Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The bigger they are, the harder they fall

While Mark Viduka, Alan Smith, and James Milner were present at Villa Park Sunday, two of whom intent on keeping Newcastle in the top flight, Leeds fans sat quietly in their homes around Yorkshire and contemplated days gone by. They watched on with head in hands as Scunthorpe, the side Leeds finished eight points clear of during the League One regular season, celebrated promotion to the Coca-Cola Championship following a dramatic 2-1 win over Millwall in a dramatic play-off final at Wembley.

Five years ago, Viduka, Smith, and Milner were all in Leeds colours fighting to avoid relegation. It was May 4, 2004 at the Reebok stadium in Bolton. Coming off a 2-1 loss to Portsmouth, Leeds had to win to have any hope of staying in the Premiership. Viduka scored a first-half penalty, before being sent off for two ill-disciplined acts, and Bolton piled on four goals to reduce Alan Smith to tears and consign Leeds United to the Championship.

It was a remarkable fall from grace for a side that had played in a Champions League semi-final three years earlier. The irony, however, is that Newcastle qualified for the UEFA Cup in that same 2003-04 season.

Leeds United is a footballing institution of the north-east. It united a most diverse Yorkshire region. As aghast as fans, administrators, and management were at the reality of relegation, optimism was the automatic response.

None were more optimistic than Managing Director David Richmond. "It is not going to be easy because we don't have a lot of money but we have to do what we can for those wonderful supporters. We have got the backing of the best fans in the country and they deserve a lot better than what they have got.

"Next year we will have the passion on the pitch to compare with the passion shown by our fans. There is a lot of hard work ahead and that may include making some decisions which, in the short term, will prove unpopular, but this football club is in such a mess in every single way that we will need to completely re-build in the summer.

"We need a new team of hard-working players. Nobody wants our players because of their wages, some of which are beyond belief, but I will get rid of those players we need to as quickly as possible to give us the best possible chance of coming back stronger next season.

"Come August we will have a very, very good Division One team. We won't be buying average Division One players, we will have between £4m to £5m available to spend on wages and we will bring in the best possible players. On paper, at least, we will have a side that the fans can look at and say 'we have a chance'."

It proved nothing more than lip service. Leeds finished mid-table in the Championship the following year. 2005-06 saw them make the Championship playoffs for an attempt at reinstatement in the top-flight. Alas that door closed as Watford moved forth to enjoy the spoils of the Premiership. The following season the club went into voluntary administration following the sacking of Manager Kevin Blackwell on the back of a string of poor results and the clubs inability to relieve its debts.

Since then they have languished in League One, the third tier of English football, twice qualifying for promotion, twice failing.

One can’t help but fear for a club of similar stature in the north-east. Newcastle’s 16-year stay in the Premiership ended Sunday in an inglorious whimper, under the leadership of their fourth manager for the season.

Teams get relegated. It is the reality of English football. But clubs like West Bromwich Albion are used to yo-yoing between divisions. It characterises their club, and galvanises their fans. Clubs like Albion know the realities of the economies of football. They don’t possess the bank-balance to write blank cheques for managers during transfer windows. And without the quality of talent you cannot compete in the Premiership.

But Newcastle like Leeds before them did have a cheque book and were willing to use it. But now the glamour of the Premiership becomes a distant memory and the realities of the Championship sets in.

For Leeds in 2004, it was the end of an era. The squad that lost that fateful day at the Reebok was full of international stars, egos that would refuse to be bruised by the prospect of leaving grand arenas such as Old Trafford, Anfield and Stamford Bridge, for places like Priestfield Stadium in Gillingham, or the Don Valley Stadium in Rotherham, sights unseen and unheard of for any Champions League footballer.

So it was no surprise when the likes of Viduka, Smith, Milner, Paul Robinson, Dominic Matteo, Ian Harte, Scott Carson, Aaron Lennon, and Jermaine Pennant, all present at the Reebok, all fled for the door.

When the likes of West Bromwich move between divisions the skeleton of their quad at least remains, but more importantly, so does the soul. In Leeds case, the soul left and the body disintegrated.

So what of Newcastle? Their fans equally passionate, their coaching merry-go-round moving equally as quick, and their squad equally-laden with talented international stars, as Leeds of 2004.

It is hard to see the likes of Obafemi Martins, Michael Owen, Damien Duff, Geremi, Habib Beye, Sebastien Bassong, Jonas Gutierrez, Fabricio Coloccini, and Peter Lovenkrands staying to tackle away fixtures for the Magpies at Blackpool or Plymouth Argyle next season. Even the likes of Nicky Butt, Kevin Nolan, and Viduka, all rumoured to be considering staying for the Championship fight will find the gravitational pull of the Premier League hard to resist.

For the Geordies it is a long road ahead as Leeds has shown. A road that has seen them plummet to the depths of League One thru mismanagement and complacency. But it shows the bigger they are, the harder they fall which is why so many fear for the Toon army and its club.

Leeds is the blueprint for how not to handle such a fall. Whether Newcastle bounce or fall through the floor remains to be seen.

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