Leeds United: Part 2 of our Elland Road cult heroes series

Leeds United’s history is long, but sometimes it takes only a short time for a player to embed themselves in it.
Mel SterlandMel Sterland
Mel Sterland

While yesterday’s cult heroes featured no players who were at the club for less than a season, today’s includes one who played less than 20 games.

There’s also a transfer record-breaker, a title-winner and someone whose catch-phrase has entered into the collective consciousness of Leeds fans.

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It’s time to continue the Leeds United cult countdown, from 16 to 13:

16. Michael Gray

He may have only played 16 games in the league for Leeds United over two loan spells, but oddly enough, Michael Gray defined the left-back role at Elland Road for almost ten years.

Gray joined Leeds in February 2005, staying with the club until the end of the season. He was integral as the Whites consolidated in the Championship.

His stability at the back aided Leeds as they managed a mid-table finish.

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Rumours at the time suggested a permanent move was on the cards, but United could not match Gray’s demands.

Two years later with Leeds struggling against relegation, Gray returned.

He made his second debut against Preston, helping Leeds win 2-1. It seemed like a step towards safety, but Leeds could not keep winning.

This time his loan could not help Dennis Wise’s side stay in the second tier.

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It seems an inauspicious history to warrant inclusion, but it is the manner in which Gray is spoken about that justifies his place.

While it is Tony Dorigo who is regarded as Leeds’s greatest recent left-back, Gray is definitely the best since relegation.

When you consider the troubled nature of the position and the players who have filled it since Gray - the likes of Fede Bessone, George McCartney and Lee Peltier - it is understandable that he is viewed with such affection.

It is only now with the emergence of Charlie Taylor that Gray may be surpassed.

15. Olivier Dacourt

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Olivier Dacourt was signed by David O’Leary as Leeds entered into what seemed to be a new era.

The Whites had just qualified for the Champions League and Dacourt, signed for a record-breaking £7.2m, was the first addition to a side that eventually reached the semi-final of Europe’s elite club competition.

Dacourt immediately won favour with the Elland Road faithful: he was the sort of tough-tackling central midfielder that crowds in LS11 tend to embrace.

That is not to say Dacourt was a clogger in the centre of the park.

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Take the game against Liverpool, where Mark Viduka famously scored four. Leeds had struggled since the start of the season and Liverpool blew them away initially.

It was Dacourt’s creative energy that provided the opportunities for Viduka to finally turn the game around from 3-2. Two slicing passes through the Liverpool defence fed Viduka. There

was individual brilliance to finish, but Dacourt’s beautiful through balls put him in a position to score in the first place.

To an extent, Dacourt remains the prototypical Leeds midfielder that fans judge recruits by.

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There is no acceptance of flash without steel, and no tolerance for grit without poise.

14. Mel Sterland

Mel Sterland was held in such affection that he was nicknamed ‘Zico’ because of his blistering runs down the right wing.

While his peak at Leeds was cut short by a series of ankle injuries, Sterland was an integral part of the side that won promotion from the Second Division and went on to win the championship in 1992.

Howard Wilkinson convinced Sterland that a drop down into the second tier would serve him well, as he anticipated a promotion and a title push. Sterland believed his predictions.

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At Elland Road, his passion, commitment and sheer work-rate won over the fans.

Sterland was also devastating from a dead-ball situation, to the extent that his free-kicks rank up there with the greatest scored by any Leeds player.

His strike rate was exceptional for a defender, and that gave him opportunity after opportunity to break out something that built up the affection between him and Leeds fans - the Leeds salute.

It is not Sterland who invented the salute - the credit for that probably goes to a combination of the fans and Glynn Snodin - but Sterland helped popularise it, helping push his cult-hero status.

13. Noel Whelan

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This sort of information will come as no surprise to anyone who listens to him on BBC Radio Leeds every week or reads his column in the Yorkshire Evening Post, but Noel Whelan really

likes Leeds United.

He is so Leeds United that he used to buy the new shirt when it was released every season and stroll around Middlesbrough city centre wearing it.

In fact, Whelan may have only played 48 games for Leeds in the league, but pulled on the shirt on the football pitch even after he left.

Whenever he played against Manchester United, for example, Whelan wore a Leeds jersey under that of whichever team he was playing for. When he scored twice against them for Boro,

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he was tempted to reveal it, but was worried about the potential response.

Instead, he settled for a simple Leeds salute.

In retirement, Whelan was slightly disconnected from Leeds until the opportunity to provide match-day commentary came along.

He quickly added another level of cult heroism in the eyes of Leeds fans, enthusiastically cheering on the Whites and showing little hint of objectivity.

Whelan’s cry of “Get In!” has even become something of a catchphrase and has firmly established him in Leeds United folklore.