When Leeds, Leicester and Wolves were relegated together in 2004 | Richard Foster

Sixteen years have passed since Leeds last played a game in the top flight, the longest gap between Premier League fixtures for any club. The club were relegated on 8 May 2004 after a 3-3 draw with Charlton at Elland Road. Leeds had been 3-1 up with 15 minutes to play, but two mistakes from Michael Duberry and two goals from Jason Euell confirmed that they would be returning to the second tier for the first time since 1990. “Leeds may be going down, but their fans seem happy enough, as well they might after this six-goal carnival,” read the Guardian’s match report at the time. One optimistic fan at Elland Road carried a banner that declared: “First Division 2005: champions elect.”

Wolves and Leicester were the other two clubs relegated that season, with Leicester also going down after drawing with Charlton. All three clubs finished on 33 points. They were almost inseparable in the league table that season and have faced similar challenges since, including further relegations, financial meltdowns, multiple changes of ownership, heavy rotation of managers, the odd brush with the play-offs and finally their re-emergence among the English elite.

Leicester had been promoted to the Premier League at the start of the 2003-04 season thanks in part to their former player Gary Lineker. The club had gone into administration in October 2002, a few months after they had left Filbert Street for the Walkers Stadium, so it was apt that Lineker – who had been the public face of Walkers crisps since 1995 – should head up a consortium to rescue the club. Fortunately for Leicester, going into administration did not bring with it an automatic points deduction at the time, so the Foxes managed to secure promotion later that season.

Their return to the top flight was to be short-lived. Despite the best efforts of Les Ferdinand, the club’s top scorer in the 2003-04 campaign, they went straight back down along with Leeds and Wolves. Milan Mandaric bought the club while they were in the Championship and set about hiring and firing managers. In 2007 alone, there were 10 different men in charge, including three joint bosses at the same time in Jon Rudkin, Steve Beaglehole and Mike Stowell.

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After four years in the Championship, Leicester were relegated to League One under Ian Holloway in 2008, falling into the third tier for the first time in their history. “I gave 100% to the cause but unfortunately we ran out of time,” said Holloway at the time. “The fans here are a different class and deserve a lot, lot better.” Nigel Pearson took over that summer and turned things around quickly. Leicester won the League One title in 2009, with a victory over Leeds in mid-April all but guaranteeing their promotion. Pearson took the club to the Championship play-offs the following season, but it was not enough for Mandaric. Not for the last time, the manager was shown the door after doing a fine job.

A Leicester fan look turns his back on the players in May 2008, after a draw against Stoke City saw them relegated to League One.
A Leicester fan look turns his back on the players in May 2008, after a draw against Stoke City saw them relegated to League One. Photograph: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Mandaric sold the club to Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the owner of the duty-free retailer King Power, in February 2012 and the club has not looked back since. Pearson was given his old job back after a few managers, including Sven-Göran Eriksson, had failed to earn promotion to the Premier League. Despite a heartbreaking failure in the play-offs semi-finals against Watford in 2013 – when Anthony Knockaert missed a penalty in the 96th minute and Troy Deeney scored the winning goal at the opposite end of the pitch 19 seconds later – Leicester were promoted as champions the next season.

Leicester’s first two seasons back in the Premier League were as dramatic a double act as English football has ever produced. They won seven of their last nine games to stay up under Pearson in 2014-15 before winning the title under Claudio Ranieri the following season. In seven years, they had gone from League One to Premier League champions.

As Leicester entered the Champions League, Wolves were still languishing in the Championship. For a club that had been unofficially dubbed the “champions of the world” in the 1950s, this was not a great place to be. But, like Leicester, they had suffered financially, going into receivership in 1982 and falling as low as the Fourth Division after three successive relegations in the mid-1980s. Their 3-0 aggregate defeat to the mighty Aldershot in the Fourth Division play-off final in 1987 was another low moment.

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Wolves were back in the second tier by the time Jack Hayward took over the club in 1990 and they finally made it to the top flight in 2003-04. But, like Leicester, they lasted just one season in the Premier League before facing another stint in the Championship. After another spell in the Premier League at the start of the 2010s, they suffered successive relegations and fell back into League One in 2013.

Under Kenny Jackett the Old Gold began their bounce back with a record-breaking 103 points in 2013-14. Jackett was replaced by Walter Zenga as soon as the Chinese financial firm Fosun took control of the club but Zenga’s reign lasted a mere 17 games before Paul Lambert and then Nuno Espírito Santo took charge at Molineux.

Nuno has taken the club to new heights, gaining promotion to the Premier League, securing a seventh-place finish in the club’s first season back in the top flight and leading Wolves back into Europe for the first time in 40 years. If they win the Europa League this season – they play the second leg of their last-16 tie against Olympiakos next week – Wolves will return to the European Cup for the first time in 60 years. Either way, they are a club on the up.

Wolves fans are in a good mood during their League One match against Carlisle United in May 2014.
Wolves fans are in a good mood during their League One match against Carlisle United in May 2014. Photograph: Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Leeds’ downfall has been the most spectacular of the three. They tumbled from the dizzying heights of a Champions League semi-final in 2001 to playing in League One in 2007, the club’s first experience of the third tier of English football. Such a rapid decline had been accelerated by an unprecedented financial collapse leading to the club going into administration in May 2007 and receiving a 10-point deduction that accompanied their relegation from the Championship.

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They achieved an ignoble double the following season, when they had a further 15 points deducted because of their failure to meet Football League rules on insolvency. Despite starting the season 15 points behind, they managed to clamber up to fifth place, but lost out to Yorkshire rivals Doncaster Rovers in the play-offs final. They went one better the following year, finishing fourth in League One, but again they stumbled in the play-offs, losing to Millwall in the semi-finals.

Tresor Kandol celebrates after scoring an 89th-minute winner against Tranmere Rovers in August 2007. This was Leeds’ first ever game in the third tier of English football.
Tresor Kandol celebrates after scoring an 89th-minute winner against Tranmere Rovers in August 2007. This was Leeds’ first ever game in the third tier of English football. Photograph: PA Images

They finally made it out of League One a decade ago, finishing runners-up to Norwich City, who they are now replacing in the Premier League. Then came a decade in the Championship against the backdrop of a kaleidoscope of colourful owners, with GFH Capital passing the club to Massimo Cellino before Andrea Radrizzani took over.

Radrizzani made the bold decision to appoint Marcelo Bielsa, who was coming off a catastrophic spell at Lille, in June 2018. In his first season at the club, the Argentinian led Leeds to yet another crack at the play-offs. It did not end well. Leeds became the first club to be top of the Championship at Christmas yet fall short of promotion at the end of the season. Having surrendered their hopes of finishing in the top two, they suffered a dramatic disappointment. Leeds took a 2-0 aggregate lead against Derby in front of their own fans in the second leg and then fell apart, losing the tie 4-3 and missing out on a trip to Wembley.

All that has now been put behind them. Finally, after 16 years, Leeds are back in the Premier League. They will be hoping to emulate their former peers, Leicester and Wolves, and Leeds fans will be hoping for a return trip to the Mestalla as opposed to Moss Rose.

Richard Foster’s new book Premier League Nuggets is out now and you can follow him on Twitter.


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