After 16 years of trying, it was, in fact, a Huddersfield Town player who sealed Leeds’ long-awaited promotion to the Premier League. Emile Smith Rowe’s 86th-minute goal for the Terriers condemned opponents West Brom to defeat and guaranteed United’s elevation to the top flight.
The moment sparked huge celebrations following more than a decade and a half of disappointment and near-misses. Now, as Leeds embark on their first campaign in the Premier League since 2004, we reflect on the emotional roller-coaster that saw them survive administrations and relegations to claw their way back to the promised land.
Arsenal loanee Emile Smith-Rowe scores for Huddersfield and looks to have secured a vital win – and promotion for Leeds United
— Sky Sports Football (@SkyFootball) July 17, 2020
“We’ll be back”
A 4-1 defeat against Bolton on 2 May 2004 condemned Leeds to relegation from the Premier League, just 12 years after they’d been crowned champions of England. The scenes in the stands were in stark contrast to those witnessed around the city in recent months, with tearful but defiant fans saluting their fallen heroes.
Hopes were high at that point that the Whites were capable of securing an immediate return but, with debts of more than £100m mounting, further turmoil would await in the club’s immediate future. Leeds would finish 14th the following season, well adrift of the play-off spots.
Optimism was reignited the following year, however, as United put their off-field issues to one side to secure a fifth-placed finish. But just one win from their last ten league fixtures saw them head into the play-offs in less than convincing form. And, after battling past Preston to reach the final, they were soundly beaten by Watford in Cardiff.
A bigger hill to climb
That near-miss would prove costly and Leeds were unable to repeat their challenge during the following season. Despite an opening-day win against Norwich and a reasonable run of form during March and April, United were condemned to relegation.
The club was also hit with a ten-point fine after the company entered into administration, meaning they ended the campaign rock bottom. The average home attendance had dropped to just over 20,000 and the men from Elland Road were now faced with one of the biggest challenges in the club’s illustrious history.
What’s more, the club’s turnover of managers was starting to accelerate. In total, and not including caretakers, Leeds hired 15 different first-team bosses during their spell outside of the Premier League, with managers, including untried rookie David Hockaday, Darko Milanic and Uwe Rosler, in position for a matter of weeks.
No immediate return
While in the old Third Division, still battling off-field issues, Leeds were saddled with a 15-point penalty that would ultimately cost them automatic promotion out of League One. The Whites instead faced the uncertainty of the play-offs and over-turned a first-leg deficit to beat Carlisle in the semi-finals. But defeat to Doncaster in the final ensured another campaign in the third tier.
By now the club’s financial worries were beginning to ease and hopes were high that the club could push for automatic promotion after starting the season without a points deduction. But Leeds had to settle for the play-offs once more, and this time they fell to defeat against Millwall at the semi-final stage.
But then, at the third time of asking, Leeds finally realised their short-term ambition of promotion back to the second tier, finishing second behind Norwich to go up automatically. Leeds were now back to within one season of a return to the Premier League.
Knocking on the door
Despite a 7th-placed finish in their first season back in the Championship, which offered hope of promotion challenges to come, Leeds stuttered to mid-table finishes in each of the next five campaigns.
They secured another 7th-placed finish in 2017, before again slipping back to 13th spot the following year, while local rivals Huddersfield earned an unlikely place in the Premier League. But just as there appeared no way of breaking through, the arrival of a veteran manager known the world over as ‘El Loco’ appeared to transform the club’s fortunes overnight.
Marcelo Bielsa had the Leeds players operating at a higher level than before and quickly established the side as genuine title contenders. A heart-breaking defeat against Derby in the 2019 play-off semi-final would postpone promotion hopes for another year, but that anguish was short-lived as the Whites went up as Champions to start the new decade off in style and with recent signings, they now look good to stay up, with Premier League betting odds favouring them to stay up at 1/5.
Working on Leeds United "Promoted" documentary and found this magnificent Marcelo Bielsa quote:
“Football is about bringing joy to those who find joy hard to find.”
Words of wisdom that have never been truer than in the darkness of our Present pic.twitter.com/m2xsnES9SC
— roger bennett (@rogbennett) September 2, 2020
Leeds may be expected to avoid relegation in their debut season, and perhaps even challenge for Europe. But any self-respecting Leeds is unlikely to get carried away – and will instead simply enjoy the ride following 16 years in the wilderness.