I’ve always rather enjoyed the “10 Years Ago” feature in the club programme, despite the initial shock everyone gets when it dawns on them that they’ve been following the club for a decade. Mind you, give it another 12 months and I will have clocked up 30. Doesn’t bear thinking about….
It was a clever move by Scally to resurrect the regular column in August 2004, no harm in reminding people what dire straits we were in during the 94/95 season before he breezed in with his briefcase, specs and wry smile. Never look back was his motto, but I guess that doesn’t apply when we can spend the period between now and 2012 reading programmes documenting the unprecedented success achieved under his stewardship.
If you buy the programme you’ll know we are currently reliving the middle of the 96/97 season, and some of the similarities are startling : we were scrabbling around, a little disoriented, in the lower reaches of the old Third Division; we’d mustered a meagre two away victories but our home form, particularly in the early months, was enough to keep us out of bother; our average crowd was approximately 6100, with our big Boxing Day clash with Luton attracting well over 8000 but on occasions we couldn’t muster much above 4000. And Iffy Onoura and Simon Ratcliffe were crashing in some stonking goals, rivalling the magnificent strikes from Flynn and Jarvis in the 21st Century.
But – and it’s a huge but – I seem to remember being ecstatically happy with my lot in February 1997. Though fretting about relegation, we were enjoying some memorable fixtures at grounds we hadn’t visited in years, playing football a notch above the displays that had brought promotion from the basement a year earlier. There was a vibrancy around the ramshackle Priestfield, we travelled away with trepidation but determination and for the first time in nearly a decade there was genuine hope that it was all coming together.
The latter half of the season saw the calibre of displays that turned that hope into the sort of expectation that was fulfilled in such a thrilling close to the 90s. We trashed a previously near-unbeaten Watford 3-1. We waltzed past Millwall at The Play Pen. We stuffed promoted Stockport at Priestfield. And a victory at Gresty Road instead of a 3-2 defeat would have seen us finish in a play-off position.
Why? We had a manager who put the basics first -you don’t get relegated under Pulis because if necessary he’ll play seven centre backs to shore up the defence. And once that was right, his judgement in the transfer market was backed to the tune of a 800 grand on legends Guy Butters, Andy Hessenthaler and Adie Akinbiyi. Within two years, ex Bees Ashby, Smith, Taylor and Asaba were added for a more than £1.5m. In 2007 we have no goal-keeper and couldn’t muster the cash to entice Bas Savage to stay at the club.
The full effects of The Premiership were beginning to be felt in the mid-90s and the disparity in resources was a concern to many. I remember a drunken conversation with the Binman – going through one of his “we’re all doomed” ten pint sessions in the Bag O’Nails after an away defeat – where we feared that twenty or so league clubs could go bust. Undoubtedly a delayed over-reaction to Butler missing a spot-kick, but I clearly stated my view that we were lucky – Scally had dragged us away from the precipice in the nick of time, and we were now upwardly mobile. A 70 team football league would include a snarling Gillingham on the march. Scally had demonstrated that he could be tight – the public spats with Pulis were already becoming evident – but he was opting for steady progress. We wouldn’t go mad and over-stretch ourselves, I argued. Only when crowds rocketed did he agree to splash out, and at that point the success brought more revenue and more success. It was a simple formula and I was convinced Scally knew what he was doing. The “Scally Wonderland” songs and his lordship milking applause on the pitch were common occurrences.
And so it continued until ground redevelopment and a crude contract with ITV Digital intervened. In one of his sweeping dodges of any kind of accountability, Scally has since claimed that we lived the dream and our financial strife is now the result, yet it’s clear we were living the dream within our limits until we got promoted to the Championship. Whether utterly incompetent financial and project management was our downfall or something more sinister went on behind the scenes, no-one really knows but we didn’t live the dream the Leeds United way. It wasn’t flamboyant transfer fees or Hollywood wages that undid us – we’ve made a net profit on transfers since 1999 and have never succombed to farcical salary demands. Quite rightly.
Yet we are now facing a period where expectations have to be adjusted to accept mediocrity. Away games are faced with a resignation to defeat (eleven wins on the road in 3 1/2 years) and the result is less than 300 hardy souls at all but the more accessible fixtures. The defence is arguably the most disorganised shambles in my memory. Full circle? Not quite. I guess one thing has changed. We ARE a bigger club than we were in 1997. Ten years ago 6000 was still considered a healthy crowd despite the joy. Now 6000+ are still prepared to turn up week in week out after four years of depressing decline and countless abysmal performances on our own patch. And the bespectacled one, amidst empty promises in a blame blame culture, refuses to accept any responsibility, instead clinging to the hope that a move from our beloved Priestfield will save his skin and save our Saturday afternoon entertainment.
The Morty Vicker