Floating across the green hills from faraway Elland Road, you could almost hear Frank Sinatra delivering “and now the end is near” at the door.
This was Terry Venables’ office, March 2003; this was Thorp Arch, Leeds United’s rural training ground. Venables looked like he knew his singing hero had got it right. So it proved.
We were talking about the immediate future – an FA Cup quarter-final at Sheffield United two days later – and the past; and Venables had recently turned 60. Venables recalled being taken to his first FA Cup final in 1958 by his father Fred.
“I don’t feel 60,” Venables said, yet there was a weariness to his tone.
He had succeeded David O’Leary nine months earlier, although that bare sentence conceals a forest of context. O’Leary and his Leeds “babies” had electrified West Yorkshire for a while, and even won over neutrals, which is not easy when you’re Leeds United.
But Leeds had spent and spent and spent again and there was a financial avalanche coming. Venables was the first manager post-O’Leary to be submerged by it; he was the first of 23 men to follow O’Leary this century, 25 appointments if you count Neil Redfearn’s three spells. It was not until the summer of 2018 and Marcelo Bielsa’s epiphany when Leeds began to emerge as a serious football club again.
Here was Venables at the dawn of that realisation. This coach who had managed Barcelona and England, who was so highly regarded by his peers, was seeing through the veneer of Leeds United. What Venables saw was rot.
“Sometimes you think: ‘Is it all worth it?’” he said, not the words a manager in control utters.
Venables had been given a vision by Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale the previous June and selling Rio Ferdinand to Manchester United six weeks in was not part of it. Nor was Robbie Keane departing for Tottenham a month later.
Venables fought on, Leeds beat Man United on Ferdinand’s return to Elland Road and, six games in, Leeds were third in the Premier League. He had optimism, but then managers at Elland Road tend to wear blinkers, where all they can see is the potential of a one-club city. Leeds won one of the next 11.
On a daily basis there seemed to be some intrigue leaking from the club. There was the £80m debt, Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell not speaking, Ridsdale “retiring” David Batty and on and on.
Leeds became the talk of the nation and by December the talk included relegation. When January’s transfer window saw Venables wave goodbye to Lee Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate, Robbie Fowler and Olivier Dacourt, and as personal criticism grew, Venables compared himself to Lee Harvey Oswald, a “patsy”.
It meant that by our March meeting Venables was able to say, “I didn’t think I was taking on something that was insurmountable. I thought I was taking on something that was very possible, very likely. Then it changed.”
Leeds lost that cup tie at Sheffield United and the following Saturday, at home to Middlesbrough, Leeds went down 2-3. Now the end really was knocking on the door.
Five days later Leeds introduced Peter Reid as their manager until the end of the season. Having been in the dugout since 1975, Venables’ club career was over.
Venables later assisted Steve McClaren with England, which did not go well and after that El Tel, as he was affectionately known in the tabloids, a central figure in English football and on British television, a significant character in the country, moved to the margins.
When the jolting news of his death, aged 80, arrived last Sunday, the tributes were in the main complimentary. Teddy Sheringham’s clever, delicate pass to Alan Shearer for England against Holland at Euro ‘96 could be seen as the distilling of Venables’ belief in creative football and that English players could provide it, if coached.
His nine months at Leeds United? Well, it was a footnote. For him, the Sinatra anecdotes and the glory of Barca belonged to a different era. He still smiled and laughed that day at Thorp Arch, but he also said, “A football season is a long time; it can be a lifetime.”
The sentiment turned out to be prescient. Reid kept Leeds up despite Viduka’s lateness for training and attitude. “He looked at me like I was a piece of shite,” Reid later said.
Reid stayed on, for 7½ months, before he too was ushered out. He accepted he may have had “delusions of grandeur” because it was Leeds United.
For all, the white blinkers were removed forcefully at Bolton in May 2004 when Leeds were relegated. Viduka put them ahead, then got sent off. Leeds were battered 4-1.
There was a way to fall yet. Within three years, points deducted, Leeds were in the third division – for three seasons. They would endure 16 outside the top flight until Bielsa burst into Thorp Arch, ordered his players to litter-pick and then turned them into a fluid, rotating machine. Leeds fans still nudge each other about Bielsa’s first 20 minutes in charge against Stoke.
Promotion was achieved and Leeds were back, apparently. But even as he sat on his bucket, as his coached players produced joyful, energetic patterns, Bielsa exuded impermanence, a kind of structured volatility.
At least there was structure. Since the days of Venables, it had felt like Leeds were caught in a tempest of their own making. And then the decision-makers were blown off course again; in February 2022, Bielsa, a coaching great, a charismatic club-changer, was gone. Leeds were two points off relegation and had conceded 20 goals in their previous five games.
The storm was back. Jesse Marsch got them through to a last-day decider at Brentford, where Raphina scored and joined the away end. It meant as 2023 began, 20 years on from Venables, Marsch was in charge. Until February.
Remember Javier Gracia? Sam Allardyce? That all happened in the first six months of the year. Leeds went down just as the American owners of the San Francisco 49ers completed their buyout.
Into Venables’ old office walked Daniel Farke. On Wednesday night, at home to Swansea, Leeds won their seventh game in nine to go third in the Championship. They are unbeaten at home and today host Boro, a fitting fixture for Venables, who coached both.
And in a shouty world, that’s what Venables did – coach. The same can be said of Farke, whose popularity also stems from his calm. He praised his team’s “maturity” on Wednesday.
It’s premature to say it’s over, of course, but an end may be near for Leeds United’s 20-year storm.