LEEDS United were yesterday reacquainted with the man who took them by the hand and enticed them over the edge of the cliff. The terrifying descent from the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001 to their current place on the floor of The Championship, battling the shame of relegation to the third tier of English football, began with the Pied Piper leadership of former chairman Peter Ridsdale. Yesterday, Ridsdale had warm smiles and outstretched hands for Leeds once again, having long since fled Yorkshire and reinvented himself as chairman of Cardiff City.

"I will find it hard to shake his hand. I really will," said Leeds director Peter Lorimer as he prepared for yesterday's match between the clubs at Ninian Park, which ended 1-0 to the home side. "If Cardiff beat us, he will have a massive smile on his face and he will want to shake hands. I'll think you want to shake hands? After what you've done to us?' I don't think Peter is a bad man. He just got carried away. But I find it hard that we're in the shit and he's managed to get another consortium together and move in to Cardiff.

"He was the one who walked away and left not only the club in the shit but a lot of shareholders who put up maybe their life savings, a couple of grand here or there. To see him smile is sometimes a difficult thing to accept. I have to say I find it hard to look him in the face. And it hurts me that he still doesn't think he's responsible for it."

Ridsdale was idealistic and ambitious with Leeds United, but by chasing the dream he broke the club. One of the traditional giants of English football has become an empty vessel, a great club left crippled and helpless. Leeds should finally have full financial stability again this summer but they are hopelessly adrift of the financial mainstream. As one supporter said in The Commercial Inn, the pub owned by Lorimer a mile or so from Elland Road: "This a bad time to be out of the Premiership." A club relegated from the top flight in England receives a parachute payment for the following two seasons; this is Leeds' third.

The first thing which comes to mind about Leeds United today is not the Don Revie era. It is not their achievement in becoming champions of England in 1992, nor the excitement of the brash young David O'Leary team which went all the way to a European Cup semi-final against Valencia six years ago. What comes to mind is their freefall, the collapse into the state they are in now because of Ridsdale's ruinous decision-making. They have become the biggest victim of all the money which has washed around English football in the Premiership era. Every other board of directors in the land is frightened of "doing a Leeds".

At the start of the decade, no-one was spending more money than the Yorkshire club. They spent like it was going out of fashion. When Robbie Fowler signed for £12 million he became the sixth international striker in their squad. What other club would have paid £8m for Seth Johnson? Seventy employees had club cars. Leeds were awash with money. They were the equal of Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal and top five finishes in the Premiership every season from 1997 to 2002 satisfied their supporters and reassured them that all that cash was being spent because they could afford it.

In fact, Ridsdale had privately gambled everything on red only to watch it come up black. In four consecutive sets of annual accounts, Leeds' debt rose from £9m to £21m, £39m and £82m. It eventually peaked at around £119m. Ridsdale had taken out short-term loans to pay for £30m-worth of transfers and that meant high interest charges. And then, intoxicated by the prospect of Leeds receiving Champions League income each season and being part of the elite, he committed to a £60m loan secured by 25 years of future season ticket sales. Leeds borrowed more than anyone ever had in British football and they spent that money on the most unpredictable commodity of all: players. Their wage bill shot through the roof to over £50m a year.

The club collapsed like a house of cards. Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer's court case in connection with the assault of an Asian student and manager O'Leary's ill-judged diary "Leeds United on Trial" contributed to a significant decline in form. When they slipped out of contention for a place in the 2002-3 Champions League, the directors' faces went as white as the team shirts. Leeds were suddenly in big trouble. The only way to relieve the debt was to sell players, but a depressed market and merciless buying clubs meant they rarely received the going rate. The downward spiral was unstoppable and Leeds were forced to sell one player after another.

In 2004 they were relegated and in 2004-5, their first season in The Championship, they finished a humble 14th. O'Leary's successors came and went - Terry Venables, Peter Reid, Eddie Gray, Kevin Blackwell, John Carver - each appearing cheaper and more desperate than his predecessor. By the time Dennis Wise took over last October, Leeds were pointing towards the old third division.

"You're not famous any more': that's what other fans chant at us now," said Lorimer.

When the Ridsdale board collapsed in 2004, Lorimer liaised between potential benefactors and supporters and became a director. He remained on the board when Ken Bates, the former Chelsea chairman, saved the club from administration with a £10m takeover in 2005. The Commercial Inn feels as though it has not been refurbished too often since Lorimer moved from Dundee to become an adopted Yorkshireman in 1962, but its gloomy atmosphere is appropriate given how often he sits with the regulars to bemoan Leeds' dreary predicament.

Elland Road holds 40,000 and average crowds are down to 19,500. But, at long last, the debt is supposedly below £10m and £8m still being paid to ex-managers and players will finally come off the wage bill in the summer, putting the club back on a level playing field. Of course by then, a Leeds squad including Tore Andre Flo, Alan Thompson, Neil Sullivan and Stephen Crainey may have been relegated again. "That would be a tragedy," said Lorimer. "I feel for all the people who have put in so much hard work trying to rebuild the club and pick up someone else's absolute disaster.

"Every Saturday, Allan Clarke, Mick Jones, Paul Reaney, Eddie Gray, Norman Hunter and myself, we all go. When we joined the club in 1962 it was in a similar position, almost in the old third division. We got together as a group of kids through chance and the foresight of a great manager, Don Revie, and we gave this club a worldwide name and reputation. We are very proud of that. I think Leeds will be back. It's about getting the product right and getting back in the Premiership."

But there is an anecdote doing the rounds which captures the prevailing mood in the city. Bates asked for an explanation when he learned a supporters' association had been slow to hand over a £100,000 cheque to the club, and was told the money was being withheld for a rainy day. "A rainy day," spluttered Bates. "It's been f***ing pissing down here for years "