Having been the last League Champions of the old era, Leeds United kicked off the age of the Premier League with high hopes. However, a disastrous 1992/93 season saw them survive relegation by the skin of their teeth and the next few seasons were a mixed bag.
The club eventually established itself among the elite of English football though, with five consecutive top-five finishes, including third in 1999/2000. During this period, Leeds also reached the semi-final of both the Champions League and UEFA Cup.
Leeds fall from grace was sudden and brutal, however, as managerial upheaval and the sale of key players led to their relegation from the top flight in 2004. Let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at Leeds in the Premier League.
The Birth of The Premier League
The Premier League began with Leeds as the reigning English champions and the season began on a positive note at Elland Road.
Victory over Wimbledon started the 1992/93 campaign off and Eric Cantona netted the first ever Premier League hat-trick in a 5-0 thrashing of Spurs ten days later. Those first few weeks gave a glimpse of what was to come throughout the season, however, as the club couldn’t find any form away from home.
A title-winning hangover, the sale and failure to replace Cantona, and a measly seven-points won on the road all season resulted in a seventeenth-place finish and Premier League survival by just a two-point margin.
The 93/94 and 94/95 seasons were more successful, with two new strikers hogging the headlines in each of those campaigns. First, Brian Deane joined the club and formed a partnership with Rod Wallace that returned twenty-eight goals and lifted the club to a final placing of fifth in the table.
The season after that saw Ghanaian international Tony Yeboah spark new life into the team and his fine return of twelve goals from eighteen appearances again saw Leeds finish fifth, and this time it was good enough to qualify for Europe.
A poor end to the 95/96 season meant the club had to settle for thirteenth in the league and it was all change in the dugout during the 96/97 season. Howard Wilkinson was handed a large transfer budget at the start of that campaign, but it didn’t produce results on the pitch and he was replaced by George Graham.
Graham shored up the defence and steered the club away from the drop zone, despite only twenty-eight league goals being scored that season.
On the Verge of Premier League Success
Graham’s first full season at the helm saw Leeds return to the top end of the PL table, with another fifth-placed finish coming at the end of a fantastic season. This was achieved by the addition of added steel to the midfield, by the likes of David Hopkin, and Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink netting twenty-two goals in all competition during his first season at the club.
This was also the campaign which saw youngsters like Paul Robinson and Johnathan Woodgate make the step up to the first team.
After that fifth-place finish, and an unbeaten start to the 98/99 campaign, things were looking rosy at Elland Road. That was until Graham stunned everyone by walking out and taking charge at Tottenham, with his assistant David O’Leary taking the reins.
While not an ideal scenario, it proved to not effect the players and O’Leary led a young and exciting team to their highest finish since 1991/92, finishing fourth.
The club were on the brink of success and many were talking about Leeds as potential Premier League champions when the team began the new millennium atop the English league. They couldn’t maintain their lead though and had to settle for third-place.
The 2000/01 campaign didn’t get off to the greatest start and just five wins from thirteen matches saw them languishing in mid-table.
Towards the end of November, the club broke their transfer record for the second time in the season to bring in defender Rio Ferdinand from West Ham for £18m, completely smashing the previous record set with the signing of Olivier Dacourt in May 2000.
The turn of the year brought about a change in fortunes and just one defeat in sixteen matches from the end of January saw a steady climb back up the table and a fourth-place finish. Loan signing Robbie Keane and Aussie Mark Viduka formed a formidable strike partnership during the second half of the season.
A run to the Semi Finals of the Champions League was a highlight of the season and many were predicting it wouldn’t be much longer before Leeds were wining silverware.
The 2001/02 season was the beginning of the end of Leeds’ run at the top end of the Premier League table, with the club heading for financial ruin having failed to win any silverware or remain in the Champions League.
A fifth-place finish was all the team could muster in this campaign and morale was hit hard by an FA Cup defeat to Division Two Cardiff. Chairman Peter Ridsdale decided to terminate O’Leary’s contract as manager and things were no longer looking as rosy as before.
Relegation and Beyond
The debts began to mount at the club during the 2002/03 season and star players were sold off to bring in much needed cash. Things on the pitch were looking bleak, with many youngsters being relied upon.
Both the Chairman and new manager Terry Venables departed in March 2003 and the club went on to finish fifteenth in the league, surviving relegation thanks to the thirty-four goals scored between Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell.
The debts spiralled to almost £100m and more players were shown the exit door in an effort to balance the books during 03/04. This impacted results on the pitch and completed the transition for Leeds from title contenders to a second-tier side.
While Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ were making headlines as one of the greatest teams of all-time at the top end of the table, former champs Leeds were waving goodbye to top-flight football.
After dropping out of the Premier League, Leeds battled against relegation to the third tier the season after.
They survived and looked to be on the verge of making it back to the top flight only to lose in the Play-Off Final. In 2006/07, they did drop to League One after finishing twenty-fourth in the Championship and the fall from grace was complete.
Three seasons in the third tier followed, before promotion back to the Championship. 2017/18 was the eighth consecutive season in the second tier.
Every season begins with a sense of optimism that this could be the last one spent in the Championship. 2016/17 looked like it could be the season that resulted in promotion to the Premiership, but yet again it wasn’t to be. There’s no doubt amongst the fans that the Premier League is where this club deserves to be, given its history. It certainly feels like promotion is long overdue.
A Look Back at Leeds United’s Premier League Years