Leeds United's predecessor team Leeds City FC was formed in 1904, but was forcibly disbanded by The Football League in 1919 in response to allegations of illegal payments to players during the First World War. A new club, Leeds United, was formed and the club received an invitation to enter the Midland League from the league secretary, Mr. J Nicholson. Leeds United were voted into the Midland League on 31 October 1919, taking the place vacated by Leeds City Reserves. Yorkshire Amateurs, who occupied Elland Road, offered to make way for the new team under the management of former player Dick Ray. The chairman of Huddersfield Town, Mr. Hilton Crowther loaned Leeds United £35,000, to be repaid when Leeds United won promotion to Division One. He brought Barnsley's manager Arthur Fairclough to Leeds and on 26 February 1920, Dick Ray stepped down to become Fairclough's assistant.
Over the following few years, Leeds consolidated their position in the Second Division and in 1924 won the title and with it promotion to the First Division. However, they failed to establish themselves and were relegated in 1926–27. After being relegated Fairclough resigned which paved the way for Ray to return as manager. In the years up until the start of World War II Leeds were twice relegated, both times being instantly re-promoted the following season. On 5 March 1935 Ray resigned and he was replaced by Billy Hampson, who remained in charge for 12 years. In the 1946–47 season after the war, Leeds were relegated again with the worst league record in their history. After this season, Hampson resigned (he stayed with Leeds as their chief scout albeit for only 8 months) and was replaced in April 1947 by Willis Edwards.
In 1948 Sam Bolton replaced Ernest Pullan as the chairman of Leeds United. Edwards was moved to assistant trainer in April 1948 after just one year as manager. He was replaced by Major Frank Buckley.
They remained in the Second Division until 1955–56, when Leeds once again won promotion to the First Division, inspired by Welsh legend John Charles. However, Charles was hungry for success at the highest level, and manager Raich Carter was unable to convince him that Leeds could satisfy his ambitions. Charles was sold to Juventus for a then world record of £65,000; the loss of such a key player led to Leeds' decline, and the team was relegated to the Second Division in 1959–60.
In March 1961 the club appointed Don Revie as manager. His stewardship began in adverse circumstances; the club was in financial difficulty and in 1961–62 only a win in the final game of the season saved the club from relegation to Division Three. Revie turned the team around, winning promotion to the First Division in 1963–64. Between 1965 and 1974, Revie's Leeds never finished outside of the top four, won two League Championships (1968–69 and 1973–74), the FA Cup (1972), the League Cup (1968) and two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups (1968 and 1971). Set against the success was an unenvied record of second places; during the same period Leeds were runners up in the League five times, losing finalists in the FA Cup three times, runners up in the Fairs Cup once, and losing finalists in the European Cup Winners Cup. Revie's last season at Elland Road was in 1974, and he left Leeds to take up the role of managing the English national team. Brian Clough was appointed as Revie's successor. This was a surprise appointment, as Clough had been an outspoken critic of Revie and the team's tactics. The team performed poorly under Clough, and after only 44 days he was dismissed and replaced by former England captain Jimmy Armfield. Armfield took Revie's ageing team to the final of the 1974–75 European Cup, where they were defeated by Bayern Munich.
Assisted by coach Don Howe, Armfield rebuilt Revie's team, and though it no longer dominated English football, it remained in the top ten for subsequent seasons. However, the board was impatient for success and dismissed Armfield, replacing him with Jock Stein, who also lasted just 44 days before leaving to manage Scotland. The board turned to Jimmy Adamson but he was unable to stop the decline. In 1980 Adamson resigned and was replaced by former Leeds and England star Allan Clarke. Despite spending freely on players, he was unable to stem the tide and the club was relegated at the end of 1981–82. Clarke was replaced by former team-mate Eddie Gray. With no money to spend on team building, Gray concentrated on youth development, but was unable to guide them to promotion from the Second Division. The board again became impatient and sacked him in 1985, replacing him with another former Revie star, Billy Bremner. Bremner carried on where Gray had left off, but found it just as difficult to achieve promotion, though he did bring the club close; Leeds got to the 1987 play-off final but were defeated by Charlton Athletic after extra time, a result which prevented Leeds from winning promotion and ensured that Charlton avoided relegation. Leeds also endured a near miss in the FA Cup, losing to Coventry City in the semi-finals.
In October 1988, with the team 21st in the Second Division, Bremner was fired to make way for Howard Wilkinson, who oversaw promotion back to the First Division in 1989–90. Under Wilkinson the club finished 4th in 1990–91 and then won the title in 1991–92. However, the 1992–93 season was a poor one, with Leeds exiting the Champions League in the early stages, and eventually finishing 17th in the League, narrowly avoiding relegation. Wilkinson's Leeds were unable to provide any consistent challenge for honours, and his position was not helped by a poor display in the 1996 League Cup final which Leeds lost to Aston Villa. Leeds could only finish 13th in 1995–96, and after a 4–0 home defeat to Manchester United early in 1996–97, Wilkinson had his contract terminated.
Leeds appointed George Graham as Wilkinson's replacement. The appointment was controversial as Graham had previously received a one year ban from The Football Association for receiving illegal payments from a Football Agent. Graham made some astute purchases, and by the end of the season Leeds had qualified for the following season's UEFA Cup. In October 1998 Graham moved on to become manager of Tottenham Hotspur, and Leeds opted to replace him with assistant manager David O'Leary. O'Leary introduced promising youngsters, and under the coaching of Eddie Gray Leeds secured 3rd place in the league, sending the club into the UEFA Champions League. Leeds' image was tarnished when players Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer were involved in an incident which left an Asian student in hospital with severe injuries. The resulting courtcase took nearly two years to resolve; Bowyer was cleared, and Woodgate convicted of affray and sentenced to community service.
In the UEFA Cup, Leeds reached their first European semi-final in 25 years and were paired against Turkish champions Galatasaray in Istanbul. Leeds lost the game, but the result was overshadowed by the death of two Leeds fans, Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight, who were stabbed to death before the game. Leeds were only able to draw the return leg at Elland Road, thus going out of the competition. A minute's silence is held every year at the match closest to the anniversary of the incident to remember Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight.
O'Leary's Leeds never finished outside of the top five, but following their appearance in the UEFA Champions League 2001 semi-final against Valencia their fortunes began to change. Under chairman Peter Ridsdale, Leeds had taken out large loans against the prospect of the share of the TV rights and sponsorship revenues that come with UEFA Champions League qualification and any subsequent progress in the competition. However, Leeds narrowly failed to qualify for the Champions League, and as a consequence did not receive enough income to repay the loans. The first indication that the club was in financial trouble was the sale of Rio Ferdinand to Manchester United for approximately £30 million. Ridsdale and O'Leary publicly fell out over the sale, and O'Leary was sacked and replaced by former England manager Terry Venables. Leeds performed badly under Venables, and other players were sold to repay the loans, including Jonathan Woodgate whom Ridsdale had promised Venables would not be sold. Tensions mounted between the pair, eventually resulting in the sacking of Venables, who was replaced by Peter Reid. By this time Leeds were in danger of relegation, but Reid saved Leeds from the drop in the penultimate game of the season. During this time Ridsdale had resigned from the Leeds board, and was replaced by economics expert Professor John McKenzie[disambiguation needed]. An unsuccessful start to the 2003–04 season saw Peter Reid dismissed, and head coach Eddie Gray took over as caretaker manager until the end of the season.
Gerald Krasner, an insolvency specialist, led a consortium of local businessmen which took over Leeds and under his chairmanship oversaw the sale of the clubs' assets, including senior and emerging youth players of any value. Caretaker manager Gray was largely blameless for the performance of the team during the 2003–04 season as the majority of the squad was sold out from underneath him and despite his best efforts, Leeds were relegated after 14 years in the top flight. Following relegation, Gray's reign as caretaker manager was terminated, and Kevin Blackwell was appointed manager. Most of the remaining players were sold or released on free transfers to further reduce the wage bill. Leeds were eventually forced to sell both their training ground, for £4.2 million, and their Elland Road stadium in the autumn of 2004.
The board finally sold the club to Ken Bates for £10 million. Blackwell stabilized the team by signing players on free transfers and low wages and Leeds finished the 2004–05 season mid-table in the Championship. In the 2005–06 season Leeds finished in the top 6 and made the promotion playoff final, which they lost to Watford. On 10 September 2006, Kevin Blackwell announced that within a year the club would be debt-free. However, the 2006–07 season started badly and on 20 September 2006 Kevin Blackwell's contract as manager of Leeds United was terminated. Dennis Wise was eventually installed as his replacement after a month without a permanent manager, but was unable to lift the team out of the relegation zone for much of the season, despite bringing a number of experienced loan players into the squad. With relegation virtually assured, Leeds entered a Company Voluntary Arrangement (administration) on 4 May 2007, thus incurring a league imposed 10 point deduction which officially relegated the club to the third tier of English football.
The CVA was due to end on 3 July 2007 which would have allowed Bates to regain full control of the club. However HM Revenue & Customs challenged the CVA, a decision which could ultimately have resulted in the liquidation of the club. Under league rules, if the club were still in administration at the start of the next season, Leeds would have been prevented from starting their campaign by the Football League. Following the challenge by HMRC, the club was put up for sale by KPMG, and once again Ken Bates' bid was accepted. The league eventually sanctioned this under the "exceptional circumstances rule" but imposed a 15 point deduction due to the club not following football league rules on clubs entering administration. On 31 August 2007 HMRC decided not to pursue their legal challenge any further. Wise guided Leeds to the play-off places at the start of 2008, despite the 15-point deduction. However, he controversially quit as manager on 28 January to take up a position in Kevin Keegan's new set-up at Newcastle United. The following day former club captain Gary McAllister was appointed as manager of the club. In spite of this mid-season managerial change, plus the well-publicised 15-point deduction, Leeds went on to secure a play-off place with one game to spare. They were however beaten 1–0 in the final by Doncaster Rovers in their first appearance at the new Wembley Stadium.
On 21 December 2008, manager McAllister was sacked after a run of poor results, including the club's first defeat to non-league opponents, Histon, in the 2nd round of the F.A. Cup. He was replaced by Simon Grayson, who controversially resigned from his post as manager of Blackpool FC to take the position, two days later. Leeds' form improved under Grayson and they made the play-offs once again, also improving on the previous season's place by finishing 4th. However, this time they did not even make the play-off final, and were dumped out of the semi finals 2-1 on aggregate by Millwall.