December draws to a close, after quickly moving through a busy festive period, and we find ourselves at the mid-way point in a long campaign in the Championship. The league table is beginning to take shape as teams at the top end try to amass enough points required for a promotion push. This year the table has one noticeable addition to the names currently sitting in the play off positions and that is the mighty Leeds United.
Ever since their relegation at the end of the 2003-04 season fans of the club have waited for a chance of a return to the Promised Land. They have been there through it all, through all the ups and downs of relegation to the lowly position of League One, financial mismanagement, unpopular player sales, underachieving players and a series of managerial sackings. At times Leeds United became a laughing stock in the football world and there were plenty queuing up to put the boot in. People from all quarters jumped on the bandwagon to have a dig while the club went through a period of healing.
Leeds United and its fans endured, like only those with Leeds United in their blood can. It would not be the first or last time they would be criticised and unlikely to be the last. Like an injured animal Leeds licked its wounds and waited. Still taking the kicks from predatory opposition who would enter Elland Road and smugly walk away with the spoils of war, commenting on how the former fortress had fallen. It was now seen as a place for easy pickings and a comfortable day out. Sure you would hear the voices of discontent from the loyal fanbase, but three points were there for the taking as the passion and desire was lacking on the pitch.
Things went on like that for several years for Leeds and even the most hardened supporters began to lose hope. Though they knew in their hearts the team had the power to get back to the Premier League, it seemed a hopeless dream with the off field antics of current owner Massimo Cellino too often taking centre stage. The man himself declared he wanted to be loved by the fans, but his unpredictable and erratic methods did little to provide the stability and direction required.
At the start of the 2015-16 campaign things took a positive upturn. The installation of Garry Monk as head coach caused heads to turn. This was a big step forward for the club and fans of the club and pundits alike nodded their heads in agreement. This was a young manager with potential. He proved himself at Swansea until they lost faith and sacked him. Monk learned the harsh realities of football management and faced his own period of adversity and self reflection. Their loss would surely be the Yorkshire clubs gain.
From the beginning of his tenure, there was a different feel about the club. Monk brought calmness, a quiet self confidence and professional air lacking for too long. He showed that despite Cellino and his habit of wielding the axe he would not allow fear to rule him. He was here to do a job and he knew the size of the task at hand. Leeds United had become one of the toughest jobs in football and Monk methodically assembled his backroom staff and consulted Cellino on the playing staff required for him to succeed.
Despite a busy transfer period the unwillingness to spend money led to a growing negativity from sections of fans during pre season and performances on the pitch did little to ease those concerns. The squad looked dangerously thin and despite the addition of a series of players, the sale of academy product Lewis Cook caused spirits to sink.
When the season started, Leeds appeared to lack quality once again and pessimism about the clubs chances grew quickly. Social media was filled with doubting voices and angry commentary about another wasted season. Monk took the criticism on the chin and continued to work on implementing his brand of football. It is impossible to change a mentality over night and he believed in his methods and the assembled squad to achieve pre set targets.
A major turning point in the season came when the media started to jump in to criticise the club again and reported that Monk would be sacked. Rather than panic, like many of his predecessors, he showed why he is the right man for the job. He continued his leadership of a team showing slight improvements as fans started to see what he was trying to achieve. The real master-stroke came when Monk openly questioned the supporters and informed them what the players needed from them.
It is often said that the fans are the twelfth man and he put his arm around the vociferous fan base and gave them some direction, telling them he wanted more from them. From that moment the voices of discontent have been removed and the fans travelling home and away continue to stand proud and sing loud from first to last minute. The fan base has always been there, but now they would be unleashed with perfect timing ready to cheer an improving young squad to battle through game and earn vital points.
If the Leeds United team has been sub standard for much of the time since their relegation, the same cannot be said for its loyal fans, who are simply world class. Many clubs claim to have brilliant supporters, but those following Leeds are among the best in the world, no doubt. Few teams travel with such a swelling of fans and fewer still sing their hearts and souls out for their beloved team come what may.
The best example of the strength of the fans came at Anfield where the home supporters were out sung for the duration of the game. Watching the game on TV I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye as I heard ‘Marching on Together’ sung with more passion than I have heard in a decade. It brought back so many memories of former Leeds teams I have been fortunate to witness gracing the pitch at Elland Road. The players were unfortunate to lose against Liverpool but the result was not really significant. The game allowed them reward for progress made and their performance and their following in the stands caused those in the football world to take notice again.
The major broadcasters are airing Leeds games with such regularity that other teams will naturally watch on with envious eyes. Pundits and former professionals are joining in to continue to applaud the work of Monk and his vastly improving squad. Leeds are in danger of becoming fashionable again. For fans it is a long overdue improvement of fortunes after all the downs they have faced.
What is most evident about this tale is that while it may be true Leeds Unite need the Premier League, the Premier League now also desperately needs their return. No other club offers what Leeds does. Fans understand it. Former players understand it. The football world know it and craves that very unique brand of self deprecating passion filled fanaticism that can only be found in the Leeds United supporters. You are either Leeds or you are not, marching on together or just a poor imitation of a football fan.
You may disagree with that, but ask yourself this: if your club had experienced such a catastrophic fall from grace and the resulting turbulent times experienced by Leeds and its fans continuously for over a decade thereafter, would you still travel in such numbers to every away game, sing your heart out despite every section of the football world turning its back on you and taking every opportunity to kick you while you were down? If you would not my point has been proven. If you would then it is very likely that you are a Leeds United fan already.