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Leeds United and Arsenal - A History

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Arsenal have, as we all know by now, drawn Leeds United in the third round of my favorite competition, the FA Cup. More recent Arsenal fans might not know this, but Leeds United are the embodiment of all that is ugly and wrong with soccer and parents should steer their kids away from being Leeds fans just like they steer their kids away from talking to balding old men who lurk at the edge of the playground in a windowless white van. Why? I'm glad you asked!

Leeds United first took part in England's top flight in 1920. They mostly just Leedsed their way through the seasons until 1961, when Don Revie was named manager of the first team. Revie took an underachieving Leeds team and basically turned them into late 90's/early 00's Arsenal - he ended up always producing a top four finish, and added a couple league titles, a few FA Cups, and assorted other pieces of hardware for good measure.

One of Revie's other "innovations", though, was the creation/propagation of the "Dirty Leeds" style of play. He called it "playing for results", but more often than not it was a physical, ugly style of play that crossed the line from aggressive to dirty more often than not. They largely got away with it, because they were a really good team in the mid-to-late 70's, but they did not win a lot of friends with the way they played.

After Revie left Leeds to go manage the England national team, Leeds actually made it to a European Cup final in 1974-75, but they started to decline as subsequent managers weren't able to recruit or retain players of the same quality that Revie was able to attract, and were relegated to the Second Division in 1982.

Leeds spent the rest of the 1980's in the Second, gaining promotion back to the First in 1989-1990. Up until the late 1990's, though, Leeds didn't amount to much, and it was only after George Graham was named manager shortly after the start of the 1996 season that Leeds started to play well again.

Graham left after two years to go manage some pub team in North London, and the reins at Leeds were taken up by one David O'Leary in 1998. O'Leary was Graham's assistant, so he had a reasonably long history at Leeds, and during O'Leary's tenure, Leeds fully reclaimed the "Dirty Leeds" moniker of the Revie years. In 2000, O'Leary's Leeds kicked, punched, elbowed, and hacked their way to a UEFA Cup semi-final, which they lost to Galatasaray, who won the tournament by beating Arsenal 4-1 on penalties.

In the Premier League, too, Leeds were constantly burnishing their dirty reputation. I had the lack of pleasure of seeing them play at Highbury twice during O'Leary's reign as manager; both times O'Leary's team - particularly Alan Smith, Lee Bowyer, and Jonathan Woodgate - beat the shit out of Arsenal from kickoff to the final whistle, while Arsenal legend O'Leary stood there on the Highbury sidelines and watched his reputation disintegrate in front of the fans that had idolized him for years.

(Before this goes further, I have to say that I generally have no problem with physical play, as long as it's done fairly. Manchester United, during this same mid-to-late 1990's era, played an incredibly physical style of play - but they also had prodigious levels of talent to back it up, and didn't use their physicality as a primary weapon. They stayed on the right side of the "hard v. dirty" divide (with the exception of the occasional Roy Keane), and it was amazingly effective.)

This era also coincided with the first dumping of swaths of cash into the trough of money that has ruined modern soccer - big cable TV deals were just starting to be signed in England, and clubs were starting to realize that they could, in fact, charge more or less whatever they wanted for admission and for replica shirts and other "team branded" things, and club owners, like the pigs in Animal Farm, got drunk on money and power.

Peter Ridsdale, owner of Leeds during this period, decided that not only did he like money, but he liked success too, so on the back of the aforementioned UEFA Cup campaign, Ridsdale rolled the dice big time and spent like crazy on such expensive players as Rio Ferdinand (a club record £18 million), Robbie Fowler, and Olivier Dacourt, using money that he borrowed against future TV revenues and sponsorship money (great idea, Pete!) on the assumption that Leeds would be a regular participant in the Champions League. The only flaw in this otherwise genius plan is that Leeds then failed to make the Champions League in the years following the signings, leaving Leeds with massive wage bills and almost zero money to repay them. Whoopsadoodle!

Ridsdale then was forced to sell players to make his loan payments. David O'Leary had finally had enough when Ferdinand was sold for £30 million, and was fired after fighting publicly with Ridsdale over the sale. Terry Venables was then brought in, and the fire sale continued, and finally after the 2004 season Leeds were relegated as their finances became unfixable. They have been in the lower leagues since, but this year are in the Championship with a chance to get back to the Premiership next season - a chance I hope they screw up.

I don't hate much, in sports or in real life. Hate is a wasted emotion that ends up doing nothing good for anybody involved. There are, however, a few teams that I wish zero success for - and Leeds is absolutely one of those teams. They personify everything to me that is wrong with the game - ugly play, a massive financial overreach, and the arrogance to believe that both of those things were and are acceptable. They may be running their club in a more fiscally responsible way now - I don't pay attention to them these days and thus have no idea - but the fact that they borrowed so heavily against a future that provided no guarantees, all the while playing a style of the game that would make your average prison basketball team blush, means that in my opinion, Leeds got and are getting what they deserve - lower division soccer.