Leeds United: Are Championship leaders finally set for Premier League return?

By Phil McNultyChief football writer
Leeds fans
Leeds' average attendance of 32,142 this season is the highest since they were relegated from the Premier League

As Leeds United's supporters celebrated at the traditional gathering place of The Old Peacock just a short walk from Elland Road, one of English football's institutions had taken another small step on the long road to recovery.

A 3-2 win over Ipswich - a game almost designed to play on nerves frayed by 15 years of trauma - kept Leeds top of the Championship on goal difference going into Tuesday's game at third-placed Cardiff.

The revival under their latest manager, Thomas Christiansen, had brought 34,002 to the famous old stadium, the highest of the season and a third successive league attendance in excess of 30,000.

Christiansen, the 44-year-old Danish-born former Spain international, had Leeds fans heading to Wikipedia for information when he succeeded Garry Monk in June but they are warming to the measured, meticulous approach of the former Apoel Nicosia coach.

He is the symbol of the relative calm that has suddenly descended on this part of Yorkshire after the years of madness that followed David O'Leary's sacking in June 2002.

Since O'Leary paid the price for failing to secure Champions League football, thus exposing the strategic flaws of the club's free-spending approach under then chairman Peter Ridsdale, Leeds have suffered financial meltdown, fluctuating and combustible ownership, and a slide into English football's third tier before returning to the Championship.

That relegation to League One in 2007 - and the turmoil that followed that summer - was the nadir. Their demotion was confirmed by the imposition of a 10-point penalty for falling into administration, 39 years to the day after the club were crowned champions of England for the first time. Another deduction, this time of 15 points, soon followed.

Leeds have had 15 different permanent managers and four more caretakers - including three for Neil Redfearn before he took full-time control - and used 260 different players in league games between O'Leary leaving and the start of this season.

This has been a bruised and battered fanbase. Too many false dawns. Too many disappointments.

And yet the size and potential of Leeds is illustrated by the fact average attendances never got close to dropping below 20,000, even in the wilderness years.

This season's average of 32,142 is the first time the figure has risen above 30,000 since they were in the Premier League - and the old bear pit was packed and at its best as Leeds clung on for a win over Ipswich which extends their excellent start to the season.

The cacophony of noise that greeted the final whistle was followed by a joyous lap of honour from the Leeds players, especially in front of a wall of sound from the Don Revie Stand.

Results are always the best medicine for an ailing club, of course, but it is the latest new face at its head that is the cause of the cautious optimism being felt in this part of Yorkshire.

Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani, who made his fortune in global sports media, completed his takeover of Leeds in May, ending the chaotic three-year reign of Massimo Cellino.

Fellow countryman Cellino's time in charge brought seven managers - David Hockaday and Darko Milanic lasting only six games each - a series of disputes, two bans from running the club by the Football League and a ban and a fine from the FA for breaching agent rules.

Radrizzani, after the failed reigns of Ken Bates and Dubai-based private equity group GFH Capital preceded Cellino, did not exactly have hard acts to follow.

The omens were not good when Monk, who almost guided Leeds into the play-offs last season, left shortly after Radrizzani's arrival and eventually returned at rivals Middlesbrough - but since then the Italian has not put a foot wrong.

The appointment of Christiansen looks shrewd, along with the arrival of Victor Orta from Middlesbrough as director of football. Angus Kinnear came from West Ham as managing director to complete the management structure.

Thomas Christiansen
Christiansen has won eight of 12 games since taking charge of Leeds, his only loss coming against Millwall

While the arrival of these people has been crucial, the most symbolic investment has been in bricks and mortar as Radrizzani bought back Elland Road 13 years after the club sold the ground to reduce debts.

The old place, in the words of many fans, looks tired in parts but at least it is back as Leeds' own home. Radrizzani and his team have already made some key cosmetic changes, with banners around the ground celebrating past successes and a club history timeline running along Elland Road.

"Buying back the ground was a seminal moment," said Adam Pope, who commentates on their games for BBC Radio Leeds and has covered every twist and turn since 2005-06.

"Owners have come and gone saying they would buy the ancestral home back but only Radrizzani has delivered.

"The emotional attachment to Elland Road is immense to Leeds fans and by buying it back for what is believed to be around £20m, investing and developing it, you can see Radrizzani means business.

"Elland Road can feel like a mausoleum or a cauldron of unparalleled noise and intimidation, depending on the club's fortunes. It's regularly the latter now."

The ghosts of the greats echo around the atmospheric stadium but the mantra now is to embrace that past while looking to the future.

It all adds up to the feel of a club finally on the way out of darkness into the light, helped by results on the pitch.

Legends Norman Hunter and Eddie Gray were, as always, in view backstage at Elland Road on Saturday and while it is early days, Leeds are just starting to dare to dream once more.

Phil Beeton, co-chairman of Leeds United Supporters' Club, said: "It's totally different. There is a lot more positivity around the place. Things are happening off the field as well as on it.

"The club seems to be structured better from the chairman downwards and that was the important part of it - to get a feel that everything was together."

Beeton attended his first game at Elland Road in 1957-58, has been a season-ticket holder since 1964 and has not missed a home game since the late 50s.

"Everybody you speak to is buoyant," he added. "If the team hadn't been doing so well at the moment then there would still have been that positive feeling because the right noises are coming out of the club.

"There are lots of initiatives. The club is looking at bringing youngsters more into the fold and encouraging people back to Elland Road, which is not an easy thing to do because once you've lost people who have been there for a long time it's very difficult to get them back."

Radrizzani and Kinnear are determined to re-establish those links and Saturday saw the first meeting of the Supporters' Advisory Board, a bridge between the terraces and the boardroom, with the minutes to be published in a future match programme.

"The new owner has won faith back," said Beeton. "He's a hero at the moment, the man who has dragged the club by the collar and pulled it out of the doldrums.

"From our point of view in the Supporters' Club, we have met with Angus Kinnear a couple of times and he has wanted to listen to what we have to say and has asked us questions about being a Leeds supporter. He has come over as somebody who wants us all to sing from the same hymnsheet."

Radrizzani's involvement has stretched beyond the boardroom. He was at Thorp Arch training ground on Friday as Leeds' under-23 team prepared to play Bolton and has ensured the return of the club's ladies' team.

It is, however, first-team fortunes that will ultimately shape Leeds' progress and map out the scale of the club's recovery.

For all the encouraging signs, this is not a team without its flaws, looking defensively frail without Pontus Jansson against Ipswich, but recruitment has been smart and Orta's vast contacts book is being put to good use.

Chris Wood was sold to Burnley for £15m after scoring 44 goals in 88 appearances but new heroes are emerging in the squat, stocky shape of forward Samuel Saiz, already a huge Elland Road favourite after signing from Huesca in Spain's second tier, and Pierre-Michel Lasogga.

Lasogga, 25, arrived on loan from Hamburg and while he occasionally appeared to be having difficulty with the close physical attentions he will get in the Championship, took Leeds' opening goal in a highly-accomplished manner.

Lasogga celebrates scoring against Ipswich
Leeds are tied on points with Wolves and Cardiff at the top of the Championship

At the head of it all is Christiansen, the appointment from nowhere whose cool demeanour is keeping a lid on the excitement while also exuding comfort with the growing weight of expectation.

"Most people said 'who?' when he got the job," said Beeton. "I would say the majority had no idea who he was and it was straight on to the internet to gather some information.

"I am delighted with him. His demeanour is great. He comes across as a really nice guy and you can see he's the type of person people will want to work with because he comes over so well."

Christiansen has made his presence felt and good results in Tuesday's game at Cardiff and Sunday's trip to Sheffield Wednesday will only increase belief.

And as expectations grow, the Dane is unfazed.

"I like the idea of being on top and the expectation of being on top," he told BBC Sport after the win against Ipswich.

"It is better than being at the bottom when you have to fight to win not to be relegated."

Radrizzani also has high expectations. He has spoken of this being a "long-term project" and says he is committed to putting £100m into the club, but in the short term regards a play-off spot as an achievable target this season.

"We need to compete at the top of the league and be in the top six," said the owner. "A play-off place is the minimum requirement. Last season we had a good season [finishing seventh] but failed at the beginning and the end.

"I'd welcome promotion as a nice surprise but our target is the play-offs."

Leeds fans may feel they deserve a nice surprise after so many unpleasant ones in the past 15 years.


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