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Mar 26, 2009

Ridsdale and Leeds live the nightmare

During the history of the English game, has there ever been a more tragicomic quote than this from Peter Ridsdale? As life at Leeds United fell into a decline and fall that Edward Gibbon would have been proud to document he uttered the immortal: "We lived the dream, enjoyed the dream and only by making the right decisions today we can rekindle the dreams again in the future."

"Living The Dream" gave Ridsdale the name for his defiant yet apologetic autobiography, a tale of how he loved and lost the affections of the Elland Road faithful. On March 31, 2003, after a bitter period of recrimination, back-stabbing and opulent spending that would have put the Ewings of Southfork to shame, the lifelong fan threw in the towel and resigned his post as chairman.

On stepping down, Ridsdale's stated reason was pressure from the fans, by then in insurrection mode as the club sold off its playing assets to service debts incurred by a spending binge that had pushed the club's debts beyond any serviceable financial level. It was a far cry from the nights where Ridsdale, the fanatical supporter who had made his way into the boardroom, led the faithful in choruses of "Marching On Together" after his team had vanquished some of Europe's biggest names. He had also been the hero of the hour when two Leeds fans had been stabbed to death before a UEFA Cup semi-final in Turkey in April 2000, his handling of the tragedy having met with the universal acclaim, including the families of the deceased.

Ridsdale is the figure most blamed for Leeds' Icarus-like flight to the top of the game and subsequent crash and burn to a bottoming out which leaves them still languishing in League One. As an administrator, it is he who has publicly shouldered the blame for financial folly like multi-million deals for players such as Robbie Keane, Seth Johnson and Robbie Fowler, all three of whom failed to deliver. And while he may have squeezed £30m for Rio Ferdinand from Manchester United in the summer of 2002, he was the public face of a series of asset-stripping deals that eventually saw stars like Jonathan Woodgate, Alan Smith, Mark Viduka, Paul Robinson and Harry Kewell leave for what looked a fraction of their true values.

Of course, there were other protagonists in this classic case of boom n' bust, not least manager David O'Leary, whose nerve and sensibilities seemed to desert him right at the moment his club needed him most, as they lay top of the Premiership in January 2002. A team who had reached the semi-finals of the Champions League the previous season, playing thrilling and exciting football, came apart at the seams.

Infamously, O'Leary was also responsible for his own book, unforgiveably published almost contemporaneously to the beginning of Leeds' descent into Hades.

O'Leary's manager-side story of the 2000-01 season did not hold back. For a published suicide note every bit as alarming as Glenn Hoddle's trucculent "My World Cup Diary" the Irishman chose to give it the title "Leeds United On Trial", which all but pinpointed the elephant that had been in Leeds United's room since January 2000.

The trial of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate which followed an attack on a young Asian student is often cited as the moment the edifice began to crumble. In a labryinthine case that involved other Leeds players in Tony Hackworth and Michael Duberry (both cleared), it served to air dirty Leeds linen right up until December 2001, when Woodgate was finally declared guilty of affray by Hull Crown Court with two of his close friends (neither of whom were players) also found guilty of associated charges. Bowyer was exonerated of all charges. The effects on the club were devastating, the shockwaves resonating long after legal proceedings had ended.

Though Bowyer had played the best football of his career while appearing daily in court, Woodgate had fallen apart, losing weight visibly under the strain and barely featuring for the first team. In January 2002, when O'Leary's book, previously unable to be published due to its legally sensitive content, came out it was the end of the beginning of the beginning of the end of Leeds United's hopes and dreams.

It was at Cardiff in the FA Cup Third Round on January 6, 2002 that the rot visibly began to set in. Leeds' risky business plan, which had allowed O'Leary to spend fees like £18m on Rio Ferdinand and £7m rising to £9m on Seth Johnson, depended on their qualifying for the Champions League and the revenues that promised to clubs. And with players like Mark Viduka bought using football financing companies, meaning they were in effect only leased to the club, that revenue was required even more desperately.

But Leeds were no longer the same team. The spirit that had seen them march on together had evaporated. As club legend Peter Lorimer put it after the chairman's departure 14 months later: "The real problem goes back to that trial - that's when David O'Leary, the manager, and the chairman got it all wrong... They lost the plot."

Leeds slumped from that new year crest to an eventual fifth, not winning a match from January 1 to March 6 as Newcastle United stole in on fourth place. The alarm bells began to ring, the creditors began to circle and O'Leary was sacked in the summer, lamented by some fans but perhaps not by his players and certainly not by Ridsdale.

By the summer of 2002, Leeds' wealth of talent, some brought through a superb youth academy, others at Elland Road as a result of those big-money deals, was in open season to other clubs with cash. Though Ridsdale and new manager Terry Venables publicly repeated that the defender would not be crossing the Pennines, Rio Ferdinand was able to make the move to Manchester United he desired. The £30m price looked right for Leeds yet, amazingly, it could only paper over the cracks.

Robbie Keane, who never settled at the club, was sold on August's transfer deadline day at a loss of £5m. Come January 2003 and the the writing was fully on the wall. Bowyer, after the collapse of a £9m move to Liverpool, was eking out the rest of his contract and was let go to West Ham for a paltry £100,000. Robbie Fowler, against his own wishes, was shuffled out to Manchester City in an amazing deal which saw Leeds forced to pay half his wages while he played for another club. Again, Leeds lost £5m on the deal.

The felling blow was the sale of Woodgate. Despite his troubles, he had remained hugely popular with fans. Ridsdale himself had deflected the criticism of the sale of Ferdinand by saying Woodgate was as good yet when Newcastle came in with an offer of £9m, the club, by now wracked by debts which were estimated to have reached £79m at a working loss of £17m, had to sell. The deal was closed on January 31, 2003, the club now heading towards the dumper and financial ruin just around the corner.

Ridsdale, whose stewardship was seen as having got the club into this mess, was now the target for abuse from the terraces. Despite a typical PR-friendly attempt to win over fans via a public meeting, Ridsdale, his family now also suffering the brunt of threats and verbal attacks, chose to step down. In his words: "The intensity of personal criticism has led me to conclude that the best decision for myself, my family and the company is that I step down."

Yet the club's troubles had barely begun. As Ridsdale moved into exile from the town and club he still loves but cannot visit without security, pitching up at Barnsley, for a brief period, and eventually Cardiff, where he remains as chairman, the club somehow rescued themselves from relegation under Peter Reid. That proved to be a stay of execution as the financial unravelling the following season eventually resulted in a tearful demotion in May 2004. An unlikely saviour in Ken Bates remains in charge of the club, in typical bristling style.

Ridsdale, for all his protestation, some of it justified, will forever remain the face of a club's descent which remains the most spectacular fall from grace in English football history. Leeds are yet to rekindle those dreams.

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