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It was, as their then chairman Peter Ridsdale put it, “living the dream” rather too fully that led to Leeds United’s relegation two years ago. The club’s nightmare will come to an end on Sunday, however, if they beat Watford in the Championship play-off final and secure their return to the Premier League.
Rising and falling like a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, Leeds became the great emblem of the craziness that surrounded the Premiership around the turn of the millennium, a cautionary tale of the dangers of overspending. Huge sums were invested in players – in many cases leasing, rather than buying them – and when form dipped and the Champions League revenues slipped away, debt caught up with the club and Leeds plummeted.
The job that their manager Kevin Blackwell has done in the past two years has been remarkable, rebuilding almost from scratch with resources that remained limited even after the takeover by chairman Ken Bates early last year.
Crucially, should Watford prevail at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on Sunday, Leeds will find their budget cut again, as the parachute payments that clubs relegated from the Premiership receive run out after two years.
If they were to go up, however, the £25m it is estimated that promotion brings sides – although they lose some of that in higher wages and expenditure on players – would go a long way to stabilising the club financially.
“This will be one of the biggest matches I will have been involved in with Leeds,” said the Norwegian midfielder Eirik Bakke, one of just two survivors from the halcyon days of five years ago. “I’ve played in a Champions League semi-final and a Uefa Cup semi-final, but this is a different game.”
In their way stand Watford and, by one of the quirks in which football delights, a man many of the Leeds players know well, Adrian Boothroyd.
It was from Blackwell’s coaching staff that Watford plucked their manager – to general bewilderment – when they decided to dispense with the popular Ray Lewington last season.
The 35-year-old Boothroyd has impressed this season, not merely with results, but with his demeanour. He exudes brisk efficiency, and his preparations for Cardiff have been typically meticulous.
After a late-season league game against Ipswich, he had his players practise penalties for possible play-off shoot-outs, encouraging the crowd to stay behind and jeer the takers in an effort to mimic the pressures of a real-life shoot-out. And earlier this week he took his team to Cardiff for a dry-run, staying in the same hotel they will use tonight and familiarising themselves with the Millennium Stadium.
“We’re a young team and some of our lads will have not been there before,” he explained. “So we thought it was a good idea to get used to the surroundings at the stadium.”
Whether any rehearsal can really prepare a side for a game of such unique atmosphere as the Championship play-off final remains to be seen. The positive for Boothroyd, though, is that whatever the pressure on his side, with the parachute payments about to run out, it will be worse on Leeds.