Who’s running the show at Leeds United? Can anybody light that fire again?

Ian King
Leeds fans at the end of their Premier League match against Spurs

Leeds United need substantial rebuilding work following relegation from the Premier League, and they have just two months to get it all done. It’s not long.


All it took was 96 seconds. The 37,000 people inside Elland Road had already known that it was going to be a tall order at kick-off. Leeds United needed a win against Spurs while keeping their fingers crossed that results at Goodison Park and The King Power Stadium also went their way. Inside less than two minutes most of that hope disintegrated. Pedro Porro touched the ball back for Son Heung-min who, with several Leeds defenders starting to converge upon him, had the easiest job in the world of touching the ball back for Harry Kane to sweep Spurs into the lead. Leeds United’s afternoon was essentially over before it even really began.

Perhaps what mattered the most to Leeds United supporters was the manner in which this relegation eventually transpired. The culture of this particular football club can feel from the outside like a bunker mentality, a sense of defiance borne of the club’s original ascent under Don Revie in the mid-1960s. Leeds supporters may not always expect their team to win, but they do expect them to fight until the last, to show the same amount of pride in wearing that famous white shirt that those in the stands feel when they pull it on.

Elland Road can be a bearpit at the best of times. The fans will do their part, but it really needs the players on board too. It needs that personality to find an outlet on the pitch, a way of making opponents feel that ‘you’re on our patch now’. And if there’s one thing that Leeds haven’t had this season, it’s been a group of players who’ve looked capable of meeting that sort of challenge.

A Spurs team which has been little more than a cracked badge for much of this season walked away with a shockingly comfortable 4-1 win which condemned the home side to relegation back to the Championship after three years away. Results elsewhere weren’t even a factor. There were boos at the final whistle because this is 2023, but if there was an atmosphere hanging over the old place on this particular day, it was one of resignation rather than outright fury. This outcome had been in the post for a long time, but when Leeds fell from the Premier League it was with a whimper rather than a bang.

Where do Leeds go from here? Because a cursory look at the structure at Leeds United hints at a club which has bent itself so far out of shape in the increasingly desperate and frantic attempt to remain at the Premier League trough that it has lost that identity which got them so far in the first place. The club’s ownership structure is delicately balanced, with 56% owned by Andrea Radrizzani and 44% by the owners of the San Francisco 49ers, and a sale of the club was believed to have been agreed.

But this was understood to be on the basis of the club staying in the Premier League beyond the end of this season, and relegation has obviously seriously impacted the value of the club. Radrizzani has just bought a stake in Sampdoria, who have just been relegated from Serie A. If he wants out from Elland Road, he may have to accept the considerably lower valuation for his remaining shareholding in Leeds, and there’s no doubt whatsoever that relegation from the Premier League seriously impacts the value of that shareholding.

This feeling of ‘who’s running the show?’ starts at the top and permeates down through the entire club. The decision to jettison Javi Gracia and replace him with Sam Allardyce with four games to play wasn’t some sort of highly sophisticated 4D chess move; it was a desperate final throw of the dice from an ownership out of ideas, whose vision for the club ended with the last day of the Premier League season. It has been suggested that Allardyce is already “in talks” with the club concerning staying on to oversee their first season back in the Championship, but this raises further questions.

Who are these “talks” being held with? Considering that the club fired its director of football Victor Orta at the start of May, is there going to be a replacement, and if so, who? Will that person be selected on the basis of how well they’d mesh with Allardyce, and how will this mesh together with recruitment? In other words, wouldn’t it make sense to make a final decision over the DoF role first and then go for a manager who’s ideally suited to work with this? And if there isn’t a plan to replace Orta, what preparations have the club made to rebuild their internal structures to reflect this change in direction?

These are important questions which have to answered quickly, because in the perpetual churn of the football world life comes at you fast. The new EFL season starts on August 4, which gives two months for everything to be in place, the structure, the coaches and the players with an identifiable system. The first season following relegation, when parachute payments are at their plumpest, is when clubs relegated from the top flight have their best chance of making a quick return, and in a division which promises to be competitive next season, Leeds need to be ready to hit the ground running.

All this perceived rudderlessness is giving little indication that this will be the case and, while it may seem absurd to say as much before the 2022/23 season has even completely ended, time is already running short. Players need to be retained or released, bought or sold. They need to be coached from being an assortment of players into a team. And if they want to get back some of those feeling that were flowing through the club so easily as they returned to the Premier League and then marked that return by finishing in the top half of the table, they need to build an identity that replaces that which came about as a result of the bond built between Marcelo Bielsa and the fans.

Because ultimately, while it may not have been functioning as anyone would have wished throughout his last season with the club, the Leeds United that Bielsa built has never really been replaced by the club’s hierarchy. Jesse Marsch didn’t work, beyond just about keeping the club in the Premier League at the end of last season. But the decision to sack him still felt like a jerking of the knee, with the appointment of Javi Gracia coming about primarily because Gracia was available at short notice rather than on account of any particular skillset. The appointment of Allardyce was trailed as a short-term move to get the club over the line and keep them in the Premier League for another season.

All of this has failed, and as the Premier League signage is taken down from Elland Road, Leeds United supporters are entitled to ask what the plan might be to get it back up as soon as possible. If Allardyce’s four games at the end of the 2022/23 season were in any way an ‘audition’ for taking the job on permanently, in what way can he be considered to have passed, given that he was only able to claim one point from them? If Radrizzani is to sell up to the 49ers, when will this happen and what is their vision for the club?

More than anything else, it was the manner of Leeds United’s relegation that was more surprising than anything else. We might have expected them to be dragged down, kicking and screaming. If Leeds can get some of that fire back into the collective belly of the club, then they could all be celebrating again this time next year, but at the moment that all feels like a very long way away indeed.

It’s easy to the point of being glib to say that the club needs a rebuild, especially when the one that needs to be carried out at Elland Road is so wide-ranging. The opportunity for a quick return is always there for relegated Premier League clubs, but they need to be match fit to seize the opportunity. Leeds United have two months to get their house in order, or next season could turn into as much of a wasted opportunity as their third Premier League campaign.