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Behold: Leeds United, Godzilla of Football

Basil Valentine
21st Century Wire

Some say it’s caused by volcanoes, others by nuclear explosions, but all that matters is that it happens. About every thirty years, the monster rises from the depths of the ocean: renewed, rejuvenated and ready to do battle on land once again. Behold the monster that is Leeds United, Godzilla of Football…! 

Fans of the other teams will beg to differ, but while the vast majority of Football teams are ordinary clubs of varying degrees of size and stature, some achieving considerable success, only a tiny few ever achieve the status of mythical beasts. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and in England Manchester United, Liverpool and Leeds United. It is an indefinable quality, part history, part fable, requiring tragedy as well as triumph and gained over years of struggle as much as glory. In Leeds’ case, it is due as much to the regular trips to the football wilderness, paying penance and observing strict austerity, as it is to time spent at the very top table collecting silverware; but on those peaks, it is an aura of invincibility, of complete and utter if fleeting brilliance that marks the Leeds beast apart from the rest. At its apotheosis, it is a supremely confident swagger, an ability to toy with the opposition in much the same way that Godzilla toys with his prey, evoking fear, admiration, terror and hatred among foes, while kindling a devotion among fans of religious, even spiritual dimensions.

Leeds United were going nowhere rather slowly when Don Revie became Player Manager in March 1961. After avoiding relegation, the young, hugely ambitious Revie changed the team strip from gold and yellow to the all white they have played in ever since. The deliberate copying of the colours of the mighty Real Madrid, European Football’s premier team, by a regional English team in the second tier of their national pyramid appeared to outsiders to be guided more by fanciful delusion than any grounded aspiration, but within the decade Leeds had indeed become the dominant force in Europe.

Under Revie’s meticulous stewardship, the Leeds Godzilla was first heard to roar in 1964 when the ruthless team he assembled won the Second Division title with all guns blazing. Charlton, Hunter, Madeley, Bremner, Giles and the rest would go on to win the Championship a few years later and become the most loved, the most hated and reviled, but also quite simply the best team in Football. “At that time” recalled Jackie C “We were the best team in the world.”

Elland Road Stadium (Image: Wikicommons)

Europe became Leeds’ playground and trophies followed. The Fairs Cup, forerunner of the UEFA Cup, was contested by teams that would now be playing in the Champions league and with more matches than the old European Cup, was arguably harder to win. Defeated in the 1965 final by Dynamo Zagreb, Leeds returned to win it twice, beating Juventus in a two legged final on the second occasion. Shamefully, disgracefully, Revie’s team were cheated out of two more European trophies. The administration of European football was at a particularly low ebb in the early 1970s (some would say it has remained there ever since) and the 1973 European Cup Winners Cup final against AC Milan was a sick joke in very poor taste. Referee Christos Mitchas was later banned for match fixing but despite calls for United to be awarded the match subsequently, the sham result – a 1-0 loss – remains an ugly stain on the record books.

Incredibly, worse was to follow two years later. After winning a second English title, Revie was rewarded with the England job after the Clough debacle it fell to the genial Jimmy Armfield to guide the team that Revie built to the summit. The late, great Johan Cruyff warned his Barcelona team mates before the semi finals “If you give Leeds the ball, they will make you dance” but the Dutch inspired Catalans under Rinus Michels were powerless to stop Leeds advance, undone by Peter Lorimer’s 13th European goal (then a record for a British player) in front of an estimated 110,000 spectators in the Nou Camp.

What should have been the subsequent crowning glory in the European Cup Final of 1975 against Bayern Munich was turned into black farce by referee Michel Kitabdjian, who disallowed a perfectly valid Peter Lorimer goal and then denied Leeds a stonewall penalty. When the gift wrapped trophy was handed to Franz Beckenbaur after the final whistle it was more than the travelling support could bear and the fans from the white rose county caused some damage to the stadium. The bitterness of that night still rankles with Leeds fans, who to this day defiantly sing “We are the Champions, Champions of Europe” in defiance of UEFA’s criminal result. The uncrowned king, undefeated in honour, waiting to claim his throne. Even now, I cannot bring myself to type the distorted final score.

A ban from European competition handed down by UEFA following events in Paris sowed the seeds of the Leeds descent beneath the waves as the overall quality of the squad deteriorated in the following seasons. Folk hero and England International from the glory days Alan “Sniffer” Clarke had done well at neighbours Barnsley but was unable to stop the rot and the Leeds Godzilla slipped into the briny sea of the old second division. Two further Revie demigods, Eddie Gray and Billy Bremner, were hired in a bid to reproduce the miracles of their mentor, but both left without igniting the fire in the monster’s belly.

It took the former manager of local rivals Sheffield Wednesday to do that, as Howard Wilkinson took Leeds from 21st in the second division to Champions of England in less than four years, an extraordinary achievement that deserves greater recognition. Wilkinson’s team were capable of scorched earth victories but the replacement of the mercurial genius that was Eric Cantona with the prosaic Brian Deane exposed the limits of Howard’s imagination and while Godzilla roamed the surface he had essentially been tamed.

Wilkinson was replaced by George Graham who laid the foundations of the team that under David O’Leary collected more points in the Premier League in the calendar year 2000 than any other team and went further in Europe than any Leeds outfit since the 1970s, but the house that then chairman Peter Ridsdale built was founded on sand and collapsed in ruins. Those events have become a textbook case of club mismanagement, with the financial meltdown taking the best part of two decades to resolve. Leeds went back below the waves for a second time in 2004 and for a while, Godzilla was chained to the ocean floor.

At times in the following years, the eyes of the beast could be seen just beneath the surface. A play off final defeat under Kevin Blackwell soon after relegation never looked like going the other way. Worse was to follow when administration meant not one but two points deductions and three seasons in the even murkier depths of the third tier aka League One. An attractive, attacking team put together by Simon “Larry” Grayson beat Manchester United in a cup game at Old Trafford but it was really only a swipe with a claw just to remind the auld enemy that the Leeds beast was actually still alive.

The Elland Road players entrance became a revolving door of mediocre journeymen, with low points aplenty and a continual sense of drift. From Ken Bates to mysterious Middle Eastern owners who appeared to have no deeper pockets than the average fan, to the maverick Massimo Cellino, so the soap opera became a low budget horror film with cut price special effects. Sixteen managers in the sixteen years since relegation tells its own story.

Bates and Cellino did however at least manage to clear the decks of financial rubble, even if the controversial Bates left the ownership of the stadium in one of the most opaque structures imaginable.

Enter Andrea Radrizzani, the adroit, bespectacled Italian Sports Rights mogul whose wise handling of the club has at last seen them take a seat again at the top table. Radrizzani’s masterstroke was of course the appointment of Marcelo Bielsa as manager. There were risks attached, not least the fact that none of Bielsa’s three most recent forays into club management at Marseilles, Lille and Lazio could be considered a rip roaring success. He was also known to be volatile and prone to walk if he did not get things his own way.

Yet sometimes, just occasionally, a manager is appointed who fits a club like a hand fits a glove. Klopp to Liverpool is the standout recent example and Bielsa at Leeds is not far behind. He truly “gets” the club and appreciates the passion of the fans while his attention to detail and the total football of his possession based game is the modern equivalent of Revie’s own magic formula. He also happens to be the best coach in the world and has improved the individuals in his squad out of all recognition. Almost unbelievably in this age of gargantuan pay checks and even bigger egos, Bielsa lives in a modest humble flat above a shop not in Leeds, but in Wetherby of course, location of Leeds Training Ground and his centre of operations.

Leicester City showed that when manager, team, fans and city gel into a mutual love affair, anything is possible and a small, focused squad unencumbered by continental distractions can even storm the gilded fortress atop the Premier league mountain. Whether in this latest Bielsa incarnation the Godzilla that is Leeds can achieve something similar remains to be seen, but he is sure to feast with relish on some of the bloated, pusillanimous fodder that grazes on its slopes. Hail Godzilla.

Author Basil Valentine is the Sunday Wire Radio Show‘s roving correspondent for culture & sport.

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