Leeds United's fall from grace comes into focus ahead of Liverpool tie
It is some story, one that involves £240 worth of goldfish, 19 managers in 14 years, relegation, administration and a fall from grace so dramatic that "Doing a Leeds" now has its own Wikipedia page.
Leeds United face Liverpool at Anfield on Tuesday in a cup fixture that evokes images of the glory years of both clubs, of titanic battles for honours during the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s and of some of the greatest names in English football. But for Leeds, still one of England's biggest and best supported teams, the trip to Anfield serves only as a reminder of what has been lost.
It is difficult to know where to begin with the story of Leeds United's financial meltdown. After a turbulent decade-and-a-half at Elland Road that almost resulted in the extinction of a club which, as recently as 2001, came within one game of reaching the Champions League final, there is still no final chapter in sight.
Back in 2001, a spending spree that had seen the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Mark Viduka bolster a squad of home-grown stars such as Harry Kewell, Jonathan Woodgate and Alan Smith just missed out on the Champions League final, having lost to Valencia in the last four. The future looked bright, chairman Peter Ridsdale spoke of "living the dream" and David O'Leary's team were regarded as the greatest threat to Manchester United's domestic dominance.
The spending continued: in came Robbie Fowler, Nicky Barmby, Seth Johnson and then bang. The bubble burst. Having borrowed millions secured against future gate receipts and Champions League earnings, Leeds missed on Europe's gravy train in 2002 and the debts began to climb towards £100 million. And so the meltdown began, with Ferdinand, Woodgate, Fowler, Robbie Keane and Lee Bowyer all offloaded, quickly followed by Kewell and Olivier Dacourt.
When Ridsdale resigned in March 2003, the club's stock market value was £12m but its debts had soared to £79m.Ridsdale was followed out of the door by manager Terry Venables, with Peter Reid hired to steady the ship. Reid lasted eight months in the job before being sacked as Leeds hurtled towards the relegation from the Premier League in 2003-04. They have yet to return.
"The abiding memory of my time at Leeds is the sheer size of the club and its support," Reid told ESPN FC. "They had enjoyed some good times, seen some great players and had been top of the league just a year earlier.
"And even though they had sold so many of their best players, I saw lots of quality in the squad I inherited. But I think that the financial problems had affected the mentality and psychology of everyone at the club and it was in a downward spiral that it just couldn't escape from.
"It was a mess off the pitch and the banks were calling the loans in, so it was almost an impossible job."
With Leeds forced to sell their best players to repay the loans, Professor John McKenzie was hired to replace Ridsdale as chairman and he was blunt in his assessment of the situation into which he'd walked. "There's been irresponsibility and indulgent spending here," McKenzie, a professor of economics, claimed on his arrival in March 2003. "It's a simple business, but the complexity lies in sorting out the borrowing and the frivolous nature of the expenditure.
"Some things are just unforgivable and we're working hard to change them. It's like an oil tanker heading straight for the rocks and the shareholders have put someone else on board to turn it around. The trouble with oil tankers is they're two miles long and they don't turn around in two minutes.
"If we had been prudent elsewhere in the administration side of the business, there's a fair chance that the club could have carried on living the dream."
The dream? Aside from the lavish spending on players, Leeds spent £600,000 a year on a fleet of over 70 company cars, hired private jets and spent £20 a month looking after the goldfish in Ridsdale's office that had initially cost £240 to acquire -- all with borrowed money.
Ridsdale, whose book "United We Fall" chronicled his time at the club, admitted in a November 2007 interview with the Daily Telegraph that "I always thought I was a good, hard-nosed businessman until I read my book again and I thought 'I wasn't actually.'"
Fowler, one of Ridsdale's signings, rejected Chelsea to sign for Leeds from Liverpool in Nov. 2001, unaware of the calamity lurking around the corner. "In the space of little over a year," Fowler wrote in his autobiography, "Leeds went from being the next great team in the Premier League to being a side doomed for relegation.
"They became a pub team. It was a pretty rotten choice on my part."
Relegation in May 2004 was only the end of chapter one, however. The dream had turned into a nightmare, but it became a recurring one. Leeds were placed in administration three years later and subsequently relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time in their history.
Now owned by Ken Bates, the former Chelsea chairman, and managed by former Chelsea captain Dennis Wise -- Leeds' rivalry with Chelsea is only surpassed by their deep-seated enmity towards Manchester United -- there was a sense around Elland Road of a club not only dying, but of one being taken to its end by enemy personnel.
Simon Grayson, a former Leeds trainee, returned as manager in 2008. His reign coincided with a return to the Championship and a famous FA Cup third round victory at Manchester United in January 2010 when, still in the third tier, Sir Alex Ferguson's reigning Premier League champions were beaten 1-0.
"The turmoil had ended to some extent when I arrived," Grayson told ESPN FC. "The club had been through administration, overcome a points deduction and just wanted somebody to get a hold of it and get it moving again. I was able to galvanise things and we won promotion, but it still saddens me that Leeds have not been able to get back to the Premier League.
"Had the club been able to hold onto the players in my time, we would have undoubtedly made it back to the top before now, but for myself and managers that followed me at Leeds, every time you think progress is being made, players end up being sold."
Almost seven years on from promotion from the third tier under Grayson, Leeds remain in the wilderness and dreams of regular trips to Old Trafford and Anfield remain exactly that: dreams.
Garry Monk, the seventh manager to work for controversial Italian owner Massimo Cellino in less than three years, has taken Leeds to fifth in the Championship this season, with hopes growing of this season being the one which brings the Elland Road nightmare to an end.
"It has been a long time now since the club was in the Premier League and there will come a time when one set of players takes it back there," Monk told ESPN FC. "We are the ones who can put the club's name back on the page and we are fighting for the right to be able do that."
Nothing is ever straightforward with Leeds United, though, so do not expect the ride back to the Premier League to be a smooth one.
But Anfield on Tuesday may well be a significant stop on the journey that is taking far too long to get to its destination.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_