Garry Monk has had such a reinvigorating effect on Leeds United that it already feels like a long time ago when the club felt utterly stagnant and hopeless. However, when you lived those years, five consecutive seasons of utter mediocrity, you don’t forget what it feels like to feel like your club is going nowhere. It’s in contrast to such times that this season feels all the more special, and something not to take for granted, whether it ends in promotion or not.
On The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast this week, it was stated that Neil Warnock is the kind of manager you love if he’s at your club, a fantastic Championship manager. Incredulity is the natural Leeds response to that, but broadly speaking it’s correct. Recently, at Rotherham, now Cardiff - as The Whites have first hand experience, having fallen to them in the only home defeat since November - he’s been an asset, steering the clubs in the right direction in difficult circumstances. Before that, in particular with QPR, Palace and Sheffield United, his record speaks for itself. The year at Leeds is a blot on the copybook of an excellent lower league career.
At Leeds, things started out promisingly enough. An unbeaten pre-season and an opening day win over Wolves set a relatively upbeat tone. This continued with Luciano Becchio in the form of his life, every bit the striker Chris Wood currently looks. He scored 15 goals in the first half of the season, including a brace - one stunner - against Middlesborough to have us in a respectable 8th place at Christmas. Ken Bates was finally leaving, there was no knowledge of how crooked GFH would turn out to be. Decent wins over both Everton and Southampton in the League Cup kept the mood high. Sam Byram was emerging as the best footballer we’d produced since Jonny Howson.
Of course, it didn’t last. After Christmas, Leeds would go on to lose five of the next eight, and in a later run, go winless in seven - three consecutive draws followed by four consecutive losses - to find themselves in real danger of relegation in March.
Overall, the season was about par for Leeds, in a barren five year spell of insipid mid-table finishes. The man did roughly the same as Steve Evans, Neil Redfearn, Brian McDermott and Simon Grayson (in his final season). God knows none of those seasons were full of positives or much hope, but the Warnock era felt like the bleakest, for a number of reasons.
The football itself was horrible. Turgid, slow, overly aggressive and physical to the point of detriment when it came to indiscipline. The pace and verticality that once came with the likes of Max Gradel and Robert Snodgrass had long departed the club with them. Michael Brown was the best characterisation of the biggest team of cloggers in Leeds United history, already at the club, and waiting in wings for Warnock. Together they formed the most nauseating manager-player love affair in football, making the Sam Allardyce & Kevin Nolan axis look as cultured as Mourinho & Carvalho at their peak. Nothing says more about the man’s time in charge than failing to play a young Ross Barkley on loan and opting for “Browneh” instead.
It had only taken one transfer window, but Warnock undoubtedly imposed his identity on Leeds United. From El-Hadji Diouf, a player he’d labelled a “sewer rat” but tellingly thought could play a role at the club, to former stalwarts of his, Michael Tonge & Paddy Kenny.
It's not to say that his players were abject or entirely without merit. Diouf had his moments, especially in the win over Everton, conveniently in that period of a contract renewal being on the cards. Tonge, and Kenny especially, were adequate club servants, playing with a reasonable level of professionalism and conviction for ageing signees. They were also patently not at the level required for a promotion push, just about good enough to tread water in the league.
That was the best you could say for most of the signings under Warnock, in what was an extremely transitional time. Along with Tonge and Kenny, that summer Leeds also signed Jason Pearce, Rodolph Austin, David Norris, Paul Green - all players who did a job, but were to various degrees limited and flawed, or too old. The only real positive memories of any of those players is the odd screamer from Austin, and his entertainingly perma-scowling face.
There were also several players that were simply inadequate - Lee Peltier was a marquee signing, club captain, genuinely hopeless. Luke Varney, appalling. Ryan Hall a waste of space.
Recruitment was an unmitigated disaster. The most galling part came when Luciano Becchio left in a swap deal that benefitted nobody. Leeds lost the Championship’s top scorer and longest-serving player. Norwich were relegated anyway, starting him twice. Becchio’s career effectively ended, Steve Morison would endure a miserable, fruitless couple of years at Elland Road before getting his career back on track at Millwall.
That departure was symbolic. The last player to depart from our last cherished squad, the one that went to Old Trafford and knocked Man Utd out of the FA Cup, was promoted from League One, but for defensive frailties should have repeated the trick in our first season in the Championship. His replacement would go on to score 5 goals in 41 appearances, but more importantly ushered in a new era that is fondly remembered by nobody. There is some respect for a handful of that squad, but Sam Byram is the only player anyone misses - and we can thank Neil Redfearn for him.
In a 3-0 defeat to Mick McCarthy’s relegation-battling Ipswich in March 2013, Leeds fielded the following XI - Paddy Kenny, Lee Peltier, Tom Lees, Stephen Warnock, Sam Byram, Paul Green, Michael Brown, Michael Tonge, David Norris, Steve Morison, Luke Varney. We’ve fielded worse, more hapless teams - the Dennis Wise era springs to mind - but I put forward that’s the least inspiring Leeds side in a generation. A generation that includes the stewardship of Dave Hockaday, no less.
Warnock’s demeanour - unique, a smarminess so unparalleled it feels only sufficient to describe as Warnockian - is such that it’s no wonder he riles opposing fans and rivals so much. These are the characteristics you indulge, even celebrate if they’re doing good things for your club. Ferguson, Mourinho and Benitez famously so. Acerbic personalities are harder to live with when you’re only five points clear of the relegation zone in March, and stomaching losing 6-1 at home to Watford.
It was that demeanour that still leaves a sour taste in the mouth. From the self-aggrandising excuses, to the bilious chummy-chummy act never reciprocated, to statements that did nothing but insult fans intelligence, such as insisting Steve Morison would prove to be a club legend.
Worst of all was his insistence that he’d left the place in a far better state than he found it - that it “only needs to add two or three players to be back where it needs to be”. Of the 2012-2013 squad, only Sam Byram and Tom Lees (academy products), and Ross Barkley (four appearances) are playing somewhere around the level Leeds should be aiming for.
Four years on from Warnock leaving, not a single player from that squad remains, as Leeds United enjoy the best season since departing the top flight in 2004. His stewardship needed to be fumigated out of the club like the nasty smell it was, before we could dream of being good again.
The excuses are to a certain extent legitimate. The club was a mess. He inherited an average, mid-table squad, losing its best players over the summer, with a club that didn’t have the funds to make up for that.
That’s the remarkable thing about what Garry Monk is currently doing, and this season as a whole. It outlines the fundamental differences in approach and recruitment. Calm authority over reckless screaming. Dedication and application over (allegedly) swanning off to Cornwall at every opportunity and missing training sessions. Luke Ayling, not Lee Peltier. Pontus Jansson & Kyle Bartley, not Jason Pearce. The technical wizardry of Pablo Hernandez over the brute force of Michael Brown. Not swapping the league’s leading striker in January for a sulky lump of useless.
The Warnock reign came to an end prematurely, two months before the end of the season, to little surprise or protestation. A fine record beforehand, lots promised, but in the end the results, and especially the football, did little to endear the man’s idiosyncrasies to the 20,000+ regular matchgoers.
In that sense, there are parallels with one of the most mythologised periods in Leeds United history: Brian Clough’s 44-day reign. Elongated, less explosive, less interesting, a tier below. It’s pathetically fitting for a club that had fallen so far, to get a modern retelling with a manager every bit the Poundland Clough.