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Leeds sink to new depths

The end was predictably messy, with a premature pitch invasion and a delayed finish. It was not the first time the adjective 'disgraceful' was used to describe events on the pitch at Elland Road, though usually that involves the players.

Yet, with chaos developing and recriminations beginning, as a metaphor for a fractious season, it was pretty much perfect. And at the eventual conclusion, their manager Dennis Wise admitted, Leeds were relegated.

Schadenfreude, enveloping Yorkshire for much of the season, has spread across various other parts of the country. Delight at Leeds' decline is widespread, yet it is also desperately sad.

Demotion came in the week of the sixth anniversary of their Champions League semi-final against Valencia. Weighed down by a past that is distinctly preferable to their present, Leeds' setbacks invariably coincide with reminders of what they have lost. That now includes Championship football.

By failing to beat Ipswich Town, Leeds effectively ensured they will enter uncharted territory next season: League One.

But devotees of footballing clichés know that the league table does not lie. In Leeds' case that is transparently true. Rather, the litany of reasons, like the list of culprits, for their demise is lengthy.

It is impossible to overlook the management of Wise and the chairmanship of Ken Bates. Both failed, at least from a football perspective. Bates has trimmed the debts, yet his achievements do not extend beyond that, despite his devotion to mentioning supposed triumphs (and an improved club website or radio station are no compensation for relegation).

Then there is the succession of feuds he, and by extension, Leeds have pursued, from the petty to the reprehensible (publishing the address of a former director in a critical programme piece ranked high amongst them and resulted in the involvement of West Yorkshire Police).

And, of course, there is his appointment of Wise. The Chelsea connection was never popular at Elland Road, but it would have been tolerated had survival been achieved. It was not, and Wise's mantra of 'we'll be ok', repeated ad infinitum during the season, looks misjudged, bordering on the complacent and suggesting he had failed to acknowledge the gravity of the situation.

The other constant in his comments has been criticism of referees. Recognising Leeds' problems rather than, like his chairman, focusing on imagined injustices might have proved more beneficial.

Yet his initial analysis was correct. The squad he inherited from Kevin Blackwell was creaking. The departures of the old and slow - particularly the one-paced central defensive partnership of Paul Butler and Sean Gregan - could have proved the prelude for improvement, had they not been replaced by an injection of old, slow players.

Blackwell's legacy, despite a play-off final appearance 12 months ago, was not beneficial. His last eight months were notable for feeble performances, devoid of both imagination and goals. Caretaker manager John Carver's attempt to remedy that with attacking football exposed a dreadful defence.

That was only eventually resolved in the final weeks of the season when Lubomir Michalik, the strapping Slovakian, was borrowed from Bolton. The culmination of his loan spell ended the new-found stability at the back.

Before then centre-back had represented one of Leeds' problem positions (it was an indication of their difficulties that they had four, including left-back, right-back and right midfield). Wise displayed an irrational faith in Hayden Foxe while Rui Marques, ignored for his first 18 months at Elland Road, emerged as a superior alternative when belatedly introduced.

Four successive home wins suggested Wise's scattergun approach in the transfer market could reap a reward of continued Championship football. Michalik and fellow loanees Michael Gray and Radostin Kishishev provided a veneer of class. Yet it could not be presented as the fruits of a coherent strategy in a season that featured 43 players.

Not when there was a crisis of leadership, on and off the pitch. Leeds had seven skippers (though the armband was passed to others during games), four of them club captains. Kevin Nicholls, Wise's choice, brought his manager's judgment into question by committing what was regarded at Elland Road as treachery by attempting to rejoin his former club and their relegation rivals, Luton Town.

Then there is the question of the mysterious mole in the camp who Wise has failed to identify (though as the information given to Crystal Palace about the Leeds team was incorrect, the informer was as unimpressive as the majority of the players).

Jonathan Douglas, Nicholls' successor, appeared appointed on the basis that he was the only automatic choice. For 15 yellow cards, plus a sending-off, he promptly got himself banned for the rest of the season.

That led to the promotion of David Healy, barely a month after he was benched. Wise had travelled to Belfast in a bid to discover how Northern Ireland possessed the most prolific scorer in Europe in the Euro 2008 qualifiers and Leeds an occasional scorer.

Yet, more than four months into his reign, that should not have been required. Wise's omission of Healy, like Blackwell's determination to ignore Robbie Blake, deprived Leeds of potential matchwinners for too many games while lesser talents such as Tresor Kandol, who Wise had plucked from Barnet and who proved inadequate after a jump of two divisions, were somehow preferred.

There was an assumption that Leeds would flourish next season, when they no longer had to contribute to the salaries of former players such as Danny Mills, Robbie Fowler and Mark Viduka. There may now be a feeling that they have hit rock bottom, yet this is a concept they have continually redefined in recent years.

Next season's manager - and there is a widespread feeling that Leeds cannot recover with either Wise or Bates at the helm - will have to start virtually from scratch. The current squad is dominated by arrivals on loan, short-term signings and others whose contracts expire in the summer. Then there are those such as Nicholls, for whom a future at Leeds is inconceivable, plus Healy, Blake and Richard Cresswell, who will attract attention from higher divisions.

Nor will Gary Kelly be at Elland Road. His lucrative five-year deal expires in the summer and, for seeing out the contract, he is entitled to a 'loyalty bonus' thought to be worth £650,000. It was granted, needless to say, by Peter Ridsdale. He is long gone but, deny it as he predictably did, his culpability in Leeds' relegation cannot be ignored.


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