For Leeds and Brighton, 2020 represented a year of success. For Leeds promotion back to the topflight for the first time in 16 years has seen them shake off the “fallen giant” tag. Whereas for Brighton, Premier League survival has seen them match their longest and to date only other spell in the topflight of four years.
But go back 15 years and things were very different for both clubs who started the 2005/06 season together in the recently rebranded Championship.
Albion were out of their depth financially in the second tier, a period probably best exemplified by a striker shortage solved by reutilising defender and youth team product Adam Virgo as a target man. He went onto be the team’s top scorer with 8 goals as they survived relegation on the last day of the 2004/05 season. It was a problem that dramatically arose after the form of Leon Knight plummeted after he had fired the Seagulls to promotion the season before with 27 goals, scoring just 4 goals in 41 appearances that season.
The summer of 2005 saw Adam Virgo sold to Celtic for £1.5m in a deal described by chairman Dick Knight as “The Best Deal I Ever Did”. Saying in his book he thought Virgo was only actually worth around £200k. It was a price that led to speculation of dodgy dealings between Albion manager Mark McGhee and then Celtic manager Gordon Strachan who would later work together for Scotland as assistant manager and manager respectively. But as McGhee told the Athletic recently: “People have suggested that there was some sort of skulduggery going on between Gordon and I because of the amount of money they ended up paying. I have to give credit to Dick. He was the one who forced it up to that price. It wasn’t me. I kind of stepped back, partly because of my association with Gordon.”
In his place came the “Coca Cola Kid”, Colin Kazim Richards. Nicknamed as such after his fee was paid for when the club had won from the Coca Cola win a player fund. A cheque for the £250k prize fund was presented to Dick Knight at the 2005 Championship playoff final between West Ham and Preston.
It was a fund that Dick Knight said in his book “Mad Man” he originally wanted to use to bring Bobby Zamora back to the club. And having spoken to his current club West Ham’s owners at that game, Dick says they seemed interested in a deal. Until that is when Zamora scored the winner for West Ham that day, which secured the Hammers promotion to the topflight and killed any deal.
So Kazim Richards it was. Unfortunately for Albion, he was young, inexperienced and couldn’t be solely relied on to lead the line and provide the goals this Albion side were missing, like Bobby Zamora had done previously. Compared to the 14 Zamora scored for Albion in an injury-hit 2002/03 season when Albion were also relegated from the second tier, Kazim Richards managed just 6, not scoring in any Albion victories. So whilst in 02/03 Albion were only relegated on the final day after failing to beat Grimsby, in 05/06 Albion finished bottom, 12 points adrift of survival and were ultimately relegated with two games to spare after a dismal defeat at home to Sheffield Wednesday.
Another of mercurial Albion’s strikers Leon Knight, who had been becoming progressively anonymous since his 27 goals inspired the club’s promotion from the third tier in 2004 and was sold to Swansea in the January of this season. But not before being threatened with being kicked off the club coach in the middle of the New Forest by manager Mark McGhee who simply had lost patience with the one time goal machine.
McGhee had already publicly questioned Knight’s attitude in training and after he questioned McGhee’s decision to drop goalkeeper Michel Kuipers before an away match with Southampton, he was first threatened with being kicked off the coach and then subsequently told he wasn’t even welcome in the dressing room. Leon then scored a hat trick on his Swansea debut just four days later, but that was a rare high point of his short time with Swansea and his career saw a quick demise thereafter.
In contrast, Leeds had come from the other direction. Having finished 3rd in the Premier League in 2000, reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001 and begun 2002 top of the Premier League, a sudden financial crisis hit the club that had been building for a while as a result of financial mismanagement and saw a fast and dramatic fall from grace for the club.
By the end of 2002 many of their star players had to be sold and they ended the 2002/03 season 15th. But despite those sales the club’s finances were not under control and they were relegated to the championship the following season, and finished a disappointing 14th the next as the club were forced to sell both their training ground and their stadium to make ends meet.
By the time they had reached the 2005/06 season the Leeds squad had already seen a number of successive seasons of mass overhauls, a job recently inherited by manager Kevin Blackwell and chairman Ken Bates. A host of players exited Elland Road that summer, most notably star player Aaron Lennon who moved to Tottenham. In their place came a host of loan signings and free transfers along with a handful of paid for players including that season’s club top scorer Rob Hulse.
One player that Leeds also signed for a fee that summer was the Albion left back Dan Harding. It was a transfer that went to a tribunal to decide the fee. Despite him being out of contract, as he was under 24 Albion were still entitled to compensation so Leeds were ordered to pay the club £850k. Youth team product Dan Harding was one of Albion’s most prized possessions having been recently nominated by Four Four Two as one of the top 50 players outside the Premier League, but over the previous season he and the club had engaged in drawn out and ultimately fruitless contract negotiations that did nothing for the reputation of either party. But despite a promising start to his season, it was an injury hit one and he moved to Ipswich at the end of the season in an exchange for another former Leeds and Brighton player Ian Westlake.
Given the nature of his exit and the extended contract talks which preceded it, it is little surprise that when the two sides met in September Harding was booed by the Brighton supporters every time he touched the ball in a 3-3 draw at Elland Road. It was ultimately a draw that was harsh on Albion who led 2-0 through a rare Leon Knight goal and a second from Sebastian Carole only for a David Healy double to level the scores, who was fresh from his heroics of scoring a famous winner for Northern Ireland against England at Windsor Park. A Sean Gregan own goal looked to have won the game for the Seagulls but Leeds equalised in injury time through Jonathan Douglas to earn the home side a point.
Whilst Leeds manager Keven Blackwell was adamant his team deserved to win and that Healy “could have had six goals”, “the mighty mighty whites Leeds” fan site is far more magnanimous saying “Leeds were lucky to get anything out of Brighton”.
This wasn’t the first time Albion’s defence proved to be leaky that season, in fact they conceded a total of 71 goals, the second highest in the division. And it was no coincidence that Albion’s former club captain and defensive rock Danny Cullip had left in the December of the previous season. So the young Irish defender Pat McShane was brought in for the 2005/06 season on loan from Man United to fill the still resultant gap.
Despite the defensive issues, McShane’s quality shone at the back and he went on to win the club’s player of the season award, which his centre back partner Guy Butters had won two years previously and McShane remains the only loan signing to have ever been voted as Albion’s Player of the Season.
McShane in part received the award for the appreciation of his contribution to one of Albion’s highlights of the season, scoring the winner in a 1-0 win at Selhurst park over rivals Crystal Palace, which left Albion 20th as at the same time saw Leeds climb to 4th in the table.
As the season progressed it looked as if both teams were in a good place to achieve their respective goals come the end of the season. A win over QPR on Boxing Day put Albion four points clear of the relegation zone courtesy of a Guy Butters header. Whilst a 3-1 win at home to Coventry put Leeds 3rd and closing in on the previously run-away top two, in particular Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United.
For Albion though the joy of their fourth victory of the season was tempered by the loss of captain Charlie Oatway to an ankle injury in what turned out to be a career-ending injury for the central midfielder and the man who inherited the captaincy from Cullip. That it was also against the club he supported as a boy was an even crueller twist of fate and left Oatway on 248 appearances for the club over eight years. His injury hit Albion hard as they lost ten of their next twelve, which left them five points from safety and second bottom of the league going into March.
Brighton’s 2-1 win over Leeds at Withdean in January was a rare highlight of an otherwise bleak winter of Albion. The win was secured by a goal from Gary Hart and lifted them out of the bottom three. It gave Albion belief that a second consecutive survival could be achieved, but a run of 7 defeats and a draw in the next eight would essentially secure relegation for McGhee’s Albion side.
There would be some hope for Brighton. A subsequent run of three straight draws and a win over 3-0 fellow strugglers Millwall gave them a faint lifeline. But as manager Mark McGhee stated ‘It’s probably too late for both of us. But this gives us a chance. Who knows?”
And so it turned out, as four defeats in the final five meant any hopes of a great escape were quickly squandered. With both Brighton and Millwall relegated, finishing 12 and 10 points from safety respectively.
With relegation this side was quickly dismantled. McGhee was sacked shortly after the beginning of the following season whilst Albion’s young striker Kazim-Richards made the move to the Premier League with Sheffield United during the summer. A year later he found himself playing for Turkish giants Fenerbahce and in 2008 he appeared for semi-finalists Turkey at the European Championships, a long way from the Withdean stadium.
For Leeds the defeat to Brighton may have seemed at the time as a blip, but signalled what was to come. A good run of five wins in the next eight left them going into the final ten games very much in the automatic promotion hunt, now only five points adrift of Sheffield United after being 17 points behind earlier in the season. But an end of season slump left them settling for the playoffs with three games to spare. And to rub salt in their wombs the first of those three games was a high tempered affair away to the newly promoted Sheffield United on Easter Tuesday which ended 1-1.
After beating Preston in the playoff semi-finals, the playoff final saw another capitulation from this Leeds side as a 3-0 defeat to Watford cost them promotion back to the topflight and so much more aside. It was a defeat that signalled their continued demise. Further struggles were to follow with relegation to League one next season and the subsequent infamous angry pitch invasion from Leeds fans which followed. Then there was the equally infamous defeat to Histon in the FA cup, it would be a long and winding road back for the Leeds faithful.
At the time there was much optimism at Leeds of what was to come. Chairman Ken Bates said to the Leeds players in the dressing room after the playoff final that: “They had given what they had and they had given their best. I said that tomorrow is the first day of our Championship season.” Little did they know how misplaced that optimism would turn out to be.
I doubt many who saw Leeds lose the 2006 playoff final thought it would take Leeds another 14 seasons for them to get back to the topflight. Or that the 05/06 season would be their highest league finish for another thirteen years, before the arrival of a certain Marcelo Bielsa saw their return to the topflight. Nor that this Brighton team who were then playing in a converted Athletics stadium with a four figure capacity, still battling a lengthy and expensive planning permission battle for a new stadium and out of their depth in the second tier, would return to the topflight three years before Leeds.
When you look back at this period of Leeds’ history, it’s somewhat explains the reprehensible and overly defensive attitude we’ve seen from some of its supporters towards Karen Carney and other critics of the club in recent months.
Having experienced such highs in the 60s and 70s and then again in the 90s and early 2000s, this demise will have been hard to swallow for many of its supporters. Especially given that it was largely self-induced by its own incompetent leadership. And as a result, the club became the punchline of jokes for the rest of the English football community.
It was a trend that would last until the recent Bielsa-led renaissance of the club. Meanwhile less prestigious club’s like Brighton had leapfrogged them into the topflight and Leeds were and still are desperate to put things straight.
Following the 2005/06 season, the next 14 years would see both clubs have plenty of disappointing days and see much concern over each club’s existence. But more recently they have both been had periods of great and historic success.
The current reality for both is that amongst times of great global economic struggles, the Premier League represents a whole new challenge altogether for both.