could have been a serial killer and we wouldn’t have known. He was the last one into training and the first one out. Didn’t have a bank card, never had a washbag. We’d basically only see him at training and on a matchday.
“I have no concept of what he was away from football, but he was an incredibly underrated player. How he didn’t score more goals given his ability with his left and right foot is incredible.
“I would say he was a typical Yorkshireman. He had that sense of humour, quite dour, but he was a good guy to have on your team. You’d much rather have him on your team than against.” ◉