Three clubs were talking to me. All were Premier League clubs and reasonably well established ones, though they’d all had their peaks and troughs throughout the course of the Premier League’s existence. Leeds and Newcastle and Southampton all had their histories, but which club would be the one I’d sign on with?
The answer proved to be the one I wanted the most – Leeds. A club that’s not won nearly as many trophies as they should, Leeds hit financially difficult times at the turn of the century, when then-chairman Peter Risdale gambled on lucrative Champions League football paying off the loans the club had taken out to help ensure said Champions League football. The club did not achieve said qualification and yet, the loans still had to be repaid. Many of the side’s best players (such as defender Rio Ferdinand) were sold, and the club sank like a stone. Relegated from the Premier League in 2004, Leeds would end up relegated again in 2007, having been placed into administration and being docked points. They would spend the next few seasons playing in League One, the third tier of English football, for the first time in their history.
They returned to the Championship in 2010 and from there, desperately fought to get promoted to the Premier League, but inconsistency on the pitch and repeated takeovers and takeover attempts off it prevented Leeds from gaining any momentum. The turning point came in 2020, when they won promotion back to the top of English football, under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa.
Founded in 1919, Leeds have won league titles, but only on three occasions – 1969, 1974 and 1992. They won the UEFA Cup in 1968 and 1971, the FA Cup in 1972, and the League Cup (currently the Carabao Cup) in 1968. In the game’s timeline, they also won the Carabao Cup in 2024. Famous players include Jackie Charlton, Don Revie, Billy Bremner, and more recently, Patrick Bamford. Fierce rivalries include Manchester United and, due to tragic reasons, Turkish side Galatasaray, as a result of two Leeds fans being murdered in a fight between rival fans during an away Champions League fixture.
My opening game was funnily enough against the side that had convinced me it was time to ditch Crystal Palace – Manchester United. Talk about jumping straight into the fire! It was a chance to show what we – and I – could do, and boy did we come through! A 2-1 win didn’t accurately show the extent to which Leeds created far more chances. It was a great way to get under way!
There could be no resting on laurels. Next was a trip to Leicester. We were 3-0 down yet rallied to draw 3-3, and on balance deserved that point. A trip to Brighton followed, the first of two consecutive away games against the Seagulls. The first was a league fixture, and annoyingly we threw away a 2-0 lead to lose 4-2.
My early plan here was to see out the season with the players I had, then assess them at the end of it, and look, in far more detail than usual, at what the requirements were for any given tactic to be successful. Beyond looking at that, it was time for the second Brighton game, this time in the FA Cup. This ended up being a 0-0 draw, and there would therefore be a replay at some point. We defeated Newcastle 1-0 in our next game, to give us three vital points.
There were only a few days before a visit to Sheffield United, but another 1-0 win gave us a good boost. Brighton were next, visiting Elland Road for the FA Cup replay.
We went two up… and still lost 3-2. Not for the first time we’d blown a 2-0 lead over Brighton. I was furious, but there was no time for recriminations – Leeds were hosing Norwich next, and Norwich were absolutely flying. They were 7th, arguably punching well above their weight, and there would have to be a reason for that. However that reason did not make itself known. Leeds were rampant, 6-1 up at half-time! My main striker, Santos, had a hat-trick and he added another goal shortly after the break, whereupon the game petered out. Still, 7-1 was a great win in anyone’s book!
I expected a tougher game away to Spurs. We’d surged up the table to 9th but Spurs were gunning for a Europa League place, and they’d had a significantly better season than Leeds up until now. The international break gave us some time to prepare and rest up, but it also gave Spurs the same opportunities. The one saving grace was that Spurs were in action a few days earlier, fulfilling an extra fixture. Would that leave them tired?
Well, a 0-0 draw in a fairly even game suggested that as a team Leeds had made progress. I switched things up tactically shortly after half-time, moving from a possession-based defensive approach to a more attacking philosophy, and if not for a disallowed goal would have won. Definitely progress.
Liverpool were coming to Elland Road for the next game, and they were in 1st in the standings, looking potent as always. Owing to not being in any competitions other than the Premier League, another fairly long gap between matches existed. Interestingly, Liverpool were expressing an interest in my star striker Santos. I had already slapped a hefty price tag on him, though I was resigned to losing him, for Santos wanted Champions League football, which Leeds were not in a position to provide.
The game would mark my 300th game in management. Quite the milestone! We marked it in the best, most astonishing and unexpected manner – a 3-2 home win with a Santos hat-trick – and Liverpool didn’t deserve the two late goals they got. In one sense Santos was putting himself in the shop window and Liverpool were one of the prospective buyers – would they be so inclined to buy the player who consigned them to yet anther defeat?!
We were now unbeaten in our last five games and had won four of them. A combination of gengen pressing tactics, a possession-based attacking formation and a restoration of my old, cautious approach from my Aldershot days had yielded those results. Whether or not they’d yield a similar result away to Chelsea was another question entirely.
Chelsea were now the league leaders, and looking very, very good. They were playing good football and my only chance would be to deploy the defensive Aldershot approach, and possibly switch to an attacking formation late on, if it looked like I could snatch a point (or more). After Chelsea would come a visit from Manchester City, so it seemed the fixture list had conspired to really test Leeds. I set a lot of defensive training.
We were unlucky against Chelsea – Santos gave Leeds an early lead and we clung on until the last ten minutes of the game, but Chelsea’s relentless attacks broke us and they won 2-1. Still, we acquitted ourselves admirably. We had no time to cry about it – the City game was only a few days later. A switch to an attacking possession tactic delivered a great result – a 2-1 win! We had now beaten Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City at Elland Road… not bad.
I had high hopes for our next game, a trip to bottom club Swansea City. They had the worst defence in the Premier League, and after one minute they’d demonstrated why. A calamitous mix-up between their ‘keeper and a defender gifted Santos a goal. We ended up 3-1 winners but could have easily scored more. After this yet another international break intervened, to my annoyance, for I felt Leeds had some pretty good form and wanted nothing to interrupt it. I could not help but wonder if this was responsible for a 2-2 draw, where we’d let slip a 2-0 lead, away to Southampton.
Next was a grudge match, from my perspective. Leeds vs Crystal Palace. My new club versus my old club, the one I felt had let me down a great deal. A great performance ended up giving Leeds a 2-1 win, and somehow, the club weren’t especially far away from a Europa League place. A 1-0 win over Aston Villa moved us into that place. I wasn’t expecting us to remain in such a lofty position, but all things were possible. A 30-yard stunner from midfielder Nico should have made sure of the points away to Bournemouth, but the team threw away a 3-1 lead to draw.
At this point my single biggest source of frustration was our inability to see the games out. We had dropped points from winning positions on more than one occasion, and it was irritating me. With a trip to Arsenal up next, we needed to be better defensively. Annoying the game’s stupid glitch of gifting the opposition goals for nothing denied me a win at Arsenal, which really pissed me off. We’d played well and earned a victory, only for the game’s idiotic hiccup to deny me points yet again. I actually tweeted the official FM Twitter account about this, because it was getting beyond stupid. I was starting to feel this was breaking the game for me.
Ultimately I could do nothing (well, actually, I could restart matches until I had the result I felt my team’s performance deserved, but I wasn’t going to do that). All I could do was take the massively unreasonable hit and move on. Bristol City, in the unenviable position of propping up the table and already relegated, were travelling up north to see us in the penultimate match of the 26/27 season. A 4-0 win put us back into a Europa League place, and the goals were important, for goal difference could easily play a part in who actually got European football, and who didn’t. The win also consigned Bristol City to 30 (THIRTY!) games without a win. Not a record any club wishes to have.
Qualification for European football would now depend on our final game of the season, at home to Everton. Defeat to Everton could potentially see us finish as low as 10th in the table, and it could allow either Norwich, Leicester or Everton themselves to take European football for themselves. In Everton’s case, they’d have to get a big win over Leeds, and hope other results went their way. In my case? A draw for Leeds would be enough, unless Norwich won by around 30 clear goals.
After something of a see-sawing game that saw Everton twice peg us back, the greater quality of Leeds shone through to see out a 4-2 win and land a place in the Europa League! 7th place was well above the initial aims of the board, so I was quite happy in saying I’d smashed my target as well.
As the season wound down, I began to prepare for the rigours of juggling Premier league action with European nights. I did something that I’d previously neglected to do – I started developing individual training plans for players, based on the positions and roles I wanted them to fulfil. I was targeting players who were good in the positions and roles of my preferred formations.
My hope was that thorough preparation and training would breathe fresh life into my career, and maybe give me something to sing about. We’d see.