Stuart Moriarty-Patten delves into football’s rich history to the formation of Leeds United’s forebears.
1 September 1904: the debut of Leeds City
Leeds City F.C. was formed in August 1904 and played their first game away to Morley, which ended in a 2-2 draw, on 1 September. Local rugby league club Holbeck, the owners of a ground at Elland Road, had recently folded so the newly formed football club moved in. On 15 October, only 48 hours after the lease on the ground was signed, Leeds City played their first game at Elland Road, against Hull in a friendly. City lost the game 2-0 but now with a home of their own they were on the way to achieving their dream of entering the English League. They advertised for a new manager and gave the job to Gilbert Gillies who had made a name for himself at Chesterfield. He began working with trainer George Swift, an experienced ex-player with Wolves and Loughborough Town, and they set about building a side fit for the football league.
Despite a mediocre season in the West Yorkshire League, which in all honesty had played second fiddle to some high profile friendlies against league teams, the football league granted them entry on 29 May 1905 in a restructured Second Division that also saw the debuts of Chelsea, Hull, Clapton Orient and Stockport. It had helped Leeds’ case for inclusion into the League as they were the representatives of England’s largest city without a league football team, and they were seen as a way to challenge the supremacy of Rugby League in terms of popularity in the area.
Their first game in the Second Division ended in a 1-0 loss to Bradford City at Valley Parade but by the end of their first season in the Football League they had finished a creditable sixth. Their attendances were rising and to some delight in football circles this had been reflected in a 50 percent fall in attendances at local Rugby League games. The club, full of confidence, built a 5000 seater stand, the Scratching Shed, on the West side of the ground at a cost of £1050. A second, more salubrious, stand followed the next season at a cost of £3000.
Their second season however saw them failing to progress and they finished a disappointing tenth. During this season they also suffered the tragedy of the death of one of their players. David Wilson, who was known to everyone as “soldier” and had scored 13 goals in 15 games in the previous season, died in the changing rooms after suffering a heart attack on the pitch in a game against Burnley on 27 October 1906. Leeds City paid for the funeral and arranged a benefit match a few weeks later against Hull City for Wilson’s widow and their ten-month-old baby girl.
The next season, despite a bright start the club finished badly falling to twelfth and Gillies resigned as manager to be replaced by Frank Scott-Walford. He was something of a dandy and sported an elaborately waxed moustache and was never without a flower in his buttonhole, but he had gained a good reputation with his work at Brighton. Leeds were in some disarray financially, but nevertheless Scott-Walford went on something of a spending spree splashing out £2000 in his first season on players, including bringing five of his former charges form Brighton. His big-spending did not improve the club’s position as they finished 12th, 17th and 11th over the next three seasons.
The club was also increasingly struggling financially and things got so bad that Scott-Walford even paid the players from his own pocket in 1910 ending up being owed over £3000 by the club. They had to let their bigger names go and rely on untested players from the lower leagues and the Irish Leagues. Realising that the players may not be ready for such a big step up the Leeds Mercury appealed to the Leeds’ fans, “It must be remembered that these Irishmen are very young men, who have been brought into a higher class of football than that to which they have been accustomed, and that they were playing their first match amid unfamiliar surroundings.” In an attempt to help the new Irish players Scott-Walford even supplied green flags to mark the centre line. Matters deteriorated further though and the manager started to react to the pressures of trying to run a football club under severe financial constraints. Towards the end of the 1911/12 season Scott-Walford through the letters column of a local newspaper said that the stress he was facing was making him ill and he appealed to the board to make funds available for strengthening the squad or make alternative arrangements. The directors decided to take this as his resignation letter and bid him farewell.
Leeds finished second-bottom that season and had to face re-election, but the board appointed a manager who was going to change things around. Herbert Chapman, who was later to achieve great things in his career as manager of Huddersfield and Arsenal, had already impressed at Northampton who he had led to a Southern League title. With Chapman promising promotion in two seasons the club successfully applied for re-election, bottom team Gainsborough Trinity were not so fortunate being replaced by Lincoln City. The new manager then set about rebuilding the team and, amongst a host of other new players he bought in internationals Billy Scott, the Irish goalkeeper from Everton, Scottish international George Law, and a former English international Evelyn Lintott.
Leeds lost their first game 4-0 under Chapman but they finished the 1912/13 season in sixth place. Chapman had the team playing exciting attacking football, albeit inconsistent demonstrated with a 6-0 loss to second from bottom Stockport in February coming between two 5-1 wins over Leicester and that season’s champions Preston. Attendances rose from 8,500 to 13,000, and having been beset by money problems for so long the club was able to now declare a £400 profit. The next season saw the club achieve their best ever finish of fourth, just two points short of promotion behind second-placed Bradford Park Avenue. Despite the disappointment of missing out on promotion The Yorkshire Post‘ wrote, “Chapman … has done a tremendous amount of good work for the club; he has gained the confidence of everybody,” and noted that “Promotion has been denied them but taking into account the resources of the club, fourth place should be considered satisfactory…Not only have the club attained a higher position than ever before but receipts and attendances have outstripped any previous record.” Indeed attendances were now regularly over 20,000, with some 30,000 coming to see them play Fulham on Christmas Day. However the season had also seen them have their first scrape with the authorities over financial irregularities when they were found guilty of paying three players more than the maximum permitted wage of £4 per week. Seemingly the club had paid the three players a whole year’s salary in one lump sum when the players were actually at the club less than 12 months. The club was fined £125 plus costs and the players had to refund the excess payments.
Before the 1914/15 season a group of Leeds’ business men had taken over the club and Leeds City entered the season full of confidence but this was to prove to be a false dawn as the beginning of the First World War helped disrupt their team. Although they did win their first piece of silverware in the shape of the West Riding Cup, courtesy of a 1-0 win over Hull at Elland Road on 11 November 1914, attendances fell and the vagaries of players joining up to the armed forces meant Chapman was never able to pick a settled side, and the team finished in a disappointing 15th place. This was the last season until 1919 because of the war in which two of the Leeds players sadly lost their lives. Evelyn Lintott lost his life on the first day of the Somme on 1 July 1916 and Club captain Jimmy Speirs lost his life at Passchendaele on 20 August 1917.
The Football authorities kept up with regional leagues during the war in an effort to boost moral, but Chapman, feeling the need to contribute the war effort, had left to take up a position as a manager of a munitions factory, leaving his assistant George Cripps in charge of the administrative side of things and the chairman Joseph Connor in charge of the team.
When the league resumed in 1919 Leeds City were accused by a former player, Charlie Copeland, of having made payments to guest players during wartime matches against the rules of the League and FA. Copeland had attempted to blackmail the club over wage demands of £6 per week telling the club he would report them to the FA for illegal payments if they did not give him his demands. In July when the directors refused to give into him, and gave him a free transfer to Coventry instead, Copeland went to the FA with his allegations. The club refused to co-operate with an inquiry held by a joint FA-League commission with the directors refusing to open the accounts up to inspection. They were given until 6 October by the commission to make them available or face the consequences.
Meanwhile with the public and players mostly unaware of the accusations and with Chapman back in charge the season began with high hopes. During the war they had become the wartime champions of England in 1918 and had retained most of the players who had served them so well. After a first day 4-2 defeat at Blackpool, Leeds City then won three straight games without conceding a goal, and things looked promising. On 4 October 1919 Leeds City travelled to Wolverhampton to play what would turn out to be their last game with most people still largely unaware as to what was occurring. Leeds won the game 4-2 with a hat-trick from their star striker Billy McLeod. Ironically on their way back home they gave a lift in their coach to several people who had been stranded by a rail strike one of whom was Charles Copeland who had been playing for Coventry that same day and whose role in the scandal that was unfolding was not yet widely known
Two days after the Wolves game, the Leeds City board still refused to hand over the accounts and the League suspended their next fixture against South Shields. A week later the League Chairman John McKenna issued a statement which announced, “The authorities of the game intend to keep it absolutely clean. We will have no nonsense… Every member of the Commission was heartily sorry that Leeds had to be dealt with at all. We recognized that they had gone through troubled times before, they were a new club, that they had obtained a good holding in a Rugby area, and that the club had bright prospects, but our case was clear-Leeds were defiant and could only be defiant through one cause-fear of the papers giving away certain secrets.” The team was expelled from the Football League after just eight games of the season and an FA order formally dissolved the club. Five club officials including Chapman were banned for life, although Chapman’s ban was eventually overturned as it was accepted that he had been out of the club when the payments were made.
Although there was never any concrete proof of the allegations the secrecy of the club effectively signed their death warrant, and many felt that if they had opened their books to scrutiny they would have been dealt with relatively leniently as they were not the only one’s guilty of such practices during the war, just the only ones exposed.
The Football League promised to pay the wages of the now unemployed players until an auction of them could be organised. This took place on 17 October 1919 at the Metropole Hotel in Leeds and was described as “a melancholy spectacle” by the Yorkshire Post. The 16 players were sold to 9 different clubs for a total of £9250, with striker Billy McLeod fetching the most with Notts County willing to pay £1250, others though went for as little as £100. It was a humiliating experience for the players as they were sold off along with the club’s nets, goal-posts, boots, kit and physiotherapy equipment. The Football League, who were responsible for organising the sale, said that no player should be made to join any club he did not want to but, with the players anxious to find a club as quickly as possible, they were left with little choice.
Port Vale, who some were saying had pressured the league into expelling Leeds, took over the defunct club’s fixtures and inherited City’s playing record for that season so far, and went on to finish the season in 13th place. Ironically Port Vale were themselves nearly expelled for financial irregularities in 1968 when they were saved by a vote amongst the other clubs.
In the wake of Leeds City’s demise Leeds United were formed and took over ownership of Elland Road and entered the League the following season, where ironically their first fixture was against Port Vale. Leeds City briefly reformed in 1924 as an amateur outfit playing in the Yorkshire Football League, but they dissolved after just three seasons, leaving behind a legacy of being the only club to have still ever been expelled from the league part of the way during a season, as well as the only one being expelled due to financial irregularities. With hindsight though it is interesting to speculate what they may have achieved in light of Herbert Chapman’s achievements at Huddersfield and Arsenal, who he both led to League and cup triumphs, had Copeland not gone to the FA.