Can Leeds end their 50-year curse when the Championship resumes?

It looked like they’d be denied again when season was halted… but with the Championship set to restart on June 20, can Leeds finally end their 50-year curse?

  • The Championship was suspended when they were six wins from promotion
  • The past 50 years have left Leeds United fans reflecting on their misfortune
  • The expectation is great given the financially catastrophic times the club 
  • But Leeds face a generous run-in ahead of a likely return to the Premier League

Don Revie, a deeply superstitious man, was concerned at one time that Elland Road might be haunted by a ‘gipsy’s curse’ and insisted on having the place exorcised.

He told a Yorkshire TV crew in 1970 that he wore the same blue suit and tie on match days, carried lucky charms in his pocket and liked to undertake a ritual walk up to some local traffic lights and back.

The course of the past 50 years have left some Leeds United fans reflecting that he might have had good reason for all this. It seemed to say everything about the club’s wretched luck that the Championship season’s suspension left them stranded at the top, potentially six wins away from a return to the Premier League after a 16-year absence.

The Championship was suspended with Leeds needing just six wins for promotion

Former boss Don Revie was concerned that Elland Road might be haunted by a ‘gipsy’s curse’

It comes to something when Jimmy Armfield, calmness personified, ends up walking down the central reservation of a Parisian dual carriageway, carrying an empty bottle of champagne in the early hours of the morning. 

That was in 1975, after his Leeds team’s defeat by Bayern Munich in the European Cup final owed almost everything to a bizarre string of decisions against them by French referee Michel Kitabdjian.

‘I needed to be away from it all for a while,’ said Armfield of his late-night perambulation. The team had left their losers’ medals on the Parc des Princes dressing-room table in disgust and the ultimate indignity was the club’s subsequent four-year ban from Europe after their fans protested that night.

Armfield was so affronted that he paid for a flight to Geneva to mount his own appeal against the sentence. It was reduced to two years.

That particular injustice is why Leeds fans still occasionally sing ‘We are champions, champions of Europe’ — the point being that the trophy was morally theirs — though even Kitabdjian does not hold a candle to Greek referee Christos Michas in Leeds’ 1973 Cup Winners’ Cup final against AC Milan, which they lost 1-0.

Jimmy Armfield’s Leeds team was defeated by Bayern Munich in the 1975 European Cup final

Years later, a Yorkshire and Humber MEP presented a 12,000-name petition to UEFA, demanding a retrospective misconduct and bribery investigation into the official, who denied Leeds penalties for three blatant handballs that night. UEFA refused. Michas never refereed again.

From their desperate finale to the 1969-70 season — when the treble was on but all three trophies were lost during a schedule of 12 games in 27 days — to their shot at a 1971-72 double, which perished when the FA insisted the team play their last league game at Wolves, 48 hours after the FA Cup final, Leeds really have seemed the Damned United, when seasons reach an endgame.

Yet views on whether they have been cursed vary. ‘Yes they were — and that was because of the prejudice against them,’ says supporter Steve Armitage. ‘For some, the outcome was karma for how Revie’s teams played, the assumption being we were a dirty team. The FA never liked us.’

The stereotype was flawed. Leeds’ style had evolved by the Seventies, with movement off the ball, passing options, technical excellence from Billy Bremner and John Giles and the calm precision of Paul Madeley: ‘Rolls-Royce,’ as Armfield liked to call him. 

The 1970 match overload, which led the club physio to insist the players were on the verge of physical and mental collapse, saw Revie field reserves in the league games. The Football League fined Leeds £5,000 for fielding an ‘uncompetitive team’.

Yet writer Anthony Clavane, whose book ‘Promised Land’ explores the club and the city says there is more to the disappointments than bad luck. ‘When you come to the end of a season when you have been dominating but then collapse, that is partly psychological,’ he says. 

Even under Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds have had a psychological problem with fulfilling potential

‘Leeds, as a club and a city, has a psychological problem with fulfilling its potential. When they get near to the finishing line, as happened under Marcelo Bielsa last season, all the weight of history and expectation from fans comes through.’

Under Revie, Leeds finished Division One runners-up five times and lost three FA Cup finals, winning the trophy once. ‘Maybe we should have won a lot more,’ Jack Charlton said in his autobiography.

‘Maybe we would have if we hadn’t been involved in every competition till nearly the end.’

The expectation is as great as ever, given the financially catastrophic times the club have known since they were relegated from the Premier League, disappearing into administration and, for three years, League One.

‘When the club is down, it really plummets, with administrations, relegations and some of the most ridiculous owners that any club has ever had,’ says Clavane. Another low point was the lunatic era of Massimo Cellino, who demanded that one Russian entrepreneur produce £5million up front just for the right to discuss buying it from him.

Last season’s promotion push ended in 12 defeats after Christmas and a play-off semi-final loss

Andrea Radrizzani has brought security and sense. But the agonies have been compounded by rugby league’s Leeds Rhinos flourishing and Huddersfield Town gleefully labelling themselves ‘Yorkshire’s Premier League club’.

When last season’s promotion push ended in 12 defeats after Christmas and a play-off semi-final defeat by Derby County, the old Elland Road curse seemed alive and well. It was the club’s centenary year but, in a throwback to the Seventies, the players were out on their feet.

In February, yet another reprise seemed imminent when an 11-point gap to third place evaporated after defeat at Nottingham Forest and Bielsa revealed a thin skin when asked why £12m French forward Jean-Kevin Augustin had not started a game since arriving on loan from Leipzig. 

But the team proceeded to win five consecutive games and were a point clear of West Brom at the top when, curse of all curses, they were halted in their tracks yet again.

In the circumstances, the club could be forgiven for voting to call the division as it stands, on points per game (PPG), rather than playing to the death.

Andrea Radrizzani has brought security and sense to Leeds ahead of a possible promotion

In a recent Twitter poll by The Athletic asking fans for their preferred outcome, more than 18,000 people — more than 30 per cent — went for PPG. ‘That was one section of the club’s psyche talking, the part that cannot stop itself fearing the worst,’ says writer Phil Hay.

But the club hierarchy have insisted throughout that they want to play on. ‘We’ve always wanted to do this properly and complete the job,’ says one source. Bielsa, with his intense work ethic and acute sense of right and wrong, is also thought to be inherently reluctant to have promotion bestowed as a gift.

Again and again on Leeds fans’ message boards, people fret, saying it could all come apart and that Bielsa will leave if he does not make the Premier League this time.

Josh Warrington, the IBF world featherweight champion and ardent Leeds fan, does see challenges. ‘It’s looking positive but my only fear is that Leeds will be facing teams looking to get in the play-offs or survive relegation,’ he says. ‘Like us, they will have had a rest and will be up for the fight.’

In February Bielsa was angered when he was asked why Jean-Kevin Augustin had not played

Leeds face four relegation-threatened teams — Charlton, Luton, Barnsley and Stoke — but only one top-eight side: third-placed Fulham. On paper, theirs is a very generous run-in.

Clavane observes that playing behind closed doors, free of the expectation and intensity of a crowd, might actually help.

The 90-day hiatus will have helped Leeds as much as any club, given the punishing nature of Bielsa’s regime. In a blow, however, one of the club’s players tested positive last week for Covid-19. But on a positive note, images have been circulating on social media of Augustin looking far trimmer than he did when football stopped.

And if further incentive were really needed, the legends Leeds United have lost since this crisis began provide it.

But the team proceeded to win five consecutive games and are a point clear of West Brom

The death in April of Norman Hunter — a Leeds United man to his bones who was, Armfield always said, a far more cultured player than many appreciated — has been felt deeply around Elland Road. Trevor Cherry’s passing just 12 days later took another linchpin.

Hunter would have given just anything to see his beloved side back playing in the top flight again, reflects 73-year-old Peter Lorimer, still grieving for both those old friends.

‘Yes, he would have loved that so much and yes of course that does add to it now we are starting again,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to approach this with the outlook that you can win every game. I really think they will make it.’

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