'The atmosphere changed. Lads were jumping ship to look after their own careers' - Irish eyes remain captivated by Leeds


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Leeds the way: Former Leeds manager David O’Leary speaks to his charges during their 2000 Champions League campagin. Photo: Getty Images

Leeds the way: Former Leeds manager David O’Leary speaks to his charges during their 2000 Champions League campagin. Photo: Getty Images

Getty Images

Leeds the way: Former Leeds manager David O’Leary speaks to his charges during their 2000 Champions League campagin. Photo: Getty Images

As a young professional at Leeds in the early 2000s, Paul Keegan saw how the other half lived.

The Dubliner's early memories at Elland Road involve the academy players getting called on to function as ballboys or roll out the UEFA banner for mammoth European ties.

In his first full season in England, David O'Leary's side reached the Champions League semi-final. Leeds were box office, with global stars visiting a football-mad corner of Yorkshire.

Keegan recalls standing outside the Real Madrid dressing room, waiting for Luis Figo. "I remember Steve McManaman coming out," he says. "And we just said to him, 'Any chance of getting Luis?' He got him too. McManaman was quality and we didn't even ask for his autograph."

The stories flow easily. Stars of a top Premier League club were generous with their time and wealth. Gary Kelly would give the youngsters cash and jerseys. Robbie Keane invited Keegan and others over for dinner. Keegan cleaned Stephen McPhail's boots and was well looked after. Household names like Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Fowler came through the revolving door. This was a club that was seemingly going places.

"The training was unbelievable," says Keegan. "There was big spending on the facilities, the gym, the chefs. No expense spared. Everything was teed up for us to do really well."

With new contracts thrown out with abandon, few were aware that a volcano of pain was bubbling.

Last night's 5-0 win over Stoke has moved Leeds closer to a top-flight return, 16 years after a rapidly spiralling situation culminated with relegation and £103m debts that necessitated the sale of Elland Road.

"The club changed overnight," admits Keegan, who can still recall the details of the final Premier League campaign clearly.

Eddie Gray rated the midfielder and he was on the verge of a breakthrough as the situation deteriorated. There was a trip to Highbury where he was in contention for a place, Leeds suffered a 5-0 drubbing and the body language on the pitch told a tale.

There was talk that Leeds was too big to go down. He can understand how that theory gained weight, given the size of the fan base, but the reality was they were doomed.

"I remember the PFA coming in for talks with the senior players," he says. "We weren't earning enough to be included. There were pay cuts. Coaches like Brian Kidd and Pop Robson were cleared out. The atmosphere changed. Peter Reid and Mark Viduka had a big row at the start of it. Lads were jumping ship to look after their own careers.

"But it wasn't just that, there was staff cuts too. There were people there who had looked after us brilliantly, I'm talking kitchen staff, laundry ladies. They'd been there all of their lives and then they were gone and the sense of family and closeness that was there started to go."

Kevin Blackwell assumed control for the first Championship season, targeted battle-hardened Championship players, and the profile of the dressing room changed. So did the style of play.

Youngsters were cleared out and Keegan came back home to win leagues with Drogheda and Bohemians before returning to Yorkshire as a first-team player at Doncaster. They were now competing in the same bracket as their more illustrious neighbours, meeting regularly at League One and Championship level.

The presence of Irish Leeds fans on his flight route home reminded Keegan of the continued allure, yet there was no intimidation factor about going to the old ground. Top tiers of the stadium had gaps that weren't there before. "We were Doncaster, a smaller club, but we knew that we could go to Leeds and turn them over," says Keegan. "We weren't afraid to go there and play. It was a bit different."

A potted history of Leeds from 2004 doesn't do justice to the stress and the strife, the false dawns and flights of fancy.

Ken Bates, better known for his long relationship with Chelsea, was a central figure in ownership squabbles that surrounded relegation to League One in 2007 and a brief spell in administration, which resulted in points deductions and associated penalties.

There was a Championship comeback and an eventful stint with backers from both Dubai and Bahrain before Italian Massimo Cellino arrived for a controversial tenure that stimulated vigorous debate around the criteria for the fit and proper owner's test.

Somehow, the fate of Leeds was tied in with the investigation around what it meant if a multi-millionaire from Italy, resident in Miami, had evaded tax on a yacht in his native land.

Corkman Eric Grimes was on the books by then. "I was there through a tumultuous time in the club's history," laughs the 25-year-old, mastering understatement. "There were eight different first-team managers."

Still, the young goalkeeper didn't want to be anywhere else. He grew up in Cork with Leeds in the blood. His father Kieran was a fan, a child of the 1960s and '70s, when the presence of John Giles and the star quality of Don Revie's team hooked a certain generation of Irish followers. As a kid, Grimes went to watch Cork City in Turner's Cross, close to the pub where the Leeside branch of the Leeds supporters club would also meet to watch games.

Cork-based Chelsea great Bobby Tambling, a foe of Leeds in his playing days, ended up as part of their scouting network and contributed to Grimes joining his the club. Kieran was starstruck. His son was six when Leeds reached the Champions League final four. "My dream was to play for Leeds one day, that's where it all kicked off for me," he admits.

He arrived in the summer of 2011 and stayed for five seasons without quite making the breakthrough. It was impossible to avoid the rancour, even though the club retained a certain magic.

"You talk about big clubs and how they ignite a city. Leeds is a behemoth of a club," he enthuses. "They live and breathe football. You go there on a Saturday and it's just heaving with people.

"The club wasn't going in the right direction at the time, and you couldn't escape the headlines. You kind of knew what was going on was a bit dodgy. And you had to empathise with the fans there. It was such a quick descent. You had fans there who were probably going to these brilliant European games in their twenties, and they were suddenly going through something completely different. It wasn't like good days were a distant memory for them."

Grimes only ever passed Cellino on the corridor, but did feel the pinch when it came to the club's approach to loan deals.

They wanted interested parties to pay 100 per cent of the loanee's wages, which wouldn't be standard practice further down the food chain. He missed out on experience that might have built his CV but the 25-year-old - who is now back home taking his maiden steps as a football intermediary - wouldn't swap his time at Leeds for anything.

The family are hopeful that good times around the corner again. As it happens, Cellino was eventually banned by the FA for 18 months for a breach of agent regulations, and this paved the way for another Italian, Andrea Radrizzani, to take over in 2017.

Quirky

He was able to buy Elland Road back and the subsequent appointment of Marcelo Bielsa made Leeds a football story again, and an enigmatic, quirky and relentlessly entertaining one at that.

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Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa

Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa

Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa

Last year's promotion tilt ran out of steam, with questions raised about whether Bielsa would even stick around in the aftermath of the spygate controversy, which saw the veteran manager pay £200,000 out of his own pocket for the act of sending a staff member to watch opponents train.

The disappointment has served as motivation to mount another charge, and they have found their stride again following some nervy moments that made fans fear that another agonising near miss was imminent.

"I've no doubt in my mind that if they get up, they will stay up," says Keegan, the 36-year-old now at Bray Wanderers. "I think they would really invest, and with the atmosphere that club can create, they could take off."

Grimes is in agreement. "Leeds fans are rabid in the majority," he laughs. "You might have passive fans of other clubs, but at Leeds they really feel it. It's a great place to be when things are good. They go through every emotion."

An explosion of happiness is now within touching distance.

Irish Independent