Co$t of Winning – The Eternally Damned United; A Decade at Leeds United

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Leeds United 10 Years on: what did football learn?

Leeds United is in the process of completing a takeover, gaining a new owner and gathering financial stability.  For them it will be the fourth change of ownership in the last decade. 10 years ago this season Leeds United were relegated to the second tier of English football just three years after appearing in the Champions League Semi Finals. They have struggled for those years trying to recover from the financial mismanagement of the early 2000’s even going into administration and having a three year spell in the English 3rd tier. But what has the world of football, as a whole, learnt– in short: nothing. Clubs are still struggling with their finances and wages and transfer fees are getting ever higher. But why is this?

Leeds United were fast becoming a force in English football.  They even entered the new millennium atop the English Premier league. Mixing a promising crop of young players from the youth academy,  including Jonathan Woodgate, Alan Smith and Harry Kewell,  with big money signings like Robbie Keane, Mark Viduka and Rio Ferdinand, they progressed to the semi finals of the 2000/01 Champions League. They “lived the dream” as Peter Ridsdale had so eloquently put it in his resignation speech. However after failing to qualify for the Champions League the wheels came off. Leeds could no longer afford the high wages and transfer fees they had been paying and were forced to sell their prized assets, such as Ferdinand to Manchester United and Woodgate to Newcastle. In 2004, Leeds were relegated compounding the problem with the loss of  Premier League TV money. Subsequent administration, takeovers and relegations have followed but the bubble had truly burst.

Leeds had spent beyond their means and it had cost them dear. The rest of football was at a cross roads. With many football league teams still struggling with the aftermath of ON Digital’s collapse Premier League teams had started spending more prudently with Leeds demise showing them that just because they were in the Premier League they were not immune to financial failure. However in the midst of the Leeds collapse, June 2003 to be exact, someone changed the game. Roman Abramovich. The Russian billionaire bought Chelsea FC, who were struggling financially themselves, and changed the transfer market spending £121million in his first season followed up with £95million the season after, whilst bringing in less than £3million for both seasons combined through player sales. Other clubs had to up their spending to compete and this had a trickle-down effect with the lower teams in the Premier League spending more to compete, and then in turn lower league teams spending more to try to get into the Premier League.

This ‘chasing the dream’ attitude has led to teams going into administration with the two most famous instances being Portsmouth and Crystal Palace. Portsmouth became the first Premier League club to enter administration, just two years after winning the FA Cup and currently find themselves in League 2 having been relegated three times since. Crystal Palace were just hours from liquidation in 2010, before a consortium of local businessmen bought the club and have since turned them around and achieved that dream promotion to the Premier League.

In recent years attempts have made by football’s governing bodies to get football’s spending under control with UEFA and the Football League introducing their own versions of Financial Fair Play. However team owners such as Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City, demanding consistent success, are willing to invest hundreds of millions to get it and other teams will inevitably continue to try and catch up to stay competitive.

Did the bubble burst with Leeds and Portsmouth? Has football learnt any lessons? I fear not. It is obvious some are now beginning to recognise the dangers that lay ahead however football does something strange to owners. Previously successful business owners seem to lose all common sense and business acumen when they become football club chairmen/CEOs and the pursuit of glory, leading their boyhood clubs to the ‘Promised Land’ seems to take over the brains they have clearly got. Peter Risdale said “We lived the dream. We enjoyed the dream. Only by making the right decisions today can we rekindle the dream.” Unfortunately a lot of people are still dreaming and are yet to wake up.

 

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