TEN years ago today, Leeds United travelled to Wolverhampton Wanderers for a vital Premier League fixture.
Eddie Gray’s side were unbeaten in five games. They were also further boosted by the knowledge that victory in the Black Country against the division’s bottom club, who themselves had last tasted victory in October, would be enough to move out of the relegation zone for the first time in almost three months.
The reality, however, was rather different with Leeds, despite going ahead through Michael Duberry after just three minutes, crashing to a 3-1 defeat.
It was the start of a sorry six-game losing run that, come the season’s end, would see United crashing through the Premier League trapdoor amid a financial meltdown that, ultimately, would bring administration and a first-ever relegation to the third tier.
For Kevin Blackwell, not only the manager who had to pick up the pieces the following year in the Championship but also assistant to Gray during those final few months in the top-flight, the events of that sorry 2003-04 campaign are as vivid today as they were a decade ago.
“I’ve never known a time like it in my life,” admits the 55-year-old to the Yorkshire Post ten years on from that meltdown. “It was a terrible time and, without a doubt, the lowest point in my career.
“Everyone on the football side of the club could see it coming but things were in such a mess that it was impossible to do anything about it.
“I remember playing Manchester United at home (in October) and hearing we were £104m in debt. That was a figure that took a lot of getting your head round.
“It also meant there was no question of us signing any players or being able to change things. Instead, we were always susceptible to our players being sold. If a decent bid came in, there wouldn’t be a lot that could have been done to keep them.
“No-one gave up. Not the players and certainly not the coaching staff. But things were stacked against us.”
United had started the season with supporters knowing it would be a struggle. Relegation had been averted the previous season courtesy of a stunning win at Arsenal on the penultimate weekend but since then Harry Kewell, Danny Mills and Nigel Martyn had all left to further weaken the squad.
And a struggle it certainly was, with Peter Reid lasting just 12 games before being sacked and replaced by Gray.
Worse still, the finances had spiralled totally out of control and by the time United tasted victory in 2004 for the first time – at home to Wolves, on February 10 – the club had already been given several last-minute reprieves by the bank.
Blackwell, brought to Elland Road by Reid in the close season, recalls: “Every fortnight, we had to go back to the PLC in London to see if we had been granted an extra 14 days. (Acting chairman) Trevor Birch was trying to find a buyer and we’d all group round the TV up at Thorp Arch at 2pm on a Friday to see if we would still be going the following week.
“It was incredible. When people ask me about that time, I always liken Leeds to a little boat, cast adrift in the sea with no motors or anything. And whichever way the wind blew, the club would blow with it.
“We just couldn’t do anything to plot our own course. We had absolutely no control over where the club headed next. I’ve never known anything like it.”
Respite did come in March, 2004, when a Yorkshire consortium, headed by Gerald Krasner, took the helm. Debts that had reached three figures of millions were slashed down to around £25m but, despite a brief rally on the pitch that brought three wins from four games, Leeds were condemned to relegation with two games to spare.
A 4-1 defeat at Bolton Wanderers – after United had led 1-0 at the break - proved to be the final nail in the relegation coffin. That it was hammered in three years to the day since Leeds had played Valencia in a Champions League semi-final was an irony lost on no-one.
“I got head-hunted by Peter Reid after what we’d achieved at Sheffield United,” recalls Blackwell, who gave up a position as Neil Warnock’s assistant to move up the M1.
“I joined because I thought a club as big as Leeds would always be in the Premier League.
“But from the moment I arrived, I knew things weren’t right.
“Peter was gone inside 11 weeks and if the Krasner lot hadn’t come in then we would have made Premier League history as the first club to fold during a season.
“I am in no doubt about that.
“The Premier League were desperate to avoid that, as it would have been bad for the brand. But it was touch and go before the Krasner board came in, as to whether we would make in. We honestly came in each morning waiting to hear if our services were no longer required.
“Everything was being played out in front of the eyes of the world, too.
“We were the club that everyone was talking about – but in a bad way.
“People often ask me if I’d known at the time what I knew later, would I have taken the job. And I don’t honestly know. It was such a difficult year.
“But, on the flipside, without agreeing to become Peter’s assistant, I wouldn’t have later become Leeds United manager myself. And that was something that made me incredibly proud. So, maybe I would have taken it. Even so, life was tougher than anyone can imagine.”
Asked about the defeat at Wolves 10 years ago today that started the slide towards the Football League, Blackwell said: “I remember us being really confident beforehand.
“We’d been on a decent run, including a good win over Fulham and draws with Villa and Manchester City. And a win would have put us nine points clear of Wolves.
“Instead, Wolves turned us over and, come the end of the season, it had become a defining moment because we went on a horrible run after that.
“Bolton, the day we were relegated, was awful.
“To see a major club like Leeds United on its backside like that, well it wasn’t easy.
“Everyone remembers the tv footage of that little lad crying in the crowd. There were tears in the dressing room, too.
“A club of Leeds’ size shouldn’t go down but we had. It was awful.”