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Blast from past for Leeds

GARY Edwards is a decorator who refuses to use red paint. His business card offers a discount to remove the stuff and he once took it upon himself to whitewash all the bus shelters in the village of Kippax. It may be the zealous end of the rivalry between Leeds United and Manchester United, but there is no glossing over the bitterness and violence that have marked decades of mutual loathing.

Leeds head back to Old Trafford in the FA Cup third round tomorrow (Sunday) as a cadaverous relic of their former self. Eight years ago to the day, Mark Viduka scored twice against West Ham United to send Leeds to the top of the Premier League. Then came the implosion, the relegations, the takeovers and the 25 docked points.

But is there a way back? Simon Grayson's vibrant team look certainties to be promoted back to the Championship this season, long-dormant optimism is returning and Elland Road has even been included in the World Cup bid. "I think they will go straight through the leagues to the Premiership," Brian Flynn, the Wales youth coach, said.

Flynn has a special place in Leeds folklore as he was the last man to score a winning goal at Old Trafford, back in 1981. "I am still living off that now," he said. "The young lads in the Welsh squad think I'm some grandad, but I tell them to go and have a look on YouTube. Kevin Hird knocked the ball to Carl Harris and I just outsprinted Ray Wilkins. I still get stopped for my autograph and they always ask me to put 'Old Trafford winner' in brackets."

Nostalgia has never been a thing of the past while Leeds have struggled, but can this crop of players revive the comatose giant? Grayson is a good young manager, marinated in common sense and beef dripping, and there is a smattering of good-quality players headed by Scotland U21 winger Robert Snodgrass, but Leeds will surely need to spend big to make significant progress.

There has also been a long-running debate about who owns the club. Last year started with chairman Ken Bates telling the Royal Court of Jersey that he jointly owned Forward Sports Fund, the holding company registered in the Cayman Islands. Later, in a sworn affidavit, Bates said that was "not correct" and an "error on my part". The Football League asked for clarification over Leeds's owners. That was delivered in a letter before Christmas, but the identities of the owners will not be made public.

Leeds fans are inured to complex dealings in the boardroom. That stems back to the way Peter Ridsdale gambled the club's future on Champions League qualification. Then in 2007 Bates put the club into administration. He bought it back but failed to agree a Company Voluntary Agreement and Leeds were docked 15 points on top of the 10 they had been docked the previous season.

Questions were raised about the links between Forward Sports Fund and one of the creditors, Astor Investments, who agreed to write off a £17.6m debt if Forward bought the club. Meanwhile, fronting a Middle Eastern consortium came Don Revie's son, Duncan, who said: "Money is not a problem; my problem is can I recreate my dad's team?"

Another bid came in from Simon Morris, a former director. The day after Leeds play Manchester United, Morris is due in court where he is charged with conspiracy to blackmail a man over a £100,000 debt.

Bates prevailed and the fans appear unconcerned by matters in the boardroom. Lee Hicken, of the Leeds United Supporters Trust, said: "The main thing is we're doing well on the pitch. The rest will sort itself out. Simon Grayson says he's never been turned down when he has asked for money."

Such ambivalence is born of seeing and hearing it all. In 2003, Leeds fans heard one former executive claim that he had been involved in a plot to lace Michael Duberry's food with cocaine and hire a hitman to break Gary Kelly's legs. The alleged motive for such Mafioso madness was to reduce the wage bill. Alongside such horror stories, Bates is widely seen to have done a decent job.

There have been terrace rumours about him being prepared to offload the club, but that may be no easy task. Professor Tom Cannon, a football finance expert from the University of Liverpool, said: "If you can't sell Newcastle United while they were in the Premiership then it's hard to see there being a long queue to buy Leeds."

As for one day gaining promotion to the Premier League, Leeds are now reduced to the level of football paupers. "Most clubs in the frame for promotion will have the benefit of parachute payments and a more recent Premiership pedigree," Cannon said. "Newcastle have a minimum £11m from that so the £750,000 Leeds will make from this cup-tie is peanuts."

Leeds made a profit of £4.5m in the last financial year but are scarcely flushed with cash. They did receive £6m from the sale of Fabian Delph to Aston Villa in August, but that equates to the annual wage bill, while it costs a further £1.9m to rent Elland Road and the Thorp Arch training ground. A move to buy back Thorp Arch from businessman Jacob Adler for £5.8m, with the help of city council funds, collapsed in October.


For the moment Leeds fans do not care. The trip to Old Trafford may be a passport to the past and a glimpse at the future, but it is a rare day in the spotlight and a rivalry renewed. Edwards has not missed a league or cup game in 23 years and is old enough to remember when Leeds would beat Manchester United. Even when the club was in the red, he kept the faith.

"I remember when Fergie got his knighthood. I took the picture of the Queen down from my wall and stuck her in a cupboard. I complained and got a letter back from the Palace saying it was Tony Blair's fault. Eventually the Queen went back up. Right up until she gave Beckham his OBE."

Old hostilities will be exhumed at Old Trafford but Flynn's fable looks sure to endure. Edwards will not be painting the town red tomorrow and anyone who thinks the glory days are coming back soon might gain an undercoat of perspective from noting that Leeds' next cup-tie is the first leg of a Northern area final of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy against Carlisle United.

©The Times, London