Actually, you know what? That headline might be misleading. When it comes to Leeds United, there’s really no such thing as “neutrals.”
Most teams despise them, and they despise most teams. They’re rivals with basically everybody. That’s why some of us love them.
Does that make sense? It will next season, when Leeds will return to the Premier League for the first time since 2004 by virtue of winning the second-tier Championship this season. That title was clinched Friday when second-place West Brom lost to Huddersfield and rendered Leeds mathematically uncatchable atop the table.
Leeds hasn’t been in the Premier League since literally inventing the euphemism for catastrophic financial mismanagement in soccer in the early 21st century. Former chairman Peter Ridsdale spearheaded the implosion with hellacious hubris, borrowing $75 million against Champions League berths (and the accompanying cash floods) Leeds hadn’t actually secured yet. The club was very good back then, finishing top-four three consecutive seasons and reaching the Champions League semifinals in 2001, so it seemed like a defensible bet.
Problem was, it’s not defensible business. Ridsdale’s recklessness, for which he’s never acknowledged much fault, sowed disaster after the 2001-02 campaign, when Leeds finished fifth. Without the Champions League money to help repay the debts, Leeds started selling star players like Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Keane and its annual debts ballooned to as high as nearly $150 million, kickstarting a skid all the way to relegation by May 2004.
It got worse from there. Leeds couldn’t get its finances together and entered administration (similar to bankruptcy in the United States) where it plunged into third-tier League One as a result of a 10-point penalty, escaping expulsion from the Football League (aka the second through fourth divisions) by the skin of its teeth.
Despite more years of ownership drama, Leeds has finally stabilized under Andrea Radrizzani, and now they’re heading back to the Premier League. And they’re not coming back quietly.
Manager Marcelo Bielsa — who once gave us soccer’s answer to the NFL’s Spygate controversy — has put together a roughhouse squad that presses with a controlled fury and runs deep with prospective goal scorers in any given match. That will work better in the stodgy, physical Championship than in the more open Premier League, but it also means Leeds will be spoiling for fights wherever they go.
They’ll definitely find them. Leeds has the Roses rivalry with local enemy Manchester United, which produced some absolutely scintillating clashes in the 1990s. They’ll have two West Yorkshire derbies in the Premier League against burgeoning Sheffield United. This club has spent decades as a disciplinary desperado. Whatever fan base you survey, there will likely be a healthy animus for Leeds.
If you’re far enough removed from it, it will make for some supremely entertaining matches. The lack of fans will sap some enthusiasm, especially with Elland Road being one of the game’s better atmospheres, but again, that’s where Leeds’ style and Bielsa’s abrasiveness will come in. Imagine him getting in the face of Jose Mourinho during a match, or Leeds trying to take their wrecking ball head-to-head with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
No team as accomplished as Leeds has spent so much time outside the top flight, at least not in the Premier League era. From the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, Leeds won the top flight three times, including the old English First Division the last season before the advent of the EPL, as well as an FA Cup and a League Cup, with nine runner-up finishes between the three competitions during that stretch, too.
Basically, soccer fans can’t lose here. You can feel however you want about Leeds. You can hate them for their past insolvency. You can loathe the outspokenness of their fans and manager. You can feel good that a member of English soccer’s old guard is back in the sunshine. You can feel good about a bunch of players and coaches who had nothing to do with past troubles firing their way back up to the Premier League.
Welcome back, Leeds. We missed you. Well, some of us.
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