When Massimo Cellino decided that Women’s league football was not part of the plan for Leeds United Football Club he cut the team loose. They could not play under the name or the badge. They could not be part of The Leeds United Foundation (LUFC’s charity arm of the club) and they could not have access to their training facilities, coaches or funding.
Gary Cooper was the chairman of the Leeds United Supporters Trust at the time and was disgusted at what was happening to his club. He took the decision to step in and to try and save it from folding. Once he had exhausted all negotiations with Leeds United it was apparent if he wanted this club to survive her would have to do it himself. He mustered the support of some like-minded fans and was joined by Nicola and Jim Bright who formerly worked for Leeds United Foundation. Nicola was instrumental in raising funds for Leeds United Ladies while Jim was the team manager looking after the many logistics of running a football team. Gary was elected chairman so he and the committee, with the assistance of the FA and the West Riding County FA had a crash course in how to run a football club.
This new club was renamed Leeds Ladies FC. The same proud heritage, affiliation and team colours. They adopted the nickname “The Phoenix” as they were the team which had risen from the flames of Leeds United Ladies. They were no longer Leeds United but they would always be Leeds.
Leeds United Ladies finished the 2013-2014 in a relegation spot. The last day of the season Leeds needed results to go their way for any hope of staying up. They did but lost their own game 5-2 to Derby which confirmed their drop to WPL North 1. With the team relegated, disbanded and many promises are broken, 50% of the team left straight away. Some of the players in that side were too good for WPL North 1 and went on to play in the WPL proper. Leeds Ladies were not bitter at their departure and completely understood their decision. Some of the first team players did stay but the majority were from the reserve team.
Leeds Ladies FC was constituted 18 days before the start of the 2014-2015 season began. With so few players they had to go about a very quick recruitment drive. They booked a pitch at Leeds Beckett University and held trials. One player who had chosen to stay with Leeds was Emma Bentley. Bentz was a fringe first team player and was Leeds through and through. She not only had bags of experience but she also had bags of influence. She spoke to her peers and sold the idea of playing for Leeds so the trials were a success. When the season kicked off they had just 18 registered players when 24 were needed. Leeds recruited very quickly. Other players who joined the club were Leeds United juniors who had stepped up to senior football. Two of these girls, Cath Hamill and Emily Owens are still with the club today. The cobbled together team was an eclectic mix of players of various ages and at times abilities but more by accident than by design it worked and Leeds had their squad.
Jack Oldroyd, former Leeds Ladies reserve assistant coach was recruited as he knew many of the squad and got the best out of them. Leeds’ aim was to not finish bottom and to ensure that whatever they did, they did with a smile on their faces. Leeds were sick of being pushed around and the chairman wanted to ensure that they had an opportunity to enjoy football again. Leeds won their first game 4-2 having gone 2 goals down. This was to set the tone for the rest of the season. Leeds finished that first season in 3rd position. With Emma Bentley who had taken on the captaincy and ‘Kez’ Carey Huegett joint top scorers. They never gave up and they had team spirit in abundance. Gaz Lee re-joined his friend and colleague Jack Oldroyd and took the helm at Leeds about halfway through the first season ensuring the consistency from the LULFC era would continue. Lee Townend also joined the club as head of youth structure and formulated the plan for the junior setup.
This early success was also their downfall come season two. Leeds did have some very good players who stood out and they became the target of other clubs who could offer them more than Leeds could. Some clubs had money to spend and tempted those players away. Leeds were determined to go into season two fighting but it was not a great season for them. They finished in fifth position. The management team of Jack and Gareth also ended and they left the club. This left the committee with a huge problem as they had no plan B. Subsequently Lee was appointed tbe Director of football and recruited Gareth Metcalf who had approached the club. Lewis Atkinson joined him as the assistant coach and again they embarked upon rescuing a season which was all but lost. Leeds did, however, reach the final of the FA County cup and the juniors did the league and cup double in their first season. Gareth did not see out the season and left the club with half the fixtures remaining. Lewis who had been doing well and was offered the job. He was the assistant manager of Leeds Ladies reserves in their relegation year and felt that he had a debt to repay and this was his chance to put things right so he accepted.
This brings us to the current season which is season three. Not all plain sailing for Leeds. They began the season with a first team, a development team, two junior teams and a coach for all areas. The second team was entered into the WPL reserves league. The standard in this league is high with WPL North fielding teams and Leeds found it difficult to compete, as many of their juniors were in this squad and despite winning a league and cup double the previous season this was a step up too far for many of the girls and Leeds took the decision to withdraw and concentrate on the first team and the league. The juniors now consisting of under 15’s and under 16’s are both currently topping their respective tables and are such a frighteningly talented group of girls. The future certainly is bright.
Leeds Ladies currently sit fourth in the league. They have players of excellent quality. Bethan Davies is a current Welsh international goalkeeper, Simona Petkova and Veatriki Sarri both play for Bulgaria and Greece respectively as well as a whole host of very talented women. Current captain Jodie Hunter along with Helen Wagstaff and Harriet Jakeman are all products of the American college scholarship system and bring with them a wealth of experience. There are also some amazing youngsters which have come through not only their own ranks but those of the Leeds United Girls centre of excellence. Leeds currently have a squad which is capable of achieving great things and show flashes of the team they have the capability to be. Gary Cooper says that this season has not exactly gone to the plan he had in mind but is happy with the way the squad have adapted and moved forward. Leeds are now looking to build upon this season and really push for that promotion spot next season. They have the foundations and have the team to do it. Leeds just need the same belief that their chairman has in them.
I asked Gary what would be the ultimate aim and he told me the Superleague. He wants to see them back where they belong. He believes they should have been in there five years ago when the WSL was formed. As we know from when Leeds tried to join on the two previous occasions the club would need to make some significant changes and there was no way they could join under their current guise. This would take a heck of a lot of money, their own stadium and financial stability, none of which the club have or they would have to be brought back into the fold of Leeds United. Basically, if the club were to make it the man who ensured the club’s survival, put in hours of blood, sweat, tears and money, Gary Cooper could not be a part of it. I asked him how he felt about this and he told me, “As a great man once said it is side before self, this has never been about me”. He really does live and breathe Leeds Ladies FC.
Leeds still have that passion and drive which did not allow them to die in 2014. This is in the shape of Gary Cooper, The Phoenix Faithful and the many people behind the scenes which are the heart of the club. The support which has been unwavering. They continue to try and spread the message and ethos of the club recruiting more members as they go along. Keep fighting is their motto and I believe that until Leeds reach that holy grail of women’s football they will indeed keep fighting.