If the Premier League is England’s most popular soap opera then for a long time Leeds United were an unforgettable character that was inexplicably written out many years ago. This season, however, marked their long-awaited return after 16 years out of the top flight, with Argentinian manager Marcelo Bielsa guiding the club to promotion from the Championship off the back of two years of dizzying football and, er, spying on every rival teams’ training sessions. Speaking as a Leeds fan who was in my teens when the club slipped out of the big time, I’d watch Match Of The Day feeling like someone forgot to season a big feast. Obviously I wanted us to be there, but wasn’t it bland for everyone else, too?
This arrogance was mainly based on a history of success at Leeds throughout the 1970s, 90s and early 2000s. Leeds is a club of legends: Jack Charlton, Billy Bremner, Eric Cantona, Vinnie Jones and Rio Ferdinand all pulled on the white shirt at one point in time so to watch the team languishing in the lower leagues felt unbecoming of a once-great club. I’d tell myself this was a blip, admittedly a long one with no obvious end in sight, but a temporary measure all the same. But what about the young Leeds fans who have no memory of the club as a successful side? What about those who weren’t even born when Tony Yeboah connected with that volley against Liverpool in 1995, were in nappies for the 2001 Champions League run, and have only ever understood Leeds through the lens of mediocrity?
“Every birthday I’d wish for promotion when I blew out my birthday candles,” 25-year-old Sophie Levin says of a near lifetime of footballing misery. “I still haven’t got my head round being back. I look down the Premier League fixture list and think ‘Where’s Wigan? When do we have to go to Reading?’” A lot of things in football feel surreal at the moment: video referees, fans banned from entering grounds, beloved mascots being put on furlough, but for Leeds fans, living out the dream we’ve all harboured over the past 16 years is the hardest to compute. Jonny Chick, 18, has just started university in Sheffield and found the good vibes around the club are catching on. “When I moved into halls and told people I was a Leeds fan I was getting compliments,” he says. “Five or six years ago I’d have been laughed at.”
Anyone laughing at Leeds over the past decade and a half would have had good reason. The club was run like a mass schadenfreude factory for many years: pumping out terrible results and enough off-field incidents to put most banter-era Twitter threads to shame. A potted history of Leeds since their Premier League relegation includes a second relegation from the Championship to League One, two play-off defeats at Wembley, losing to Histon FC in the FA Cup (a postman scored their winner), taking part in a controversial post-season tour of Myanmar, selling a surprisingly large number of players to Norwich, and years of indulgent spending on everything from wages to private jets and fish tanks, which led to the club facing liquidation in 2007.
League One was a particularly dark time for Sophie. “Leeds-ing it up had become a punchline,” she says. “You’d look at the fixtures and think ‘We have to go to Burton this year.’ That’s not the environment you want to be in as a 16-year-old.” For Lewis Deighton, 19, however, this era was when he first started attending games as a season ticket holder and fell in love with the club. “Funnily enough my memories of those days are good,” he says. “We weren’t a mid-table side, we were always up there competing for promotion. Obviously there was heartbreak but up to this year, that’s my favourite era. It was fun.”
Heartbreak and Leeds United have gone hand in hand since 2004. Whether it was being deducted 15 points by the FA for breaking a clause during the liquidation or watching erratic Italian owner Massimo Cellino take charge during a chaotic period between 2014 and 2017, there was always a tragicomic story bubbling up in Yorkshire. “I remember crying at school when my mum called and told me we’d sold Jonny Howson to Norwich,” Sophie says. “What a loser.” Ellie Sadler, 27, who works in the office at Elland Road alongside her dad and brother, never wavered though. “It’s the hope that kills you but I’d never give up on them. We have always had a sense that we’re a big club and that the worst wouldn’t happen to us, no matter how close we came to not existing.”
Deighton runs a popular Leeds United YouTube channel and cites Bielsa’s influence for a rise in the global views on his videos. “I’ve got Spanish fans watching my videos and I’m having to reply to them in a foreign language,” he laughs. “It’s a whirlwind.” He was on hand to capture footage of the team’s celebrations after securing promotion from the Championship in July. Despite being kept out of grounds during games, fans gathered outside Elland Road following Huddersfield’s surprise victory over West Brom, which ensured Leeds were guaranteed promotion. “That was a class night,” he says, looking back to a mad summer. “I couldn’t tell you how many thousands of people were there but it were packed.” So too was Millennium Square in Leeds city centre before a win over Derby, their final victory before being made champions. “That was the best day of the year for me,” he says. “It’s weird in the worst year of my life to have the best week ever, but that’s the way it goes.” Ellie has similarly fond memories. She watched the Huddersfield game on a laptop alongside her housemate and “cheered like I would any Leeds goal” when the result came in. “This thing you’ve waited 16 years for has finally happened so getting to be with fans that day made everything feel real, and not like a Fifa simulation.” Johnny was at home with his family in Tunbridge and played it safe amid the coronavirus warnings. “I vividly remember Liam Cooper lifting the trophy, watching on my laptop with my dad and having a tear in my eye,” he says remembering a summer spent watching dreams come true behind face masks and LUTV live streams.
None of this would have happened without Bielsa at the helm. Watching him transform Leeds United in the past two years has been like witnessing a top-level chef walk into your kitchen and knock up a Michelin-quality meal from the three ingredients you’d forgotten about in the fridge. Players like Kalvin Phillips, Luke Ayling, and Mateusz Klich have gone from forgettable to Fantasy League staples, leaving the people of Leeds smitten with a manager whose meticulous levels of research and planning are the thing of legend. Everyone I spoke to was united in their love for Argentina’s most famous bucket-sitter, with words like “aura,” “magician” and “a lot more than just good football” all mentioned.
So while these young Leeds fans might not be able to share in their elders’ tales of trophies and iconic players there is one thing remains a constant among the fanbase across the ages: we love to be hated – after our frantic, undeserved defeat to Liverpool, on the opening day of the season, “Dirty Leeds” trended on Twitter, but it wasn’t from rivals; this is what we call ourselves, a slur reclaimed. However, for a team so famously hated by rival fans that they gleefully chant “Leeds are falling apart again” to the tune of Joy Division’s biggest hit, we find ourselves in the uncomfortable role of the neutral favourites these days. This is largely down to Bielsa’s enthralling style of play where the best form of defence is to attack, but the irony isn’t lost on anyone I speak to, where there’s nearly a sadness at being liked by the neutral. “I’ll never say I miss the Championship but at least every team we played seemed to genuinely hate us,” says Ellie. Sophie, on the other hand, compares Leeds supporters to “a weird, dysfunctional family” bound together by the trauma we have all endured. But you simply can’t buy into that underdog nature now we’re giving Liverpool and Manchester City a run for their money. Lewis, however, goes further. “I’ve grown up on the condition that we’re hated and I love that. Ask any Leeds fan, we thrive off it. Nobody can touch us. People chant ‘We all hate Leeds scum’ or ‘Leeds are falling apart,’ and we’ll chant it back. You want to get #FuckLeeds trending, we’ll tweet it.”
Fierce rivalries aside, Lewis sums up Leeds perfectly when he says: “there’s always something going on at Leeds and that’s why we stay in people’s minds. We’ll never not be relevant.” There truly always is something going on at Leeds. Now we are back where we belong, the hope is the club can give a new generation of fans the glory days they have craved for a lifetime and that “Leeds-ing it up” is a long-forgotten memory.