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Offside, 12 December

Elland Road: the story of a closely knit community of simple footballing folk that is tearing itself apart.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Harry Kewell’s wife Sheree Murphy may have quit Emmerdale but her husband is currently starring in another Yorkshire soap opera: Elland Road, the story of a closely knit community of simple footballing folk that is tearing itself apart.

Where did it all go wrong for Leeds United? In 2001 Leeds reached the semi-final of the Champions League. They topped the Premiership table midway through the 2001/2 season. But then it started to go Viduka-shaped.

The trial of Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer was the turning point. The club’s decision to fine Bowyer four weeks’ wages, even though he had been acquitted in court, effectively alienated one of the team’s most influential players. An alarming dip in the team’s form followed, culminating in failure to qualify for the Champions League, a disaster for a club that had lavished £100million on players.

In June 2002, manager David O’Leary, a man whom chairman Peter Ridsdale had once hailed as ‘the best young manager in the country’, was sacked amid speculation that he had lost the respect of his ‘babies’.

Enter loveable cockney rogue Terry Venables. Surely, if anyone could turn things around, then El Tel was your man? ‘Terry is the best coach and manager in the game’, crowed Peter Ridsdale. Nobody would have disagreed with that a few months back.

But now we’re not so sure. Venables’ reputation is based almost entirely on a handful of England performances at the Euro ’96 campaign. That glorious failure apart, his managerial achievements have been relatively modest. He guided Barcelona to the Spanish league title, won the FA Cup with Spurs, and…er, that’s it. Venables’ short tenure at Leeds is increasingly coming to resemble his ill-fated 1960s business venture the thingummywig, an ingenious hat-wig that enabled style-conscious ladies to hide their curlers.

‘I had lunch with Terry in Spain on Saturday and within 10 minutes, so infectious is his enthusiasm, that he has you believing that you can play for England’, gushed Ridsdale when he hired Venables. ‘Imagine how that must make a player puff out his chest.’ But to date there have been far more shoulders hunched in defeat than puffed-out chests. A series of dismal performances have left Leeds hovering precariously close to the relegation zone.

More alarmingly, Venables seems incapable of quelling the escalating dressing room discord. Lee Bowyer and Ian Harte look set to leave. Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka don’t talk to each other except it seems by issuing statements to the press. Viduka reportedly had a post-match bust-up with Danny Mills. ‘Danny won’t be getting a Christmas card from me but that’s because I don’t send Christmas cards’, muttered the curmudgeonly striker.

Another malcontent is Olivier Dacourt. ‘We are foundering. It is a disgrace’, Dacourt told French newspaper L’Equipe. Venables hit back, accusing the player of trying to engineer a transfer. ‘If he wants to go to Italy – and someone is interested – I will personally drive him there’, he retorted. Dacourt was fined by the club and probably won’t be getting a Christmas card from Terry either.

The fans, unhappy at seeing Leeds’ injury-ravaged midfield easily overrun by opponents, have been demanding the recall of the veteran David Batty. Venables thinks that the 34-year-old midfielder is past his sell-by date. ‘Quite frankly I thought David’s best days had gone and I told him that’, said Venables. Batty is now consulting his lawyers about possible legal action.

Who is to blame for the sorry state of affairs? First team coach Brian Kidd has never really endeared himself to the Leeds faithful because of his long association with the hated ‘Munichs’ (a term of endearment for Manchester United). Invariably, the fans have also started to vent their anger at Venables. Supporters have criticised Venables for spending too much time on his media commitments and not putting in the hours at the training ground.

Injuries to key players haven’t exactly helped but, given the size of Leeds’ squad, this is no excuse for their lowly league position. It is obvious that certain players are not fully committed to the cause. Viduka and Kewell are prime suspects. They don’t score enough goals and they wear gloves in winter. No further evidence, m’lud.

But is it fair to blame El Tel for all player unrest? ‘The decline at the club began six months before Terry started’, says Peter Ridsdale. Venables’ problem is that the club is £78million in debt and needs to reduce the wage bill, so new personnel can’t be brought in until the has-beens, wantaways, and prima donnas have been offloaded, which is easier said than done given the current slump in the transfer market.

So, for the time being, the Elland Road saga looks set to run and run. Will Harry ever speak to Mark? Will Mark kiss and make up with Danny? Will Lee find a new home? Will David take the club to court? Will Terry let Olivier play? Will Peter lose patience with Terry? Tune in for the next instalment.

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