|Leeds United F.C. History|
THE ROLLERCOASTER RIDE 1996-2004
Part 1: George Graham 1996-1998
Part 2: David O’Leary 1998-2002
Part 3: Terry Venables 2002-03
Part 4: Peter Reid 2003
Part 5: Eddie Gray 2003-04
Part 1: George Graham 1996-1998
George Graham had an illustrious playing career. Born in Lanarkshire, he came south to join Aston Villa at 17 in 1961. He played only 8 games before joining Chelsea in mid-1964. A striker, he scored 35 goals in 72 games before moving across London to Arsenal in 1966. Nicknamed ‘stroller’ he changed to a role behind the front line and became an integral part of the Arsenal team and their Double-winning side of 1971. Alan Ball was bought and he moved to Manchester United for £120,000 in late 1972, where he stayed for two years before his career ended with spells at Portsmouth and Crystal Palace. He gained 12 Scottish Caps.
When his playing career ended he coached Crystal Palace and Queens Park Rangers before being appointed Manager of Millwall in 1983. He left for Arsenal in 1986 and turned the serial underachievers into one of the dominant teams of the late eighties and early nineties. They won 2 League Titles, two League Cups, an FA Cup and the European Cup-Winners Cup in his eight year stay. In February 1995, he was sacked by Arsenal and received a one year ban from the FA for receiving illegal payments from a Norwegian Football Agent.
His Arsenal success had been built around a strong defence and the term ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ typified his and Arsenal’s style. It came as little surprise when he followed the same tried and true system with Leeds United.
He had inherited a long injury list but his reign got off to a perfect start with Andy Couzens scoring in the first minute at Coventry City. Unfortunately Noel Whelan got the winner, as Gordon Strachan’s men won 2-1.
There was a 2-2 away draw with Third Division strugglers Darlington in the League Cup 2nd Round followed by a 2-0 home victory. It earned them a home tie with Aston Villa in Round Three, but these were the only goals United scored in September which saw 0-1 losses at home to Newcastle United and at Leicester City as United fell to 17th.
The drought was broken with a pair for Rod Wallace as United downed struggling Nottingham Forest 2-0, but Aston Villa beat United twice in 4 days 2-0 at Villa Park in the League and 2-1 at Elland Road in the League Cup, which was followed by a 3-0 thrashing at Arsenal. There was a welcome 3-0 home win over relegation candidates Sunderland and a 2-0 home defeat to Liverpool before United were able to see further success and a welcome move up the ladder to 12th, with 2-0 wins at cellar dwellers Southampton and at home to Chelsea, in which Ian Rush scored his first goal in his 16th game for the club.
After a 0-0 draw at Middlesbrough, Graham bought utility player Gunnar Halle from Oldham Athletic for £400,000 and he debuted in another 0-0 draw at home to Tottenham Hotspur. Another 0-0 draw at Everton gave a hat-trick of bore draws, but the expected pattern was emerging and the points were being accumulated and the fans, while bored senseless, took solace in the mid-table position it ensured.
The safe feeling was broken as Coventry City won 3-1 at Elland Road on Boxing Day and there were further losses 1-0 at Old Trafford to see out the Old Year while the New Year was heralded by a 3-0 defeat at Newcastle United. Fortunately this was only temporary as United hit a solid seam of good results.
In the League there was a 3-0 victory over Leicester City, in which Ian Rush got his second and third goal and new £1 million signing Robert Molenaar debuted. Then there was a 2-0 win at West Ham United followed by two 0-0 home draws with Derby County and Arsenal, before a 4-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield brought a temporary stutter.
Interspersed with those results was some success in the FA Cup when, after a 2-2 draw at Crystal Palace, United won the Third Round Replay 1-0 to set up a meeting with the high-flying Arsenal at Highbury. Much to everyone’s surprise, Rod Wallace’s goal gave United victory and with a home draw with Division One side Portsmouth there were visions of Wembley. Unfortunately there was a 3-2 defeat despite Lee Bowyer scoring twice.
Tony Yeboah had only made sporadic appearances, mostly from the bench, but he was up front, with Ian Rush in midfield, as United recommenced their good run with a 1-0 victory at Sunderland, followed by wins over West Ham United and Everton at home by the same score, as they climbed to 9th. He didn’t score, but after a 0-0 draw at home to Southampton, he threw his shirt in the direction of George Graham, after being substituted in the 0-1 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur. It was his last game for Leeds.
A 2-2 draw at Sheffield Wednesday saw the signing of Winger Pierre Laurent from Bastia for £250,000 and Striker Derek Lilley from Greenock Morton for £500,000 and both debuted in the 0-0 home draw with Blackburn Rovers. There was a 2-0 defeat at Wimbledon before the season petered out to a boring conclusion with four successive draws 1-1 at Nottingham Forest, 0-0 at home to Aston Villa, 0-0 at Chelsea and 1-1 at home to Middlesbrough, which saw their relegation.
In the League Brian Deane and Lee Sharpe were joint top scorers with 5, and Goalkeeper Nigel Martyn was Player of the Year, which sums up everything. 15 at home and 13 away in 38 games saw 28 goals earn 46 points as United finished 11th. Nigel Martyn 37, Kelly and Rush 34, and Bowyer 32 were the only players to record more than 30 games and there was a reasonable case to say that injuries had played their part and inhibited Graham’s selections, but others doubt whether it would have changed Graham’s overall strategy.
There was one bright spot on the horizon. While George was grinding out the results with boring defence, Paul Hart had been producing an attacking high quality Youth Team. It was part of a fine legacy left by Wilko. Players such as Harry Kewell, Jonathan Woodgate, Paul Robinson, Matthew Jones, Alan Maybury and Stephen McPhail all international stars of the future had shone while winning the FA Youth Cup for the second time as Crystal Palace were beaten 2-1 at Elland Road, with goals from Wesley Boyle and Matthew Jones and 3-1 on aggregate, with Lee Matthews scoring the winner in the away leg, in the final.
The Leeds team was: Robinson; Maybury, Kewell; Dixon, Woodgate, Lynch; McPhail, Boyle, Matthews, Jones and Knarvik; with Wright, Quinn and Evans unused subs for the home leg, while Wright got 20 minutes as he substituted for Jones in the second clash. Regular Tony Hackworth missed the finals.
In the latter part of the previous season George Graham had let Paul Beesley depart to Manchester City for £500,000 and Mark Tinker to York City for £85,000 and given frees to John McClelland and Rob Bowman. He now started to get rid of Wilko signings in earnest. There were free transfers for Tony Dorigo to AC Torino, Ian Rush to Newcastle United and John Pemberton to Crewe Alexandra. Mark Ford left for Burnley for £250,000, Andy Couzens went to Carlisle United for £100,000, while Brian Deane returned to Sheffield United for £1.5 million and Carlton Palmer left for Southampton for £1 million. He was able to offload Tony Yeboah to Hamburg for £900,000, while Tomas Brolin was encouraged to leave on loan to FC Zurich, Parma and then Crystal Palace. He also let his own signing, Pierre Laurent, return to Bastia in March for a tidy profit at £500,000.
He started bringing in his own players. Scottish International left-back, David Robertson, came from Glasgow Rangers for £500,000; £3.25 million landed David Hopkin from Crystal Palace, while Norwegian International Utility player, Alf-Inge Haaland cost £1.6 million, as decided by the FA tribunal, when he left Nottingham Forest. He went to Portugal to pick up midfielder Bruno Ribeiro for £500,000 from Vitoria Setubal and to Boavista, where Dutch striker Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink cost £2 million.
For George Graham and his new assistant David O’Leary it was a welcome to their old team as the new season commenced with a visit from the highly credentialed Arsenal. There was a debut goal for Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbank as United drew 1-1. The line-up was: Martyn; Kelly, Robertson; Hopkin, Radebe, Wetherall; Bowyer Halle Hasselbaink Wallace and Ribeiro. Haaland came on for Hopkin, and Kewell for Ribeiro, while Beeney, Lilley and Molenaar were unused on the bench. After a fine 3-1 victory at Sheffield Wednesday there were three consecutive defeats and no goals scored in the process. Crystal Palace and Liverpool both left Elland Road 2-0 victors while there was a 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa as United slipped to 14th.
There was a goal feast at Blackburn Rovers, who had been previously been undefeated and early season table-toppers. With just over half-an-hour gone the score was 4-3 to United, as they showed a refreshing attacking ability, but unbelievably there were no further goals. After his goal on debut, Hasselbaink had not added to his tally, but Rod Wallace was on form having already beaten his previous seasons tally with four. While Hasselbaink was not scoring in the League he was on target in the League Cup, scoring in both legs, as Leeds beat Second Division Bristol City 3-1 at home and 4-3 on aggregate in the two-legged Second Round and United progressed further with a 3-1 win at First Division strugglers, Stoke City.
After a 1-0 home loss to Leicester City, there was also a return to form in the League and a 2-0 win at Southampton was followed by a David Wetherall winner against leaders and previously unbeaten Manchester United as Leeds surged into 6th place and Manchester lost their leadership to Arsenal. There was a 0-0 draw at Coventry City before an emphatic 4-1 defeat of Newcastle United at Elland Road.
There was a disputed penalty, lone goal defeat, at Wimbledon before United again picked up the momentum winning by the only goal at Tottenham Hotspur and 4-3 at home to Derby County to take them into 4th spot. The Derby County win was remarkable as on the half hour Derby led 3-0. However, United roared back with goals from Hopkin and Kewell, before Hasselbaink finally broke his league goal drought from the spot with less than ten minutes to go and Elland Road shook to the rafters as Lee Bowyer thundered home the winner on the final whistle.
First Division cellar-dwellers Reading, surprisingly triumphed 3-2 at Elland Road in the Fourth Round to end United’s interest in the League Cup for another season. In the League United kept their 4th spot with a 3-1 home win over West Ham United, with a brace for Hasselbaink, before they survived another nail-biter to come from behind to win 3-2 at Barnsley. Goalless draws at home to Everton and at Chelsea were followed by a 2-0 home victory over Bolton Wanderers as Boxing Day brought a trip to fellow challengers Liverpool, and a 3-1 defeat.
Hasselbaink was again in target in a 1-1 home draw with Aston Villa and in the 1-2 reversal at Arsenal, but another 2-1 defeat at home to Sheffield Wednesday saw United drop to 7th.
There were easy home victories in the FA Cup as First Division Oxford United were dumped 4-0 and Second Division Grimsby Town succumbed 2-0. In the Fifth Round there was again First Division opposition as Birmingham City were beaten 3-2 and with more First Division challengers, in the form of Wolverhampton Wanderers, in the 6th Round it seemed as though Wembley was beckoning. United were outplayed and could not score. They lost 1-0 with Hasselbaink missing a last minute penalty.
In the League there were a couple of unexpected 1-0 reversals, at Leicester City and at home to Southampton, as £1.3 million Austrian International Martin Hiden debuted at right back, and a 1-1 draw at Newcastle United saw United slump to 8th. Happily, they bounced back with another rich seam of form. A Harry Kewell goal got the points at Tottenham Hotspur, Blackburn were hammered 4-0 at Elland Road, then United gave Derby County a football lesson to score a 5-0 away win, before inexplicably going down 3-0 away to West Ham United. Two home wins, 2-1 over Barnsley and 3-1 over Chelsea, followed as United climbed back to 4th.
Hasselbaink had recently been scoring heavily since his penalty spot aberration in the Cup and was on the mark again as Leeds won 3-2 at Bolton Wanderers to get United back onto winning ways after a 2-0 defeat at Everton. There were two more from him in a 3-3 draw at home to Coventry City, in a match which also featured a hat-trick by future United player Darren Huckerby.
The season tapered off with a 3-0 defeat at Manchester United and a 1-1 home draw with Wimbledon as United held on to 5th spot and qualification for the UEFA Cup with 59 points.
In stark contrast to the previous season United had scored 57 goals in the league, with Hasselbank leading the way with 16 and 22 in all, while Rod Wallace also contributed 10.
The season had seen the emergence of spearhead Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Harry Kewell’s dazzling skills on the left flank, the defensive qualities of Lucas Radebe and the increasing influence of Lee Bowyer in midfield. There was also the promise of the emergence of several younger players as the Youth Cup winning team formed the basis of the Reserves winning the Pontins’ League for the first time in over 60 years.
In the close season Nigel Martyn (England), Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (Holland), Gunnar Halle (Norway), Martin Hiden (Austria) and Lucas Radebe (South Africa) all represented their countries in the World Cup and there had been rumours of George Graham’s unrest and his yearning for a return to the capital. He had not been inactive in the transfer market having added full-back Danny Granville, from Chelsea for £1.6 million, and Dutch striker Clyde Wijnhard, for £1.5 million, while out-of-contract Rod Wallace joined Glasgow Rangers on a free. During the season Lee Sharpe and several others were loaned out. There was bad news on the injury front with Right-Back regular Gary Kelly ruled out for the season with a shin problem.
There was a slow steady start to the new season with a 0-0 draw at Middlesbrough where the team fielded was: Martyn; Hiden, Harte; Haaland, Radebe and Molenaar; Hopkin, Bowyer, Wijnhard, Kewell, Sharpe. Lilley replaced Sharpe and Wetherall came on for Ribeiro. Granville and Beeney were unused substitutes. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink returned to the side at the expense of Sharpe and scored the only goal of the game at home to Blackburn Rovers. Bowyer’s goal earned United a point at Wimbledon before a 3-0 home win over Southampton saw United head the League for the first time since their Championship season. It was short-lived, however, as three consecutive draws saw United in 5th position. Goalless draws at Everton and at home to Aston Villa were followed by a 3-3 draw at Tottenham Hotspur in ironically George Graham’s last game in charge. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had given United a one goal advantage over Maritimo in the first leg of the UEFA Cup as George Graham finally got his wish and returned to London after an approach from Tottenham Hotspur. Leeds was duly compensated by Tottenham Hotspur for the breaking of George Graham’s contract which still had almost three years to run.
So George Graham, who had pulled Leeds back on to an even keel, departed and after Leicester City had repelled a determined bid for Martin O’Neill, United turned to Graham’s deputy, David O’Leary, to continue the good work started by Graham.
Photographs of the era:
Back Row: Andy Wright, Andy Quinn, Gareth Evans, Wesley Boyle, Lee Matthews, Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate, Damien Lynch.
Front Row: Harry Kewell, Matthew Jones, Alan Maybury, Kevin Dixon, Tommy Knarvik, Stephen McPhail.
1996-97: Juniors: Celebrating winning the NIL Championship at Doncaster
Back Row: Tony Hackworth, Andy Wright, Lee Matthews, Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate, Damien Lynch, Simon Briggs, Paul Shepherd, Paul Donnelly, Martin Foster.
Front Row: Stephen McPhail, Harry Kewell, Andy Quinn, Matthew Jones, Wesley Boyle, Alan Maybury, Tommy Knarvik, Gareth Evans, Kevin Dixon.
1997-98: Pontin’s League Champions 7-5-98
Back Row: Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Matthews, Mark Beeney, Lee Sharpe, Derek Lilley, Andy Gray, David Hopkin, David Robertson.
Front Row: Martin Foster, Wesley Boyle, Mark Jackson, Alan Maybury, Matthew Jones, Tommy Knarvik.
Back Row: Bruno Ribeiro, Richard Jobson, David Wetherall, Mark Beeney, Nigel Martyn, Robert Molenaar, Gunnar Halle, Lee Bowyer.
Middle Row: David O'Leary (Assistant Manager), David Swift (Physio), Stephen McPhail, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, Lee Sharpe, David Hopkin, Harry Kewell, Andy Gray, Rod Wallace, David Williams (Coach).
Front Row: Ian Harte, Alf-Inge Haaland, Lucas Radebe, George Graham (Manager) David Robertson, Derek Lilley, Gary Kelly.
Back Row: Bruno Ribeiro, Richard Jobson, David Wetherall, Mark Beeney, Nigel Martyn, Robert Molenaar, Gunnar Halle, Lee Bowyer.
Middle Row: David O'Leary (Assistant Manager), David Swift (Physio), Stephen McPhail, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, Lee Sharpe, David Hopkin, Harry Kewell, Andy Gray, Rod Wallace, David Williams (Coach).
Front Row: Ian Harte, Alf-Inge Haaland, Lucas Radebe, George Graham (Manager) David Robertson, Derek Lilley, Gary Kelly.
Back Row: Bruno Ribeiro, Richard Jobson, David Wetherall, Mark Beeney, Nigel Martyn, Robert Molenaar, Gunnar Halle, Lee Bowyer.
Middle Row: David O'Leary (Assistant Manager), David Swift (Physio), Stephen McPhail, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, Lee Sharpe, David Hopkin, Harry Kewell, Andy Gray, Rod Wallace, David Williams (Coach).
Front Row: Ian Harte, Alf-Inge Haaland, Lucas Radebe, George Graham (Manager) David Robertson, Derek Lilley, Gary Kelly.
Back Row: Derek Lilley, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Matthews, David Wetherall, Mark Beeney, Nigel Martyn, Robert Molenaar, Gunnar Halle, David Hopkin, Andy Gray.
Middle Row: Eddie Gray (Coach) Ian McNeill (Chief Scout), Alan Maybury, David Robertson, Clyde Wijnhard, Lee Sharpe, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, Danny Granville, Mark Jackson, Stephen McPhail, David Swift (Physio), David O’Leary (Assistant Manager), Jeremy Fenn (Director).
Front Row: Paul Shepherd, Harry Kewell, Ian Harte, Bruno Ribeiro, Lucas Radebe, Peter Ridsdale (Director), George Graham (Manager), Chris Akers (Director), Alf-Inge Haaland, Martin Hiden, Gary Kelly, Tommy Knarvik, Lee Bowyer.
George Graham: Manager, Mark Beeney , Paul Beesley , Jason Blunt , Lee Bowyer , Wes Boyle , Andy Couzens , Tony Dorigo , Paul Evans , Mark Ford , Andy Gray , Alfie Haaland , Gunnar Halle , Ian Harte , Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink , Mark Hateley Martin Hiden , David Hopkin , Mark Jackson , Richard Jobson , Gary Kelly , Harry Kewell , Pierre Laurent , Derek Lilley , Nigel Martyn , Lee Matthews , Alan Maybury , Stephen McPhail , Robert Molenaar , Carlton Palmer , Lucas Radebe , Bruno Ribeiro , David Robertson , Ian Rush , Nuno Santos , Lee Sharpe , Paul Shepherd , Harpal Singh , Mark Tinkler , Rod Wallace , David Wetherall , Clyde Wijnhard , Tony Yeboah .
Part 2: David O’Leary
In the impasse which followed Graham’s departure, Leeds placed David O’Leary and Eddie Gray in temporary charge and they had initial success as United progressed to the next round of the UEFA Cup with an exciting victory in Maritimo, on penalties, after extra–time had seen the teams locked in an aggregate draw. Ironically their first League game was against Martin O’Neill’s Leicester City at Elland Road, who triumphed 1-0, but the Directors showed their faith in O’Leary and Gray as they were appointed Manager and Assistant-Manager respectively.
O’Leary immediately rang the changes and gave youth a chance. There were full debuts, away at Nottingham Forest, for Jonathan Woodgate and Danny Granville. The latter let himself, and the team, down badly by getting sent off, leaving a ten-man United to battle for an hour, and with a tactical reshuffle Stephen McPhail was substituted as United hung on for a 1-1 draw.
Goals were proving hard to come by and, after stout resistance, Leeds lost by the only goal at Roma in the UEFA Cup Round 2 First Leg. This was followed by being held scoreless in a home draw with Chelsea. A Kewell goal at home to Bradford City saw United through to Round 4 in the League Cup. But, after a 2-2 draw away to Derby County, United had slipped to 10th in the League before their European dreams ended as Roma held them scoreless at Elland Road.
Despite losing 2-1 to Leicester City in the 4th Round League Cup tie, United embarked on a series of impressive performances. There was a 2-1 home victory over Sheffield Wednesday before Alan Smith came on as substitute at Liverpool and scored with his first kick in senior football and two more from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink saw a famous 3-1 victory over Liverpool at Anfield. Charlton Athletic was put to the sword 4-1 at home then Manchester United was given the fright of their lives at Old Trafford before scraping home 3-2. Impressive home wins by 4-0 against West Ham United and Coventry City 2-0, saw United up to 3rd in the ladder. David Batty, having been re-signed from Newcastle United for £4.4 million, had his first game back in United colours in the latter, but suffered an injury which saw him side-lined for several months.
Indifferent form in the League saw a 3-1 defeat at high-flying Arsenal, a 3-0 away win at Newcastle United, a 2-2 home draw at home to Wimbledon, a 1-0 reversal at Blackburn Rovers, a 2-0 home win over Middlesbrough, followed by losses by 3-0 at Southampton and 1-0 at home to Newcastle United as United slipped to 6th.
In the FA Cup, United had been drawn at Non-League Rushden & Diamonds and survived a torrid encounter drawing 0-0 and after going behind 1-0 at Elland Road went through 3-1 with two goals from Alan Smith, who came on as substitute for Clyde Wijnhard, and one from Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. The 4th Round saw a trip to the South Coast and Fratton Park, to face First Division Portsmouth, who they duly scuttled 5-1 to set up a 5th Round encounter with George Graham’s Tottenham Hotspur. George had the last laugh as they went through 2-0 in the replay after a 1-1 draw at Elland Road.
United now hit a rich vein of results and all round performances, which saw seven consecutive League victories. A Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink double saw United win at Aston Villa before Willem Korsten, who had arrived on loan from Vitesse Arnhem for the rest of the season, got the only goal at home to Everton. Kewell and Smith gave United revenge by 2-1 over Martin O’Neill’s Leicester City and revenge was also extracted over George Graham’s Tottenham Hotspur, as the same players scored without reply in the home league encounter. Sheffield Wednesday were the next victims, 2-0 at Hillsborough before two emphatic home victories 4-1 over Derby County and 3-1 over Nottingham Forest, saw United equal their best-ever run of victories, a feat only achieved by Don Revie’s 73-74 Championship winning team.
Manchester United now led with 64 followed closely by Arsenal on 60, while Chelsea, with a game in hand, had 59 compared to United’s 57, with the rest of the League at least 10 points adrift. So with only seven games remaining for three of the top four, it was wide open, especially as United had still to play the other three, albeit Arsenal and Manchester United at home and Chelsea away.
United still maintained their unbeaten run but dropped valuable points with three consecutive draws, 0-0 at home to Liverpool and 1-1 at Charlton Athletic and, unluckily, at home to Manchester United, which effectively ended Leeds’ championship hopes. It saw the table Arsenal 69, Manchester United 68, Chelsea 65 and United 60. Manchester United had a game in hand of the others who had played 34. There was a 5-1 hammering for West Ham United at Upton Park, in a game which saw them reduced to 8 men before United were pipped for third place, and European Cup qualification, by a 1-0 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge which also saw the end of their ten game unbeaten run.
United’s influence on the destination of the Championship had not ended and they greeted Arsenal to Elland Road with the visitors and Manchester United level on points with 75 and just two games remaining. Alex Ferguson’s dreams were answered and a last minute Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink goal gave Leeds victory and presented the title to Manchester United. United duly wrapped up the season with a meaningless 2-2 draw at Coventry City to finish 4th with 67 points. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink led the league scorers with 18, and 20 in all.
Harry Kewell had played in all League games but started in 36 of them, and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink also had 36 starts. Bowyer 35, Martyn and Harte 34, Hopkins 32 and Radebe 29 were all regulars, while Jonathan Woodgate, Danny Granville, Stephen McPhail, Alan Smith, Paul Robinson, and Matthew Jones joined Kewell and Harte as under 23 players given a start in the Premiership by O’Leary. The future was looking extremely bright as United were again in Europe and harboured serious thoughts of European Champions League qualification, not to mention Premiership Championship aspirations.
Lee Sharpe had departed to Bradford City the previous March for £250,000, and was joined in the close-season by Gunnar Halle for £200,000 and David Wetherall for £1.4 million, while Clyde Wijnhard cost Huddersfield Town £750,000, and Derek Lilley left on loan, but by far the biggest shock was the departure of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to Athletico Madrid for £12 million, after the club refused to meet his wage demands and his threat of going on strike should his transfer demands not be met. Willem Korsten had departed for Tottenham Hotspur at the end of his loan spell, as it appeared George Graham had put one over David O’Leary and United, but, as luck would have it, his career was blighted by injury and he soon had to give the game away.
There was a huge outlay on incoming players, Right-back Danny Mills came from Charlton Athletic for £4.37 million, promising young Norwegian Midfielder Eirik Bakke cost £1.75 million from Songdal, Central Defender Michael Duberry arrived from Chelsea for £4.5 million, Striker Michael Bridges came from Sunderland for £5.6 million, all meeting the O’Leary criteria of being young and promising.
The season kicked off with high expectations on both home and European fronts. Martyn; Mills, Harte; Batty, Woodgate, Radebe; Bowyer, Hopkin, Smith, Bridges, and Kewell started at home against expected strugglers Derby County and McPhail substituted for Smith, while Haaland, Hiden, Duberry and Robinson remained on the bench unused, as both teams failed to score and United lost two points rather than gaining one. Michael Bridges gave notice of his arrival by scoring a hat-trick at Southampton, as United swamped the home team 3-0, but a 2-0 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford was not the start Darren Huckerby, the new £4 million buy from Coventry City, would have liked. A 2-1 home win over newly promoted Sunderland was followed by a 2-1 home loss to championship rivals Liverpool and United were not looking good in 7th position.
As was their want, United set off on one of their runs of form which had become a feature of their recent and future capabilities. A visit to old foe George Graham saw them win 2-1 and another visit to Coventry City saw a 4-3 victory. Two consecutive home wins over Middlesbrough, by 2-0, and Newcastle United, 3-2, saw United ease in to second spot as the goals complimented United’s attacking style. A 2-1 victory at Watford saw United go top and there they remained with a 2-0 home win over Sheffield Wednesday and an exciting 4-4 draw at Everton, which United looked to have won, and an Ian Harte goal gave Leeds full points at home to West Ham United. Their impressive run came to an end 2-0 at Wimbledon as did their present tenure of top spot.
Due to the Balkan crisis United had travelled to neutral Heerenveen in Holland rather than Partizan Belgrade and returned triumphant 3-1, in the First Leg of the First Round of the UEFA Cup, and with a home win, courtesy of a Darren Huckerby goal, went through 4-1 on aggregate. Locomotiv Moscow was easily disposed of with a 7-1 aggregate in the Second Round as United won 4-1 at home and 3-0 away. Spartak Moscow proved harder foes winning 2-1 in Moscow, while a Lucas Radebe goal in the home leg was sufficient to send United through on the away goals rule.
In the League Cup a Danny Mills goal saw United through the home Third Round game with Blackburn Rovers before a defeat by Leicester City in a penalty shoot-out, after the game was still goalless after extra time, saw United go out.
In the League United had two successive home wins, 2-1 against Bradford City and 1-0 over Southampton, which was sufficient to see them back in top spot. Away wins at Derby County, by an Ian Harte penalty, and a brilliant performance at Chelsea, where Stephen McPhail got a rare double strike without reply, maintained the hold on top spot.
Even though a 2-1 home victory over LeicesterCity was followed by a 2-0 loss at Arsenal and a surprise 2-1 loss at home to Aston Villa, to welcome in the new millennium, United were not dislodged, still being in top spot at the end of January.
The FA Cup had started in December with United progressing past the Third Round 2-0 against First Division strugglers Port Vale but United supporters were asking “how good can this get?” as they triumphed 5-2 at First Division high-fliers Manchester City in another breath-taking display, but a Benito Carboni hat-trick was enough to end United’s hopes, 3-2 at Aston Villa, in the Fifth Round.
Bruno Ribeiro had left for Sheffield United for £500,000 in November and O’Leary went to Blackburn Rovers and parted with a cheque for £3 million to bring Jason Wilcox to Leeds. This released Harry Kewell to play up front and Wilcox played his part so well that he was soon back in the England team and Kewell scored in six consecutive games in March, one short of the club record jointly held by Peter Lorimer and John McCole.
In February United had relinquished top spot after a 3-1 defeat at Anfield but remained second to leaders Manchester United, with whom they had broken away from the pursuing pack. A Kewell goal brought a home win over Tottenham Hotspur in an unpleasant game. The much anticipated visit of Manchester United saw the visitors surprisingly drop Beckham. An Andy Cole goal, early in the second half, gave them a single goal win, despite Leeds three-times hitting the woodwork, and they departed with a six point advantage. Leeds still gave it their all and beat Coventry City at home 3-0, Bradford City 2-1 at Valley Parade and Wimbledon 4-1 at Elland Road, and while comfortably in second spot, failed to make any impression on Manchester United.
The games were now coming thick and fast as Europe had finished their winter break and this brought revenge over Roma in the 4th Round when an Harry Kewell home strike was the only goal of the Round and this time it was Leeds who progressed by the single goal.
Slavia Prague proved easier opposition in the Quarter-Final with United winning 3-0 at Elland Road to progress 4-2 on aggregate to set up a Semi-Final Tie with Galatasary and the promise of a possible all-English Final with Arsenal as the prize.
A visit to Leicester City brought a 2-1 defeat and after 30 games the position was Manchester United 67, Leeds United 60, Liverpool 56, Arsenal 54, Chelsea 52 .
A defeat by Chelsea 1-0 at Elland Road was followed by the journey to the hostile surroundings of Istanbul and the intimidating atmosphere of the Ali Sami Yen Stadium where unfriendly banners such as “Welcome to Hell” were normal.
On the eve of the match two Leeds Supporters, Kevin Speight and Christopher Loftus had been stabbed to death and despite that, the match went ahead with no one minute’s silence in respect of the deaths, and no black armbands worn by the home team. As the Leeds players went into a team huddle, the Leeds supporters turned their backs and held their own one minute’s silence. The Leeds players had emerged into the cauldron, protected by large shields carried by the many riot police, clearly intimidated by the events and went in at half-time two goals in arrears. But while they improved somewhat in the second half with Bridges, Kewell and McPhail all going close, somehow the result did not seem important. There had been much controversy over whether the game should have proceeded at all, with Galatasary seemingly intent on winning the tie any way they could by refusing to postpone the match and then asking for the return leg to be played on neutral territory.
Against this backdrop, it came as no surprise that the United season was all downhill from that point. 3 days later a visit to Aston Villa brought a 1-0 loss and a flower bedecked Elland Road saw floral tributes from Arsenal followed by a minute’s silence. Arsenal rendered a 4-0 defeat to the seemingly disinterested United, who had Ian Harte needlessly sent-off, as they dropped to 4th place.
A small group of dignitaries, protected by an anti-terrorists guard, were the only support for Galatasary, as the second leg was played out the following Thursday night. Not unsurprisingly the Galatasary fans had been banned to avoid any chance of a re-occurrence of the Istanbul events. Galatasary took the lead from the penalty spot and, despite Eirik Bakke scoring twice, United could only manage a 2-2 draw and went out. Galatasary went on to win the Cup defeating Arsenal on a penalty shoot-out in the Final.
The draw had stopped United from losing seven on the trot and they picked up their home campaign with a 2-2 draw at Newcastle after being ahead 2-0. A 3-0 win at Sheffield Wednesday, featuring a superb Harry Kewell goal, was followed by a 3-1 home win over Watford to send United back into third spot and in contention for the third Champions League berth. The table read Manchester United played 37 points 88, Arsenal played 36 points 72, both virtually assured of the top two places with Liverpool played 37 and Leeds United played 36 both on 67, with Liverpool ahead on goal difference as Leeds went into their match in hand at home to Everton. In the encounter Leeds finished with 10 men and Everton 9 men and with another 7 bookings, but it was a reflection on the poor refereeing rather than any bad intent of the players. The game finished in a 1-1 draw as Bridges’ opener was equalised by Nicky Barmby. A win would have left United needing only a draw at West Ham United in the final game to assure third spot.
Liverpool had to visit Bradford City, who seemed doomed to relegation unless they could pull off a win. David Wetherall was United’s saviour as he got the Bradford City winner and stopped Liverpool from claiming third spot while saving his own team from relegation. United drew 0-0 to finish third on 69 points, two more than Liverpool and dreams of the prospect of games with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Lazio and Juventus!
Michael Bridges had been a huge success in the striker’s role with 19 league goals and 21 in all, while Harry Kewell, who had risen to super star status being voted PFA Young Footballer of the year, had 10 league goals and 17 overall. Martyn was ever-present, Kewell had 36 appearances, Harte 33, Woodgate and Bridges 32, Bowyer and Radebe 31, were the regulars, as United looked back on a satisfactory season which had an almost perfect end after being almost ruined by tragedy.
A fair reflection of the status of the Leeds Players can be judged from the PFA Team of the Year which was as follows: Martyn (LUFC); Kelly (LUFC), Stam (MUFC) Hyypia (LFC) Harte (LUFC); Keane (MUFC) Beckham (MUFC) Kewell (LUFC) Vieira (AFC); Phillips (SFC) Cole (MUFC). Another testament was the England Under-21 Team which defeated Denmark at Valley Parade on 8th October 1999 which included Keeper Paul Robinson, defender Danny Mills, Midfielder Lee Bowyer and strikers Michael Bridges and Alan Smith in the run on team.
This was the defining season in recent LUFC History. It was the season that could have, and should have, been the watershed for the future of the LUFC dynasty. It had all the ingredients for success, a young vibrant and entertaining squad, a couple of old heads and the ability to win week in and week out and withstand the pressures of success. The clubs massive fan base, packed Elland Road to the rafters and followed their heroes to the ends of the earth. They cheered on their heroes on the field. They cheered the coach and staff. They gave not only David O’Leary, but Peter Ridsdale, the idea that he was a popular leader who, so long as he gave them what they wanted, could live his and their dream. Hindsight is a marvellous thing, but there were knowledgeable people who could see through the veneer of success, but for now, LUFC were on the crest of a wave and all were enjoying the ride with no thought of failure and what it might entail.
In came quality French midfielder Olivier Dacourt from Lens for £7.2 million and the prolific Australian Marksman Mark Viduka from Glasgow Celtic for £6.5 million, while versatile defender Dominic Matteo was bought from Liverpool for £4.2 million, although his transfer was not finalised for several weeks due to fitness concerns. £18 million was not a lot of money compared to others in the close season market when you consider that, Chelsea had spent £30 million and Liverpool close to £50 million. Figo had gone for £37.7 million, Crespo for £35.5 million, Overmars and Petit for £30 million and Batistuta £22.5 million! The question was could LUFC afford it, together with the salaries demanded by those players, a subject on which there was remarkable silence. Encouraged by the success of Eirik Bakke, United had put in a bid of £4 million for his friend and Norwegian compatriot John Arne Riise. His club, Monaco, valued him at £6 million and the impasse was never broken.
O’Leary continued ridding LUFC of George Graham purchases. Martin Hiden returned to Salzburg and his native Austria for £500,000, the popular Alf-Inge Haaland joined Manchester City for £2.8 million, while David Hopkin and Robert Molenaar (five months later) moved to neighbours Bradford City for £2.5 million and £400,000 respectively, to swell the ever growing former LUFC contingent at those clubs. So, over £6 million had been recouped in transfer fees.
There was a feast of goals in pre-season friendlies, with Viduka, Bridges, Smith and Harte prominent, as 24 goals were scored and 8 conceded in winning all 6 games, against mixed opposition, but it honed their skills for European Championship Qualifying Round against the highly-rated German side TSV 1860 Munich.
With Harry Kewell and Jason Wilcox sidelined by lengthy injuries, United lined up with Martyn; Kelly, Duberry, Radebe, Harte; Bakke, Dacourt, Bowyer; Smith, Viduka, Bridges; with Mills replacing Bridges late on and Huckerby, McMaster, Molenaar, Gareth Evans, Hackworth and Robinson being unused on the bench. Goals from Alan Smith and an Ian Harte penalty was enough to give United a slender 2-1 advantage after the home leg, which was marred by the unwarranted sending off of Bakke and Dacourt for the home team and Ned Zelic for Munich, and were all unavailable for the return leg. A monument to incompetent, over officious refereeing!
Before the return leg United had a little matter of the Premier League to consider! They kicked off with a visit from their final home match opponents of the previous season, and former collegues of new signing Olivier Dacourt, Everton. They lined up with: Martyn; Kelly, Radebe, Woodgate, Harte; Bakke, Dacourt, Bowyer; Bridges, Viduka, Smith. Mills and Huckerby replaced Bakke and Bridges ten minutes from the end, while Robinson, Gareth Evans and Molenaar remained unused on the bench. In front of a capacity crowd ‘Man of the Match’ Alan Smith grabbed a brace as United kicked off with a 2-0 win.
Peter Ridsdale announced a new and improved six year contract had been negotiated with David O’Leary to compliment the recently signed improved contracts of players Nigel Martyn, Gary Kelly, Ian Harte and Stephen McPhail. O’Leary’s Management skills needed to rival those of a conjuror as Kewell, Wilcox, McPhail and Matthew Jones were all injured, as well as the long-term David Batty, and Bakke and Dacourt were suspended! Of the usual midfield only the effervescent Lee Bowyer was available.
He solved his conundrum by playing Matt Jones, although unfit, and using Full-Back Danny Mills and Michael Duberry, and pushing Gary Kelly and Lucas Radebe into midfield as United fielded: Martyn; Kelly, Woodgate, Duberry, Harte; Bowyer, Jones, Radebe, Mills; Smith, Viduka. To his credit Matt Jones stayed on for 75 minutes before giving way to Gareth Evans and Bridges, Huckerby, Molenaar, McMaster, Hackworth and Robinson all kept the bench warm for the entire game. Some brilliant work from Viduka and Smith resulted in the latter getting the only goal of the game and Nigel Martyn was rightly named man of the match, as United opened the door to untold riches and a minimum £10 million for games with FC Barcelona, AC Milan and Besiktas in the in Group H. The so called “Group of Death” for obvious reasons!
It was back to the EPL and a visit to the Riverside, where goals from Bowyer and the in-form Smith ensured a 2-1 victory over Middlesbrough. It was at great cost, as Woodgate and Bakke both sustained injuries which left them sidelined for several weeks.
Alf-Inge Haaland was welcomed back to Elland Road by another capacity crowd, but they were less than pleased when he and his new club, Manchester City, departed with maximum points as United dropped to 4 th place. A goal-less daw at Coventry City was followed by another unexpected reversal, 2-1 at home to Ipswich Town, for who Jermaine Wright scored the winner and was acclaimed ‘Man of the Match’! United were booed off by sections of the crowd as United’s injury worries deepened and the games came thick and fast.
Between the two games a depleted United team were thrown into the cauldron of the Nou Camp and no one was surprised when FC Barcelona triumphed 4-0 as United fought to the death much to the anger of the top ‘Barca’ players who expected them to lie down meekly rather than tackle like tigers despite being totally outclassed and outplayed. Martyn; Kelly, Duberry, Radebe, Mills; Bowyer, Dacourt, McPhail, Harte; Bridges, Smith; were the run on XI with Tony Hackworth and Danny Hay replacing McPhail and Radebe late in the game while Huckerby, Jones, Evans, Jacob Burns and Robinson remained paid spectators.
Bakke and Matteo replaced the injured Radebe and McPhail as United were overwhelming underdogs at home to AC Milan a week later at Elland Road. Without Kewell, Wilcox, Woodgate, Batty, Radebe, McPhail, all injured and Viduka on International duty, the hotch-potch misfits took on the might of AC Milan, who had been 4-1 first game winners over Besiktas. In the driving rain at Elland Road, United took to it like ducks to water while AC Milan certainly had their enthusiasm dampened. Their galaxy of super-stars were out-fought and out-thought, with Bowyer getting a last gasp winner courtesy of a speculation shot which Brazilian keeper Dada allowed into the net.
It was a night of shocks as Besiktas beat Barcelona 3-0 and all teams were locked on 3 points.
There was a 1-1 draw at Derby County, as United slid down to 10th but back on ECL duty United responded magnificently with a 6-0 annihilation of Besiktas at Elland Road with Bowyer (2), Viduka, Matteo, Bakke and Huckerby on the scoresheet in an almost faultless display, to head the Group from AC Milan who had won 2-0 at Barcelona.
United were narrow but deserved winners, 4-3, over George Graham’s Tottenham Hotspur in the next game at Elland Road which thrilled the crowd. Viduka and Smith both bagged a pair each as United moved up to 8th.
There was no International call up for Woodgate and Bowyer who were to face court on an assault charge. It was a case with dramatic repercussions for the players and the club, and which dogged the club and often provided the newspaper headlines rather than the team’s feats in the next year or so.
The International break was a welcome relief for United but they were still bedevilled by more injuries and Jacob Burns was given a debut for the stricken Olivier Dacourt, as Charlton Athletic were the third newly-promoted team to arrive at Elland Road and hoped to win just like their predecessors. There was more misfortune for United as keeper Nigel Martyn suffered a groin injury after 20 minutes and had to be replaced by Paul Robinson. Few could have known that he would be out for over 20 games and that Robinson would perform so brilliantly in his absence. Robinson made several spectacular saves to hold Charlton at bay and two goals from Viduka, one with an audacious back-heel, and one from Alan Smith saw United triumph 3-1 to move into 4th spot.
They soon plummeted back to 9th with a 3-0 hiding at Old Trafford but, with a patched up squad of Robinson; Kelly, Woodgate, Hay, Matteo; Burns, Bowyer, Jones, McPhail; Viduka, Smith; there was little wonder! Huckerby replaced Smith late on and Milosevic, Molenaar, Evans, and Hackworth remained unused, thankfully!
In between the two encounters United had to endure the away encounter with Besiktas in Turkey and came away with a 0-0 result which virtually ensured passage to the next round. It came at the cost of a serious injury to Michael Bridges which ended his season. United could now boast the following team: Martyn; Mills, Duberry, Radebe, Harte; Batty, Bakke, Dacourt, Wilcox; Bridges and Kewell, but all of them were confined to the treatment room!
Despite all the absentees, Barcelona were put under severe pressure at Elland Road and Lee Bowyer gave United an early lead, and thanks to an outstanding display from Robinson, ably backed up by Woodgate, United clung to that lead until ‘Barca’ equalised 4 ½ minutes into stoppage time! A win would have meant that United were certain qualifiers for the next round, but they still had to go to the San Siro knowing a draw would see them through.
After the heady cocktail of the ECL, a miserable rainy day in West Yorkshire was poor beer for United. A Valley Parade visit to relegation candidates Bradford City was never going to be easy and always a potential banana skin. A Viduka goal equalized a Stan Collymore debut overhead spectacular and left United in 10th spot and knowing there was a lot of work to be done to bring their domestic season on a par with their ECL performances. With Stephen McPhail now joining Michael Bridges in casualty for the rest of the season, United needed their present walking wounded to make quick recoveries to bolster their flagging fortunes.
Two days later they were brought back to reality when beaten 3-2, after extra-time, at Prenton Park by First Division cellar-dwellers, Tranmere Rovers. It looked like two goals from Darren Huckerby, would be enough but the home scored three unanswered goals to gain a shock win. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise as United did not need too many extra games with such a fragile squad.
High–flyers Liverpool arrived at Elland Road in 3rd spot and looking to take advantage of United’s injury woes and over-worked players. Poor defending ensured that they were given every encouragement as they took a 2-0 lead after only 17 minutes. It was to be the day of the V-Bomber, as Mark Viduka, who had returned refreshed and in good form from International duty, turned on a display of awesome power and delicate skill. He reduced the arrears with a clinical finish after Alan Smith had pressurised the Liverpool defence into error and, after half-time, scored the equaliser with a powerful header. Liverpool restored their advantage on the hour but the Duke was at his delicate best as he bamboozled several defenders before beating the keeper with a low angled shot to claim his hat-trick. The fans had hardly finished their acclaim when he broke away to lob the keeper and get his and Leeds’ fourth to clinch victory and move United up to 7th and Liverpool down to 4th!
On a high, the battle-weary troops headed for the San Siro and the showdown with AC Milan. There was an unconfirmed rumour that Barcelona had offered Milan a £1.6 million bonus if they could beat United and give themselves a chance of qualifying if they could beat Besiktas at the Nou Camp. They must have winced when Shevchenko missed from the spot and choked on their Paella when Dominic Matteo headed in a Lee Bowyer corner to give United the lead just on half time. It certainly silenced the 52,000 crowd and the Pizza, Lasagne and Chianti sales dipped remarkably as they sat through the half-time break in stunned disbelief! AC Milan equalised on 68 minutes but resolute defence saw no change to the score-line and, although Barcelona won 5-0, it was of no consequence and United and AC Milan progressed to the next round at their expense. Real Madrid, Anderlecht and Lazio awaited them in Stage 2. Another Group of Death, with United again outsiders and praying for the return of their absent stars.
A Mark Viduka goal earned United a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea before a surprise home defeat at the hands of West Ham United saw United slip to 10th spot. It was to be Rio Ferdinand’s last game for that club and he arrived in a blaze of publicity and was paraded before the Elland Road faithful, ahead of the Arsenal home game, after a record £18 million fee had been paid for him. With Paul Robinson and Alan Smith both also included in the England squad for the friendly with Italy not all was gloom and at last there seemed some light on the horizon. A Dacourt goal gave United all three points against the high-flying Arsenal.
On Ferdinand’s debut, the Leeds defence leaked goals for LeicesterCity to win 3-1 at Filbert Street. After the home team had scored three before 30 minutes had elapsed, some wondered at the wisdom of such a high investment. The election to replace the flat back-four with the three man Woodgate, Ferdinand and Radebe, saw O’Leary concede his mistake, but not publicly, by taking off Woodgate for Wilcox before half-time. It came unstuck when Radebe was unluckily sent off for two bookable offences and with Kewell replacing Matt Jones on the hour mark United started to look dangerous. A goal from Viduka, a Dacourt shot which hit the upright and a bad miss by Kewell could have meant a point which would not have been deserved.
Prior to the Arsenal game United’s bare-bones squad had been outclassed by Real Madrid and well beaten 2-0, but after the Leicester game they were able to travel to Lazio with something resembling a first-team squad and record a famous victory courtesy of an Alan Smith goal after a sublime Viduka back-heel had set him up. 6,000 United fans had made the trip and they returned home delirious at the result, which left Lazio in bottom place and pointless.
A trip to the Dell saw a bad tempered affair in which a Southampton player was dismissed, but the ten men were able to hang on to win 1-0. United further bolstered their ranks with a loan signing of Robbie Keane from Inter Milan for the rest of the season. He was however precluded from appearing in the ECL.
Robert Molenaar had gone and Young Welsh International Matthew Jones was sold to Leicester City for £3.25 million and the now surplus to requirements Darren Huckerby was another to join the ex-LUFC clan at Manchester City for £3.4 million.
The ever-popular David Batty had made it back to the reserves and got the cheer of the day as he came on for a cameo appearance, as substitute, late in the 2-0 home victory over Sunderland. Keane was not so fortunate on his substitute debut in the 2-1 home loss to Aston Villa which resulted in United now dropping back to 12th spot.
For the Boxing Day clash at Newcastle United were able to field the following team: Robinson; Kelly, Woodgate, Ferdinand, Matteo; Bakke, Bowyer, Dacourt, Kewell; Viduka, Smith. Batty and Keane were substituted for Bakke and Kewell, with Mills Radebe and Martyn also on the bench if necessary and with Harte and Wilcox both near full-fitness, the squad was now back to strength for the big push to make up the lost ground in the EPL and to really shake up the big boys of the ECL.
For the short-term, the game at Newcastle was lost 2-1. Keane scored from the spot to get a point from the 1-1 home draw with Middlesbrough. There were two more for Keane and one each from Bowyer and Bakke, which saw United victorious 4-0 at Maine Road over Manchester City. This was followed by a shock 3-1 defeat to Newcastle United, despite another goal from Keane, and it saw Leeds in 13th position, but the cohesion and teamwork was being to show.
They had also beaten Barnsley, albeit very unconvincingly, thanks to a Viduka goal in the Third Round of the FA Cup, before Liverpool extracted revenge for their league loss by knocking them out 2-0 in the Fourth Round at Elland Road. So with no distractions they were free to concentrate on their twin assault on the EPL and ECL.
In the league they laid the bogey of Aston Villa at Villa Park 2-1. Robbie Keane punished his former team Coventry City with the only goal at Elland Road. He was again on target as United won 2-1 at Ipswich Town. Olivier Dacourt made a scoring return to Goodison Park, where Ian Harte also scored, in the 2-2 draw with Everton. Derby County held United scoreless at Elland Road as United’s unbeaten run had seen them quickly elevated to 5th position on the ladder.
Although Robbie Keane was scoring regularly in the league he was not eligible to play in the ECL, having already played in the competition for Inter Milan, but the ever improving Rio Ferdinand was available for the first time as United faced a potentially hard fixture with a home tie with Anderlecht. The 6’8” striker Jan Koller and the smaller but speedy Tomasz Radzinski were expected to test Rio and his fellow defenders to the limit and indeed the signs were ominous as, after having the majority of possession, they went behind in the 65th minute. However, thanks to late goals from Ian Harte, from a 25yd free-kick, and Lee Bowyer, who crowned a superb display, when he collected a fine through ball from Alan Smith to beat the keeper and give United a deserved 2-1 victory.
Bowyer, Woodgate, Hackworth and Duberry were all involved in the “Mill Hill assault” court case which required their daily attendance and on the day of the Anderlecht game Bowyer made the 60 mile dash from the hearings at Hull to put in a star performance. He seemed unaffected by the case and despite the obvious problems he soldiered on unperturbed. His co-accused Jonathan Woodgate was a pale shadow of his former self, having lost a lot of weight and was unfit to play for the rest of the season.
United had put themselves in the drivers seat and were now clear second to Real Madrid in the group, but they had the daunting task of the visit to the fortress of the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium. Anderlecht reigned supreme at the venue and boasted a 100% record in Europe, winning all 20 games played there, including a win over Manchester United. There were claims from the Belgian coach that United had been “lucky” and “arrogant” in their Elland Road victory, and there were several disparaging remarks about Leeds players and Mark Viduka in particular.
Having been dismissed from the FA Cup, United had the luxury of a free weekend and they were well able to prepare for the return leg without distraction. The reported utterings of the Anderlecht coach were a good incentive to rebuke those remarks and United smashed their feelings of invincibility with a superb display of attacking football. Smith scored twice in the first half with a classic Mark Viduka header sandwiched in between, as both returned to goal-scoring form and broke their recent drought. The United defence held firm until the 75th minute when Koller managed to get on the score sheet, but the home team were never in the hunt and a push on Mark Viduka allowed Ian Harte to complete the scoring from the spot and secure a memorable victory and another LUFC highlight in their impressive European campaign. It ensured that they and Real Madrid were through to the quarter finals of the EPL, even though both still had two games left to play.
No doubt George Graham was hoping to catch United in a tired or benevolent mood for their visit to White Hart Lane, especially as Tottenham Hotspur were enjoying a good run of form and were unbeaten since the turn of the year. They had gone nine games without defeat, the only EPL team unbeaten at home and having kept six consecutive clean sheets. As they showed at Anderlecht, United are no respecters of reputations, and records are only there to be broken! Rio even gave his cousin Les a free gift on the half hour mark, but an Ian Harte penalty before the break was a prelude to Lee Bowyer getting the winner soon after the start of the second half, to break Tottenham’s hearts and all three records disappeared in one fell swoop, as United made it seven without defeat since the FA Cup reversal.
United were in fine form for the midday Battle of the Roses with perennial adversaries Manchester United at Elland Road. Referee Barber had what is known as a “stinker” and the antics of the French keeper Barthez should have seen him disappear down the tunnel for an early shower. He had been under pressure several times from Harte’s searching high balls from corners and set pieces. After Harte had challenged him to a high ball and the ball was cleared, Barthez kicked Harte right in front of the referee’s nose. It should have been instant dismissal for a deliberate kick, but Barber took the easy option and limited his punishment to a yellow card. Barthez brilliantly saved the penalty, much to the annoyance of everyone at Elland Road, with the exception of the Manchester contingent! Justice had not been done. Leeds had the most of the play but just couldn’t score and after Martyn failed to hold on to a shot from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Chadwick had the easiest of tasks to put it in the empty net. The Manchester goal seemed to lead a charmed life and Barthez certainly rode his luck, but finally a Mark Viduka header equalised with six minutes to go.
In the dying moments United had the ball in the net again, thanks to an own goal by Wes Brown. It should have been a winner but once again Referee Barber came to the rescue of the Lancastrians when he allowed his linesman’s view that Viduka had momentarily strayed offside in the build up to over-rule his own. There had been no transgression and the goal should have stood. Wes Brown knew he had scored an own goal and the Manchester body language said it all. It was two points lost that had no effect on the championship destination but it proved to be the points that would have ensured United’s qualification for the ECL and another season of Euro-riches!
If United felt hard done by, due to Barber’s inadequacies it was nothing in comparison to the ludicrous decision they had to endure at the Bernabeu a few days later! Mark Viduka had got behind the Real Madrid defence to cross for Alan Smith to gleefully open the scoring after only six minutes. Then in the next minute a Luis Figo cross was blatantly handled into the net by Raul, and like the other famous “Hand of God” incident only served to lower that person’s esteem and show the world that he was a cheat and a fraud. To the referees credit, after seeing a TV replay, he apologised to Leeds in their dressing room, but the damage was done and Raul should have owned up to his cheating and not deceived the referee. Fortunately, unlike the Manchester incident, it had no lasting effect on the future of LUFC. However Raul, after first admitting his cheating, later changed his mind and stuck to his lie. The Spanish press were on the side of LUFC and were totally embarrassed by the bad sportsmanship, so much so, that the UEFA imposed a £7,500 fine on Raul, but in true UEFA fashion subsequently withdrew it!
United gave an excellent display of fine attacking football and Real realised that they were now playing the “First Team” unlike the “ Reserves” that had been a pushover at Elland Road. After being forced to accept the referee’s decision on the equaliser, they had another bit of misfortune just before half time when Martyn appeared to have a Figo low cross well covered, only to see it hit a divot and bounce over his body! Still United bounced back and a fine Viduka downward header ten minutes into the second half gave them a well deserved equaliser. A draw would have been a fair result but Raul headed home a Figo cross on the hour to give Real victory rather than an equaliser.
The Lazio visit to Elland Road had no bearing on anything and the two sides fielded under-strength teams as both had a heavy domestic league games coming up. Lazio left seven of their stars at home while United took the chance to give Kewell and Batty a full game to ensure their match-fitness was up to scratch after long layoffs, while Robinson, Wilcox, Burns, Maybury, Kelly and Mills were also in the squad for experience or to get match practice. The game turned out to be very exciting and ended in a thrilling 3-3 draw. Ravenelli gave Lazio the lead but Lee Bowyer equalised to make him joint leading scorer in the competition. Ravenelli then conned the referee into a penalty, with an exaggerated dive. Jason Wilcox equalised with a stunning volley from an Ian Harte pass, and Harte again delivered the cross for Viduka to head United into the lead. Nedved caught Maybury in an horrendous knee high challenge which was missed by the referee in the build up to Lazio’s last minute equaliser. There were fears that the leg had been broken but fortunately this was not the case.
United had been drawn in the same half of the draw as Bayern Munich, Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna, thus avoiding Arsenal, Manchester United, Galatasaray and Real Madrid. The news filtered through that Deportivo la Coruna was to be their next opponents as they prepared for their trip to the Valley to take on Charlton Athletic. Charlton were flying high and had an impressive home record only losing once in the season and already having beaten Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea. They were also undefeated since Boxing Day. Mark Viduka gave United the lead after only 11 seconds, the second fastest EPL goal ever! Charlton equalised after barely 20 minutes but Harry Kewell split the Charlton defence to lay on a chance for Alan Smith to restore the lead early in the second half. With Lee Bowyer and Danny Mills returning to play against their former club, the game was quite spiteful and the almost waterlogged pitch saw many clashes between committed opponents. Charlton Manager Alan Curbishley maintained that Viduka, Batty and Mills were lucky to see out the ninety minutes, but with eight bookings, five for the visitors, it was clear not all were angels! United hung on to survive a penalty appeal in time added on to win 2-1 and maintain 5th place, and had time to regroup for their visit to the Stadium of Light a fortnight later.
Both teams wore black-armbands as a sign of respect for the death of David Rocastle, at the early age of 33, but they showed scant respect for each other and Alan Smith gave us one of his “the good, the bad and the ugly” performances, as he gave United the lead with a classic header, but then proceeded to antagonise everyone around, and it came as no surprise to anyone when he was red-carded in the 71st minute. Dacourt had dislocated his shoulder and had to be replaced by the not-quite-fit Bakke in the 7th minute while the brave Radebe came into the game carrying an injury and had to be replaced by Kelly at half-time. They could have done without being reduced to 10 men and in a spiteful match hung on gallantly until Viduka put the game beyond Sunderland’s reach in the last minute. The 2-0 victory saw United elevated to 3rd position with a trip to Anfield and a virtual play off for third place in a fortnight’s time.
Before the Anfield clash there were a few other matters to settle. There was a little matter of an ECL quarter-final, which saw the first leg at Elland Road. The Deportivo Coach had said how pleased he was to have drawn the weakest team in the competition. He was made to eat his words in no uncertain fashion as the crowd chanted “3-0 to the weakest team” as United turned on an awesome display. All the goals came from set pieces but such was United’s dominance that it was a surprise it was only 3-0. An Ian Harte special with a free-kick from 25yds gave United a slender half-time lead, but the Deportivo goal had lead a charmed life. Kewell laid back a corner to Ian Harte whose perfect cross was headed home by Alan Smith. In the 67th minute United got their deserved three goal cushion as an Ian Harte corner was headed home by Rio Ferdinand for his first goal for the club and the icing on the cake for his faultless performance on the night.
An unambitious Southampton were the next visitors to Elland Road and were soon behind to a piece of Kewell genius, as after being slipped the ball by Keane 25 yards out, his shot was as straight as an arrow for him to score his first goal of an injury–hit season, but with a little more accuracy and time he could have had an hat-trick The same could have been said for Keane, as he scored with a fine chip in the 71st minute, but if he could have avoided the offside flags, he also would have tripled his contribution. The 2-0 win consolidated 3rd place and they now had 28 points from the last 13 games and a further 3 wins, a draw and an unlucky loss to Real Madrid in the ECL, in the same period.
For the Good Friday Anfield showdown United fielded their strongest possible team: Martyn; Mills, Ferdinand, Matteo (for the injured Radebe), Harte; Bowyer, Batty, Dacourt, Kewell; Smith, Viduka; with a bench of Robinson, Kelly, Bakke, Wilcox and Keane. They tore into Liverpool from the off and it came as no surprise when Ferdinand rose unchallenged to power home a forceful header from an Ian Harte corner with only four minutes gone. Smith and Kewell were the subject of a real buffeting from the home defence, but Kewell had the last laugh when he tormented a retreating defence to lay on a simple tap in for Bowyer to increase United’s lead. Rarely had Liverpool been so outplayed and they went in at half-time lucky to be only two goals in arrears. Half-time changes, and no doubt a heated pep-talk, saw Liverpool claw their way back into the game with a fine Steven Gerrard goal, nine minutes into the second half. But he had been pushing his luck all afternoon and just one too many misjudged tackles saw him carded for the second time and he was dismissed after 71 minutes. United could have increased their lead but good defending and poor options thwarted them, but they had a perfectly good goal disallowed after Viduka and Keane broke two on one, unfortunately, after Viduka had netted, it was disallowed for a ludicrous offside. Their run continued, third place was consolidated and the return leg with Deportivo awaited them.
Deportivo had come back from a 3 goal deficit in previous games and had recently achieved the feat in Europe in beating Paris St. Germaine. The Riazor Stadium was a place where opposition trod in trepidation and not surprisingly, urged on by the majority of the 34,500 spectators Deportivo threw everything but the kitchen sink at United. On the night Deportivo were ahead from the spot after only eight minutes but United held out until the 73rd minute before conceding again. After that Viduka brought out a spectacular save from the Spanish Keeper and Deportivo were reduced to speculative shots from distance as United held firm. There were wholehearted efforts from Smith, Martyn, Harte and Dacourt and United progressed to the Semi-Finals to meet another Spanish club, Valencia, as England’s sole surviving representative. Bayern Munich met Real Madrid in the other Semi-Final.
United cruised to their ninth away league victory of the season, 2-0 at West Ham United, despite missing Smith (suspended) and Viduka (injured), and having David Batty sent off early in the second half. Robbie Keane gleefully put the ball into the roof of the net after good lead-up by Bowyer, Kewell and Harte, while Rio Ferdinand got his third goal in five games against his former club. However, United dropped to fourth position, as others played games in hand.
It was 33 points from the last 39 as United notched their sixth straight victory in a bad tempered clash with Chelsea. The game ensured that United would at least qualify for the UEFA Cup next season. Leeds were just too good for the most expensive side in the EPL, who clearly only had ambitions of taking away a point by keeping United goal-less. They almost achieved their objective before Robbie Keane scored his ninth of the season and Mark Viduka struck a volley of awesome power which other less gifted players could only dream of, as United scored the goals they deserved, albeit very late, and regained third spot.
It was back to the ECL in midweek as United were held to a goal-less draw by Valencia at Elland Road in the first leg of the Semi-Final. The result clearly benefited the visitors but could have gone either way as both teams strived for victory. The immaculate Mendietta ruled the midfield but Mills and Martyn were equally impressive for United.
One could hardly have wished for a harder game to be sandwiched between two ECL Semi-Finals legs than a trip to face Arsenal at Highbury. But that was the fate that faced United! The Gunners used ever trick, both foul and fair, to gain the ascendency and took the lead 15 minutes in and double their lead a similar distance into the second half. The Gunners were by far the better team in the first half and deserved their lead but United were made of sterner stuff and they hit back immediately with a brilliant Ian Harte free-kick which left Seaman gazing at the bulge in the net. From there on Arsenal hung on for grim death as the yellow cards mounted and Keown was fortunate that the referee was the only person at Highbury not to see his elbow on Viduka. Even the myopic Wenge saw the incident and was moved to comment;” Viduka is a very physical player and made Keown nervous!” The whole Arsenal team and staff were nervous as the woodwork and desperate defence stopped United from getting the equaliser. The loss cost United fourth spot and ensured Arsenal’s qualification for the ECL.
A Capacity 53,000 crammed the Mestalla Stadium for a night that was always going to end in tears, unfortunately for United they were tears of Sorrow and not Joy. Deprived of the services of talisman Lee Bowyer, United again were subjected to a Mendietta master class and as early as the third minute he had Martyn at full stretch. It was also he that provided the inch perfect cross when Sanchez scored with a diving header. United appealed in vain that a hand was involved. They fought back manfully and went close on occasions but just the single goal separated the two teams at half-time with United knowing that an equaliser would see them through. Against the meanest defence in Europe it was never going to be easy, but three minutes into the second half a great 25 yards shot from Sanchez tilted the game in Valencia’s favour and five minutes later Mendietta put it beyond doubt to cap a fine display. To United’s disgrace Alan Smith brutally assaulted a Valencia defender and got a red card for an act of total stupidity, and even more impetuous and irresponsible as it happened in injury time. So United left Valencia in disgrace rather than triumph.
Going in to the final games United could still qualify for the ECL, but the Highbury defeat had left their fate out of their own hands. Manchester United 80 points from 36 games and Arsenal 69 from 36 were assured of a place and it was left to Liverpool 66 from 37, Ipswich Town 65 from 37 and United 62 from 36 to battle it out for the remaining spot.With Liverpool, 28+ to 14+, having a superior goal difference it made United’s task even more difficult.
When United entertained the already relegated Bradford City, they did not want to die wondering and hit the beleaguered Bantams for six, and were already 5-1 up at half time.
Viduka, Harte, Bakke, Smith and Kewell were already on the score sheet but only Lee Bowyer was added in the second half after Leeds had threatened to wipe out the goal difference required to overtake Liverpool! It was exhibition stuff by United with Bakke, Kewell, Dacourt and Mills outstanding and Bradford City even started fighting amongst themselves in frustration. The win took United back to fourth and much now hinged on Liverpool’s visit to Charlton and United’s final home encounter with LeicesterCity.
As in the previous season United and Liverpool found themselves locked in a do or die situation on the last day of the season, but this year there were no desperate relegation haunted neighbours to give them a hand. After being totally out of contention for ECL qualification at Christmas, and lesser teams would have been dead and buried, it was a super-human effort for United to claw their way back in the week by week struggle. There had been many fine victories, particularly away from home, but except for early season poor form, particularly at home, or had United been able to pick from strength in those early games, they would have been champions. The Court case, the pressure from ECL participation, and even a dodgy offside decision could be used as blame or excuse.
Whereas last season they fell apart after being eliminated from Europe, this season they remained strong and resolute, and so it was that they saw off the dogged resistance from Leicester City. Harry Kewell robbed a Leicester defender to lay on the first for Alan Smith, but the visitors were back on level terms five minutes later. A brilliant move involving Kewell, Bakke and Smith resulted in the ball reaching Viduka who twisted and turned before rifling home a low shot, which hit the post. Minutes later the same player again hit the woodwork after fine play by Dacourt. Finally Ian Harte curled a free-kick past the keeper to give United a deserved lead and Smith put the icing on the cake with his second and United’s third goal. Charlton had held Liverpool until the second half and at half-time there had been hope of another last day cause for celebration, but Liverpool ran out 4-0 victors and took the vital third place.
Injuries had cost United dearly but while they were able to plug the gaps adequately after Christmas there were too many barebones XI’s prior to that. Here is the first choice team and their league appearances: Martyn 23; Mills 20(3), Ferdinand 23, Woodgate 14, Harte 29; Bowyer 38, Batty 13(3), Dacourt 33, Kewell 12 (5); Smith 26(7), Viduka 34. Reserves: Robinson 15(1), Kelly 22(2), Radebe 19(1), Matteo 30, Bakke 24(5), McPhail 3(4), Wilcox 7(10), Huckerby 2(5), Keane 12(6), Bridges 6(1). Others: Burns 3(1), Duberry 5, Hay 2(2), Jones 3(1).
Only Bowyer, Dacourt and Viduka played more than 30 games!
In the close season United had taken up the option on Robbie Keane and he officially parted company with Inter-Milan and joined United. This was O’Leary’s only move in the incoming transfer market, but he allowed several young players to leave. Warren Feeney joined Bournemouth; Kevin Dixon went to Barnsley, Danny Hay to Walsall and Gareth Evans to Huddersfield Town, all on free transfers. Damien Lynch and Wesley Boyle were both also released, while there was £120,000 from Notts County for Tony Hackworth and £150,000 for Alan Maybury from Hearts.
With Michael Bridges and Lucas Radebe out for the season, those players apart, United hoped to pick from strength. They started well favoured to give Arsenal and Manchester United a run for their money for the championship and certainly favourites to gain at least one of the four ECL places now on offer.
Once again United had a dream set of pre-season friendlies against varying opposition, winning all 7 games with a goal tally of 37 for and 2 conceded, with all strikers scoring heavily. So United had oiled their machine well and it was in good working order. The team for the opening home game with Southampton was: Martyn; Mills, Ferdinand, Matteo, Harte; Bowyer, Batty, Dacourt, Kewell; Keane, Viduka. Bakke replaced Batty and Smith replaced Keane midway through the second half, while Woodgate Kelly and Milosevic were unused. While Kewell tormented the Southampton defence mercilessly, resulting in a yellow and a red card for professional fouls on him, United could not score until Alan Smith arrived on the scene. He rectified matters only minutes after his appearance, and he and Bakke seemed to be the catalyst for the United victory, as Smith laid on the opener for Bowyer and was on hand to lash home a Ferdinand flick on, while Bakke installed life into the midfield.
Smith and Bakke kept their places in the run on XI, as the same squad was retained for the grudge match with Arsenal, the team whose victory in the corresponding fixture last season had cost United their place in the ECL. There was a lot of ill-feeling carried over from the last encounter and, indeed, it would be easier to name the players who were not booked rather than those who were! The game was played at a blistering pace and first Arsenal dominated, while Leeds hung on with Martyn making some fine saves. The referee took the names of Bakke, Dacourt, Bowyer and Mills within 10 minutes, but the quick thinking Ian Harte curled a free-kick around the wall, as Arsenal failed to get organised in time. It gave United the lead, albeit against the run of play, but soon afterwards Wiltord scored with a diving header to bring the score level. The half finished with Viduka causing the Arsenal defence to panic as he twice went close. Alan Smith hobbled off at half-time and instead of the expected Keane replacement, David Batty was brought on to bolster the midfield. It was an inspired move as Arsenal now had to concede the midfield and United got on top. Viduka, who always creates problems for the Arsenal rearguard, latched onto a ball from Kewell, left Adams for dead, and then struck a rocket shot from 18 yards to beat Seaman conclusively. It gave United the lead they never lost. The referee then produced a flurry of yellow cards as Henry, Coles and Pires all saw yellow and before long Viduka followed. Worse was to follow as Bowyer got a red, after a second yellow, for an innocuous tackle. Mills soon followed after also being yellow carded for a second time for unsporting behaviour after kicking the ball against a prone Cole. Woodgate came on for Kewell and Kelly for Bakke to bolster the defence, but Matteo and Ferdinand had been colossal and United held on for a famous victory and second place.
Goal-less draws at West Ham United and at home to Bolton Wanderers followed as United’s scoring power seemed to disappear, but they roared back for Keane and Mills to score at the Valley in a 2-0 victory which sent United top.
While it was gratifying to see United looking down on the challengers, they had not really dominated any game so far and were not playing the free flowing football that made them such an entertaining team to watch in the run in to the previous season. This was apparent when, instead of beating minnows Maritimo in the UEFA Cup, United left Madeira goal-less and defeated but expecting to reverse the 1-0 deficit at Elland Road.
Harry Kewell, who had blown hot and cold since his return from injury in the New Year, was back to his devastating best against a determined Derby County at Elland Road. Bakke had given United an early lead, but it was Kewell who late in the game took the game by the scruff of the neck. Firstly he took a ball from Bowyer to hit both posts with a venomous cross shot as the ball finally nestled in the back of the net. He then rose majestically to head home a Bowyer cross which gave the keeper no chance. The 3-0 victory maintained United in top spot. Coincidentally the United financial results to 30th June 2001 were published which showed a loss of over £7 million and net debts of over £35 million and details of a loan of £60 million which had consolidated previous debt and funded the purchase of players in September 2000. United were top of the league so who cared!
A crowd of 38,125 were on hand to cheer United to victory in the second leg of the UEFA Cup against Maritimo at Elland Road. It was an almost carnival atmosphere as United showed they meant business. Batty played an excellent through ball to Keane in the 20th minute and he showed his class to control it and then produce a perfect strike to beat the keeper easily. Then Viduka latched onto a perfect through ball from Ferdinand to cross immaculately for fellow Australian Harry Kewell to rise at the far post to head home. It was all over when Keane found Kewell and on the left edge of the box and, after the keeper could not handle his low drive, the ever-alert Bakke was on hand to side-foot the ball home.
Once again United were winners without impressing at Portman Road where United remained unbeaten and made it 17 from 21 to stay top. Ipswich had taken the lead but they were too reliant on their offside trap. It was a goal of quality that brought United level when a deft cushioned pass from Kewell was perfectly flighted for Keane to control, draw the keeper and slot the ball in the corner of the net. Kewell was again prominent in the winner as he cut inside and sent a low cross for Viduka to do the honours, but Venus beat him to it and in his desperation could only put the ball in his own net.
Keane and Kewell were again in devastating form as United annihilated Leicester City 6-0 at Filbert Street in the League Cup. Kewell simply tore Leicester apart with his speed and trickery, scoring the fifth, while Keane gave a perfect display of the art of goal-scoring and poacher instinct to register a well deserved hat-trick. Bakke and Viduka got the other goals, while there was a welcome return, and an impeccable performance, by Woodgate, who stood in for the injured Matteo.
Having already beaten Arsenal, United started off their three match run of games against the potentially best credentialed ECL competitors, by being held to a 1-1 draw, as they outplayed Liverpool for the second game running at Anfield. It was two points lost rather than one gained, but Liverpool would have been more than happy with their point. Fowler, who had done nothing of note all game, suddenly produced a piece of magic to rattle the bar and Murphy was there to nod the rebound home. Earlier Harry Kewell had given United a deserved lead with a cross shot of quality and Dacourt was in impressive form to boss the midfield, but try as they might United could not get the winner.
United seemed to have won their home leg of their UEFA Cup clash with Troyes emphatically, as after Viduka and Bowyer had both bagged a brace, United were cruising at 4-1. Unfortunately they allowed Troyes to score late on, with a goal that left the score 4-2, and the two away goals could be vital. United could yet rue their inaccuracy in front of goal, which was highlighted by Viduka getting in the way of a goal-bound header from Bakke, and generally wasting chances to post his hat-trick!
Seth Johnson was signed from Derby County for £7 million and took his place on the bench for United’s next game at home to Chelsea. There were several ugly scenes in the Elland Road clash, a terrible two footed tackle, by Graeme Le Saux on Danny Mills, was highlighted on the TV Monitor that showed the ball was the last thing on Le Saux’s mind. Incredibly he was only shown yellow. The incident took place just prior to the interval and O’Leary seemed to go berserk and was seen shouting and arguing with the referee as they disappeared down the tunnel. The referee, Paul Dirkin, obviously thought he had gone beyond the pale and banished him to the Director’s Box for the second half and reported him to the FA. Viduka had always been a threat and could easily have had a hat-trick but for the brilliance of fellow countryman Mark Bosnich in the Chelsea goal, who also thwarted a spectacular Harry Kewell volley. It had all the potential to be a high scoring game but at the other end Nigel Martyn was just as safe and spectacular in keeping the Chelsea hot-shots at bay. In the end both sides could have laid claim to victory, but a draw was probably a fair result and kept United at the top, undefeated and having conceded only three goals.>
A 67,555 capacity crowd were on hand at Old Trafford to see the old pretenders meet the young pretenders. For 88 minutes United looked as though they had conquered their Old Trafford hoodoo which had lasted since 1981. They had to weather an early storm as Manchester created several clear cut chances but Nigel Martyn was equal to the task. Leeds showed scant respect for their hosts and took the game to them with vigour and Viduka, Kewell and Keane all went close, as they gained the upper hand. Leeds were lucky not to be reduced to 10 men as Robbie Keane reacted strongly to a foul by Beckham and shoved him to the ground with a two handed push to the chest. He was fortunate only to receive yellow. It came as no surprise when United finally took the lead after 77 minutes as Viduka beat a flat footed Manchester defence to an Ian Harte low cross to shoot through Barthez’s legs. Unfortunately, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came off the bench to score a last gasp equaliser and Martyn made a brilliant one-handed save from Van Nistelrooy to save a point for Leeds. The United defence, in which Matteo and Ferdinand shone, held on for Leeds to stay top and still undefeated.
Robbed of Ferdinand by injury and Woodgate and Bowyer by the on-going court case United travelled to France to play the second leg of their UEFA Cup tie against Troyes, who were urged on by their fanatical supporters to an almost famous victory. United had spurned so many chances in the first leg, conceded a vital late goal, and they were almost left to rue their generousity. Luckily they survived after almost going out on the away goal rule. An early goal had the home fans believing a shock victory was a strong possibility. Viduka kept up his recent goal-scoring form to equalize on the night and then United had a period of dominance without being able to take the lead, as Kewell volleyed a screamer, only for the referee to disallow it for an infringement by Keane in the build up. It was Troyes who took the lead as the ball was deflected into his own net by Matteo following a free-kick from 40yards out. The out of touch Kewell was substituted after picking up a calf injury and now United were lacking both first choice central defenders and wingers. Their plight was obvious as Duberry was left pedestrian as Troyes got their third on the night and went in front, on away goals, on aggregate. Troyes showed they were just as generous as United and fluffed several chances to go 4-1 up. United thanked their luck and produced a perfectly executed goal which Batty started 40 yards out with an inch perfect through ball for Viduka, who sent another inch perfect left-foot cross for Robbie Keane to head into an empty net. There was a brilliant save by Nigel Martyn as he risked life and limb to smother the ball at the feet of an onrushing Troyes attacker. Thankfully no extra-time was needed and United progressed to the next round, albeit very fortunately.
Ferdinand and Bowyer both returned for the home clash with Tottenham Hotspur, but the latter hobbled off after 40minutes to give a league debut to Seth Johnson from the bench. While United were clearly the better team they needed good luck to win through. Gus Poyet had stunned the Leeds crowd by heading the visitors ahead after 52 minutes but a few minutes later Ian Harte had equalised from a goal with more than a little luck attached to it. The Spurs keeper, Neil Sullivan, spilled his shot which then hit a post before being rebounding off the back of the keeper’s head and finished in the net. He was at fault again when he and defender Chris Perry dithered over a loose ball and Kewell nipped in to score the goal which gave United the three points and preserved their unbeaten record and top spot, in a game where Ferdinand and Dacourt shone brightest.
All records must come to an end, but it was surprisingly Sunderland who did it. On past record Sunderland had not beaten United in the top flight since 1980 and Leeds had come to see them as an away banker in their Roker Park days, and their two trips to the Stadium of Light had resulted in maximum points. However United were without Lee Bowyer, whose hamstring injury could see him side-lined for over a month, and Viduka and Kewell, both still on World Cup International duty with Australia. All three were missed but none more so than Bowyer and there were cries to buy the Australian Brett Emerton from Feyenord to fill the gaping hole. O’Leary changed from his trusted 4-4-2 formation to a diamond 4-3-1-2 with Bakke sitting behind the front two of Smith and Keane, and in front of Dacourt on the right, Batty in the middle and Seth Johnson on the left of midfield. Dominic Matteo had used the International break wisely and had a knee operation which surprisingly saw him take his place at the heart of the defence, the meanest in the league, only 13 days later. In 11 games this season United had let in only five goals and never conceded more than one goal in a game. It looked like that record was going to be preserved as the teams were scoreless at the interval, with Keane going closest for United, but it was Sunderland who took the lead two minutes into the second half. Martyn was at fault when he failed to hold a McAteer shot and Arca knock in the rebound. This stunned United and the tall Quinn chested down a cross for his strike partner Phillips to volley home. United were not done for, and Keane tested the Sunderland keeper but then was denied a penalty and booked by the referee for diving. TV replays showed it was a clear penalty. Seth Johnson, who had a fine debut, tested the keeper twice late on but it was not United’s day and they dropped to second place on goal difference to Liverpool who had a game in hand.
Nigel Martyn may have been at fault for Sunderland’s first goal, but he was the hero of the 2-1 away win over Grasshoppers of Zurich in the next round of the UEFA Cup. On an atrocious night, with driving icy rain and freezing wind, he may have been helpless to stop Grasshoppers taking an early lead but reeled off at least a dozen quality saves including saving a penalty and the follow up shot. It was Ian Harte who scored the equaliser with a typical curling free-kick after 75 minutes and Alan Smith, who had revelled in the waterlogged conditions, got the winner soon afterwards.A good win against the odds particularly as United were still without Viduka, Kewell, Bowyer and Seth Johnson.
Johnson was back for United but the other trio remained absent and Dacourt was rested, with Jason Wilcox slotting into left midfield for the visit of bogey-team Aston Villa. Villa had not lost a match at Elland Road since 1995 and it looked to have changed as United dominated the opening play and Smith put them in front, after 17 minutes, following good work by Robbie Keane. But just after the half hour mark it all went wrong for Smith and Leeds as he was red-carded for an elbow to the ribs of Alpay, who did an impersonation of a dying swan to con the referee. Within minutes Seth Johnson picked up his fifth booking of the season and will be suspended. So United were left with 10 men for an hour and another who knew he was skating on thin ice, and with Kachloul equalising soon after with a spectacular volley it looked all uphill. Smith’s red card seemed harsh treatment as Hendrie clashed with Mills and on regaining their feet Hendrie foolishly raised his hands and pushed Mills in the face. Mills fell like a sack of potatoes but to everyone’s surprise the referee only showed yellow. The Villa Manager immediately substituted Hendrie to cash in on their good luck. After that the game deteriorated and the weak referee lost control as the tackles got worse and niggles developed amongst the players. Villa seemed to lose ambition and settled for a draw despite their numerical superiority, as they could not pierce the Matteo/Ferdinand rearguard. Gradually United took control of midfield and were unlucky no to get the winner, as Ferdinand headed against a post in injury time. They maintained second spot despite only having won one of the last six league games.
United had signed Robbie Fowler from Liverpool for £11 million, but was not available for the League (Worthington) Cup home clash with Chelsea. The mud and bad conditions of Zurich and playing for an hour with ten men against Villa seemed to take its toll. This, combined with Seth Johnson being cup-tied and Kewell, Viduka, Woodgate and Bowyer were still absent, could be the excuse for their latest defeat. The defeat was probably a blessing in disguise, as while the League Cup is an avenue to Europe, United could do without fixture congestions as they still fought on several fronts. It was more of a worry that, having been restricted to three outfield players on the bench, all had to be used as Matteo limped off with ankle ligament damage, McPhail was stretchered off after an horrendous challenge had left him with a scar from groin to ankle, and Bakke was taken off with knee ligament damage. United never got going and Chelsea deserved their 2-0 win.
At Fulham, United gave a debut to Robbie Fowler and welcomed back Kewell and Viduka. There was no Dominic Matteo, which involved Mills switching to central defence and Gary Kelly coming in at right back. No Eirik Bakke, which meant Alan Smith dropping back into midfield, alongside Batty, Johnson and Kewell, with Keane and Dacourt waiting their chance from the bench. It was a poor Leeds performance against a team who were always going to be hard to beat and it looked like a point gained rather than two lost, as neither team bothered the scorers and United slipped to third on the ladder.
A moment of magic from Harry Kewell secured United’s place in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup, as once again they failed to show anything like their best form. The mercurial Australian lit up an otherwise dull encounter with a stunning individual effort, which saw him race fully 70 yards before clipping the ball into the Zurich net, to give a glimpse of why he is considered one of the most gifted and most wanted players in Europe. Another brilliant effort saw a 25 yard shot crash against the bar as he gave his best performance since returning from injury. The goal which gave a United a 19th minute lead meant they were ahead 3-1 on aggregate and should have capitalised on their advantage, but with key players still absent United lacked the killer punch. The defence also was uncharacteristically generous, with a poor pass from Ferdinand across the backline to Mills gifting Zurich an equaliser on the night on the stroke of half-time, but fortunately United struck straight back as Keane restored United’s lead with a cleverly conceived goal. United were able to compose themselves for the second half and while both teams threatened to score it did not happen until two minutes from time when Zurich equalised but it was too late by then.
United got back on course with a fine win at Blackburn Rovers thanks to a great display from David Batty, back on his old Ewood Park stomping ground. While once again Ferdinand was immaculate in defence, but it was an excellent performance from Harry Kewell, who had Blackburn in trouble every time that he touched the ball, which caught the eye, as he seems to be recapturing his old form. With eight players injured and two suspended United’s strength was tested to the full. Indeed it was Gary Kelly, playing in midfield, who was instrumental in both goals. Freidel in the Blackburn goal had pulled off a succession of good saves to deny Viduka and Fowler, who several times thought their names were on the scoresheet. Blackburn too had their chances with Ian Harte bravely throwing his body in the way of a goal-bound shot from Gillespie, whose speed had caused the full back trouble all afternoon, and Tuguy rattled the bar and as they went in for half-time the home team were looking forward to taking the lead. It was not to be, as early in the second half, Batty won the ball in midfield and found the flying Kelly hurtling down the right wing to pull the ball back for Fowler, whose shot was fumbled by Freidel, and Kewell nipped in to chip the ball over the keeper. Soon after, Dacourt was fouled by Tuguy, and was forced to leave the field clutching his shoulder, but Batty played on, again finding Kelly on the fly, and this time his measured cross was met at the far post by Kewell who scored with a downward header. Berg poked one home for Blackburn in the dying minutes but United held on to move into second spot with a 2-1 victory.
For 40 minutes United played like champions–elect and it looked as if they would eclipse their 6-0 thrashing of Leicester City earlier in the season. Put through by Seth Johnson, Mark Viduka saw his shot pushed onto the crossbar and away to eventual safety. It was the big Australian who made the first goal for his fellow countryman as after seemingly crowded out by the Leicester defence he produced a back-heel of exquisite quality for Kewell to blast it past the keeper for his tenth of the season. United had lost Robbie Keane in the pre-match warm up and now Seth Johnson was forced off with a dead leg after only 15 minutes, in which he had looked very dangerous, with Bakke substituting. It was one-way traffic in the first half and Fowler should have opened his account but delayed his shot and it was blocked. It was different in the second half as Leicester came out looking to make a game of it. Martyn was pushed to save at full stretch and then Brian Deane seemed to have equalised, until the referee called the ball back for an infringement on a Leeds player. United took advantage of their good fortune to use the ensuing free-kick to increase their lead as Viduka clipped in a Gary Kelly cross. 2-0 up against a side second from bottom, everyone expected United to finish the business, but inexplicably they failed to do so and Brian Deane was on hand to side-foot a cross into an empty net with United’s defence all at sea. Even at 2-1 it should have been no bother but with 2 minutes to go Deane out-muscled Ferdinand for Scowcroft to chest it down and beat Martyn with an unstoppable volley. It was two points lost and saw United drop to fourth.
The Court case involving Bowyer and Woodgate had been concluded with a verdict that found them not guilty but left a feeling of being inconclusive and both were fined for breaches of club discipline. Woodgate accepted this but Bowyer didn’t and was at odds with Chairman Ridsdale and refused to sign a new contract which he had been offered. The fans and players left no one in any doubt about Bowyer’s popularity and where their sympathies lay. From his vantage point high on the TV gantry of the West Stand he could not have failed to realise the level of support he had from all fans present and the backing of the players, who signalled their acclaim by dedicating the first goal to him, by a salute to him and Woodgate.
There was much to be done both on and off the pitch to repair the club’s tarnished image and O’Leary must have been troubled by the way the meanest defence in Britain had suddenly started conceding goals at an alarming rate and failing to finish of teams that were clearly inferior. Kewell was again on form and Gary Kelly and Seth Johnson again shone in midfield, but it was Robbie Fowler who stole the show with his first goals for United and showed his true poacher ability. A perfect cross after a good run by Kelly saw Viduka rise to head the opener after 18 minutes, after twice spurning similar chances. Fowler doubled the lead in the 26th minute when he chested down a cross from Mills before tucking it away and, after several near misses, he made it 3-0 as he volleyed a first time shot, after Batty’s 25 yard shot had been partially stopped by the keeper. The game should have been over, but United allowed Everton back into the game and just like Leicester they scored two late goals to have United hanging on and giving the fans palpitations. The win took them into third place.
League leaders Newcastle United were the next visitors to Elland Road and were seeking to add United’s name to their list of scalps after winning at Arsenal in midweek. They tore into United and Gary Speed went close with a header and a 25 yard shot which Martyn did well to parry. There was little he could do as Newcastle took the lead with a finely worked goal from Craig Bellamy after Kieron Dyer had used his pace to leave Ian Harte floundering in his wake. Viduka played Bowyer through the middle and he beat his man before slipping it through the keeper’s legs. After going close and also being involved in an incident which saw Dabizas stretchered off, the burly Australian shot United into the lead soon after the break and he was also involved in the build up to Ian Harte’s goal from the edge of the area. 3-1 up United should have wrapped it up, but they allowed Newcastle to get back in the game as Elliot dived to head home and reduce the arrears. This was followed immediately by a Shearer penalty after Bakke was adjudged to have handled. Right on time Newcastle got the winner as Solano again showed up Harte’s deficiencies, as he beat him for pace, to coolly slip the ball past Martyn.
United had lost Kewell to a back injury midway through the Newcastle game and while they were strengthened by the return of Woodgate, they still lacked several key players in midfield, as they made the trip over the Pennines to the Reebok Stadium home of Bolton Wanderers. They also dropped Harte to the bench. He seemed to have lost confidence after being caught out for pace by several recent opponents. Matteo switched to left back and Alan Smith was brought into the midfield. United roared back and answered all their critics as a Robbie Fowler hat-trick silenced his and United’s critics. All his strikes had a touch of class. In the second minute a David Batty through ball found him in the clear and he clinically buried it beyond the Bolton keeper. On 16 minutes Jason Wilcox headed forward to Viduka who steered it into the path of Fowler and he finished with aplomb. Viduka twice went close and Wilcox hit a post as United sought to capitalise on their supremacy. Bowyer was tripped in the box and up stepped a confident Fowler to clinch his hat-trick, but with everyone waiting to acclaim his treble he dragged the ball tamely wide. With 5 minutes to go, he finally managed it and rounded the keeper before teasing a defender and calmly placing it into an empty net. A fine victory and it looked as if United were back to top form in both attack and defence.
There was bad news for United as it was announced that Robbie Keane would have to go under the surgeon’s knife to rectify a nagging ankle problem. Bakke had also been sidelined for a long period after damaging ankle ligaments at Bolton, while Seth Johnson had a thigh problem, Harry Kewell a back injury, Dominic Matteo had a hamstring injury and Dacourt was also still sidelined. Mills returned at full-back with Gary Kelly pushed up into midfield and Harte came back at left-back for the visit to Southampton. It was a personal triumph for Lee Bowyer, who now had to endure the jeers and cat-calls of the opposing fans and the mocking chant of ”You should be in jail” at the least opportunity. He for once had the last laugh when he crowned a fine team performance in the last minute as he ghosted in from nowhere to latch on to Viduka’s perfectly-weighted pass and left footed it past the Southampton keeper, who had seemed unbeatable, as he stood between Leeds and a drubbing. With Newcastle falling at home to Chelsea, the top of the division was very close with Arsenal on 39 ahead of Newcastle on goal difference followed by United on 38, Liverpool 37 (and a game in hand) and Manchester United 36 and Chelsea back in the hunt on 33.
New Year's Day saw United back on top as two early goals from Mark Viduka and another from Robbie Fowler saw an unchanged United dispose of West Ham United with ease. The arrival of Robbie Fowler and the return of Bowyer and Woodgate had seen a marked improvement in United’s form. Three consecutive victories with three clean sheets had seen United leap frog the first two to lead them by 2 points, with Liverpool three, Manchester United five and Chelsea eight in arrears, but all had a game in hand!
United travelled to Cardiff City for their Third Round FA Cup-tie two Divisions and 54 places better positioned than their Welsh opponents, but as is usual in such cases the underdog punches way above its weight and fights for every ball as if their lives depend on it. So it was with Cardiff, even though they went about their task with a little over-enthusiasm. The speedy Robbie Earnshaw twice skipped past Harte but Ferdinand was on hand to sweep away the danger, but the skipper was soon clattered from behind and took no further part in the game with only eight minutes gone. Duberry came on to replace him. Gary Kelly took advantage of a poor Cardiff clearance to release Viduka who rifled the ball into the net for the first goal, which silenced the home crowd. The home team soon bounced back and after Earnshaw had missed a sitter, Smith brought down Legg and from the resulting free-kick Kavanagh shot from 25 yards over a disorganized wall and past Martyn. Leeds seemed to hold the upper hand but just on half-time they were reduced to ten men as Smith was sent off for the sixth time in his career, after a clash with Legg. Woodgate was clattered from behind by the same player who had curtailed Ferdinand’s afternoon, but once again the referee did not reach for a card. United and Viduka in particular had the chance to take the lead, but it was after sustained pressure, that Cardiff scored with two minutes to go, much to the delight of the Cardiff fans who literally went berserk and triggered some appalling scenes on the terraces and after the game, which overshadowed Cardiff’s heroics and soured their reputation.
United had Johnson back for Fowler, who had to return to Liverpool after the death of his father-in-law, and Duberry filled in for the injured Ferdinand, whilst Matteo was back at the expense of Harte and Smith was pushed back into the strikers role. But United’s season took another turn for the worse as Newcastle pushed them back to third place and they tasted defeat for the second week running and again had a player dismissed. Mills was given red for the second time this season for a blatant and petulant kick at Bellamy in an off the ball incident. Apart from Mills being sent off United had Duberry, Woodgate, Batty, Wilcox, Viduka and Smith booked, At this rate United’s ECL ambitions could disappear under the suspensions which will result from the recent avalanche of red and yellow cards, not to mention the £25,000 FA fine that six suspensions automatically brings.
United had got off to a flier with Alan Smith scoring in the first minute, but while there was obviously residual feelings from the pre–Christmas clash at Elland Road, it was not a dirty game and Newcastle, whose game is based on speed and skill, charged back at United and put plenty of pressure on the Leeds rearguard. With Woodgate a tower of strength, United seemed to have weathered the storm and made it to the break still in the lead, but unfortunately Duberry stuck out his head to deflect the ball past the unsuspecting Martyn. It was the turning point in the game, as Newcastle came out for the second half with all guns blazing. The speedy Dyer latched onto a ball from Bellamy to put an accurate left-footer past Martyn before ten minutes later Mills saw red. United came back at Newcastle and their keeper made a great double save to keep out Viduka and Smith. Then the big Australian was denied a penalty after Dabizas had charged into him to stop him reaching a Smith cross. They were not getting the breaks and while pushing for an equaliser cracks began to show in the defence and Bellamy picked up a wonderful pass from Dyer to race clear of Duberry and Woodgate to score in the bottom corner.
After defeat away to the joint leaders, a visit to Elland Road by the other joint leaders, Arsenal, followed and fireworks were expected as the previous seven encounters had produced an unbelievable 48 yellows and 4 reds! Fortunately this was a fairly tame affair with only a petulant kick by Pires at Batty off the ball and Viduka leaving Keown in a crumpled heap from what seemed to be an elbow as payback for an incident at Highbury. It earned Pires a booking and Viduka an inquiry into the video evidence. Otherwise it was as quiet as a Sunday school picnic. Good football was in short supply as defences dominated, with Ferdinand still not 100% recovered, Matteo and Woodgate were in fine form. It was Robbie Fowler that opened the scoring with his seventh goal in seven outings, when Jason Wilcox skipped down the left wing to launch an inch perfect cross for Fowler to ghost in to the far post and head home powerfully as he was totally unmarked. Just before the break Pires equalised with a goal from the very top drawer, starting and finishing a move in which Bergkamp deftly played him in and, with the aid of a Henry dummy, he was left unmarked to shot into the roof of the net. Both teams seemed to decide that a point was enough and the game petered out to a draw which saw United in 3rd place just a point ahead of Arsenal who had a game in hand.
Chelsea opened up the championship race as they once again beat Leeds 2-0, this time at Stamford Bridge and they dropped to fifth place just two points ahead of Chelsea in 6th spot. Gudjohnsen had put Chelsea into the lead after less than two minutes. Woodgate was also lucky to get the benefit of the doubt, as he fouled Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink. It was adjudged not to be a goal-scoring opportunity, after a bad clearance by Martyn had given the former Leeds striker the chance to take off for goal, and Woodgate, clearly the last defender, pulled him down. Della Bona, who clearly played the ball with his hand in the build up, manoeuvred himself into a position to beat Martyn from distance after the half hour mark. Woodgate was forced off injured at half-time with Harte filling in at left-back and Matteo switching to central defence. Seth Johnson again picked up an injury and was replaced by Keane five minutes before the interval while Harry Kewell returned from injury to create United’s best chances after he replaced Fowler, who was struggling with a knee injury on the hour mark.
United went into freefall as they were hopelessly outplayed and outclassed 4-0 at Elland Road by Liverpool. There was a gutsy effort from Dacourt, who started with an injury and was quickly injured further by a ferocious tackle by Steven Gerrard in the first minute, but he soldiered on bravely before giving it best on the hour mark. Matteo can hold his head high in defence and Kewell was United’s most dangerous player, until he too left the action after 75 minutes. With Viduka and Fowler subdued up front and Ferdinand strangely off form, and conceding an own goal, there was little spark from the team. That goal was all that Liverpool had to show for their first-half dominance, but it all changed after the break, as after Martyn had saved at full stretch from Owen, Emile Heskey broke clear to round Martyn and score despite a desperate dive from Matteo. He doubled his contribution soon afterwards. With fans leaving in droves United had their best effort with a diving header from Viduka being equalled by a superb diving save from Dudek. It was left to Owen to post the final goal as he outjumped the Leeds defence to rattle the crossbar, before reacting quickest to net the rebound. It could not get much worse as United dropped to sixth seemingly out of contention for the ECL race and were winless since New Year's Day.
Struggling Middlesbrough were the opponents at the Riverside and knowing they needed to improve quickly United dominated from the off with Bakke putting them in front after 20 minutes. It was a neat move which came from a long kick by Martyn, flicked on by Kewell to Viduka, who gave one of his cheeky back-heels to put Fowler through on goal and, instead of shooting, put it in the path of Bakke who made no mistake from 10 yards. United should have buried ‘Boro but instead let them back in the game and in the second half with Boksic on from the bench he gave the home team a boost and they got on top.
Boro’ captain Paul Ince let fly from distance, and there seemed no danger. His shot lacked power and pace, it looked an easy save for Martyn, but as he went down, the ball hit a divot in the 6 yard box and looped over his shoulder into the net. It was typical of United’s recent luck, but they soon hit back to restore the lead. Ian Harte’s free-kick looked an easy catch for the keeper but Fowler dived forward to head past him. It should have been the winner but inexplicably United allowed Boro back into the game again. Once again it was cruel on Martyn, who had just made a world class save to deny Noel Whelan, but Dean Windass leaped unmarked to head home a corner. Another two points lost!
PSV Eindhoven were United’s next opponents in the UEFA Cup and they returned from Holland with a goal-less draw which could so easily have been a substantial lead. They outplayed the Dutch champions, as the team clicked for the first time in a long time. Bad boys Smith, Mills and Bowyer were back with Kelly and Batty on the bench and Fowler ineligible. Viduka, Kewell and Smith all came close to a winner while at the other end Martyn pulled of some fine saves.
There was a third consecutive draw and the second without goals as United gained only their third point from 18 since New Year's Day and now 9 points behind the fourth team. Charlton Athletic were happy with their point, but Leeds was not, as once again they lost the influential Dacourt to injury at half time.
United were again goal-less at home to PSV Eindhoven, even though they held the upper hand for most of the game but the visitors capitalised on their inability to score, particularly in the first leg, by scoring the winner with almost the last kick of the game. And it was they who went on to meet fellow countrymen Feyenoord in the last eight, as they gave the knock–out blow to Glasgow Rangers and there was no British team left, let alone a Battle of Britain.
Against Everton, at Goodison Park, United were scoreless again and the fans vented their anger by calling for the dismissal of Brian Kidd, who apart from being an ex-Manchester United Coach also arrived at the perceived time that United lost their attacking style as Eddie Gray was pushed sideways to accommodate him. Matteo was sent off for two yellow cards as United’s disciplinary record worsened and the season continued in its downward spiral.
The visit of Ipswich Town to Elland Road saw a change in their fortune, as Ferdinand had another almost perfect display. Smith worked hard in midfield, as did Viduka in attack, as United won their first game in 10 in League or Cup. The crowd cheered them off after United had some luck for a change, with Fowler getting a fluke as the ball hit a divot and eluded the diving keeper. While the keeper was also adjudged to have pulled down Smith and Ian Harte duly obliged from the spot. There was a stand off regarding Brian Kidd as while there were no chants for his dismissal he did not get the acclaim of the fans in the same way O’Leary and Eddie Gray did.
Fowler was again on the mark as United duly beat Blackburn at Elland Road 3-1. He got the first after only five minutes and killed the game off 3 minutes later with another striker’s goal. United were far superior to a woeful Blackburn outfit who were outplayed all day except for a 15 minute spell after the break, when Jensen latched on to a terrible Woodgate back-pass to reduce the arrears. A touch of Kewell magic was United’s swift response. His arrowed drive across Freidel was exquisite and precise and a perfect way to seal the three points and rounded off his day well, as he was voted Oceania player of the year with Mark Viduka runner-up.
A 2-0 win over Leicester City was further welcome relief for United, as the unlucky Dacourt only lasted 15 minutes before he limped off injured but it gave Seth Johnson a chance to shine after being injured since January. However, there were several stand-out performances by Matteo, a tower in defence; Batty, who bossed the midfield; Kewell, who was a constant menace to Leicester; Martyn who pulled off several world-class saves; but none shone brighter than Robbie Fowler. He capped a fine display with a magnificently executed scissor kick. It was brilliantly saved at full stretch by Walker, but he couldn’t hold it, and it was headed home by the alert Mark Viduka. The powerfully built Aussie repaid the compliment for United’s second, when after a long throw from Kewell found the big striker in space, he beat his man, turned and shot on goal, the keeper was unable to hold it and his fellow striker followed up to head home. The win took them into 5th place.
There was a friendly International at Elland Road, as England played Italy and the in-form Robbie Fowler booked his place in the England World Cup squad by scoring a fine goal as he came from the bench at the break to captain England in a 1-2 defeat. Martyn was untroubled in goal, until being rested for the second half, but Danny Mills was not at his best.
After their recent run of form United hosted Manchester United for their next fixture. With Ferdinand and Dacourt absent and Danny Mills having a nightmare, United could ill-afford to lose Harry Kewell to a badly gashed foot, which required six stitches after only 12 minutes. Fortunately United had Lee Bowyer on the bench and he did not let the side down. It was so one-sided that Manchester was 4-1 up with 30 minutes to go and it could have been more as Giggs, Scholes and Beckham ripped the defence apart and Solskjaer tormented them like so many times before. Scholes gave Manchester the lead, Viduka equalised before two from Solskjaer killed off the game. There was the sight of Harte lumbering behind Beckham as he ran 50 yards to lay on the fourth for Giggs, it was a sight that would haunt the United supporters for over a year as it was played each week on TV as part of the lead up to televised highlights of games! However Leeds salvaged some pride with the introduction of Robbie Keane and Eirik Bakke. Ian Harte scored a great free-kick and then Fowler teed–up Bowyer for a diving header to make it 4-3 but unfortunately the miracle didn’t happen and United dropped to 6th once again.
Ferdinand, Dacourt and Kewell were all absent as United travelled to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham Hotspur on Easter Monday. They should have got a point but their defence was again poor and allowed Spurs to gain a two goal advantage before Mark Viduka scored in the 51st minute. Leeds pressed for the rest of the gamebut could achieve nothing and they remained 6th.
United had taken the extra-ordinary step of applying to join the Inter-Toto Cup as a possible entry into the UEFA Cup, which underlined their ambition but also their lack of confidence of qualifying via their league position! Bowyer and Woodgate had both been omitted from the recent England squad but their form in the home game against Sunderland had the fans chanting “Bowyer/Woodgate for England” with justifiable cause. They also chanted “There is only one Jody Craddock” as the unfortunate Sunderland defender lobbed his own keeper from 16 yards when under pressure from Mark Viduka after eight minutes! While Viduka and Fowler were also in form up front, United didn’t increase their lead until Fowler was replaced by Robbie Keane on the hour. The Irishman looked sharp but, as is his want, fell into the Sunderland offside trap on more than one occasion. He was unlucky not to score as he chased a long ball down the middle and with Sorenson coming out of his area to clear, Keane beat him to it, but in so doing was forced wide, and a defender was able to recover to block his goal-bound shot. Bowyer forced Sorenson to a diving save, when put through by Viduka. Then, with five minutes left Keane got his first EPL goal since September, as Viduka played him in on the edge of the box, he calmly drew the keeper and coolly slotted it home. And Elland Road once more saw his signature cartwheel and gunfighter routine! The win saw United remain sixth.
There was a gutsy win for United over Aston Villa at Villa Park, in a fine all-round performance. Mills capably deputised for Woodgate and with Ferdinand, Dacourt, Kewell and others still missing. Keane was preferred to Fowler in attack. Matteo shone in defence. Viduka was the star up front with his quality and it was merited that he should score the only goal of the game with a superb goal of the highest order just before the half hour mark. Villa dominated from then on but United were resolute and claimed full points. They remained sixth, but with the help of other events United found that sixth would be sufficient to ensure a place in the UEFA Cup and while a fourth spot and an EPL qualification was still mathematically possible all they now had to do was retain sixth or better to be in Europe.
The game with Fulham at Elland Road settled all the unanswered questions. Without a win in 9 games before their Elland Road encounter Fulham should have been easy meat for United with only two points from their last 27. With Fowler and Keane the strikers, after Viduka was injured in a training incident, and Ferdinand returning to the defence at the expense of Kelly. United were truly pathetic, with no highlights, and managed by a Manager who stood looking from the touchline with his array of helpers with no imagination, no game plan, and no thoughts of using a substitute or change of strategy to beat such an out of form opposition, who were made to look world class in comparison to the inept performance of a tired, jaded, uninspired and disinterested United. If the board had doubts about O’Leary, this match confirmed them. Ridsdale is said to have made up his mind because of this game!
With Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United out of sight qualifiers for the EPL Newcastle joined them with Chelsea and United unchallenged for the UEFA places.
Pride Park was the next venue as Derby County entertained United. Bowyer and Smith were the pick for Leeds with Kewell outstanding in the first half but fading after the break. It was Fowler and Smith in attack and Seth Johnson returning in midfield with an encouraging display. Fowler picked up a hip injury and Keane came off the bench after only 20 minutes, but the star of the show, Lee Bowyer, was United’s goal-scorer with a quality strike. Smith had the vision to spot a Bowyer run, as he hooked an overhead kick into his path and finished impeccably with a delightful chip over the on rushing keeper and into the net.
A single goal from Smith was sufficient to give United maximum points in the last game at home to Middlesbrough. It was sufficient to push United into fifth spot, just edging out Chelsea. Ferdinand had an outstanding game and was also declared United player of the year.
So the curtain came down on a season which started full of expectation, peaked on New Year's Day and was all downhill from there, ultimately ending in disappointment for all those who expected so much. There were many United players who were picked to represent their countries at the World Cup, several of whom shone brightly and one so brightly that he had already played his last game for the club. His Manager too had managed his last game and paid the price of being unable to achieve what the fans and Directors and PLC wanted.
Nigel Martyn was United’s only League ever-present, with Ian Harte 34(2), Mark Viduka 33, Dom Matteo 32, Rio Ferdinand 31 and David Batty 30(6) were the only ones to play more than 30. While Radebe and Bridges never played a game, Woodgate 11(2), McPhail 0 (1), Wilcox 3(9), Dacourt 16(1), Bakke 20(7), Kewell 26(1), Bowyer 24(1), Keane 16(9) and Smith 19(4) were former regulars who were not always available. Fowler headed the League scorers with 12, but overall Viduka top scored with 11 in the League and a total of 16, while Kewell had 8 in the League and 11 overall,and with Keane 3 in the League and 9 overall.
Photographs of the era:
1998-1999: UEFA Cup 3rd Round 1st Leg at AS Roma 20th October 1998
Back Row: Bruno Ribeiro, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, David Hopkin, Nigel Martyn, Robert Molenaar, Martin Hiden.
Front Row: Stephen McPhail, Lee Bowyer, Gunnar Halle, Harry Kewell, Lucas Radebe.
1999-2000: Members of England Under-21 Team v Denmark, Valley Parade 8-10-99
Michael Bridges, Paul Robinson, Danny Mills, Alan Smith, Lee Bowyer
Back Row: Robert Molenaar, Michael Bridges, Jonathan Woodgate, Nigel Martyn, Michael Duberry, Paul Robinson, Eirik Bakke, Alf-Inge Haaland, David Hopkin.
Middle Row: Sean Hardy (Kit Manager), Bruno Ribeiro, Ian Harte, David Batty, Gary Kelly, Danny Mills, Darren Huckerby, Eddie Gray (Assistant Manager), David Swift (Physio).
Front Row: Stephen McPhail, Alan Smith, Harry Kewell, Peter Ridsdale (Director), Lucas Radebe, David O’Leary (Manager), Lee Bowyer, Matthew Jones, Martin Hiden.
1999-2000: EUFA Cup Quarter Final 2nd Leg at Sparta Prague 23rd March 2000
Back Row: Alf-Inge Haaland, Nigel Martyn, Ian Harte, Michael Bridges, Eirik Bakke.
Front Row: Harry Kewell, Lucas Radebe, Gary Kelly, Stephen McPhail, Matthew Jones, Jonathan Woodgate.
1999-2000: The Brave Boys at Galatasaray EUFA Semi-Final First Leg 6th April 2000
Back Row: Eirik Bakke, Lee Bowyer, Nigel Martyn, Michael Bridges, Ian Harte, Lucas Radebe.
Front Row: Stephen McPhail, Matthew Jones, Jonathan Woodgate, Gary Kelly, Harry Kewell.
A not-so Brave Boy at Galatasaray 6th April 2000
1999-2000: Arsenal show the respect sadly lacking in Istanbul with a floral tribute to the Leeds team before the game at Elland Road on 16th April 2000
Harry Kewell, Alan Smith, Alf-Inge Haaland, Michael Bridges, Eirik Bakke, Stephen McPhail, Ian Harte, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer, Nigel Martyn, Gary Kelly.
Back Row: Michael Bridges, Michael Duberry, Robert Molenaar, Danny Milosevic, Nigel Martyn, Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate, Eirik Bakke, Mark Viduka, Matthew Jones.
Middle Row: David Hancock (Physio), Sean Hardy (Kit Manager), Steve Sutton (Goalkeeping Coach), Gary Kelly, David Batty, Ian Harte, Danny Mills, Lee Bowyer, Eddie Gray (Assistant Manager), Roy Aitken (Coach).
Front Row: Alan Smith, Darren Huckerby, Harry Kewell, Peter Ridsdale (Director), Lucas Radebe, David O’Leary (Manager), Jason Wilcox, Olivier Dacourt, Stephen McPhail.
Back Row: Michael Bridges, Michael Duberry, Robert Molenaar, Danny Milosevic, Nigel Martyn, Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate, Eirik Bakke, Mark Viduka, Matthew Jones.
Middle Row: David Hancock (Physio), Sean Hardy (Kit Manager), Steve Sutton (Goalkeeping Coach), Gary Kelly, David Batty, Ian Harte, Danny Mills, Lee Bowyer, Eddie Gray (Assistant Manager), Roy Aitken (Coach).
Front Row: Alan Smith, Darren Huckerby, Harry Kewell, Peter Ridsdale (Director), Lucas Radebe, David O’Leary (Manager), Jason Wilcox, Olivier Dacourt, Stephen McPhail.
2000-2001:At AC Milan European Cup Group H Away Leg 9th November 2000
Back Row: Alan Smith, Dominic Matteo, Mark Viduka, Ian Harte, Danny Mills, Paul Robinson.
Front Row: Lee Bowyer, Olivier Dacourt, Lucas Radebe, Gary Kelly, Eirik Bakke.
2000-2001:Presentation at AC Milan European Cup Group H Away Leg 9th November 2000
Lucas Radebe, Paul Robinson, Ian Harte, Gary Kelly, Danny Mills, Lee Bowyer, Dominic Matteo, Mark Viduka, Olivier Dacourt, Eirik Bakke, Alan Smith.
2000-2001:At Lazio European Cup Second Stage Group D Away Leg 5th December 2000
Back Row: Eirik Bakke, Dominic Matteo, Mark Viduka, Jason Wilcox, Alan Smith, Paul Robinson.
Front Row: Olivier Dacourt, Lee Bowyer, Lucas Radebe, Gary Kelly, Jonathan Woodgate.
2000-2001: v Lazio European Cup Second Stage Group D Home Leg 14th March 2001
Back Row: Mark Viduka, Jason Wilcox, Danny Mills, Dominic Matteo, Ian Harte, Paul Robinson.
Front Row: Lee Bowyer, Alan Maybury, Jacob Burns, Harry Kewell, Gary Kelly.
2000-2001:At Real Madrid European Cup Second Stage Group D Away Leg 6th March 2001
Back Row: Mark Viduka, Alan Smith, Dominic Matteo, Nigel Martyn, Rio Ferdinand, Ian Harte.
Front Row: Eirik Bakke, Olivier Dacourt, Harry Kewell, David Batty, Lucas Radebe.
2000-2001:v Valencia European Cup Semi Final Home Leg 2nd May 2001
Back Row: Mark Viduka, Danny Mills, Nigel Martyn, Rio Ferdinand, Ian Harte.
Front Row: Alan Smith, Lee Bowyer, Olivier Dacourt, Dominic Matteo, David Batty, Harry Kewell.
2000-2001:v Valencia European Cup Semi Final Home Leg 2nd May 2001
Back Row: Mark Viduka, Danny Mills, Nigel Martyn, Rio Ferdinand, Ian Harte.
Front Row: Alan Smith, Lee Bowyer, Olivier Dacourt, Dominic Matteo, David Batty, Harry Kewell.
2000-2001:At Valencia European Cup Semi Final Away Leg 8-5-01
Back Row: Dominic Matteo, Mark Viduka, Rio Ferdinand, Danny Mills, Nigel Martyn, Ian Harte.
Front Row: Eirik Bakke, David Batty, Olivier Dacourt, Alan Smith, Harry Kewell.
Back Row: Danny Hay, Mark Viduka, Michael Duberry, Danny Milosevic, Nigel Martyn, Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate, Lucas Radebe, Eirik Bakke.
Middle Row: David Hancock (Physio), Sean Hardy (Kit Officer), Steve Sutton (Goalkeeping Coach), Steve McGregor (Sports Science Manager), Gary Kelly, David Batty, Ian Harte, Danny Mills, Lee Bowyer, Robbie Keane, Brian Kidd (Coach) Eddie Gray (Assistant Manager), Roy Aitken (Coach).
Front Row: Alan Maybury, Jason Wilcox, Michael Bridges, Harry Kewell, Peter Ridsdale (Director), Rio Ferdinand, David Leary (Manager), Olivier Dacourt, Alan Smith, Stephen McPhail, Jacob Burns.
2001-2002:At PSV Eindhoven EUFA 4th Round Away Leg 21st February 2002
Back Row: Rio Ferdinand, Nigel Martyn, Danny Mills, Alan Smith, Dominic Matteo, Mark Viduka, Ian Harte.
Front Row: Harry Kewell, Eirik Bakke, Lee Bowyer Olivier Dacourt.
David O'Leary: Manager, Shaun Allaway , Eirik Bakke , David Batty , Lee Bowyer , Wes Boyle , Michael Bridges , Jacob Burns , Shane Cansdell-Sherriff , Olivier Dacourt , Michael Duberry , Gareth Evans , Rio Ferdinand , Robbie Fowler , Danny Granville , Alfie Haaland , Tony Hackworth , Gunnar Halle , Ian Harte , Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink , Danny Hay , Martin Hiden , David Hopkin , Darren Huckerby , Seth Johnson , Matt Jones , Robbie Keane , Gary Kelly , Harry Kewell , Tommy Knarvik , Willem Korsten , Nigel Martyn , Dominic Matteo , Alan Maybury , Jamie McMaster , Stephen McPhail , Danny Mills , Danny Milosevic , Robert Molenaar , Lucas Radebe , Bruno Ribeiro , Paul Robinson , Harpal Singh , Alan Smith , Mark Viduka , David Wetherall , Clyde Wijnhard , Jason Wilcox , Jonathan Woodgate , Andy Wright .
Part 3: Terry Venables 2002-03
There had been talk of moving United’s home from Elland Road to a new purpose built stadium with a capacity of 50,000 proposed to be located near the M1/A1 link road near Temple Newsam. Supposedly at no cost to the club as the sale of Elland Road and the naming rights would fund it. It turned out to be more pie in the sky and the club’s precarious financial position and its failure once again to qualify for the ECL meant that the sale of assets was inevitable. Players, being the most easily saleable were first to go.
There was much speculation which player would be first but eventually it was Manager O’Leary who was first to go. His team which had been assembled at a high cost had vastly underachieved and O’Leary paid the price and collected his P45 just before the club’s financial year end.
Martin O’Neill was the bookies’ favourite to succeed O’Leary, but it was Terry Venables who was the Directors’ choice. Venables had high credentials, having coached the England team to the semi-finals of Euro96.His playing career started at Chelsea and he later moved to Tottenham Hotspur and QPR virtually all was in the top flight and he achieved international recognition. He started by Managing Crystal Palace and QPR and got both promoted to the top flight. He then left for Barcelona where he took them to the Spanish championship at first attempt and to the European Cup Final the following year. The media loved him and christened him “El Tel”. He returned to manage another of his old clubs, Tottenham Hotspur, and achieved what he had done as a player; he won the FA Cup. A disagreement with the Tottenham Chairman saw him leave and manage England. He later managed Australia, who did not lose a game under him, but failed to qualify for the World Cup on the away goal rule. He returned to England and again managed Crystal Palace and Portsmouth before helping Middlesbrough preserve their EPL status. He seemed to be happy as a TV pundit until United made him an offer which he found irresistible.
Lee Bowyer had seemed destined for Liverpool but ultimately the talks failed and he remained at Elland Road, while Robbie Keane turned down a move to Sunderland.
Several United players were at the World Cup. Rio Ferdinand and Danny Mills were in outstanding form and England regulars, while Nigel Martyn and Robbie Fowler were in the squad. Robbie Keane was one of the stars of the competition and he, Gary Kelly and Ian Harte were regulars for Ireland, as both teams progressed to the final stages and Ferdinand was acclaimed as one of the stars of the competition.
Ferdinand was ultimately sold to Manchester United for a record £30 million and Venables made his only purchase, the vastly experienced England International Nick Barmby from Everton for £2.75 million while Australian Captain Paul Okon came in on a free from Middlesbrough.
The team went on a pre-season tour of the Far East with a few notable exceptions, Ferdinand due to transfer negotiations pending and Nigel Martyn, who after being away for the World Cup, wanted to spend time with his family. It proved a costly holiday as Paul Robinson took over the Goalkeeping duties for the LUFC first team and also in the England Squad and Nigel never regained either, such was Robinson’s success.
There was a 5-1 romp against Green Town before a crowd of 20,000 and the same number turned up at Melbourne’s Colonial Stadium to see Harry Kewell get the only goal of the game against Chilean opponents Colo Colo. It was then on to Bangkok, for a 2-1 victory over the local select squad. They then returned to England to edge Barnsley1-0 at Oakwell, before drawing 1-1 with Glasgow Rangers at Ibrox.
United kicked off in emphatic fashion with a 3-0 drubbing of Manchester City, with a goal on debut for Nick Barmby and Viduka also off the mark, as was Robbie Keane who had a point to prove and, although a late substitute for Viduka, he made the most of his 20 minutes with a fine strike. The United line up was: Robinson; Mills, Radebe, Matteo, Harte; Bowyer, Bakke, Barmby, Kewell; Smith and Viduka. Keane replaced Viduka and Seth Johnson was on for Barmby. Martyn, Kelly and Dacourt were unused. United were not at full strength with Woodgate, Okon and Batty not fit, but it was almost their strongest team and they were tested to the full by Kevin Keegan’s newly promoted Manchester City. Indeed, if Robinson had not had such an outstanding game, it could have been much closer, but Kewell was also unfortunate to hit both posts and watch the ball stay out of the net. Lucas Radebe had a strong game on his return to league duty after a long lay off, but new skipper Matteo led by example and Smith also played well.
It was a visit to the Hawthorns to play another newly promoted team West Bromwich Albion and another fine victory, this time by 3-1 that left leave United proud leaders after only two games. Venables had shown in only two games in charge that he was prepared to change tactics if things were not going to plan, and needing more width in midfield after being swamped, he changed his preferred 4-3-1-2 to 4-4-2 with the desired effect. The home team had set off like a house on fire and dominated for the first 30 minutes and could easily have been 3-4 goals up, if they had been able to hit the target insteadof blazing high wide and handsome. They lived to regret their inaccuracy as United hit them with three goals of the highest order. Harry Kewell, who had treated the crowd to a myriad of skills and tricks and was the best player on the pitch, tucked away a Danny Mills cross to give United the lead five minutes before the break. West Brom still carried the game to United but were just as wasteful in the second half as they had been in the first. Then, after Ian Harte had rattled the crossbar and Harry Kewell hit a post, a cute Kewell back-heel was cunningly and precisely put into the net by Lee Bowyer, with a curling chip over the keeper into the top corner. The third was made by Bowyer who dispossessed a West Brom defender to cross for Mark Viduka to walk the ball into the net after a neat shimmy, as Leeds got three for the second game running. Woodgate had returned and played well before being replaced by Radebe on the hour and the defence, again well marshalled by Matteo, deserved a second clean sheet. It was no to be, as substitute Marshall scored in the last few minutes but although having weaknesses exposed by a supposedly inferior team, United had Kewell, Bowyer, Mills and Matteo in sparkling form.
Sunderland were the team to burst the 100% bubble as they showed their beating of United at the Stadium of Light, which ended United’s long unbeaten run last season, was no fluke. It had been 60 years since they had won at Elland Road and they started as if they had no hope of ending the sequence. With United looking disinterested and creativity at a minimum, Sunderland were even worse and neither goal was threatened in the first half. Sunderland came with the sole intention of not allowing Leeds to score and hoping to get a lucky break. This they did, shortly after the start of the second half when Kewell was dispossessed and the resulting cross was headed down by Phillips into the path of McAteer, who was unmarked, to score from close range. With their object achieved they then went back into their shell and defended in numbers. Even though United replaced Bakke with Dacourt and Barmby with Keane they could not score and Sunderland departed with all three points and reality had struck the reign of “El Tel”.
Robbie Keane was sold to Tottenham Hotspur for a reported £7 million, reportedly £2 million less than had been offered by Sunderland, but with Keane protesting on TV that he didn’t want to leave, not for the first time a Leeds player was sold against his will, or was it because he saw a better opportunity elsewhere?
The opening fixture list had looked very comfortable against lesser lights and a trip to Birmingham City was thought to be a likely three points. However United were lapsing back into the malais which had caused O’Leary’s dismissal. They were under-achieving greatly. Birmingham, who were the more industrious of the two teams, took the lead as the United defence were unable to cope with a short corner routine and the home team scored from close range. United had a bright spell either side of half time and Viduka saw a lob come back off a post and Kewell’s right foot shot hit the bar, while Bakke’s header from a Harte free-kick found the net, but was disallowed. Another quality goal by Bowyer got United back on level terms but the Birmingham winner also had a touch of class about it as Bakke was disposed in midfield and then there was a quick one-two between the Birmingham attackers before curling a stunner past Robinson. So another newly promoted team picked up their first win at United’s expense but surprisingly United held on to 4th spot.
It must have been with trepidation that Venables anticipated his trip to Tyneside to meet the Newcastle United in what on paper was their first game against top opposition. However, on paper, United had their strongest team available with Robinson; Mills, Woodgate, Matteo, Harte; Bowyer, Dacourt, Barmby, Kewell; Smith, Viduka: Martyn, Kelly, Radebe, Bakke and Okon were on the bench. United were under almost constant pressure the whole game and after Mark Viduka had given them an early lead after just five minutes, he was also consistently doing his share of defensive duty in what was a great team effort. Dominic Matteo led the team superbly and although carrying a knee injury, he epitomised the determination by playing through the pain barrier and was well supported by his co-defenders Woodgate, Mills and Harte, who each defended stoutly. Behind them Robinson pulled off a string of world-class saves and was the hero of the night and Newcastle found him unbeatable. Newcastle were clearly the better team on the night, but United stuck to their game plan and Newcastle spent 85 minutes of playing a fruitless game of catch-up. The goal was well worked, Harry Kewell, who was brilliant all night, capitalised on good work by Dacourt and Barmby to set off on a curved run which saw him elude the Newcastle offside trap and broke at speed before passing to his fellow Australian, who made no mistake from close range. As the game reached its final stages Newcastle lost their way and Alan Smith drilled the ball home with 3 minutes left on the clock. The 2-0 win lifted United back into 3rd place, and Venables seemed to have the tactical nous and the players had responded with a top drawer display, which had no weaknesses. He must have been anticipating the visit of Manchester United with relish.
Ferdinand returned to Elland Road to face an anticipated hostile reception. He was at the centre of a poor under-strength Manchester defence and in general they lacked the services of several key players. He had a game he would rather forget and at the other end Woodgate was impeccable. The United fans had clearly got to him with chants of “You were just a stand-in for Woody” and on this performance he was just not in the same league as Woody! Alan Smith had another great gamefor Leeds, following his goal for England against Portugal and a fine display at Newcastle, but Woodgate was the star with Dacourt, Kewell and Harte not far behind. United had no luck with injuries as Barmby was replaced at half time by Bakke, as he struggled with a back injury. While Matteo made it till half time also, though clearly in pain, and Radebe took over. Viduka had also been under an injury cloud and he too had to go off after 72 minutes to be replaced by McPhail. Robinson was again unbeatable in goal and Nigel Martyn must have looked on and thought he had no chance of ever displacing him. There were several unsavoury incidents, with Beckham lucky to remain on the pitch after a blatant elbow to Bowyer’s face, while Barthez’s temperament let him down badly. Surprisingly Manchester was the dominant side in the first half but, as with Newcastle, they had many chances but Robinson was always equal to the task. It was not until after 66 minutes that United were able to take the lead and it was a goal which will long be etched in the memory of the Leeds fans. Harry Kewell capped another superb display by soaring like an eagle to a perfect Ian Harte cross to beat the whole of the onlooking Manchester defence and place a perfect header past a startled Barthez, with Ferdinand staring in disbelief. It took United temporarily into top spot as it was a midday kick off, but at the end of the day they sat comfortably in third spot.
United kicked off their UEFA campaign with a visit from Ukrainian club FC Metalurg Zaporizhia and it was a case of “after the Lord Mayor’s show”, as United returned to their underachieving ways. The expected goal avalanche never happened as United were extremely slow out of the blocks and poor finishing, and an outstanding display by the visiting keeper, restricted the score. Ian Harte’s radar was off beam and Viduka received little support or decent service. It was left to the appearance of Michael Bridges, after an almost two year layoff from injury, when replacing Viduka after 65 minutes, to spark United into the lead, as he held off a challenge to set up the winner for Alan Smith with 10 minutes to go. The visitors came with a ten man defence and Robinson was not called upon to exert himself. A single goal lead was scant reward for their dominance but the Ukrainians must attack in the return and maybe it will leave them exposed at the back.
There was a visit to Ewood Park next on the agenda, and it was back to their inconsistent worst once again as Blackburn Rovers got their first home victory of the season. Venables was out-thought tactically, with Souness cramming the midfield and exploited United’s weakness to pace on the flanks. Gillespie had the beating of Harte, and he used this to take the ball to the line, before crossing for Flitcroft to hammer the ball home, with the help of a deflection off Woodgate. Without Kewell, United lacked their cutting edge and the midfield had no creative ideas and gave little cover to Harte, who was clearly struggling and Viduka was left isolated up front. On 64 minutes Venables made a triple substitution, Kelly replaced Harte with Mills switching to left back, McMaster was given his debut in place of Viduka and McPhail added creativity to the midfield in replacing Dacourt. There were neat touches from McMaster, and McPhail got the midfield ticking, while Kelly was better able to cope defensively. Alan Smith had struggled hard and long but it was he who failed to capitalise on a golden opportunity to salvage a point. Henning Berg was adjudged to have handled in the box and with Harte and Viduka now on the bench, it was Smith who opted for glory and fired tamely at the keeper who saved with ease. A costly miss, which saw United drop to fifth.
United were the recipients of an Arsenal master class as they played host to them at Elland Road. Rarely can a visiting team have received a standing ovation from the home fans but that, to their credit, was what the United fans did to this almost perfect display by Arsenal with United merely interested onlookers. It showed the gaping chasm between Arsenal and United in class and exposed United’s frailties for all to see. Maybe it might have been different had Woodgate not missed the game through injury, but it exposed the injured Matteo and the aging Radebe to the lightning speed and guile of Henry and his fellow players. United simply had no answer. Arsenal just cruised through the game, seemingly able to score at will, and even when Kewell pegged a goal back late in the game to make it 3-1, Arsenal merely went down the other end and made it 4-1. There were several nasty incidents, but for the most part Arsenal remained aloof, and Smith, Dacourt, Bakke and Bowyer all saw yellow for foul play, but Arsenal were content to play football and only Vieira found his name in the book for foul play.United slipped to 7th but reflected that they had tried but had just been outclassed by a display that would have beaten any team.
A trip to the Ukraine was United’s reward for the Arsenal debacle and rarely could the opposition have been so different! On an appalling playing surface the Ukrainians tried every underhand trick in the book and an incompetent Turkish referee did little to stop them. They almost succeeded as they scored after 24 minutes, but rarely seemed interested in mounting the sustained pressure needed for victory. There were too many fouls and spitting and kicking, hacking and brawling, by the home players. The United players, particularly Smith, acted with admiral restraint but even Barmby, who was kicked from pillar to post, eventually lost his cool, but had the final say in more ways than one. The main offender in what can only be described as a continuing assault tested even the referee’s patience and finally saw the red card, and Barmby had the satisfaction of scoring the equaliser on the night and the winner overall. There was a rare moment of magic from Harry Kewell and the keeper failed to deal with his teasing cross, and after Smith had missed his chance, Barmby made no mistake, to hammer home from close range. United were glad when the final whistle went and glad to have progressed against a team who threatened more physical danger than skill or the will to score goals.
Venables was looking for cover in the problem left-back position and took Swedish International defender Teddy Lucic on loan. He took his place on the bench for United’s visit to Aston Villa and saw a fine defensive performance from the Leeds central defence of Woodgate and Matteo, who again battled through the pain and after the game underwent surgery in a bid to fix his long standing knee problems. In midfield there was not enough strength or creativity to feed the new forward pairing of Smith and Kewell, who both tried hard, but were not given enough opportunities. Harte seemed much more confident and his set pieces were always a threat. In a game where defences dominated and midfields carried little or no threat there were few chances created and a 0-0 draw was a predictable outcome and, although they gain their first point since the win over Manchester United, United slipped further down the table to 9th and 10 points behind the leaders Arsenal.
Matteo had not recovered from his operation quickly enough to take his place in central defence and this meant a debut for Teddy Lucic against second place Liverpool at Elland Road United played much better than they had recently. Kewell revelled in his new role of striker, up front with Alan Smith. He was probably the pick for United along with Woodgate who was again in fine form in the heart of the defence. The defence worked well as a unit and coped well with the threats which came predominantly down the left flank. Robinson was by far the least active of the two goalkeepers, as the lively Kewell constantly found himself space to get in headers which went close. Smith also had a shot blocked by Hyypia and had another cross almost turned into his own net by Traore, who was extremely vulnerable and sent another bullet-like back pass perilously close with the keeper stranded. The Liverpool winner came in the 65th minute after Hamann’s through ball found El-Hadji Diouf unmarked and Diao had an easy task to flick the ball past Robinson. Kewell missed an easy chance with 4 minutes left but that summed up United’s day. While optimism could be taken from United’s overall form, it was 3 more points down the drain and United slipped to 10th.
Once again United found themselves overrun by the opposition, as in the first half Middlesbrough totally dominated except for one breakaway which saw Mark Viduka scythed down in the area, the big Aussie dusted himself down and easily scored from the spot. There was no surprise when Middlesbrough equalised and the teams were level at the break which came as Smith was yellow carded, and Middlesbrough had missed several good opportunities. Venables seemed to have had the ear of his team in the break as they started the second half with a burst of attacking football which saw Viduka and Kewell combine, to give Kewell the chance to shoot and Bowyer following up scored with ease. The two Australians both went close in the next few minutes which could have put the game beyond Middlesbrough’s reach. The dismissal of Smith after 75 minutes saw the renewal of the Middlesbrough pressure and they equalised in the 84th minute, after United had failed to clear a corner. Both teams claimed it was two points lost rather than one gained, as Woodgate once again had a fine game in central defence with assistance from Radebe and Lucic who filled in at left-back. The result was a bad one for United and it saw them in the bottom half of the league for the first time in almost two years as they dropped to 12th, thirteen points behind the leaders Liverpool and only 7 above bottom club Bolton Wanderers. It was now six games since United had last tasted victory.
There was an improved display in the UEFA Cup home tie with Hapoel Tel-Aviv. With Alan Smith a livewire and Viduka and Kewell in top form, it was needed as Hapoel did not come to defend and were never frightened to break quickly at the least opportunity. Robinson was called upon to show his class with several fine saves, but Radebe shone in defence with Woodgate again outstanding. Barmby was also enterprising until a hamstring injury forced him off twenty minutes from time. Hapoel had given United many tense moments in the first half, but in the second half United gradually got on top and Viduka was taking on the role of provider rather than executioner. Kewell who looked confident and willing to take on the defence down the left flank finally gave United the lead with eight minutes to go when his shot was deflected past the keeper.
Everton arrived at Elland Road for the next league game and Leeds had every right to feel that a solid home win was on the cards, with their improved form in the UEFA Cup and safe in the knowledge that it was as long ago as 1951 since Everton left Leeds with full points. No one could have been pleased by their performance with the exception of Paul Robinson, who stood between Everton and a cricket score as the Leeds defence was pierced at will. His saves were sometimes unbelievable. Kewell twice went close and Woodgate had a header cleared off the line, but that was all United had to offer. Young star Wayne Rooney scored a deserved winner for the visitors, as he came on fifteen minutes from time and within five minutes had received the ball 30 yards out, sold Bakke a dummy and raced forward to rifle the ball home through the legs of Radebe. This sent United down to their lowest position for almost two years, a lowly 13th just six points above the bottom club. There was talk from David Batty that he had been frozen out of the picture, and, considering he had not even featured on the bench for the whole season, even though he claimed he was fit, it seemed his claim might have credence. The United midfield badly needed some steel and who better than Batty?
A League Cup trip to Bramall Lane to face Sheffield United, which had promised so much, finished with United’s usual abysmal ending! There had been a recall for Jason Wilcox and he provided much needed width to the midfield. He was a key figure for United until substituted after 77 minutes, and it was from one of his enterprising runs down the left flank that his cross was turned into his own net by a Sheffield United defender after 24 minutes for United to take a deserved lead. Robinson had had an easy night in goal and Woodgate was again outstanding with good support from Teddy Lucic and, until Woodgate was taken off injured just after the hour mark, Sheffield had not had a look in. After his departure it was a different story as United were reduced to packing their defence in a bid to hold on to their lead, but the introduction of Bridges for Wilcox saw him break quickly and almost increase United’s lead. It became ominous for United when Jagielka beat Robinson from distance on the 90 minute mark, and when the indication from the fourth official showed there would be 4 minutes of injury time one sensed that there would be no replay at Elland Road. That proved the case, as Sheffield scored a scrambled deflected goal right on the final whistle. That was like a death knell to a United side whose confidence was now at its lowest ebb. A section of so-called Leeds fans reacted to taunts from home supporters by ripping seats from the stand and hurling them on to the pitch below. It was a bad night all-round for Leeds.
There was a visit to West Ham United next. They had been struggling near the bottom of the table and had yet to record their first home win of the season. Injuries and suspensions had robbed United of defensive lynchpins, Woodgate and Matteo, and several other first choice players. The line-up was Robinson; Kelly, Radebe, Lucic, Harte; Barmby, Bakke, Bowyer, Wilcox; Viduka, Kewell. The barebones were showing on the bench with Martyn, Duberry, Bridges, Milner and McPhail. United set off like a house on fire, in this game of two distinct halves, and they made a mockery of their recent form slump. Harry Kewell was looking more at home in his striking role as each week goes by, while his fellow Australian, Mark Viduka, was causing most defences plenty of trouble. He proved a rare handful for Repka , who was reduced to fighting rather than playing. It was a complete performance by United who totally dominated the first half with all players playing well. It only took them 12 minutes to open the scoring as Kewell seized on a poor defensive header and his deft chip over David James was right on Barmby’s head and he made no mistake. The pressure from United was so intense that they could have easily had three more before they increased their lead, but as is increasingly usual United made a poor clearance out of defence and, after Robinson had parried Carricks shot, Di Canio followed up to equalise. It was 2-1 before the half-hour as Kewell met Harte’s pinpoint corner and United’s confidence was lifted again. Kewell made it 3-1 four minutes before the break with a powerful right foot drive and Viduka pounced on a defensive mistake to make it 4-1 going into the break. It looked like game over and the home fans were already leaving in their droves. While United had dominated the first half, they took their foot off the pedal and allowed West Ham back in the game as the home team found some of their pride and fighting spirit. After just seven minutes Kelly brought down Di Canio, who promptly jumped up and scored the resultant penalty. United were forced on to the defensive and after sustained pressure West Ham got a third with still 15 minutes to go. Bridges came on for Viduka, who had run himself into the ground after 77 minutes, and ten minutes later there was a debut for young James Milner, who replaced a tiring Jason Wilcox. Somehow United clung on to take a vital three points, which were of great significance at the end of the season. It moved United back to tenth, six points above their victims.
There were four goals for Alan Smith as United beat Hapoel Tel-Aviv in the away leg of their UEFA Cup tie, which had to be played in Florence due to unrest in Israel. Another patched up United XI were good value for their 4-1 victory and Venables took advantage of United’s impregnable position to give debuts to Frazer Richardson and Matthew Kilgallon who replaced Kelly and Radebe, who suffered a groin injury, on the hour mark. It was a masterly display from Smith, who was given his chance upfront with Kewell, and two of his goals came from interplay with his strike partner, as he got three strikers goals and one with a touch of magic. After just 70 seconds the Israelis took the lead to be equal on aggregate with an absolutely beautiful free-kick, which even the in-form Robinson could not stop. United’s reply came from the top shelf with Smith shooting accurately past the keeper after good work by Bakke. United increased their lead nine minutes into the second half as Smith scored with an angled shot from close to the by-line. He completed his hat-trick after 62 minutes when he was alert to the keeper’s parry of a Kewell shot. Hapoel had lost the game and some had lost their composure as a defender saw red after two quick yellows. Smith got his fourth of the night to round off the scoring as he nodded home Kewell’s accurate cross, as United easily progressed to the next round.
After the fine victories of the last two games United would have been looking forward toextending their run as they entertained bottom of the table Bolton Wanderers at Elland Road. They were lacking 10 Internationals, Mills, Matteo, Radebe, Dacourt, Fowler, Bowyer, Harte, Bakke, Okon, Seth Johnson and not forgetting Batty seemingly in exile to round off a spare eleven! United had Jason Wilcox at left back, Jacob Burns in midfield and Bridges, Duberry, Milner and Richardson on the bench in a very patched up team, which reflected the seriousness of United’s injury problems. United did show plenty of character to twice haul themselves back into the game after Bolton had gone ahead. There was plenty of effort from Smith, lovely touches from Kewell and resolute defence from Woodgate, Kelly made telling runs down the right and Robinson pulled off some fine saves, but it was not enough, as Bolton seemed to be able to score at will and they were worthy winners. It took Bolton only three minutes to take the lead as the United defence were in disarray. United’s response was instantaneous with McPhail finding Kewell and the Australian put it on a plate for Smith to crash the ball home from close range. With both teams equally guilty of conceding the ball on numerous occasions the game went dead after the electric start and the teams were locked at 1-1 at the break. United started the second half with Viduka twice being denied by last ditch tackles and Smith also went close as he created a chance from nothing. Bolton were not there to make up the numbers and Pederson rattled the inside of the post after showing Woodgate a clean pair of heels, but the game finished in a crescendo of action and goals in the final ten minutes. First Bolton put together a smart move featuring Okocha and Pederson for Djorkaeff to give the visitors the lead, There was an immediate retort from United as Viduka and Smith combined with neat touches for Kewell to hammer home a second immediate equaliser. Three minutes from time Robinson brought down Ricketts, who scored cheekily from the resulting penalty. To complete United’s misery the impressive Pederson rifled home a left foot volley to make the final score 4-2 and not for the first time Elland Road echoed to the chant of “Venables Out”. To add to United’s injury woes Teddy Lucic limped out of the game in the 81st minute, with United hanging on to 10th place but with Bolton getting three points closer!
As if United did not have enough injury worries, Nick Barmby broke down with an Achilles problem in the warm up. Venables was forced to play the unproven Jacob Burns in a five man midfield as he went for a 3-5-2 formation with a back three of Kelly, Woodgate and Lucic, with Bakke sat in front of the back three and Bowyer, McPhail, Burns and Wilcox in midfield with Smith and Kewell up front. It may have worked had Barmby not suffered his injury but with Burns out of his depth and Wilcox unable to cope with ball inside the back. United were totally at a loss to cope with the menace of Robbie Keane, who made Venables rue the day he sold him with a marvellous display, scoring one and laying on the other Tottenham goal as they romped to a 2-0 win. After seven minutes, he laid on the first for Sheringham after making a long run through the United defence. Then after pressure from Lucic stopped his initial effort, his strike partner was able to curl the ball wide of the diving Robinson. Little was seen of United as an attacking force as Keane pulled the United defence all over the place and he looked a premiership striker of the top class as he went close with a 25yd attempt, before he showed all his skill to bend a fantastic ball with the outside of his right boot past a bemused Robinson just before the break. To his credit, Keane did not subject the Leeds players or supporters to his trademark celebration, but controlled himself to wagging a finger to the crowd as if he had made his point. Venables had withdrawn Burns in the 37th minute in favour of Viduka and reverted to 4-4-2 with Bakke pushing up into midfield and Wilcox dropping back to left-back, but while it added solidity to the team it did not improve the result and United slipped to 14th, only five points clear of the bottom team.
In the topsy-turvy world of Leeds United anything can happen, but with a bench of Martyn, Bridges, Okon, Burns, Richardson and Kilgallon and Duberry replacing Lucic and Harte replacing Burns in the run on side, it came as a complete surprise when United turned on an improved fighting performance at Malaga in the UEFA Cup. The hard-fought 0-0 draw left them favourites to progress to the last 16 of the competition. Woodgate was a tower of strength with fine displays from McPhail and Bakke in midfield and upfront Smith and Kewell had several close efforts, while there were also world-class saves from Robinson when needed.
It was hoped that a visit from lowly Charlton Athletic might give United the points and a confidence boost, but it was not to be as United’s confidence sunk to a new low as they were totally outplayed. If not for heroics in goal from Paul Robinson, the score could have been embarrassing. For the first time in their history they had lost five consecutive home games and the euphoria of Kewell’s header to win the game against Manchester United seemed a distant dream. Kewell was the only bright light in the Leeds outfield players and not only did he score a goal of individual brilliance culminating with a 25 yard unstoppable shot, but he was the only source of danger to the Charlton defence. Bowyer did start to get to grips with his midfield task, but only later in the game. The goal from Kewell, which came against the run of play just before the break, should have been the catalyst for a Leeds victory. It was not to be. Charlton equalised and Venables responded aggressively by sending on Fowler and Bridges to replace McPhail and Bowyer. After Bridges had almost scored with a fine shot, it was the United defence that opened up like the Red Sea when Parker dispossesed Kewell on halfway, and then sailed past the entire Leeds defence and midfield, with no one able to put in an effective tackle, to beat the unprotected Robinson just on the final whistle in injury time. United had now dropped to 16th and almost into the dreaded relegation positions. The only bright spots were that Mills, Fowler and Bridges had made it to the bench and there was talk that Okon and Seth Johnson were nearing full fitness.
The visit to Fulham saw a debut for Paul Okon and Michael Bridges replaced the injured Harry Kewell. There was a half for Robbie Fowler when he replaced the below par Alan Smith, but once again it was Paul Robinson, who performed wonders to restrict the score to manageable proportions. Leeds were outfought and outmanoeuvred by another team who they allowed to dominate and conceded the large majority of possession to. There were isolated attempts by Fowler and Bridges but the United midfield could not cope and the defence was all at sea against a pacy attack. Robinson who has been United’s only consistent performer must have convinced the watching Sven Goran Eriksson that he is the answer to England’s goalkeeping problems with a string of unbelievable saves to deny Fulham any increase to their tenth minute opening goal. With just one win in the last eleven games, United were in dire trouble and although they remained in 17th spot, they were only 3 points above the bottom three and two of those teams had a game in hand.
After holding Malaga goal-less in the away leg United must have started favourites to progress to the next round. There was heartbreak for Michael Bridges, who had been hoping for a long run after his two seasons of injury misery, fell in a crumpled heap with no Malaga player near him and was carried off. His career was effectively ended. Fowler took his place for the rest of the game. Worse was to follow as Malaga took the lead in the 14th minute with their first attack on goal, as their winger skipped past Mills as if he was non-existent to cross for the striker to beat Robinson from close range. Leeds needed to show aggression to get back in the game, but Bowyer was lucky to only see yellow, after clearly stomping on the head of a grounded Malaga player. He was placed on a UEFA Report and was rightly suspended for the unforgivable act. There were no innocent parties in the game and a show of weak refereeing only served to ignite an already explosive situation. Malaga were allowed to get away with murder, but United only had themselves to blame. There was an improved display in midfield from Bowyer, Bakke, Okon and Wilcox but Mills, Woodgate, Kelly and especially were woeful in defence and could not cope with the Malaga front-runners. With Bowyer and Wilcox posing United’s biggest threat down the flanks, it was fitting that a fine Wilcox run and centre picked out Fowler at the far post, who unselfishly played the ball into the path of Bakke, who volleyed the ball into the net on 23 minutes. Leeds were clearly in the ascendancy and Malaga seemed content to disrupt United’s rhythm with a succession of petty fouls or theatrical tumbles, with private battles cropping up all over the pitch, and off the ball niggling reaching epidemic proportions. Malaga with the benefit of an away goal only required a draw to progress. It became increasingly obvious that United did not have the necessary craft to score again and it came as no surprise that Malaga scored 10 minutes from time to put the tie well and truly out of United’s reach, as Woodgate was turned inside out by the Malaga striker. United had meekly bowed out of the UEFA Cup.
Remembering the recent humbling they had received from Bolton Wanderers at Elland Road , one could be forgiven if it was thought that Venables had faced this do or die attempt to save his and United’s season from total catastrophe with anything but the utmost trepidation. Bowyer had picked up an injury against Malaga and was on the bench with Kelly taking his place on the right-hand side of midfield. Duberry, after two unacceptable displays was replaced by Teddy Lucic, while Kewell had recovered from a virus to replace Smith and partner Fowler up front. Taking an optimistic view it could be said that despite their poor performances, United were still above Bolton in the league standings, but pessimistically that defeat could see Bolton leapfrog them and confine Leeds to one of the relegation spots. For the first time in months the “real” United turned up. Robinson was his usual reliable self and kept a clean sheet. Woodgate admirably marshalled his defence with Mills, Lucic and Harte all giving improved performances. It was in midfield where United really excelled with stand out performances from Bakke and Wilcox with Okon and Kelly both doing their jobs to perfection. Kewell and Fowler both gave their all and were a constant threat. A fine team performance which could not have come at a better time and in such an important match and every 50-50 ball was hotly contested, no tackle shirked or confrontation avoided. No player hid and all stood up to be counted and gave their all for the cause. Bolton were beaten at their own game in front of their own fans. The United goals contained two hard to improve on long distance screamers from Danny Mills and Jason Wilcox, neither of whom is noted for their goal-scoring prowess as, after weathering an early onslaught from the home team, Mills gave United the lead after just 12 minutes. He started his barnstorming run on half way, and after exchanging an intricate one-two with Kewell hit a wonderful curling left-footer from 20 yards as he cut inside. Four minutes later United were well in control as a Harte cross was misjudged by the Bolton defence and crashed against the far post. Kewell was first to react but Jaaskelainen managed to parry his header and the goal-poaching predator Robbie Fowler rammed the ball into the net. United were clearly on top but four minutes later Harte went to ground in the penalty area and was adjudged to have handled the ball and a penalty ensued. On the advice of his linesman the referee gave a penalty for an incident that seemed accidental. So it was that Robinson faced a kick which had vital implications for both teams, fortunately Robinson was equal to the task and turned Djorkaeff’s well struck penalty on to the post and safety. Bolton tried in vain to get back into the game and there was no sting in their tail this time as a wonderful individual effort from Wilcox sealed the victory. There seemed no danger as Kelly fed him on the left flank, but he cut inside on to his right foot and sent an unstoppable 25yard shot into the net to crown a fine personal and team display. Even though they remained sixteenth, United had temporarily put daylight between them and the bottom three.
Southampton were the next visitors to Elland Road and, from a position of well in the top half of the league, were sure to be a challenge for United. While they had only themselves to blame, this proved to be the case. With Paul Robinson as usual excelling in goal, so much so that it has become accepted that he performs the same miracles every week. Woodgate looking much more assured in central defence and Smith adapting to his new midfield role. It was, however, Harry Kewell, who has hit a fine vein of form, who stole the show with a virtuoso performance, particularly after Viduka came on as substitute for Fowler soon after half-time. He fully deserved to score the goal which gave United the lead, as he reacted the quickest after Woodgate had rattled the Southampton bar with a header, with just over a quarter of an hour to go. It should have meant three points for United, which they scarcely deserved, as Southampton had squandered several chances and had a penalty appeal turned down. But as seems to be the case all too regularly for United, they conceded a goal in the final minutes, as the United defence was guilty of ball watching. The 1-1 draw did nothing to improve United’s position.
There was a Boxing Day visit to the Stadium of Light to face Sunderland, who had been an almost permanent resident of one the relegation spots all season. Their form had been so bad that they had dismissed their Manager Peter Reid and opted for United’s former Manager Howard Wilkinson, since their upset win at Elland Road earlier in the season. Considering the patched up situation of the team no one could have been over-optimistic, as on top of all the other injuries, Woodgate was out and Danny Mills was switched to central defence to partner Teddy Lucic, Kelly dropping to right-back and Smith featuring in midfield. Sunderland proved far more adventurous than in their away fixture and pressed United for most of the game having by far the majority of possession, and Wilkinson was moved to say it was their best display of the season. Smith picked up a head injury and had to leave the field after 36 minutes and was replaced by 16 year old James Milner, who had a fine debut. Sunderland took a deserved lead 11 minutes before half time and should have doubled it soon afterwards, but were denied firstly by a brilliant Robinson save, and then Mills’ quick reaction to block a shot. They were left to rue their missed chances as James Milner became the youngest EPL scorer ever, as he slid in to meet a probing Wilcox cross, to score from six yards with five minutes to go to half time. The goal proved to be the games turning point and although Sunderland battered the beleaguered Leeds defence, they weathered the storm, thanks to some desperate defending and a series of fine saves by Robinson. Leeds attacked with more purpose and determination. Their endeavours were finally rewarded 10 minutes from time when Kewell was clean through, and was unceremoniously upended in the box and the cool Robbie Fowler scored easily from the spot,to give United a 2-1 win and a three game unbeaten run for the first time this season. Bizarrely, they also had the best away record in the EPL! The win also took them up to 14th spot.
Second placed Chelsea were the next visitors to Elland Road.You would have thought that the league positions had been reversed, as United played so well that Robinson was restricted to fielding over hit passes and speculative shots from distance. It was the unsung heroes who played the key roles for United. Kelly had his best game of the season at right back, Bakke was constantly probing in midfield and Paul Okon, who had had steadily improving influence in the previous two games, was influential in the middle of the park, where his distribution skills were second to none. He seemed the solution to Venables’ midfield holding role problem, his versatility gave United an added dimension and with Smith and Milner floating between attack and midfield Chelsea simply could not break them down. Woodgate, with another accomplished performance on returning from injury, appeared initially to have given United the lead as he rose to head home a Wilcox cross after good work from Kelly. However, when seen from the cameras behind the goal it was William Gallas whose head the ball had connected with. After Kewell was taken off injured after 30 minutes, substitute James Milner became the darling of the crowd when he turned Desailly inside out before rifling a twenty yard shot into the net. A superb strike and a fitting match clincher! The victory took United to 13th position, 9 points clear of the relegation spots and 9 points away from 3rd place!
There was another 40,000+ crowd on hand for the New Year's Day home clash with Birmingham City, as United looked to build on their recent good form, which had seen them gather 10 points from the last 12 contested and catapulted them up the table. United had Harte in place of Lucic, with Mills in central defence and Smith in midfield, but otherwise it was the same basic team that, while depleted, had seen United embark on the run of good form. Harry Kewell put on another virtuoso performance showing his full array of tricks and flicks and his partnership with Mark Viduka, who had a welcome return to form and was rewarded with a fine goal to top off his five star performance. Kelly and Bakke each were in fine form and Woodgate marshalled his defence superbly and Okon played the holding role well and patiently did the necessary ball retention. Robinson while having a fairly quite afternoon was called upon to make three important saves and as was, as usual, equal to the task. Birmingham did have their moments of danger but after Kelly and Viduka had combined to allow Bakke to score after only seven minutes, United started stringing together their passes well and Elland Road reverberated to the sound of “Ole”, as each pass was successful and their one touch football was a joy to watch as they toyed with Birmingham. They did not have it all their own way, as Birmingham had two good claims for a penalty turned down as first Mills and then Harte saw their opponents grounded after dubious challenges, and Robinson had to be thankful to Kelly and then Kewell for clearing shots off the line. United however were always looking to attack and they stepped up a gear for Viduka to head a Kelly cross unchallenged into the net to seal the game after 67 minutes. United slid comfortably into eleventh place, only eight points behind third placed Chelsea, and twelve points above the drop zone, in what had become a very closely run race, apart from the top two and bottom two positions. United had now won four of their last five games with thirteen points from fifteen, and were the form team of the competition with eyes on the top places rather than the bottom.
The FA Cup draw had left United a tricky away fixture with Scunthorpe United and a record 8,328 packed the Glanford Park ground to witness the in-form Leeds come a cropper against a team 63 places below them! They had Dominic Matteo back after a three month lay off from injury and he replaced Ian Harte at left-back. The Irons certainly were not overawed by their classier opposition and Robinson had to be alert to stop them opening the scoring, as Scunthorpe laid siege to the Leeds goal for the first 10 minutes. United did finally make their way up field and a Kewell cross was flick headed narrowly over by Viduka and then the Scunthorpe keeper mad a good double save from the two Australians. Just on the half hour Eirik Bakke was tripped in the box and up stepped Viduka to nonchalantly tuck away the penalty, to give United a scarcely deserved lead. Scunthorpe could feel aggrieved not to go to the break at least level, as the corner count was 9-0 in their favour. Viduka was the provider for the second and clinching goal in the 68th minute with a slide rule pass to Bakke, who lofted a superb flick over the advancing goalkeeper. So United advanced to the 4th Round where they were again drawn away at lowly opposition, in the form of Gillingham.
There was an unchanged team for the visit to Maine Road, the home of Manchester City. There had been much talk of an impending transfer of Robbie Fowler and it was an unusual reception he received as he came from the bench after 72 minutes to the acclaim of the home team and stony silence from the Leeds travelling faithful! Manchester did play exceptionally well and it was up to Robinson to keep United in the game with a string of fine saves. There was little he could do, as Goater gave City the lead after 29 minutes. No goalkeeper would have saved a perfect strike from Danish International Niclas Jensen, who received a lofted pass across the penalty box from Anelka, and was unmarked as the ball dropped perfectly for him to let fly, arrowing his shot into the far corner leaving the excellent Paul Robinson helpless with one of the finest goals ever scored at Maine Road. Jensen again subsequently tried an equally audacious attempt, but this time Robinson was equal to the task. Manchester were always just that little bit too good, but had been troubled by Harry Kewell all the game and it was fitting that he scored United’s goal just on time to send City into a panic, as he strolled onto a through ball from Woodgate to score with ease, but Keegan was relieved that it had come too late for United to exert pressure for and equaliser or better. The loss dropped United to 12th.
The proposed Fowler transfer had seemingly fallen through, and he was again on the bench as United entertained the rock-bottom placed West Bromwich Albion, who were seemingly already doomed to relegation. With Woodgate sidelined for six weeks with a thigh tear, Captain Dominic Matteo moved to central defence to partner Lucas Radebe, who returned for his first game in two months. Lucic slotted in at left-back with Mills being relegated to the bench. United should have taken the lead as early as the second minute, when a Gary Kelly cross fell to the feet of Dominic Matteo, who fluffed the chance. An intended West Bromwich clearance hit the referee’s back and fell favourably for Eirik Bakke who, with only the goalkeeper to beat, sliced his shot wide. United were firmly in control, and next Kewell set up Viduka, but he was thwarted by the first of a succession of fine saves by Hoult, the West Bromwich keeper. Kewell again set up Viduka only for Hoult to once again make an outstanding save and minutes later a fine effort from Smith was acrobatically turned away. Once again United had no answer to a team that came only to defend and in the second half hardly found any shots to test Hoult. Milner replaced Wilcox and Seth Johnson came on for Bakke. And after West Bromwich had been reduced to ten men, Venables threw on Fowler for Okon for the last ten minutes. He had not trained much in the week and had still not regained match fitness or his poacher’s instinct, and even with a glut of firepower and against ten men United could not find the elusive goal, but the 0-0 draw saw them regain 11th position.
United were unchanged for their trip to Priestfield Stadium to take on Gillingham in the 4th Round FA Cup encounter. There were other matters on the Leeds supporters minds as their banners revealed, One was emblazoned with “Peter, why are you selling our soul”, a clear reference to the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Keane, before hardly a ball had been kicked in the new season, followed more recently by Bowyer departing to West Ham United for almost nothing, and Dacourt taking off for Roma on a loan with an option to buy at the end of the season. There were also rumours of several other players being touted by the directors to any team prepared to listen, Fowler and Manchester City, Woodgate and Newcastle United and Seth Johnson and Middlesbrough being the most popular. Come the kick-off, the banners were put aside and the team received their full support. It was also rumoured that Venables had threatened to resign if more players, particularly Woodgate, were allowed to leave. There were several chants of “Woody”, “Woody” and it was clear there would be major problems on and off the pitch, if he were to be sold. United were called on to defend resolutely in his absence and Gillingham with several six-foot+ players conducted an aerial bombardment to accentuate their aerial supremacy. There was also a pitch that seemed to have more sand in it than Scarborough beach to contend with. It soon cut up and became rutted, and they were happy to go to the break goalless, as Gillingham had had several chances, and even hit a post. Smith gave Leeds the lead three minutes into the second half, when after being upended 25 yards out from goal, he dusted himself down and curled a sweet shot round the wall for his first goal since November and his eighth of the season. Kewell should have finished the game off minutes later when he did all the hard work, as he picked up a long clearance from Robinson to shimmy round the keeper, before inexplicably shooting over. United were also reduced to 10 men as Viduka was adjudged to have elbowed a Gillingham defender and got a straight red which could mean an automatic 3 game ban, but try as they may Gillingham were unable to capitalise on there numerical superiority and United clung on for a replay.
Mills was restored to the team in central defence, while Radebe started from the bench, as United took on highflying Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. They clearly missed the departed Woodgate in defence, although the departed Fowler would have had only peripheral impact from the bench, which looked sadly depleted for strike power. Even so United went so very close to leaving with full points, as with 12 minutes left, they still led, but that was when Woodgate’s masterly defence and calming influence was most missed, and the three points were conceded. It was a sad end for Leeds who had produced a gutsy, back to the wall effort, and no one would have begrudged them one or more points. After just over the quarter hour Viduka had flicked on a high free-kick and Kewell nipped ahead of Terry to volley past Cudicini and give United a deserved lead. They held it until almost the hour mark, when Gudjohnsen produced a brilliant scissor kick to equalise. Undeterred, United hit back and Cudicini had to be on top form to deny, first Kewell, and then Viduka, but Chelsea conceded in a very simple fashion. Smith’s low corner should have been cleared but Kewell was able to flick the ball across goal right onto the foot of Teddy Lucic, who forced the ball home. United had struggled manfully in midfield and, just as in the Elland Road encounter, Paul Okon had subdued Chelsea playmaker Frank Lampard, but after Okon had left the field in the 68th minute, he came more into play. There were a couple of fine saves from Robinson, as Chelsea pressed for an equaliser, but he could only push out a strong shot from Zenden and Lampard picked up the scraps with a shot that deflected off Mills and Matteo before squeezing inside the far post, with ten minutes left. There was worse to come, when three minutes later Lampard delivered a cross which found Matteo on the line and with all the time in the world he chose to clear with his right foot instead of his trusted left boot and watched in horror as his attempted clearance miscued into the net. Kewell forced Cudicini into a fine save, but there was no happy ending and Leeds went down 3-2 and dropped to thirteenth place on the ladder.
United were unchanged from their Chelsea game, for their visit to Goodison Park, which resulted in Everton securing their first double over United for 50 years. Unsworth scored from the spot in the second half after Radzinski had been upended and the Canadian International sealed United’s fate with a clever second. Venables was left considering his position after a week which had seen Fowler depart for Manchester City and Woodgate for Newcastle, as the financially challenged United tried to keep their head above water. Ridsdale was given a police escort after being verbally abused incessantly by Leeds fans, but again they did not abuse their teamand vocally supported them to the bitter end. No doubt they, and Venables, and his players, were relieved to know that with the closing of the transfer window, their number could not be depleted further by enforced departures. To their credit United tried to play football and moved and passed the ball well. Kewell’s pace caused Everton all kinds of problems but he mishit one chance and then headed tamely into the side netting after interplay between Viduka and Wilcox had resulted in the latter finding him in the clear at the far post. After a 50 yard run Kewell’s shot on goal was deflected by Unsworth, who clearly knew nothing about it. At the other end the pace of Radzinski always troubled United, and he was the source of both Everton goals. Venables took heart from the Leeds display in such adversity and was strengthened by the support he received from the fans. The loss did not affect Leeds’ position and they remained thirteenth.
United were without Kewell (Hamstring) and Smith (Virus) for the FA Cup 4th Round Replay with Gillingham at Elland Road. Venables solved this by pushing Bakke up front to partner Viduka. After the £6million sale of Fowler and the £9 million sale of Woodgate, coupled with the walking free of Dacourt and Bowyer, it was anticipated there would be a large demonstration against the perceived devil incarnate Peter Ridsdale. Apart from a few isolated banner it did not materialise, and it was the Gillingham fans who started chanting “There’s only one Peter Ridsdale”, in comic relief. The crowd was the lowest for three years at 29,355, and merely responded with boos. Mark Viduka answered his critics from both sets of supporters by giving United an 11th minute lead, much to the disappointed of the 3,500 travelling Gillingham supporters, who were suddenly muted, as the big Australian signed off until the Manchester United showdown at Old Trafford in emphatic fashion. Ian Harte had struck a long distance shot which came to Viduka after a block from a Gillingham defender and his rasping 15 yard drive sailed into the net for his eighth of the season. Matteo and Radebe had played despite carrying injuries, and the popular South African was stretchered off after a sickening clash of heads with a Gillingham player just on the half hour mark. It was stand-in striker Bakke who closed out the game for United, when he struck in the 58th minute and although Gillingham reduced the arrears four minutes from time, it was too little too late and United went through to the Fifth Round, with another away tie against non-EPL opposition at Crystal Palace.
Lee Bowyer made his eagerly-anticipated return to Elland Road with his new team West Ham United, but for him it was no happy return, as the man who currently plays in his former attacking midfield role scored the Leeds winner in a hard fought 1-0 victory. United had signed Raul Bravo on loan from Real Madrid to fortify their left-back weakness and he duly made his debut, in an extremely under-strength Leeds team of:Robinson; Mills, Duberry, Matteo, Bravo; Kelly, Okon, Johnson, Wilcox; Bakke, Milner. Martyn, McMaster, Kilgallon, Barmby and Harte were on the bench. It was Seth Johnson’s first goal for Leeds since joining them from Derby County sixteen months previously, and plunged the Hammers and Bowyer deeper into the relegation mire. Even worse for West Ham Freddie Kanoute was red carded and faces a 3 game ban for slapping Johnson round the back of his head in an off-the-ball incident, which was seen by the referee. The Leeds fans vented their anger on Bowyer with cries of “Scum” and “Judas”. His every touch was greeted by boos and, after Johnson had rifled Leeds into the lead in the 20th minute, he was taunted with “Bowyer, Bowyer, what’s the score” and the final insult that he had to endure from countless opposing fans during the latter days of his Leeds career “ He’s going down, he’s going down, Bowyer’s going down” though ironically they were referring to he and West Ham going on “a Nationwide tour”, rather than an impeding jail sentence, as previously forecast by opposition supporters. Bravo, wearing Bowyer’s old No.11 shirt gave him no chance to shine and Bowyer became frustrated and finished up receiving a yellow card. Leeds were the better side and even with a makeshift strike pair of Bakke and Milner, both strikers could have added to the score, as could Kelly. West Ham defender Repka also caused David James panic and forced him into full length despairing dives. The win maintained United in 13th place and brought to an end their unwanted losing streak.
United had Harry Kewell back for the Fifth Round FA Cup Tie at Selhurst Park with First Division Crystal Palace and he and Gary Kelly and a lot of luck were the main ingredients for United’s 2-1 victory. As well as giving outstanding individual performances, the two each scored stunning strikes, to score the goals that took United through. Palace claimed loud and long about a shot that was clearly over the United goal line before being scooped out by Duberry, and there was also a clear trip on Shaun Derry in the United box which like the “goal” went unseen by the referee. The game had sparked to life in the 33rd minute when Gary Kelly, who led by example and constantly barked orders and organised the team, rifled home a 25 yard thunderbolt from a free-kick, which was taken while Palace were still trying to organise their wall. Palace was soon level as full-back Julian Gray scored from 20yards out. Alan Smith, who was not fully-fit, ran himself into the ground but it was Kewell who was the main threat to Palace. He had a few half-chances and made a nuisance of him self from time to time, but delivered a stunning goal of the highest quality to send Leeds into the last eight. There were no celebrations from Kewell after he waltzed through the Palace defence before beating the keeper with ease. The stylish manner in which he had scored said it all and the Palace crowd were stunned. His late winner did spark Palace back to life and there was more than a few signs of desperation in the Leeds rearguard, as they hung on until the final whistle, to earn another trip to the ground of another club from a lower Division. This time a visit to Bramall Lane and a local derby with Sheffield United beckoned and United harboured realistic hope of lifting the trophy.
Newcastle United came to Elland Road and proved they were light years ahead of Leeds with a 3-0 victory that was every bit as easy as the score line suggests. Once again it was another team deprived of so many players by injury and suspensions. There was little Robinson could have done to prevent any of the goals, as Mills had his hands more than full with Bellamy, and Bravo was unable to play with any freedom as he was too busy defending. Radebe and Duberry struggled to cope with Shearer and his fellow strikers. Consequently Okon was pulled too deep to have much impact, as Seth Johnson spent all afternoon chasing Dyer’s shadow, and Kelly and Wilcox, while working hard, made little impact. The introduction of Milner for Wilcox at half-time made no difference and it was left to Kewell to provide United’s only real threat, and he was aided by the hopeful Smith up front. Gary Speed ran the midfield like clockwork and Shearer, Dyer and Bellamy were a class above anything Leeds could offer. Dyer with two and Shearer with the other were the scorers. With the score at 1-0 Kewell had the chance to equalise when he took one too many touches, after rounding the Newcastle keeper, and a defender was able to get back to clear his shot before it crossed the line. Late in the game he also came close with a first time shot which was blocked by Given, and he was unable to force home the rebound. It was a bad loss and United slipped to fourteenth place having given up all pretence to European ambitions by league position, and were looking nervously over their shoulders, but thankful of an eleven point buffer above the bottom three.
United were well and truly robbed of at least one point from their visit to Old Trafford as referee Poll inexplicably gave a hand ball free-kick to Manchester United after Mark Viduka had been clearly brought down in the area by Butt. He certainly “bottled it” and lengthened the sequence of no penalty being awarded at Old Trafford to an opposing team for over three years. United had Mark Viduka back after suspension but lacked Harry Kewell. The big man came back firing on all cylinders and was just too big handful for RioFerdinand, who had another game against Leeds that he would rather forget. United scrapped for everything and tested Manchester to the fullest, particularly in the second half. Mills struggled at right-back against Fortune and later Giggs, but Radebe and Lucic were resolute in central defence, while Harte defended well and his free-kicks were well flighted. Okon was outstanding in midfield and worked well with Seth Johnson who got better as the game wore on, while Barmby and Bravo also worked hard in midfield. Upfront Viduka held the ball up well, and always was a threat, and he was well supported by Alan Smith. Milner and McPhail came on for the last 15 minutes in place of Barmby and Bravo and there were places on the bench for young protégés Cansdell-Sherriff and Kilgallon. Manchester took the lead after 20 minutes, when Robinson did well to save from Butt at point blank range, but the ball hit Radebe and trickled into the net. Manchester had held the upper hand in the early exchanges, but Leeds slowly came back into the game before half-time. They really showed their fighting spirit after the break and sustained pressure resulted in Mark Viduka’s powerful header giving Leeds an equaliser from an Ian Harte free-kick. It gave United fans a glimmer of hope of ending the 22 year wait since they had tasted victory at Old Trafford. Radebe and Lucic had looked so assured in the Leeds central defence that it was difficult to see where another Manchester goal could come from. But come it did, with 12 minutes left, as Silvestre was allowed the freedom of Old Trafford to rise unheeded to head home a quickly taken Beckham free-kick. It was a costly error but if the referee had not “bottled it” 10 minutes later it would have been rectified. The referee’s actions soured a memorable night for Leeds, given the injury problems that have hit the club. The result left them in 15th place and anxiously looking over their shoulders at the relegation zone, but if this level of performance could be maintained they would have no problems whatsoever, and would also have FA Cup glory clearly in their sights. Despite the defeat the players received a standing ovation from the travelling fans at the final whistle and rightly so as it was richly deserved.
For the 6th Round FA Cup tie at Bramall Lane, Harry Kewell returned to the striker’s role and Alan Smith dropped back into midfield in place of Barmby. Viduka had a hand in two of United’s three first half chances, but Alan Smith was unable to supply the finishing touch after a good build up. Harry Kewell, who was forced off at halftime with a back injury, missed the best chance when he went for power and blazed over, after having his first effort saved by the keeper, and he failed to take the chance that would have seen Leeds one goal up. Radebe and Lucic again played well in defence and Smith and Johnson tried hard all afternoon. United never really got started and the longer thegame progressed the worse they became. Robinson, as usual made several fine saves but was unsighted for the winner. Mills and Harte were truly abysmal and were given the run around by their speedy adversaries. Mills’ misery was almost complete when he was shown a yellow card and then a red, but his misery was not that easily ended; the referee had mistaken him for Seth Johnson, who had been previously booked! Okon and Bravo contributed little to the game and Viduka struggled up front, and clearly missed Kewell’s runs in the second half, as his replacement Bakke made little or no impression. So United’s final door to Europe had been closed and it must be a worry to Venables that his team can perform so well in one game: (eg.Old Trafford); and so poorly, against inferior opposition with much more at stake, the next: (eg Bramall Lane). United, for all their injuries, had 11 Internationals on the field at Sheffield and it was their endeavour rather than anything else that was in question.
Middlesbrough were United’s next visitors to Elland Road and Smith was moved upfront to partner Viduka, as Kewell was unavailable with a back injury. Barmby slotted into midfield, while Bakke replaced the injured Seth Johnson. There were other changes too as Harte was replaced by Wilcox with Bravo dropping back to left-back. There was an improved display from United, which was only to be expected as it would have been hard to reproduce the nadir performance at Sheffield. It was only a spirited fight back that made the score line look respectable and in truth Middlesbrough were patently the better team and the fight back masked another ordinary display by a poor Leeds team. Leeds, especially Alan Smith, huffed and puffed, but in reality, produced little, as both goals resulted from poor goalkeeping rather than any brilliance on United’s part. Juninho and Geremi bossed the midfiels and whether a Dacourt or Batty would have improved matters is a moot point, but their situation badly needed someone to take the initiative in the middle of the park. Bakke and Wilcox, while being good workhorses, were never going to unlock the Middlesbrough defence, and it took the introduction of James Milner in place of Barmby in the 68th minute, to spark the Leeds comeback. United started brightly and after a tangle between the keeper and a defender Viduka was left with an easy tap in to give United the lead and they almost got a second minutes later, as Barmby just failed to force an Alan Smith cross home. Middlesbrough then started to dominate and Maccarone scored from the spot after Radebe had upended him and Juninho scoreda fine goal just on half-time. Although United came out with renewed vigour for the second half it was Geremi that increased Middlesbrough’s lead to 3-1 after 64 minutes. There was more grumbling from the crowd, mostly directed at Director Peter Ridsdale, for his financial ineptitude, but the introduction of James Milner saw the Middlesbrough keeper Schwarzer unable to hold his shot and Viduka followed up for the tap in. It was, however, the keeper who denied United a point when he saved at full stretch from Smith. The fans went home having seen a fourth consecutive defeat and now in fifteenth position, only seven points ahead of the drop zone, and another home defeat suffered. It was one defeat too many.
It was Venables’ last game in charge of United and his record read: Played 30: Won 10: Drawn 4: Lost 16: For 37: Against 42: Points 34.
There are many aspects and questions over the short tenure of Venables and his part in the demise of Leeds United. One could say that he was badly misled by the Directors in their efforts to gain success but yet at the same time stave off the omnipresent creditors. He clearly was not told that he would have the better players sold from under him, or he would never have taken the position in the first place. However, the writing was on the wall with the sale of Ferdinand hardly before the ink on his contract had dried. A Street Savvy Manager, such as he purported to be, should have ironed those problems out as soon as they occurred, particularly in the honeymoon period he enjoyed with the Directors.
The Architects of the demise of Leeds United clearly resided in the Directors’ Box and the other directors were just as much to blame as Peter Ridsdale. It was their duty to rein in his ambitions within the confines of responsible management but they were merely a rubber stamp for the deceit and lies which were clear for any competent financial advisor to see in the final accounts of the PLC. Both O’Leary and Venables were set a task which they were unable to achieve. One could say it was the players who did not play to the standard that their remuneration should have ensured. There is little doubt that with the players at their disposal they should have achieved more, but if they had succeeded would it have been sufficient? One could doubt it!
Regarding Venables, he made a few early calls. His decision to relegate Martyn, and Batty, from the first eleven; the decision to play Kewell up front and Smith in midfield; the decision not to play Dacourt; All could be said to be mistakes. Conversely no one could drop Robinson, who finished up the player of the year and certainly merited the award. Kewell certainly scored the goals and merited thoughts that he had fulfilled his manager’s objective, particularly after the departure of Keane and Fowler and the injury to Bridges. There was also the injury factor to be taken into account as it was extremely rare that Venables had his best team available, the game at Newcastle was one, but the bare-bones elevens were the norm rather than the exception.
However fail he did! One could say it was inevitable.
Photographs of the era:
Back Row: Paul Okon, Danny Mills, Mark Viduka, Michael Duberry, Danny Milosevic, Nigel Martyn, Paul Robinson, Michael Bridges, Jonathan Woodgate, Lucas Radebe, Eirik Bakke.
Middle Row: David Hancock (Physio), Sean Hardy (Kit Manager), Steve Sutton (Goalkeeping Coach), Gary Kelly, David Batty, Ian Harte, Olivier Dacourt, Seth Johnson, Lee Bowyer, Robbie Keane, Roy Aitken (Coach), Steve McGregor (Sports Science Manager).
Front Row: Brian Kidd (Coach), Nick Barmby, Jason Wilcox, Robbie Fowler, Harry Kewell, Terry Venables (Manager), Dominic Matteo, Alan Smith, Stephen McPhail, Jacob Burns, Eddie Gray (Assistant Manager).
2002-2003:Australasian Tour Pre-Season Friendly against Bangkok Select XI
Back Row: Alan Smith, Frazer Richardson, Mark Viduka, Ian Harte, Dominic Matteo, Paul Robinson.
Front Row: Robbie Keane, Harry Kewell,Eirik Bakke, Lucas Radebe, Lee Bowyer.
Terry Venables: Manager, Shaun Allaway , Eirik Bakke , Nick Barmby , David Batty Lee Bowyer , Raul Bravo , Michael Bridges , Jacob Burns , Shane Cansdell-Sherriff , Olivier Dacourt , Michael Duberry , Robbie Fowler , Ian Harte , Seth Johnson , Robbie Keane , Gary Kelly , Harry Kewell , Matthew Kilgallon, Teddy Lucic , Dominic Matteo , Jamie McMaster , Stephen McPhail , Danny Mills , James Milner , Danny Milosevic , Paul Okon , Lucas Radebe , Frazer Richardson , Paul Robinson , Alan Smith , Mark Viduka , Jason Wilcox , Jamie Winter , Jonathan Woodgate .
Part 4: Peter Reid 2003
Peter Reid was born Huyton, Liverpool, 20th June 1956. Reid started with Bolton Wanderers as a midfield player of great potential. He won a Second Division Champions Medal in 1978 and also won six under twenty-one caps for England. He left Bolton for Everton in 1982 for £60,000. He piloted them to the championship in 1985 and also won the PFA player of the year. He captained them to a second championship in 1987 and went on to win a FA Cup Winners medal, League Cup Winners Medal and a European Cup-winners Cup medal as well as thirteen full England caps. He played almost 250 times for Everton before moving, on a free transfer, to QPR where he stayed for only a short spell before joining Manchester City as player-manager. He took them to fifth spot in the First Division in the first two seasons in charge but after a poor finish to the 1992-93 season he was sacked on 1st October 1993, after the sequence continued into the early parts of the next season. He was appointed Manager of Sunderland on 29th March 1995 and was credited with staving off relegation from the 1st Division, albeit very narrowly. He took them to the 1st Division Championship the following season and won the Manager of the Year Award, but they lost their EPL status two years later. They stormed back at first attempt and were seventh in each of the next two seasons. 2001-02 was another relegation struggle which was only averted on the last day of the season. 2002-03 was a continuation of the previous season and he was inevitably sacked on 7th October 2002, after a seven and a half years reign.
With the threat of relegation hovering over them, Leeds United and Peter Ridsdale appointed him as caretaker manager on 21st March 2003, for the eight remaining matches of the season, reputedly on a £500,000 bonus for avoiding relegation.
He started his reign at Elland Road by sticking to a “Terry Venables XI” for the trip to Anfield and seemingly certain defeat at the hands of Liverpool. It was Robinson; Mills, Lucic, Radebe, Bravo; Barmby, Bakke, Okon, Wilcox; Viduka, Smith. Harte and Milner came on for Bravo and Barmby at the interval. McMaster was on for Okon after 78 minutes, with Martyn and Batty unused.
He would have been comforted by an all action display and another goal from Mark Viduka and Robinson’s brilliant display to keep the score to reasonable proportions. Lucic and Radebe were again adequate, as were Bakke and Wilcox, but for the rest there was plenty of effort but little effect, especially in the first half. Milner was a big improvement in the second half and Harte did well after a shaky start. Owen and Hadji Diouf ran Bravo ragged in the first half. Owen opened the scoring after 12 minutes and a high quality Danny Murphy drive doubled the deficit. United gradually clawed their way back into the game and it was fittingly Mark Viduka who rifled the ball home from close range, just before half-time. The introduction of Milner and Harte saw United have a period of ascendancy. However, the game was killed off by the brilliance of Michael Owen, who set up Steve Gerrard to put the game beyond United with 17 minutes to go. West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland on 21 and 19 points respectively were already doomed, but Bolton Wanderers on 29 (and a game in hand), and West Ham United 30, were getting too close for comfort to United’s played 31, points 34, with seven games still to go. It was their fifth consecutive defeat.
On 31st March 2002 Peter Ridsdale resigned as Chairman of Leeds United. He was replaced by Professor John McKenzie.
Several players returned from injury for the visit to the Valley and the waiting Charlton Athletic, who had triumphed at Elland Road earlier in the season. Kewell replaced Wilcox, who dropped to the bench, in left midfield; Dom Matteo, surprisingly in midfield in place of Okon; Kelly in midfield for Barmby, who dropped to the bench in place of Batty. Harte held his place in favour of Bravo and Simon Johnson took his place on the bench; Finally Duberry was given his chance in place of Teddy Lucic, as all Venables signings were axed.
This was a display which revived memories of just how good Leeds can be when on song. They were certainly all singing from the same hymn sheet in this outstanding performance, which begged the question of why had they not played like this all season.
The answer lay in the composition of the team and the question was when was the last time Matteo, Kelly, Viduka, Kewell and Smith played together in the same team! Venables was never afforded that luxury! And if they had they would have been closer to the top than the bottom!
It was hard to pick who was the star turn, there were so many contenders. It would probably have come from Smith, Viduka or Kewell, but all were just brilliant. Not far behind were the other members of the midfield in Matteo, Bakke and Kelly who all had outstanding games while Harte and Duberry were the pick of the defence with Radebe and Mills not far behind and even Robinson was called upon to make a superb save early in the second half.
Nominally Reid employed a 4-4-2 formation but Kewell covered so much ground and pressed forward so often that it was really 4-3-3! It had been a long time since United attacked with such purpose but a solid midfield, with Matteo the fulcrum, allowed them that luxury. Smith was everywhere and had a hand in five of the goals but it was Kewell that really caught the eye. As well as scoring twice, he was a constant menace whenever he had the ball, which was often, but he still found time to make some crucial tackles and headed one goal-bound effort off his own line.
While Smith was brilliant and Mark Viduka got a hat-trick and looked like he would score every time he got the ball. However, it was Kewell’s work-rate that summed up the team effort. He hustled and harried throughout and the attitude was infectious as it spread through the whole team. They always looked to be in control as they shutdown Charlton from the front and never allowed them the time and space they required.
It was the kind of performance that the United fans had prayed for all season, and the fact that they got six goals was a bonus, but a lot of the elements missing for most of the season returned in this game. The Viduka-Smith partnership was tremendous with Kewell offering good support in the middle of the park, Reid’s selection of Matteo in midfield was a masterstroke. United had missed the influence of Matteo and Kelly and therefore the improved performance was no co-incidence.
Matteo worked well alongside Bakke in a solid midfield with Kelly beavering away down the right as if he had never been away. Michael Duberry had a strong game at the back, while Mills and Radebe gave nothing away. It was also nice to see Ian Harte look more like his old self, and the confidence that had previously ebbed away appeared to return.
It was hard to comprehend that United had started the game in 17th place, four points off the drop zone, yet finished in 14th position with a crucial six point cushion over their fellow strugglers, not to mention a substantially improved goal difference. Bolton had beaten Manchester City on Saturday morning which had left United in deep trouble considering that United had only won one game since New Year's Day and had only managed 10 goals in that time.
Kelly signalled United’s intentions with a crunching tackle in the first minute to set the tone and when Kewell hammered in a Smith cross from close range the die was set. It was 2-0 on 34 minutes when Smith was bundled over in the box and after Harte and Viduka argued over who would take the spot kick, it was duly converted by Harte. It was all Leeds and it was soon 3-0 as Smith won an aerial ball and Viduka showing supreme confidence to hammer the ball home.
This signalled a Charlton revival and they too scored from the spot after Radebe had upended Parker in the box, but Robinson denied them a second and a lifeline when he pulled off an outstanding save soon after the interval. It was a crucial save as Charlton’s last real chance and United then cruised to victory.
Smith again fed Viduka for the fourth and the big Aussie delivered a superb finish. Viduka completed his hat-trick and bagged United’s fifth from the spot, with a cheekily taken penalty after Smith had been brought down. Kewell completed the rout 14 minutes from time with another strike of superb quality. It could have been seven but Viduka hit the bar after being unselfishly set up by Wilcox, who had come on for Kewell for the last ten minutes. A brilliant performance and one which should have told the world that United were too good to go down, but West Ham and Bolton apparently hadn’t read the script!
There was another outstanding performance from Mark Viduka and some brilliant touches from Harry Kewell as an unchanged United took on Tottenham Hotspur at Elland Road. It was all Leeds for the first 30 minutes as they battered Spurs mercilessly and no one could have complained if they had been four goals to the good such was their dominance.
A delightful chip from Kewell found Viduka who fired a lethal volley, which skimmed the post. The two again combined to give United the lead on the half hour as Kewell flicked the ball to Viduka, who hammered the ball home.
United seemed then run out of steam or took their foot off the pedal as they allowed Spurs to venture out of their own half for virtually the first time in the game and an Anderton cross found Sheringham’s head at the far post and Spurs were level. Worse was to follow as Robbie Keane again made his old club pay, and after a solo run, which United’s fans always knew he was capable of, he finished clinically to give Spurs the lead, which their performance to date had not warranted.
United had lost their shape and had not been closing down and pressuring and they were punished accordingly but hung on desperately until the half time break. After the break it became a dour struggle with Tottenham defending well, but it proved to be another duet from Kewell and Viduka that gave them a deserved equaliser. Fifteen minutes from time the jinking Kewell was in full flight for goal until the Spurs keeper stopped his progress with a Rugby tackle and the in-form Viduka stepped up to score with one of his trademark cheeky penalties. It was Viduka’s ninth goal in the last five matches and was the signal for relentless United pressure as they searched for the winner. It didn’t materialise and indeed it was Spurs who almost stole the points as Radebe appeared to fell a Spurs attacker on the edge of the box. But fortune favoured the brave and the referee merely waved play on. The point saw United climb to 13th, six points clear of West Ham United, who occupied the only contested relegation spot with five games to go.
Lucas Radebe was missing from the team that made the long journey to St Mary’s to play Southampton. Mills was switched to central defence, Kelly dropped back to right back and Wilcox came into the midfield, and Bravo took his place on the bench.
Radebe was sorely missed and Mills was found wanting as United never really functioned properly until Barmby replaced him in the 56th minute with Matteo dropping back to replace Mills and Barmby slotting into midfield. It was a return to United at their worst and once again it was the superb Robinson who stood between United and a drubbing. He could not stem the tide as the Southampton forwards cut through the central defence at will and after three supeb saves he could do nothing to stop Southampton taking the lead on the half hour. Svensson left Mills standing and although Robinson parried his shot, he couldn’t stop Ormerod poking the ball home.
Beattie scuffed his shot just before half-time, but it trickled in with the defence wrong-footed. United were struggling badly and Beattie skipped round Mills to set up Svensson who gave Robinson no chance on 53 minutes. This saw Matteo drop back into the gaping chasm that was United’s central defence and Barmby filling his spot in midfield with the inept Mills glad his afternoon’s torture was over.
Smith, who had had a poor afternoon, seemed to loose his rag totally and got booked twice in four minutes to leave his team-mates to struggle on without his help for the last half-hour. However, although the game was irrevocably lost, United took control of the game and Kewell pulled one back with a neat run and finish and Barmby added a delightful second with a perfectly struck volley in injury time. It was, unfortunately, too little, too late.
Dominic Matteo gave everything, firstly in midfield and then in defence, in a true captain’s performance, but Robinson and Kewell apart, he must have wondered about his team-mates contributions.
With other results not going United’s way they dropped to 16th, equal on points with Bolton Wanderers and only six points above West Ham United with four games still to play.
Fulham, who were only 3 points better off than United were the next visitors to Elland Road. After the Southampton defensive debacle and Radebe still unavailable, Matteo was restored to central defence with Mills reverting to right back and Kelly pushing up in midfield.
It was not the same United side that struggled so long at Southampton, but more the team that finished in control of that match. Mark Viduka atoned for his poor performance at St Mary’s with a man of the match display, scoring both goals in a well deserved 2-0 victory. He had now scored nineteen for the season, eleven in the last seven games and eight in the five games that Reid has been in charge.
All players played well with Matteo leading by example and Kelly, Bakke and Wilcox working tirelessly to win the midfield supremacy. There was even a 70 yard run by Duberry, but it only took four minutes for United to make their supremacy tell. Viduka rose unchallenged to a Kelly corner to score with a bullet header. He also finished the Fulham resistance three minutes into the second-half, when, seizing on a defensive error, he teed up Kewell and, after the keeper could not handle his shot, Viduka was on hand to hammer the parry into the corner of the net.
Later Kewell rattled a post and Viduka almost completed his hat-trick but the game was well won and Fulham had long since accepted defeat. Smith and Viduka had started the United defence by closing down up front and the rest of the team had followed suit to purge the memory of their Southampton aberration and Viduka’s clinical finishing had reaped the reward their improved performance had merited.
The victory took United above Fulham to 15th but still only six points above West Ham with 3 games to go. Relegation was seemingly unlikely but still a mathematical possibility.
It seemed that United had almost survived, and there was an unchanged team for Blackburn Rover’s visit to Elland Road. United set off as if they meant to bury Blackburn and battered them for well over an hour. After some neat interplay between Viduka and Kewell, United’s in-form striker pounced to head home his twentieth of the season to give United the lead after 21 minutes. Blackburn levelled just before half–time when Duberry needlessly handled a corner and Blackburn equalised from the spot. It could have knocked the heart out of Leeds. To their credit they came storming back but just could not find the elusive goal, as Friedel performed wonders in the Blackburn goal.
As is often the case, Blackburn scored with their first attack of the second half when they scored a scrappy goal which Cole managed to put past Robinson at the second attempt. The goal took the wind out of United’s sails and it came as no surprise that Blackburn increased their lead as Robinson misjudged a corner leaving Todd free at the far post and he did not miss. Alan Smith signed off for the season with a consolation goal with a brave header deep into injury time.
United were well served by Viduka up front, who was in a fine vein of form. Kewell and Smith both played well as did Harte at full back, but the rest, after a bright start, collapsed in a heap as a series of defensive errors gifted Blackburn the three points.
United were now in dire straits in 16th spot but only one point above Bolton Wanderers and three above West Ham United, with two games to go. In the last nine games West Ham had picked up eighteen points and Bolton fifteen compared to Leeds' seven. United’s next game took them to Highbury to play Arsenal, who were chasing hard for the EPL Championship. It was not looking good!
United were thankful for the return of Radebe for the trip to Highbury, which allowed Matteo to push up into Midfield with Kewell pushing up into attack in place of the suspended Smith.
Considering the master class performance United had received from Arsenal in the early season encounter at Elland Road, when Arsenal were so much in command they seemed capable of scoring at will, there would have been few who gave them any chance of even taking a point.
The game was a classic in every sense of the word and both teams, with everything to play for, gave it everything they had, with no quarter given or expected. Arsenal usually blows teams away in the first 20 minutes but to everyone’s surprise it was Leeds who took the early play to Arsenal. After Gilberto had rattled the United crossbar, they came back to almost dominate the first 20 minutes play.
It was Harry Kewell who stole the show and showed, that on his day, there are few players who can match his skill and vision. His opening goal, after 5 minutes, was nothing short of sensational and neither Highbury nor United would have seen any better.
A brilliant long ball out of defence from Jason Wilcox, was taken over his shoulder and right in his flight path without even breaking stride, as he cut inside and beat Seaman all ends up with a venomous half-volley that flew into the far corner.
The Highbury crowd looked on in stunned silence and watched again in amazement as Kewell was set free by Viduka and after rounding Seaman found himself too wide to score from an acute angle. Keown was made to look a pedestrian clod-hopper as he had no answer for Kewell’s blistering pace and trickery, for this was Kewell at his magical best, swerving from side to side and displaying all his vast array of tricks.
It was not the United’s attack that had so badly let them down, as only Arsenal had scored more goals on the road, but the leaky defence. So it was a complete surprise that Radebe and Duberry were able to keep the usually rampant Arsenal attack in check.
They fought for every ball with tenacity and, with Matteo in similar mood in midfield, they held on grimly against the pace and goal threat of Henry, who twice hit the post as well as scoring. It was he who levelled on 20 minutes when he profited from Robinson turning a Parlour drive onto the crossbar to be the first to react and head the ball into the net.
Parlour went close to giving Arsenal the lead just before the interval, but it was Ian Harte who scored with a free-kick for the third consecutive season at Highbury who restored United’s lead four minutes after the break. Arsenal levelled as Pires rounded Mills to lay on a goal for Bergkamp, who side footed the equaliser from six yards. Henry then hit the post and it seemed only a matter of time before United would capitulate.
It was left to the man of the moment to write the perfect ending to a perfect day. Viduka received the intelligent through ball from Matteo on the right flank. Many strikers would have lashed in a first time shot, but Viduka showed great composure to casually ease inside an Arsenal defender and work the ball on to his left foot. There was still plenty to do but with effortless poise Viduka bent a wonderful curling shot past Seaman to send the travelling faithful into raptures in the 88th minute.
The goal was said to be worth £25 million as it ensured United’s EPL survival, it was his thirteenth in the last nine games and his tenth in seven under Reid. United were sixteenth with 44 points and left West Ham and Bolton to battle out the last relegation spot as both were on 41 with one game to go, but United had an unmatchable goal difference.
So it was that Aston Villa were United’s visitors for the final match of the season, and just to add a little spice, if United were victorious they would leapfrog Villa into 15th spot and gain a handy extra £500,000 for the United coffers.
The 40,000 crowd, the board and management and all concerned with Leeds United were just happy to see the end of a season, which had been a nightmare both on and off the pitch, and they were glad that they could look forward to the future as an EPL club.
They probably would have been speculating just how many of the players who did the traditional lap of honour would still be around for the next season.
Due to a family bereavement, Harry Kewell was not one of the players and Simon Johnson was given his chance up front, while there was a place on the bench for McPhail, Barmby, Burns Kilgallon and Martyn.
Mark Viduka was presented with the YEP player of the season award, while Paul Robinson took out the club award. Radebe and Matteo played through the pain barrier for one last time this season and they signed off with their usual dogged performances.
Viduka maintained his top form to be the star turn, but it was Harte and Wilcox who also caught the eye. Wilcox had had a succession of useful performances since his recall. Harte had showed more signs of returning to his former form, as his confidence returned. It was he who opened the scoring after just eight minutes with a sweetly struck free-kick.
Aston Villa were winning the midfield battle and were getting on top, but failed to capitalise as Paul Robinson was forced into three stunning saves in ninety seconds as he was tested to the full by the young and eager Villa team. He could do nothing about Villa’s equaliser just on half-time and the game seemed to be drifting into an end of season bore draw. The crowd could have been forgiven for taking an early mark as the entertainment for the first half-hour of the second half was non-existent.
Barmby, who had just replaced Mills, was on hand to hammer home a Matteo flick-on from a Harte corner to give United the lead and Viduka again added the coup-de-grace when he rounded the keeper to score the third in injury time, to round off another fine personal performance and take his tally for the season to twenty-two.
Viduka, with twenty, finished as the fourth leading scorer in the EPL and Harry Kewell with fourteen was equal eighth. It says much for where Leeds strength came from and without their goals would have been sunk without trace. It was fitting that Paul Robinson was elected Club player of the year for there were many games in which he saved United from humiliating defeats.
There is little doubt that United’s performances, by and large, improved under Reid as opposed to Venables and you could point to four wins from eight in his time in charge, but you could also point to four defeats and some good displays and some woeful displays. There was just no consistency and, as with Venables tenure, the fans never knew which team would turn up or indeed who would be available.
Reid did have the good fortune to have a stable team relatively free from injury and, as David Batty never got on the pitch, it could be said that he and his staff concurred with Venables opinion. There were no chances for Milner to shine but Simon Johnson was given his chance in the final game, in the absence of Kewell and Smith.
Reid’s record was played eight, four at home and four away, won two drawn one and lost one at home, with nine goals for six against. While away, they won two and lost two with twelve for and nine against. Overall P 8 W4 D1 L3 F21 A15 Pts 13
Reid was rewarded for his achievements by being made permanent Manager on 31st May 2003. The forecast mass departure of players never eventuated, mainly due to the available players being on unacceptably high wages and therefore failing to be attractive enough to potential purchasers. Shane Cansdell-Sherriff and Jacob Burns left on free transfers as their contracts had run out. Danny Mills was deemed surplus to requirements, and a prime example of a player who had priced himself out of the market, and so he was sent on loan to Middlesbrough for the season with a heavy subsidy of his wages by United! Harry Kewell left for Liverpool for £5 million in a deal which reflected no credit or good grace on the club, the player or his agent. Olivier Dacourt finalised his move to Roma for £3.5 million. Neither was adequately replaced as Reid brought in Midfielder Jody Morris from Chelsea, on a free, and a succession of loan players who were brought on a one season contract from France where they could not find first team opportunities. Defender Zoumana Camara came from Lens, Full-back Didier Domi from Paris Saint-Germain and Left Winger/Striker Lamine Sakho from Olympique Marsaille. These were followed, again on one year loan contracts, by Left Back/Midfielder Salomon Olembe and Striker Cyril Chapuis, both from Olympique Marsailles, and Brazil World Cup Centre Half Roque Junior from AC Milan. Right Winger Jermaine Pennant also came in on short term loan from Arsenal.
The pre-season build up was nothing short of disastrous, a 0-0 draw at Bristol City, a 1-1 draw at York City, a 4-2 defeat at Burnley, a 2-0 defeat at Hull City, a defeat by Aston Villa on penalties in the Dublin Tournament, where United’s humiliation was complete with a 2-0 defeat to Shelbourne.
So United did not go into their first game against Newcastle United at Elland Road full of confidence, as recent results of the two teams’ clashes had not been favourable. It also saw the return of three former favourites Gary Speed, Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer. There was a return for Seth Johnson and debuts for Morris, Domi, Camara and Sakho, as, Bakke apart, United fielded their strongest available team of Robinson; Kelly, Camara, Radebe, Matteo; Wilcox, Morris, Johnson, Sakho; Viduka Smith. With a bench of Domi who replaced Sakho on the hour, Batty who replaced Wilcox for the last 15 minutes and unused Martyn, Lennon and Milner.
The performance gave the fans visions of being in the scrap for top places rather than a relegation battle. If criticism was to be made it was the old failing of taking the foot off the pedal and allowing the other team back into the game. It was a balanced display from a team that had never played together before and though Smith stood out there were no poor performances.
Camara and Radebe gelled well in central defence and for the most part subdued the Newcastle strikers while Kelly and Matteo quelled the threat of Dyer and Robert. Morris looked to boss the midfield and succeeded for the most part and Seth Johnson showed he had lost little of his combative spirit as he too had a great comeback. Wilcox put himself about well in the unaccustomed role on the right while Sakho had a very impressive debut on the left, showing many signs of quality and proving a handful for the normally unflappable Woodgate, who already had enough on his plate trying to handle Smith and Viduka.
Viduka got the United opener and Smith was rewarded for a non-stop display by getting the goal which put United 2-1 up. Newcastle played as well as Leeds allowed them, but there was always a threat from their two best players, Gary Speed, who battled hard in midfield with little support, and the ever-present threat of Alan Shearer, who notched both goals to bring his career tally against United 19!
He got the first from the spot after Radebe had fouled Dyer on 20 minutes but it was equalised by Viduka just four minutes later after good work by Sakho and Morris. Smith gave United the lead 12 minutes into the second half when he cashed in on a Newcastle defensive mix-up, but instead of going for the jugular against the expensive Newcastle team, they sat back and allowed Newcastle into the game and Shearer saved the game for Newcastle with 2 minutes to go.
Disappointing result, fine performance and there was a standing ovation for the appearance of David Batty. Things were looking bright!
Not unsurprisingly Reid made no changes for the visit to Tottenham Hotspur but new loan signing Pennant took the place of Milner on the bench and the game saw him and Lennon make their debuts from the bench. Aaron Lennon became the youngest ever player to feature in the EPL.
There was again plenty of effort and commitment but unfortunately that was not enough and, although Morris again stamped his authority on the midfield, with Johnson, Radebe and Matteo also giving top displays, it was abundantly clear that United could not concede so much possession to the opposing team without being made to pay.
It was almost a siege, but it was Tottenham’s inability to bother Robinson rather than the 10 man defence United employed, that stopped them having more to show for their efforts. Viduka and Sakho looked decidedly off the pace, but there was also a decided lack of service to them. Smith had opened United’s account as he hammered home from 25 yards in the fourth minute, after being served by Johnson, but while it gave the travelling faithful a chance to show their approval there was little else to cheer, as Spurs pressed relentlessly forward for the rest of the game.
There were numerous missed chances from the home team who seemed determined to score from speculative long range efforts rather than from closer. Taricco was allowed to run at the United defence just once too often and he exploded an unstoppable drive from the edge of the area to send the teams into the break on level terms. The second Tottenham goal was always imminent and it was another fine effort, this time from Kanoute which sealed the Tottenham victory with 20 minutes to go.
Pennant and Lennon gave United more attacking flair and Seth Johnson almost snatched an undeserved point with a dipping shot in the closing stages as United belatedly tried to claw their way back into the game. United sat in thirteenth position.
United were without Lucas Radebe for the visit of Southampton with Matteo moving to central defence and Harte slotting in at left-back. Jermaine Pennant was preferred to Wilcox, while Richardson replaced Domi on the bench.
Seth Johnson again shone in midfield and seemed to be at the centre of most of the good things which United could muster. The ever reliable inspirational captain Dom Matteo again played through the pain barrier, with his ankle heavily strapped, and his defensive partnership with Camara ensured that the Southampton strikers would have no joy. Paul Robinson was called upon to make two outstanding saves at the end of both halves but as in the two previous games he was not overworked.
Pennant had an outstanding run on debut and he was certainly capable of providing the crosses for Smith and Viduka to benefit from. Sakho had the ball in the net with a diving header from a Kelly cross but was adjudged to be off-side. The Southampton keeper was by far the more overworked of the custodians denying United on several occasions.
Once again United had given their all but had only one point to show for all their efforts, but the crowd gave them a standing ovation as they left the pitch even though it was the worst start by a Leeds team for fifteen years and only two points from nine left them still in thirteenth spot, but four teams below them had a game in hand. Lots of effort and commitment but little quality, but a win would certainly have done their confidence no harm!
United were again unchanged for their trip to the Riverside to face Middlesbrough, but it was pleasing to see Radebe take the place of Richardson on the bench. Jermaine Pennant turned on the razzle-dazzle and was United’s star turn. There was a solid defence with Kelly, Camara and Matteo dominant, although Harte struggled to get to grips with Downing. Mendietta and Juninho bossed the midfield but Morris and Johnson fought them all the way. Sakho gave Mills the run-around, and Smith, as usual, ran all day and Viduka was there to add the winning goal.
United were for a long time out-played out-thought and out-fought but showed the determination and character to come back after being decided underdogs for most of the game. Sakho gave United the lead on 16 minutes after Pennant had unlocked the Boro defence. After wasting many chances and being denied several times by the brilliance of Robinson Boro struck twice in four minutes on the hour mark to take a deserved lead. But the Leeds team were made of sterner stuff and they weathered the inevitable storm, switching to three at the back and bringing on Lennon for Harte with ten minutes to go. His impact was instantaneous as he bamboozled the Middlesbrough defence and caused instant panic. United were now pressing forward and an out-swinging corner from Pennant was met by Camara’s powerful header from 10 yards and United were level.
Right on time United stole the three points as Pennant pass deceived the Middlesbrough defence and, after a slip by Davies, Viduka was left with all the time in the world to pick his spot. He doesn’t miss that kind of chance and he opted for a chip and was mobbed by his team-mates as the ball hit the back of the net to give United their first victory of the season.
United climbed to eleventh and with Olembe and Roque Junior waiting in the wings the omens were good. How wrong could they be! It was as good as it was going to get, and it was all downhill from here.
With only two points to show from their four games, it was hoped that Leicester would be easy pickings. United welcomed Brazilian star defender Roque Junior in place of the injured captain Dom Matteo and Didier Domi replaced the out of form Ian Harte at left back, while there was a place for Salomon Olembe on the bench.
All the early season optimism disappeared in a night of defensive horror show, “The Roque Horror Show”. United were out-thought, out-fought and out-manoeuvred and finally humiliated in front of a large live TV audience by a team that no one would rate other than a relegation contender, especially as they lacked eight first team players.
Defensively United were woeful and, if Robinson had not been in good form, it could easily have been six or seven. There cannot have been much chance for Camara and Roque Junior to get to know each other, let alone work out a defensive strategy, and there was certainly no leader in the defence in the absence of Dominic Matteo. Dickov and Scowcroft were allowed to wander wherever they wanted with space aplenty and Morris and Johnson, who had played so well before this game, made no impact on the contest and all the Leeds players conceded the ball too easily in the tackle or by faulty passing.
Pennant and Lennon were the only United players to show any kind of form, but even Pennant would concede it was not his day.
Nilis put Leicester 1-0 up with a screamer from 30 yards, but only four minutes later Bent outjumped Roque to nod down to Dickov who scored with ease. Thanks mainly to Robinson the score was kept to 2-0 until eight minutes from time. Radebe, who had replaced the out of touch Roque two minutes earlier, slipped and allowed Dickov to get his second and Leicester’s third. The fourth was even worse as Scowcroft was allowed all the time in the world to rise unchallenged to head the ball home as the defence stood rooted to the spot.
It was not a night to be a Leeds United supporter and they slipped to 14th with not even a whimper.
Ian Harte returned in place of Domi at left back and Olembe started in place of Seth Johnson with Chapuis and Carson on the bench for the first time for the visit of Birmingham City to Elland Road.
There was a much improved display from United and particularly Roque Junior who kept a tight rein on Birmingham’s main threat Dugarry. Olembe marked his first start with a top class performance as United bossed the midfield, and he linked up well with Morris. Although United had the upper hand Viduka and Smith were well held by the Birmingham central defence and only two chances came United’s way.
The best chance of the first half came as Olembe played a lovely ball to Sakho who crossed well for Viduka and Smith to just fail to connect, but it presented Pennant with a golden opportunity to open the scoring, but he failed to control. The second fell to Smith who was put in by Viduka but shot straight at the keeper.
The writing was on the wall for Roque as early as the fifth minute when he found his way into the referee’s notebook, for an innocuous tackle, while Savage went unpunished for a terrible tackle on Sakho.
The referee made two very bad decisions as far as United was concerned. He firstly, in the 76th minute, awarded a penalty that never was,then his assistant ordered a re-take after Robinson had brilliantly saved the spot kick. The penalty was awarded for a tackle by Roque Junior on Forssell which seemed to be outside the box and there was minimal, if any, contact and it meant a second booking and an early bath for Roque Junior. Robinson pulled off a great save diving low to his left to save Dunn’s spot kick, but the linesman adjudged he had moved early. Savage scored with the retake.
Eight minutes later there was more controversy as Forssell scored what appeared to be a goal from an offside position. There were bottles thrown on to the pitch but United could count themselves robbed and it was 3 points down the drain as they slipped to sixteenth position and within the relegation zone.
United faced Swindon Town in the League Cup Second Round and but for Paul Robinson would have been sunk without trace. It was a below par performance by United against the well organised men from Wiltshire, who shocked Elland Road by taking the lead just before half-time with a stunning 30 yard freekick. The game seemed to be over when 30 minutes later Parkin doubled the deficit and facing total humiliation United had little option than to throw caution to the wind.
There had been a run on debut for Aaron Lennon, who was United’s best performer and Cyril Chapuis, who made way for Bridges on the hour, and it was Lennon and Bridges who sparked the United revival. The retort was a Lennon corner that was flicked on by Roque Junior for Harte to gleefully hammer home at the far post, only three minutes after the Swindon second goal. The equaliser, which came in the fourth minute of injury time, with the last move of the game in normal time, was taken straight from Roy of the Rovers.
After Swindon had been reduced to 10 men when their keeper was sent off, a short corner from Harte found Bridges, and in turn his cross was met by a fine glancing header from United keeper Robinson who had ventured upfield for the original corner. It was a goal any striker would have been proud of. It was the first goal ever scored from open play by a keeper for United.
It was not the end to the Robinson heroics, and, as no goals were scored in extra-time, he was called upon to be part of the first Elland Road penalty shoot-out. Smith converted the first, Parkin replied for Swindon, scoring off the post. Harte was not so lucky he hit the post and missed! Robinson almost saved, but Howard was successful for Swindon, 1-2. Bridges levelled the scores before Herring shot straight down the middle, 2-3. Pressure on Roque but he converted with ease, 3-3. Pressure on Robbo but he saved to keep the scores level. Now the pressure was on Radebe, but the Chief scored with ease, to put United in front again, by 4-3. Pressure on Swindon and Gurney, who hit the post with Robinson at full stretch to save if it had gone inside the post, and United were through!
Batty had been given a chance to prove his fitness and played the full 120 minutes and, apart from Robinson, Lennon and Bridges, he was the only United player who could hold his head high in a very ordinary and lack-lustre display.
Nigel Martyn had been allowed to leave for Everton for only £500,000 and what a bargain Everton got! However, for United’s next game at Goodison he was not even called upon to get his gloves soiled. It was another total debacle reminiscent of the defeat at Leicester but this time United were just not at the races in any part of the game.
It was a full strength team with Robinson; Kelly, Camara, Roque, Matteo; Pennant, Morris, Johnson, Sakho; Smith and Viduka. Lennon, Olembe and Bridges replaced Sakho, Johnson and Pennant at the break, but they were equally pathetic in both halves.
It was a gutless, spineless display and United were lucky to escape with only a 4-0 drubbing to show for it. It could easily have been double that score, such was Everton’s dominance. United rarely won a tackle and could not string more than one pass together and on this display they are heading for the trapdoor.
Apart from Wolves no team had conceded as many goals nor, apart from Wolves, Spurs and Bolton, scored as few goals as United. As this was United’s best available team it did not augur well for the future which could not be anything but bleak.
Only Robinson emerged with any credit but he was exposed time and time again, but still managed to pull off several fine saves to keep the score down. Camara and Matteo had looked to be forging a good partnership at the heart of the defence, but with the advent of Roque Junior there was no central defence and plainly he and Camara didn’t speak the same language and there was no communication whatsoever.
To concede four goals in consecutive away games to teams that would not have lived with United two years ago was very hard to take, but that was how far the mighty had fallen.
Morris and Johnson were totally outplayed in midfield and even Smith was called back to help but to no avail. Viduka was a lone and forlorn picture in attack and never had a kick all day. United only had two shots on goal in the entire match and Smith and Pennant’s were so poor, it left one wondering why they had bothered. Those "shots" were in the first 20 minutes, when United did venture forward, but from there on it was a matter of trying to stem the tide as they were totally over-run.
Everton wreaked havoc down the flanks and mediocre midfielder Steve Watson was made to look world-class by the United misfits. When he opened the scoring in the 27th minute the only surprise was that it took that long, but a quick one-two with Ferguson left Roque Junior in no man’s land and, nine minutes later, Robinson was similarly treated as a delightful Watson chip from 40 yards out, found him equally stranded.
It came as no surprise to anyone when the hosts went 3-0 up three minutes later, as Ferguson was allowed to ghost in to the far post to convert a pinpoint cross from the right. The triple half-time change by United did not stem the tide for more than seven minutes as Watson claimed his hat-trick and Everton’s fourth with another chip across goal.
Lennon did try to inject some life into the proceedings but it was powder puff efforts from Viduka and Bridges that were saved by a redundant Nigel Martyn, and were so poor that they would not have been registered as attempts on goal. Wayne Rooney came on late in the game and United could be thankful that he forgot his shooting boots as he missed an open goal in the final minutes.
United sank to eighteenth and gave no semblance of hope to their travelling faithful that there was any chance for improvement and on this performance relegation looked to be a certainty.
The changes were rung for the visit of Blackburn Rovers to Elland Road. Roque Junior was missing from central defence, replaced by Dominic Matteo, with Salomon Olembe slotting in at left-back, while Batty replaced Sakho in a re-organised midfield. Indeed it was Batty who made the difference with an outstanding performance and raised the team to their best performance of the season, by far. He was inspirational, and his team-mates could do little but respond to his example, as he rolled back the years and made a mockery of any suggestions that he was past it, or wasn’t fit, physically or mentally, as he answered his detractors in the best possible way. He was everywhere, breaking up Blackburn attacks and getting forward with alarming regularity, and was the epitome of courage and determination that has been lacking in United’s play for so long.
The United midfield dominated proceedings, and with Matteo adding an assurance to the defence, Olembe was able to become more and more adventurous down the left flank. With this dominance United were able to create scoring opportunities aplenty. On a better day Smith would have had a hat-trick and Viduka gave his best display of the season, showing plenty of craft and guile as he ran hard and worked well and had a point to prove. Unfortunately when he was replaced by Bridges on 67 minutes he was so upset that he totally ignored Peter Reid and was so incensed that he disappeared direct down the tunnel, clearly displeased by his manager’s decision.
Smith had already missed two golden opportunities when Seth Johnson was on hand to rifle home a shot, after Friedel had fumbled a Viduka shot on eleven minutes. It was Johnson who also got his and United’s second just before the half hour mark as a Jermaine Pennant cross appeared to be handled by a defender but the midfielder was again on hand to volley home.
Blackburn really hadn’t had a look in such was the United dominance but Cole showed he could be a threat, as he hit the post in a rare Blackburn raid, but the game deteriorated into a drab affair after the interval until Blackburn called upon Dino Baggio as a substitute after 65 minutes. He immediately made his presence felt and Paul Robinson was forced to make a stunning save at close range but could not prevent the Italian getting Blackburn back into the game with a far post header four minutes from time.
There was no nail biting finale as United held firm and there was no hint of an equaliser as they got full points to jump to fourteenth position but had dropped back to sixteenth, as the weekend’s fixtures were completed.
There was more bad news for Leeds United in several shapes. On the financial front they announced the largest loss ever recorded by a British Club, a loud clang in the death knell of the club and not the kind of record it needed or could be proud of.
To add insult to injury they were also dispatched from the League Cup by a sadly depleted Manchester United team. One could say it more closely resembled their Youth/Reserve team than their internationally famous team of super-stars.
United had more of a “first choice” look about them but it was James Milner who took the eye and Aaron Lennon also impressed, as a substitute, for the last half hour. For once Roque Junior was able to show his class, he was sure in the tackle, dominant in the air and his positional sense was for once more becoming of a Brazilian World Cup Winner. He also scored two goals which suggested he could be the target for set pieces which United have been crying out for.
Robinson as usual was a formidable barrier, Camara and Roque Junior were very solid in defence and Olembe showed up well in midfield with Milner the stand out. Kelly, Harte, Johnson, Sakho, Smith and Bridges were ”workmanlike” but to little effect. Lennon did well after substituting for Olembe but Domi for Bridges and Chapuis for Sakho were no improvement.
The game hinged on two adverse decisions in thirty seconds deep into extra time. Chapuis was manhandled and dragged to the ground in the penalty area by Fortune, a certain penalty to all but Paul Durkin, who waved play on. With United in disarray play quickly moved to the Leeds area and Diego Forlan, clearly in an offside position, tapped in a Fletcher cross. It should have been 2-1 to Leeds but it was 1-2.
Roque Junior had climbed high to head in a Seth Johnson corner to give United the lead just after the break and they held on until Bellion beat the Leeds offside trap to score in the 78th minute. Both sides tired as the game drifted into extra-time and a 1-1 draw seemed inevitable until the mad thirty seconds.
United to their credit still gave their all and Roque Junior got his second ever goal for United to level the scores with six minutes of extra-time left when he tapped in a cross from Milner. As luck would have it the winner came with three minutes left as Djemba-Djemba mishit his shot and it skewed out of the reach of Robinson and into the net.
Smith, silly boy that he is, picked up a discarded drink bottle and threw it into the crowd, hitting a woman. The FA duly investigated the incident! The team showed plenty of effort for no reward.
Events off the field were now overshadowing events on it and new financial guru, Trevor Birch, was not only appalled by the financial morass he was to discover, but must have wondered where they were heading on the industrial relations scene, as Mark Viduka and Peter Reid clearly were not singing from the same hymn-sheet. There had been simmering discontent for most of the season and Viduka’s form had dipped from his sterling efforts to be instrumental in United avoiding relegation the previous season. He had been clearly incensed by being substituted against Blackburn Rovers and there were rumours of training pitch spats between the two as well as Viduka’s lax timekeeping. Viduka was made aware of his dropping from the team 45 minutes before the kick-off and he left immediately, much to the fans and Reid’s dislike. There was also talk of other players being displeased with Reid’s management techniques.
So it was that United faced perennial high-flyers Arsenal at Elland Road. As in the previous year’s Elland Road encounter it was boys against men as Arsenal turned on another display of faultless precision to overwhelm the hapless United and seemingly scored at will and they turned on the razzle-dazzle to humiliate the hosts, who were just not in the same class.
Without Matteo United were lacking a defensive leader and Roque just went AWOL, but he was not the only one. Until the arrival of Milner and Lennon in place of Bridges and Sakho, in the second half, United had nothing but courage to offer, and that wasn’t in bountiful proportions.
Henry showed Camara a quick pair of heels to score after only eight minutes, Pires ended the game as a contest in the 17th minute as he put Arsenal two up. Henry got his second and Arsenal’s third after barely half an hour. Just after the interval Gilberto tapped in a Pires cross to put Arsenal 4-0 up and in a surreal atmosphere the home fans cheered their heroes on as if it was they who were four goals to the good.
This visibly lifted the team and Smith was on hand to side-foot a Lennon cross into the net just after the hour. It was no more than a consolation, but the fans chants showed they had not deserted the team or the Manager.
But it was the weekend results that mattered and it plunged United to rock-bottom with only eight points from eleven games. Their only consolation was that there were seven other teams within three points and they don’t have to play Arsenal every week! Their destiny was in their own hands with the next two games were against fellow strugglers Portsmouth and Bolton Wanderers
Viduka was again omitted, this time for a training ground tirade against the manager in front of the bulk of the squad. It was hard to accept but United plummeted to new depths, with a pitiful display against fellow strugglers Portsmouth. To be beaten by four goals by class outfits such as Arsenal, Liverpool etc was understandable if not totally acceptable, but to be humbled by that score by mediocre opposition such as Everton and Leicester City was a humiliation and now to cap everything to be totally outplayed and demoralised by fellow strugglers Portsmouth by 6-1 was the nadir.
It was hard to find any United player who did not appear to humbly surrender and indeed, if the second half display is to be the criteria, it lost Reid his job and told the world that United were not only relegation contenders; they were clear favourites.
Trying to be kind, Milner, Smith and Matteo tried to look interested and Seth Johnson showed willingness for battle but for the rest, the less said the better. Even Robinson, who had performed miracles for the United cause for the past year or so, was culpable.
For 45 minutes at least they competed and looked the stronger team when they had possession. Stefanovic gave Portsmouth the lead on 16 minutes but Smith quickly equalised three minutes later. There was no sign of impending disaster until first half injury time when a weak Kelly clearance was picked up by O’Neil, whose shot hit Matteo’s back and squirmed past Robinson.
No one could have predicted the debacle that was to follow. On the hour mark Foxe scored with a speculator shot from 20 yards, which Robinson should have saved, and so the floodgates opened. It was game over as the Pompey bullets started to fly and there were many United players who went missing in action. O’Neil got his second on 71 minutes and former United target Patrik Berger made it 5-1, four minutes later. Yakubu Ayegbeni finally escaped Duberry’s attention to round off the scoring with four minutes to go.
So Reid’s tenure came to an ignominious end with United’s biggest EPL defeat, and their biggest since Stoke City scored seven back in 1986, in the dark days of Billy Bremner. He left them in the parlous position of rock bottom. Played twelve, Won two, Drawn two, Lost eight, with eleven goals for and thirty-eight against. Points Eight.
His full record was Played twenty, Won six, Drawn three, Lost eleven, thirty-two goals for, forty-six against, Points twenty-one (from sixty!). Hardly a record to recall with pride and begged the question of was it poor managership from Reid, and his predecessors, or the overpaid, and by and large, underperforming players, who were to blame!
Photographs of the era:
Back Row: Didier Domi, Mark Viduka, Ian Harte, Michael Bridges, Nigel Martyn, Paul Robinson, Scott Carson, Matthew Kilgallon, Lucas Radebe, Joel Sammi, Eirik Bakke.
Middle Row: David Hancock (Physio), Dean Riddle (Fitness Consultant), Steve Sutton (Goalkeeping Coach), David Batty, Jody Morris, Aaron Lennon, James Milner, Nick Barmby, Paul Keegan, Stephen McPhail, Simon Johnson, Danny Mills, Martin Woods, Sean Hardy (Kit Manager), Steve Agnew (Coach).
Front Row: Jason Wilcox, Frazer Richardson, Zoumana Camara, Lamine Sakho, Kevin Blackwell (Coach), Dominic Matteo, John McKenzie (Director), Peter Reid (Manager), Jamie McMaster, Seth Johnson, Gary Kelly, Alan Smith.
Back Row: Didier Domi, Mark Viduka, Ian Harte, Michael Bridges, Nigel Martyn, Paul Robinson, Scott Carson, Matthew Kilgallon, Lucas Radebe, Joel Sammi, Eirik Bakke.
Middle Row: David Hancock (Physio), Dean Riddle (Fitness Consultant), Steve Sutton (Goalkeeping Coach), David Batty, Jody Morris, Aaron Lennon, James Milner, Nick Barmby, Paul Keegan, Stephen McPhail, Simon Johnson, Danny Mills, Martin Woods, Sean Hardy (Kit Manager), Steve Agnew (Coach).
Front Row: Jason Wilcox, Frazer Richardson, Zoumana Camara, Lamine Sakho, Kevin Blackwell (Coach), Dominic Matteo, Peter Reid (Manager), Jamie McMaster, Seth Johnson, Gary Kelly, Alan Smith.
Peter Reid: Manager, Shaun Allaway , Eirik Bakke , Nick Barmby , David Batty , Raul Bravo , Michael Bridges , Zoumana Camara , Cyril Chapuis , Didier Domi , Michael Duberry , Ian Harte , Seth Johnson , Simon Johnson , Gary Kelly , Harry Kewell , Matthew Kilgallon , Aaron Lennon , Teddy Lucic , Dominic Matteo , Jamie McMaster , Stephen McPhail , Danny Mills , James Milner , Danny Milosevic , Jody Morris , Paul Okon , Salomon Olembe , Jermaine Pennant , Lucas Radebe , Paul Robinson , Roque Junior , Lamine Sakho , Alan Smith , Mark Viduka , Jason Wilcox , Jamie Winter .
Part 5: Eddie Gray 2003-04
For the second time United turned to the ever faithful, ever popular, playing legend Eddie Gray in their time of Managerial need. It was seen as the easy soft option as Eddie was the popular choice of the fans. He was financially acceptable to the board and well known and liked and respected by the majority of the players, and there were few other likely candidates who would dare sip from the poisoned chalice or be on a hiding to nothing for very little recompense.
His second reign was not off to a good start as fellow relegation candidates Bolton Wanderers showed United just how to apply themselves and disappeared back over the Pennines with all three points to leave United with the sad record of eight defeats in their last nine premiership games.
Eddie Gray was greeted to the dug-out by rapturous applause from the fans who acclaimed, their supposed saviour.
Kelly had been a late withdrawal, with Batty and Johnson only declaring themselves fit on the morning of the match, while Pennant had pulled out with an illness, and Lucas Radebe stepped off the treatment table to answer the call for the third time in the season.
Matteo and Smith watched from the stand as Mark Viduka made his return after the departure of Reid. All was well for 15 minutes, as Morris took a hold on the midfield, Milner was again a stand out and he and Sakho looked a threat on the flanks. However it all went wrong.
Not for the first time this season, the defence lost their way and the game was lost there and then. Their failure to deal with a simple cross gave Davies the chance to pick up the weak clearance and score from 20 yards. Alarmingly they immediately conceded an even softer goal. From the restart United conceded possession and Davies picked up the punt forward, took it to the bye-line before crossing it, and squared it into the path of the unmarked Stelios who tapped in from close range. Robinson was once more given very little cover as Radebe tried hard, but got too little support from Duberry, while Camara was playing right back for the first time, and it showed.
Harte was fine going forward but as usual was wanting in defence. Milner gave his all, but couldn’t do everything on his own and received scant assistance from Batty, Morris and Johnson. The latter three were substituted, Chapuis for Batty at the break and Olembe and Barmby for the redundant pair on 77 minutes, but it was a retrograde step as they contributed even less. Viduka and Sakho were given little service but the latter tried hard all day.
The result helped Bolton’s cause but it left United wondering where their next point was coming from. It was clear that United were just not good enough to compete in the relegation battle and there was a salutary lesson from Bolton on how serial survivors build themselves into hardened campaigners, well versed in grinding out results by gritty and well disciplined performances. Sadly United had rarely showed that ability in recent times and the lack of preparation available to Gray and the team could not be used as an excuse. They looked a beaten and disjointed team as they trooped off at full-time to a smattering of boos as they disappeared down the tunnel.
The team and club looked like a rudderless ship. There was talk of Gordon Strachan coming in to take over the reins for what was undoubtedly the toughest job in the EPL, but he would have had to succeed where three previous Managers have failed, in instilling some belief, quality and passion into a team who were developing a habit for losing. There seemed no contingency plan from the board for impending relegation. To stand any chance the Manager, who ever he might be, would have needed to be allowed to use the January window to strengthen the team, while maintaining the present players who might be subject to envious eyes of other managers who were looking for easy pickings, but come what may, it was imperative that results had to improve or relegation would be a certainty. They were now rock bottom and now in danger of losing contact with other also-rans.
It was a return to the scene of one of United’s best performances of recent years to Charlton Athletic’s Valley. It must have stirred memories for Viduka, Matteo and Smith, who had outstanding performances that day, while Robinson, Duberry, Radebe, Kelly and Harte too would have had fond memories, but it was Milner, who had a bit part that day, who starred in today’s performance which gave Eddie Gray his first victory since taking on the caretaker Manager’s job.
Amid speculation that the club were bound for Administration, Gray went for the tried and true, electing to select only Pennant from the long list of “Free Transfer and Loan Players” and there was a return to the players who had often answered the United call, with Matteo recalled to the midfield and David Batty in the anchor role. It took only nine minutes before Milner had his name on the score-sheet, when he calmly accepted a through ball from Viduka and sidefooted past the Charlton keeper Kiely. The goal was merely the icing on the cake on a truly impressive display by the seventeen year old Milner, who would no doubt be the subject of unwanted attention of other clubs as Leeds attempted to keep afloat financially, but he intelligently found space and willingly ran at the Charlton defence, blotting his copybook only once when he headed wide from close range in the second half.
There was a 100% performance from Mark Viduka, who had been dropped and fined by Reid after a bitter disagreement, but with the advent of Gray the slate had been wiped clean and he repaid his caretaker boss with a powerful performance which put the Charlton defence under pressure for the entire 90 minutes. With a little more luck he could have made it 2-0 to Leeds on eleven minutes, as he swept past Perry and chipped Kiely only to be denied by Kanchelsky’s desperate goal-line clearance.
Charlton substituted Cole for Svenssen at half-time but while he was more dangerous, there was no trouble for Robinson until the final five minutes when he was tested by a Euell twenty yarder and a Cole drive was pushed round the post by the ever-alert custodian. This apart, Holland had rapped a goalpost with a header in the 25th minute, but by and large, United outplayed and outgunned Charlton. They were forceful and direct and Kiely was by far the more active of the two keepers, twice called upon to save at full stretch from Viduka and also denying Milner a second goal.
Unfortunately the hard won victory did not lift United off the bottom rung but they were level on points with Wolverhampton Wanderers and the win gave them a welcome confidence boost.
It was the Billionaires versus the Paupers as David met Goliath with Chelsea’s fees for their starting team at over £100 million and that excluded the substitutes’ bench! It was, however, the paupers who came out on top in everything but the final score, as United punched way above their weight, and it was Chelsea who were glad of the point while United were unlucky not to take the full points.
With the long term injured McPhail back for Batty, as their only change from their Valley victory, United had many outstanding performances but Jermaine Pennant was the pick of the lot as he turned on a scintillating display and caused Chelsea all kinds of trouble as they struggled to contain him. No doubt United would be making frantic efforts to extend his loan contract which was due to cease on December 19th and Steve Bruce and Birmingham City were already known to be making overtures to Arsenal.
It was another battling performance and one which sent Chelsea back to the drawing board in their quest for the title, as United seemed to have put behind them the brittle defending of a month or more previous and were now resolute at the back and, with an extra man in the middle of the park, they were now winning battles they would previously have lost.
Chelsea came to Elland Road having lost only once in the season and had not conceded a goal since early October. After beating Manchester United the previous week, Chelsea came to Elland Road sitting proudly on top of the EPL while United were bottom. It was not the mismatch their league positions suggested and United’s ability to roll up their sleeves and fight was soon in evidence as Stephen McPhail left an impression on Makelele in the first challenge and Chelsea knew it would be no pushover.
After being passed over by Venables and Reid, McPhail, after a loan spell with Nottingham Forest, showed all the work rate and distribution reminiscent of when he first appeared on the scene six years ago. He worked well with his outstanding skipper Matteo and Smith in the midfield. It was Pennant however who took the limelight, from even teenage sensation James Milner, with a dazzling display and was a constant threat to Chelsea and their England full-back, Bridge. His first touch was good and he was now brimming with confidence after several fine performances and a danger to anyone on this form.
Even Duberry and Harte, normally United’s main weaknesses, turned in good performances as their confidence built. Ex-Leeds star Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had never scored against his former club and he kept his record intact being well policed by Radebe and Duberry.
It only took United 18 minutes to take the lead and it was down to the individual brilliance of Jermaine Pennant. He disposessed Makelele, and left Terry and Gallas chasing his shadow, before neatly tucking the ball beyond Cudicini. It was the first goal Chelsea had conceded in 653 minutes of football and in that time Leeds had conceded 19, but the strike was no more than United and Pennant deserved.
Twice United almost made it 2-0, as McPhail fired a strong shot from the edge of the box and Viduka, who weaved his way through the Chelsea defence, before Cudicini was equal to the task. United were clearly in command and had frozen Chelsea out of the game and for one of the favourites to win the championship they were remarkably devoid of ideas. The half-time introduction of Crespo did give Chelsea more purpose but any chances were few and far between.
Robinson, Radebe and Matteo were resolute in defying Chelsea and it looked as if United were on the way to a remarkable victory, but a team of Chelsea’s talent can never be written off and when Hasselbaink lost his marker, Mutu was denied by Robinson only for Duff to score from the rebound. United were dogged and stuck well to their task and the final result was acclaimed by scenes of jubilation as Chelsea was denied any further chances.
United nudged up into nineteenth spot and, with visits from Manchester City and Fulham on the near horizon, they were confident of picking up more points before the festive relegation battles with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa.
Meanwhile on the financial front Trevor Birch was trying to find a buyer for the club and had obtained an extension until 19th January 2004, to do for Leeds what he had done for Chelsea. Prof. McKenzie was supposedly scouring the Far East and Birch was talking to Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Mubarak Al-Khalifa (Let’s just call him Sheikh!), who was supposedly heading up a Middle East consortium. There were also rumours that Alan Leighton was trying to put together a consortium. Birch revealed that a standstill agreement had been made with the Major Creditors, and it had “freed up” £4 million to get the club through the period to 19th January 2004. The Major Creditors were the Bondholders (£60 million) and a finance company (£22 million). Birch insisted that he would resist any offers for the remaining “Star” players and was confident that there was no need to press the panic button and start another round of fire sales. He reasoned that Leeds had already been down that path with disastrous results and it would be a sure fire recipe for relegation and the bondholders appreciated that. He said he was proud of the way the team had performed at Charlton and against Chelsea and that there was a lot to be positive about.
David Batty returned in place of Stephen McPhail for United’s home encounter with Fulham and was part of another good team performance which secured a 3-2 victory, but despite the usual rollercoaster ride, United were emphatically the better team and an easier victory margin would have been in order. It was another win and another step closer to safety.
It was a late winner from "Captain Courageous" Dominic Matteo that sealed the victory, but United had gone 2-0 up before Fulham pulled it back to 2-2 and it was a credit to the team that they came back to grasp the winner. A few weeks prior and they would have folded like a pack of cards. The team was becoming battle hardened and no-one was hiding anymore and it was now becoming a solid unit.
Fulham came into the game sitting comfortably in fourth place and could easily have thought that there were easy pickings to be had. However they found that United’s 4-5-1 formation was not easy to break down, but that was the defensive formation and it could frustrate the opposition. Eddie Gray was happier with an attacking formation which United employed in attack with Smith pushing up to help Viduka, with Pennant and Milner attacking down the flanks. Batty and Matteo and the back four could hopefully break up any counter attack and keep the forward momentum. It was a matter of what brought results rather than which was the more entertaining. It could have been that United were now getting the rub of the green which certainly was not the case in the earlier games and that was a refreshing change.
United’s first goal, just before half-time, had a tinge of good luck about it. Van der Sar could only parry an Ian Harte free-kick and Michael Duberry was on hand to poke it into the net, with a look of surprise rather than elation, but no one would begrudge him his five seconds of glory, his recent form had warranted that. The second, immediately after the break, came from a more familiar source, Mark Viduka, who got his first EPL goal since 30th August and it was a goal out of nothing. He picked up the ball with his back to goal, 25 yards out and he unleashed a stunning shot which left Van der Sar grasping at thin air. It was a truly wonderful goal which showed the devastating finish that he is capable of.
Fulham did not take long to replay as Saha was allowed to run unchallenged before beating Robinson from distance. At 2-1 United were still comfortable with Milner and Pennant prominent, while Matteo’s distribution was top class. United’s dominance was so complete that it came as a total surprise that Fulham should equalise, but once again Saha was given too much room and he made United pay but Robinson was at fault allowing his shot to squirm under him, with only four minutes left.
Gray bellowed instructions from the touchline to rally his troops, and rally they did, as they piled forward in search of the winner. It came two minutes later, when a precise free-kick was delivered by Harte and up rose Dominic Matteo to deliver a pinpoint header to give Van der Sar no chance.
It was a goal that Matteo and United so richly deserved and it took United off bottom position and gave them renewed hope of further points from the trip to Manchester City and the optimists were saying that they were only five points away from eleventh placed Middlesbrough and eight points from a European spot!
Professor McKenzie intimated that he would not be seeking re-election as Chairman at the upcoming AGM, but was still looking for Far Eastern Investors and he asked for faith in the abilities of Trevor Birch and finance director Neil Robson, who were pursuing other avenues for potential investors.
If luck evens its self out, United’s visit to the City of Manchester Stadium could be said to be in the negative camp. Not that they would lay claim to being the better more dominant team but the fact that they led for the majority of the game and but for the injury to Radebe, never looked like conceding, and when they did, they had an appeal for a blatant penalty turned down.
It was a fine battle from United with Coach Kevin Blackwell in charge of the team while Eddie Gray was giving away his daughter’s hand at her marriage which had been arranged long before Eddie had taken on the caretaker Manager’s job. Both would have been pleased with the result but dreamed of what could and should have been. It could have been a cricket score if Manchester had taken all their chances as they had fifteen attempts on goal but Robinson was never really tested, however, it was an indication of the territorial advantage that the home team had.
There was a capacity 47,000 on hand to witness the game but United were not intimidated. Matteo, ably assisted by Batty and Smith, showed his worth with an immaculate display in midfield, despite only having been declared fit five hours before kick-off after extensive treatment on a calf injury. The turning point of the game was undoubtedly when the unlucky Radebe was carried off with a torn hamstring in the 74th minute. This meant that Matteo was taken out of the midfield and taken back into the defence to replace Radebe and his spot was not adequately filled by McPhail.
Mark Viduka had given United the lead on twenty-four minutes when he robbed a Manchester defender, who dallied too long, as he took the ball forward, rounded goalkeeper Seaman and fired into an empty net. They kept that lead until the 82nd minute when Sibierski rose unchallenged to head in a pinpoint Sun Jahai cross to equalise. United were unlucky not to win the game at the death when James Milner was hacked down from behind by Sommeil, while in full flight for goal. Somehow the referee saw fit to disregard the crude challenge which should have resulted in a free kick at the very least and on a good day the referee would have given a penalty; it was certainly a border line decision but should have seen the defender carded, but the referee chose to take the easy option and do nothing. Failure to punish City or Sommeil led to a dramatic finale in which Barber totally lost respect and control as a brawl erupted and three extra minutes turned into six as Batty, Bridges and Duberry were all booked. It was a sad end to a game which, until then, had been a good clean fair contest and well handled by the referee, who lost it in the final minutes.
Duberry shone for United in a game where all gave everything for the cause and fully deserved their point which could have been more, and so United remained nineteenth and unbeaten in the last four games and with two games against fellow strugglers Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa before the New Year, the position looked improved.
The Boxing Day return of David O’Leary had all the potential to be a Christmas cracker but turned out to be a Christmas Turkey, as Aston Villa came with little ambition, other than to depart with a point. There was an appearance for Matthew Kilgallon in place of the injured Lucas Radebe and he fitted into the United rearguard along with Duberry, who again had a good game and even had the ball in the net when he volleyed in a delightful Milner free-kick but was given offside.
Much had been made of the fact that it was O’Leary who moved Eddie Gray aside and brought in Brian Kidd in March 2001 and thereby brought to an end the free flowing football that young United team had become famous for. It was no co-incidence either, that Gray had now installed a new togetherness not evident since those heady days. At times it was not pretty to watch and could be over-cautious but they were looking as mentally strong as they have appeared for several years and it was possibly the key to EPL survival. Given United’s poor start to the season, five games straight unbeaten was a feat in its self and showed Eddie Gray’s pedigree to mix it with the best EPL Managers.
Once again it was the midfield, with David Batty, a player written off by O’Leary and his successors, who shone brightest alongside Matteo and Smith, which was the foundation. It was a dour, entertainless arm-wrestle and there were few chances created. The first came on the half hour when Milner, who had caused Villa constant trouble, raced clear of their defence in pursuit of a long Robinson clearance but was unable to connect when it mattered. It looked like Angel had given Villa the lead but he had used his hand rather than his head. After the break Smith was pushed up front to join Viduka as United went in search of the three points, but Dublin was sticking so close to Viduka he could have been his second skin. Smith had a low shot saved, Bakke shot wide and Viduka was hauled down on the edge of the area as he tried to break the shackles placed on him.
It was another point and while remaining in nineteenth position they were within three points of twelfth position and United were looking forward with confidence to visit Molineux and Wolverhampton Wanderers who seem marooned in bottom spot, six points adrift of United.
United had Bakke in place of the suspended Batty and McPhail in place of the rested Milner, who dropped to the bench as they played their third game in six days at cellar-dwellers Wolverhampton Wanderers. There was a freak goal and the sending off of Matteo, as United tumbled to a 3-1 defeat and it was a severe jolt to those who had thought their five match unbeaten run was going to be the platform for the climb to safety. The good work of the previous six weeks was badly diluted and the result confirmed that United were likely to be in a relegation dogfight for the rest of the season with no point from any club a certainty.
A draw or a win would have lifted United out of the bottom three and left Wolves with a mountain to climb, but now they were back in the hunt breathing down United’s neck. It was not United’s worst performance of the season by any stretch of the imagination, but the experienced Wolves midfield bossed United in that department, except for two long spells United were dominant. They should have made it count, but the quality was not there and even though Smith had been pushed up front, Viduka was left to plough a lone furrow and was held all too easily. Pennant was lively enough on the right flank and Matteo and Bakke worked well in the middle of the park, but their nagging injuries were apparent. Matteo was declared fit once again at the last minute after intensive treatment for a thigh injury while Bakke played his first full game since undergoing knee surgery.
Kilgallon was United’s star performer, showing maturity beyond his years, read the game extremely well and looked capable of filling in for Radebe. The decision to push Smith further up to get maximum points backfired as the midfield was found wanting and gaps appeared all over the park as they tried to adapt to 4-4-2 rather than 4-5-1.
It had all started so well with Duberry giving United a third minute lead from an Ian Harte corner and the home fans thought they were in for another home defeat as their record indicated that they rolled over if they conceded early. United could have made it two but Smith found no support after a run down the left which would surely have finished off Wolves had there been. It was Smith who scored next, after eighteen minutes, but it was in his own net! As a seemingly harmless corner came to him and he somehow contrived to slice the ball over his own head onto a post and into the net and Robinson and Kelly could only look on in amazement as the ball looped over them seemingly in slow motion.
It was however, the cue for Wolves to come out of their shell and they pressed a Leeds team which had lost its shape and there was almost another freak goal as a Camara shot hit Duberry and looped agonisingly over Robinson. It was only a matter of time before the Wolves pressure paid off and three minutes after the interval Iversen rose unchallenged to head past Robinson. This was a cue for United to put on the pressure and Harte had a shot deflected just over the bar. Wolves hung on grimly but were given a life line when the referee, who had been giving out yellow cards with gay abandon, gave Matteo his second in the 77th minute and a consequent dismissal. The loss of Matteo was immense and without him the United cause was lost and, with the game already decided, it was Wolves who increased their lead in injury time, when Iversen got his second as he was the first to react to Camara hitting the inside of the post.
The New Year saw the visit to Elland Road of the mighty Gunners as United’s opponents in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup. While they recorded third consecutive 4-1 victory at Elland Road and displayed all their high quality finishing power, the game was far closer than the score-line suggests. As United gave everything in a determined effort to match a team who have proved many times they can be a different class when they choose to.
United did more than match them for the first twenty-five minutes, as they turned on their best football of the season to date, and they made a mockery of their league position to have Arsenal hanging on grimly. United created four good chances while Arsenal could not muster a shot on goal. Indeed it was Mark Viduka, who was back to his best, who got his name on the scoresheet after only nine minutes, when he closed down the hesitant Arsenal Keeper Lehmann and the attempted clearance was charged down by the big Aussie and cannoned into the net. Both Milner and Viduka went close as Leeds bossed the game and one could only wonder the outcome if they had managed a second in their time of domination.
Pennant was not allowed to play against the club which loaned him to United and Frazer Richardson debuted at right back in place of Gary Kelly and gave a fine display against daunting opposition, being cool and composed in defence while being a threat when on the forward charge. Kilgallon again gave a telling performance and with help from Duberry and Harte managed to answer the Arsenal challenge and did his part in quelling the Henry threat. Batty, Matteo and Bakke were all hard working in midfield with Smith and Milner raiding well on the flanks, while Viduka held the ball up well and was his usual thorn in the side of the Arsenal defence.
A lightening raid by Arsenal in the tweny-sixth minute, involving Vieira and Kanu, who released Ljungberg, and there was Henry to volley home the equaliser, just to remind United how lethal they can be if given an inch of space. Few sides could have prevented it and it emphasised Arsenal’s speed and threat on the break. And few sides could have prevented the second eight minutes later, as Vieira fed Henry for Edu to arrive from nowhere to score from his perfect pass. The game was still wide open and both Campbell and Keown had to make last ditch tackles to prevent a United equaliser. It took a triple substitution by Wenger ten minutes from time to give Arsenal added impetus and take advantage of a few tiring legs in the United midfield as Pires was instrumental in doubling the Arsenal score as he got the first with four minutes to go before laying on the final goal for Toure in injury time to give Arsenal a deserved but exaggerated victory. United could be proud of their display if not the result.
There was fear in the United camp as there was still no progress on the financial front. Chairman Trevor Birch had only two weeks to find a buyer or there could be impending administration and a possible loss of points and expulsion from the EPL should the other clubs so decide.
Pennant was back for Smith and Seth Johnson was called upon to replace Bakke for the midweek visit to Newcastle United at St James’s. When a top performance was required United were found wanting and their first half display was woeful, by far their worst 45 minutes since Eddie Gray had taken over, they looked devoid of ideas and could not string two passes together.
Newcastle went into the break in front by an Alan Shearer goal, which he got after just four minutes as he cut through a poor Leeds defence to tuck the ball home. It should have been many more and United were lucky that Newcastle had left their shooting boots at home.
They had five clear cut chances, one was Shearer’s goal and at least three of the others should have been converted. Robinson pulled off a great save to deny Jenas, Dyer fell over Robinson in an effort to obtain a penalty, when he should have scored with ease. Even Shearer was not immune and blasted the ball wide with only Robinson to beat. Just on the break Dyer again was the culprit as he was put clear through and tried to chip the advancing Robinson only to see it not only beat the keeper, but go over the bar as well. Newcastle could easily have gone into the break 4-0 to the good.
Up front Viduka had toiled hard with little help and showed up some serious deficiencies in the Newcastle rearguard and he had shown up Titus Bramble as the main defect, but the ever reliable Woodgate was there to get him out of trouble. Batty had had to leave the pitch injured after half an hour and Olembe, his replacement, injected more pace and better passing and started to get United moving in the second half as Pennant and Milner also started to make in roads into the Newcastle defence with their speed down the wings.
Matteo also lifted his game and Duberry and Kilgallon became a brick wall at the heart of defence as United became unrecognisable from the team on view prior to the interval. United went 4-4-2 in the seventieth minute as they searched for an equaliser after Michael Bridges had replaced the ineffective Seth Johnson. Viduka now given a partner up front, revelled in the new freedom and nut-megged the hapless Bramble to set up Bridges with sublime skills, but Bridges’ shot was weak and the keeper saved with ease. Viduka himself fashioned a couple of half chances but with a little more potency United should have made Newcastle pay for their first half misses as they were destroying Newcastle at the back. They had their hosts on the rack, but the killer instinct just was not there and so a valuable point, or maybe more, went begging, but Viduka had given his all and was by far United’s best player and deserved better. It was a pity they had forgotten to turn up in the first half as it was obvious from their second half domination that Newcastle’s defence could not cope with the wiles of Viduka and would surely have cracked had pressure been applied earlier.
United were stuck on nineteenth position and results elsewhere did not favour them, and once again they were in danger of getting left behind by teams who were able to string a couple of wins together.
Robbie Keane’s muted goal celebration said more than words as he knew his goal, which gave Tottenham Hotspur a single goal victory at Elland Road, was the first real nail in the coffin of his former team-mates as United slipped out of contact with the safety zone being five points and a terrible goal difference less than the seventeenth placed club and possible safety from relegation. There were still seventeen games and a maximum fifty-one points left to be contested, but the optimism and hopefulness was waning as the weeks and games passed. There was no money to help the fight and the players looked as if they had given up hope as the game was played out with an air of resignation to the inevitability of the proceedings.
The passion and the commitment of the first hour fizzled out after Keane’s strike but no one could blame Gray for the demise, as, like Reid before him, he had inherited a limited squad who had struggled for almost two years to perform on a consistent basis. Gray had tinkered with personnel and changed tactics to suit, but he could not put something there which was not there, and Leeds just did not look good enough to stay in the top flight.
There was plenty of effort, but it could not mask the failures elsewhere and the escape route reduced with each passing game. The goals had dried up and United were the EPL’s lowest scorers apart from Middlesbrough (17) with eighteen goals in twenty-one games. The defence was equally alarming having conceded forty-two which had only been exceeded by the equally woeful Wolverhampton Wanderers (43), and only Leicester City and Blackburn Rovers, each with thirty-five, came anywhere near to the bottom two’s conceding rate.
Olembe filled in for the injured Batty and Barmby made a welcome return to give young Milner a bit of respite on the bench and the still injured Bakke was preferred to the out of form Seth Johnson. Robinson was again United’s stand out player and was instrumental in keeping the score down with a string of saves and, while there was good support from Duberry and Kilgallon, Kelly and Harte had games they would rather forget. Olembe was a sad disappointment in midfield and was substituted by Sakho on 66 minutes, who was equally abysmal.
It was left to Matteo and the obviously still injured Bakke to battle away in midfield and they received good support from a returning Nick Barmby, who lasted until the 66th minute when Milner took over and gave his usual action packed performance. Pennant made little headway down the right and Viduka showed plenty of early presence until he was withdraw at half time and replaced by the ineffective Bridges. Viduka went straight to the airport where he jetted off to Australia to be with his seriously ill father and could be expected to be absent for quite a while. With Matteo suspended and Bakke playing through the pain barrier it was apparent there would be bare bones for the next few weeks and several players would need to smarten up their act.
Ian Harte was mercilessly pilloried by the crowd which only made his performance worse. He was in poor form but suffered from lack of cover from an out of form Olembe, while Barmby, back after a long spell on the injured list, was also the subject of the crowd’s displeasure after being one of United’s better players in the first half. United needed all their players on the pitch and the fans fully behind them to stand any chance of avoiding the drop.
It was Smith for Viduka and Morris for Matteo and, with Duberry also sidelined, there was a return for Zoumana Camara as Milner came back for Barmby and Seth Johnson took the place of the out of form Olembe. The changes, mostly forced, were rung and it was left to the chosen to battle hard for the points. They showed plenty of fighting qualities with Smith leading from the front but it was all for nothing and a 2-1 defeat at Southampton left United propping up the division with nothing to show for all their endeavours.
While Smith was the outfield star, it was Robinson who constantly kept Leeds in the game with a commanding performance. There was a big effort too from Kilgallon who stood up well to the Southampton attack and was rewarded with United’s only goal from a Harte corner. Unfortunately both Southampton goals were handed to them on a plate.
United started lively enough and Milner had the ball in the net but it was disallowed and Pennant forced Niemi to pull off a tremendous save before Southampton took the lead on thirty-six minutes. An error from Smith allowed Prutton to break through the middle and slide the ball to Ormerod, who took advantage of a slip by Kilgallon, to find the space and time to score. Seven minutes later Kelly played the ball back to Camara who lost control and Phillips gleefully hammered the ball into the net. It could have been the signal for Leeds to capitulate, but to their credit they didn’t and, led by Smith with assistance from Pennant and Milner, they came back and were rewarded on seventy-five minutes with a goal from Kilgallon. It was all one way traffic after that, with the travelling faithful urging on the weary troops, but it was not to be and the clock beat them.
Kelly was again below par; Camara played his worst game for Leeds and had a howler, Morris was short of game practice and Harte was just out of touch and drained of confidence. Bridges, who replaced Morris after 65 minutes, was just not up to it, while both Seth Johnson and Eirik Bakke had strong games in midfield. Lots of effort for a poor reward but a series of wins were desperately needed if United were to do the unexpected and survive.
There was good news from Jermaine Pennant, who signed another loan extension to 29th February 2004 and said he would be happy to stay for the rest of the season. While United said that Mark Viduka was likely to remain with the club and no bids had yet been made for him. There were still no firm offers on the financial front and the Major Creditors could enforce administration at any time. There was talk of Wages deferrals by the players and of the rejection by them. There was talk of Robinson being sold to Tottenham Hotspurs and that the deal was already agreed. There was also a bid by Tottenham to take Milner along with Robinson. There were talks of Newcastle wanting Bridges in exchange for their full-back Griffin and of their interest in James Milner. There was also talk of Middlesbrough’s interest in Mark Viduka which was near impossible to negotiate with him in Australia at his ailing father’s bedside, but United announced that they had turned down the offer of £4 million plus Michael Ricketts.
Viduka was still absent, but Duberry returned in place of Camara, and Matteo, having served his suspension, returned in place of Morris, as United entertained Middlesbrough at Elland Road. Hopes had been high as Middlesbrough were one of the League’s least effective scoring teams and having already won at the Riverside a double would have been very helpful in United’s present plight. Therefore a 3-0 defeat was hard to handle. It send them one step closer to relegation and gave another reason for any would-be investors to think again about taking the massive gamble of injecting cash into a club hovering above the relegation trap door and the club was in danger of dying a slow painful death.
To aggrevate the effects of the loss, Robinson was dismissed for a professional foul two minutes from time and debutant Scott Carson first duty was to pick the ball out of the net after Ricketts had comprehensively beaten him from the spot-kick. The third goal was the icing on the cake for Middlesbrough to make their win more emphatic and even though United huffed and puffed they were outplayed by the more stylish visitors, who were a cut above United throughout the game. Zenden, Juninho and Mendietta pulled the strings in midfield as they played some excellent football and United simply just could not compete, despite Matteo and Bakke working hard to plug the gaps. It placed a great deal of stress on the United defence but young Kilgallon again showed his worth with assistance from Duberry.
Confidence was gradually draining from United with each passing week and they recorded their sixth home defeat of the season and had managed to accumulate only ten points from the thirty-six on offer, a sure fire recipe for relegation. Seth Johnson had an extremely poor game and was roundly booed by the fans as he left the pitch after being replaced by Bridges after 67 minutes. The Middlesbrough fans chanted the name of Mark Viduka, and one could only speculate that had he been in the visitors line up they would have scored at least six, as Maccarone never looked like scoring and his fellow strikers squandered several gilt edge chances, but at least they were creating chances while United only had one shot on target in the first half and Schwarzer had a very easy time.
James Milner was the pick of the United players and it was he that had a goal bound shot blocked just after half time as Leeds looked temporarily rejuvenated, but just when United looked like getting on top Zendan took a pass from Maccarone to beat the advancing Robinson, after fifty-three minutes. Smith responded by going close twice but United had a let off when Mendietta and Zenden played a beautiful one-two, but the Spaniard shot wide with the goal at his mercy. Job was given the freedom of the park and he walked the ball round Robinson to make the score 2-0 on seventy-seven minutes. Then came the Robinson sending off and the third goal in the dying minutes, with Milner sacrificed for Carson to face the penalty.
It was United’s sixth straight defeat in all competitions and the worst run since things turned sour for Howard Wilkinson in April 1996.
It had been said that United had not had any luck or assistance from referees. Some said that several referee’s decisions had cost United dearly in this season, if so then the result at Villa Park could be added to the list. Uriah Rennie, not noted for his favouritism where Leeds United were concerned, put himself well up the contenders list with two terrible decisions which cost United the match. He gave a penalty that never was and a a free-kick which resulted in Villa’s second goal and on both occasions he was at least 20 yards behind play and not in a position to adjudge fairly. The penalty came in first half injury time and TV replays showed that Domi had made a superb tackle to deny Vassall and won the ball cleanly. The second was a “six of one - half a dozen of the other” as Vassell backed into Caldwell and then fell over like a dying swan to dupe Rennie into giving a free-kick which resulted in Villa’s second goal and virtually ended any chance United may have had.
There had been frenzied activity off the pitch with news that a Yorkshire consortium were about to mount a bid for the club and there was also interest from a Ugandan property tycoon. Trevor Birch had also managed to convince the Major Creditors to extend the standstill agreement, the players had finally agreed to defer part of their wages and the add ons to Rio Ferdinand’s move to Manchester United were settled at £ 1.5 million, all of which meant that administration was once again averted in the short-term. The deal to sell Robinson to Tottenham Hotspur was postponed and Stephen Caldwell was loaned from Newcastle United to fill the large hole in central defence. So Robinson was still between the posts, Caldwell joined Matteo in central defence and Domi came in at left back and Viduka was back to take his place up front.
There was the usual commitment from the players and United more than held their own to go into the halftime break scoreless but looking the better team. They were particularly good going forward with Viduka and Smith in tandem up front and Pennant and Milner always a threat down the flanks. Milner headed a Kelly cross against the woodwork and Viduka and Smith both went close, while substitute Aaron Lennon had his shot clawed away by the keeper. Caldwell and Matteo were solid in defence and Domi shone on his return but it was Viduka, showing plenty of grit and determination, that stood out for Leeds and Robinson once again pulled off several fine saves.
United, despite the good performance, were now three points behind Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City, who occupied the other two relegation places, and six behind Portsmouth in seventeenth place, and there were now only fourteen games left to play.
United were unchanged for the clash with Wolverhampton Wanderers in a relegation six pointer at Elland Road and they played their best performance of the season to sweep aside their outclassed opponents. It was a fine team performance with Kelly and Domi, until being injured and replaced by Ian Harte at half-time, both had fine games, while Matteo and Caldwell looked as if they had been partners in central defence for years such was their efficiency. Caldwell also was not afraid to attack the ball at set pieces and two of United’s goals came from his assists.
In the reverse fixture at Molineux, Wolves had triumphed because of their dominance of the midfield, but Bakke and Seth Johnson made sure there was no repeat with strong displays. It was on the wings and up front where United excelled. Pennant's trickery and crossing made him a constant threat while James Milner just oozed confidence and class and the way he ripped Denis Irwin to shreds was cruel but monotonous and he must have impressed Sven Goran Eriksen, who was looking on. Smith revelled in playing alongside Mark Viduka and the pair linked perfectly. It was Smith who opened the scoring when he forced home from close range after Caldwell had headed on a Pennant corner after 14 minutes. It was United’s first home league goal since mid-December. Wolves levelled seven minutes later and for a while it was an even contest but United seized the initiative five minutes before the interval when Smith flicked on a Domi free-kick and under pressure from Caldwell the Wolves keeper could only parry and Dominic Matteo scored with a deflected shot and United totally dominated from that point on.
Milner tormented Irwin and came in for some punishment as the Wolves defence resorted to physical tactics to try and subdue him, but it was he who got the third when he scored from a Smith cross. United should have had a penalty when Paul Butler hauled down Alan Smith but the fans were quite happy to roar on their team who were at last giving them something to cheer about. The only thing missing was a goal from hardworking spearhead Mark Viduka, who twice headed over crosses from Milner and just couldn’t find the strike his fine performance deserved. Right on time and on cue the big Aussie showed delightful touch to turn the Wolves defence and deliver a lethal finish to make it 4-1. It was a magnificent goal to finish off a memorable evening and now the standard had been set and needed to be maintained if they are to survive in the EPL and the celebrations were loud and long, as on this evidence they proved they are good enough, but now they would have to prove it again and again.
The win and its magnitude was sufficient for United to leapfrog Wolves on goal difference and leave themselves just three points behind the vital seventeenth spot.
To face Manchester United at Old Trafford was always a daunting task, but to face them deprived of your star England goalkeeper and best defender, due to suspension, and your star striker and most likely scorer, due to being suspended by the Australian Soccer Authority for refusing to play for them, was a cruel and crippling blow.
Scott Carson was given a debut of fire in place of Robinson and Stephen McPhail was drafted into a reinforced midfield to take the place of Mark Viduka with Alan Smith left to take on the lone role of striker.
There was a minute’s silence prior to kick off to mark the death of legendary Leeds United and Welsh International player, John Charles, arguably United’s greatest ever player and one of only 20 members of the World Football Hall of Fame. His standing in the football world may be judged by the oft quoted reference. Best Centre-Half in the World? Best Centre-Forward in the World? Only one answer:John Charles!
R.I.P. John, we will never see your like again.
There was a powerful header from Alan Smith reminiscent of the great man for United to level the score on sixty-seven minutes, within three minutes of Scholes giving the home team the lead. It was a totally against the odds draw against a side expected to slaughter them, but no more than Leeds deserved. It may have had a tinge of luck about it as Manchester wasted chance after chance but their main problem was that they were often shooting from distance and their accuracy was way off beam. However, Leeds turned in a workmanlike display which ruffled their hosts and knocked them out of their stride and did not allow them to play their usual slick controlled football.
Manchester did have their moments but it was significant that teenage debutant keeper Scott Carson only had two serious saves to make. Scholes sent in a looping shot which almost crept in under the bar and then there was a point-blank block on an effort from Butt. Otherwise Carson flung himself about as the ball flew high wide and handsome except for two occasions when the woodwork came to the rescue, but Leeds deserved their luck. Once again Matteo and Caldwell were massive in central defence and Kelly and Domi coped with the ever-present threat down the flanks, which the men from Old Trafford always pose. Seth Johnson got through a mountain of work in midfield and he was well supported by Pennant, McPhail and Bakke as they closed down the potent Manchester midfield.
It was not all defence from Leeds who showed they were prepared to have a go at the home team and, after relying on hopeful kicks out of defence to find Milner or Smith, they settled down and their build up play became neat and tidy and much more potent. Both posed a threat to the notoriously shaky defence of the hosts and it was fitting that Smith should be rewarded for a fine display with a goal that will long be remembered.
The introduction of Roy Keane, just before the hour mark, did spur on the home team to greater efforts. However, it was met by an increased effort by United, who showed great character and a willingness to fight to the bitter end. It was no reward that they slipped back to the bottom and the draw might have given thoughts that if the form could be reproduced on a regular basis then disaster might still be averted.
The funeral for the late John Charles was held on his country’s National Day; 1st March 2004, St David’s Day, and was attended by a multitude of the game’s dignitaries, football stars past and present and many thousands of Leeds United supporters who paid their last respects. For the visit of Liverpool, two days previous, the programme was dedicated to his life and football career and the players and crowd observed a minute’s silence in his memory. The club announced that the West Stand would be renamed “The John Charles Stand” in his honour. Fittingly, as it was his transfer fee that paid for it initially!
Elland Road was in mourning for the legendary John Charles and he would have been justifiably proud of United’s part in a classic encounter of two old foes, one fighting against relegation and the other still pushing hard for the final European Champions League place. If United were to beat the drop it would be down to the return of some vital ingredients of work-rate, passion and desire. If they were to fail few would complain because at least they would have gone down fighting and it no longer looked as inevitable as it did in January.
Much of the resurgence could be put down to the return of Mark Viduka; and he was back to imperious best for the encounter with Liverpool and his presence was also helping Smith rebuild his confidence. Smith played despite having spent the whole week on the treatment table and he played with his leg heavily strapped to protect a blood clot. He was best on the field for United. Didier Domi, who only four weeks before had been told he was surplus to requirements, was a quality left-back, strong in the tackle and good in distribution to the midfield or his strikers. Liverpool were equally lucky to have Steve Gerrard, who was at the hub of everything and sometimes seemed to be leading the fight on his own. There were some quality touches from Harry Kewell but the team in general lacked the steel or ruthless streak to win such a hard fought game as this.
It was Kewell who set about his old team like a tornado, despite being booed every time he touched the ball, and within 20 minutes he had silenced them with a reminder of his talents with a beautiful solo strike. It was a strike that prompted United into action and they replied within ten minutes when Smith and Pennant combined to send in Eirik Bakke for his first EPL goal since New Year's Day 2003. Five minutes later, United had taken the lead as Smith gave Viduka the chance to burst onto his pass and steady himself before producing an exquisite chip which although not merited on the run of play was well deserved for all the effort and endeavour they had put in.
Milan Baros equalised just before the break when he raced unchallenged through the United defence before delivering another superb strike. It was a classic encounter and the second half was equally as pulsating as the first as both teams strived to get the winner. Occasional Liverpool brilliancy forced Robinson into making two great saves while the Liverpool keeper had to be at full stretch to deny Alan Smith. United almost pulled it off in the last few minutes when Domi climbed high to put in a powerful goal-bound header, but it was blocked on the line. It would have been a great way to finish the match but it was not to be.
It was, however another point that would not have been budgeted for and while they were in bottom position, it was now getting very tight at the bottom and they were only two points adrift of the safety of seventeenth spot.
On 19th March 2004 the consortium of Yorkshire businessmen completed the arduous task of complying with all the legal and logistical requirements and finally put together the deal which ended the existence of the PLC and kept Leeds United out of administration. For the short term, it gave the club the needed stability. It settled or restructured the club debt and gave the consortium control of the club. Gerald Krasner was installed as Chairman with David Richmond, Melvyn Levy, Simon Morris and Melvin Helme his co-directors of Adulant Force Limited, the company which now owned the football club.
The new chairman, suitably bedecked in new Leeds United scarf, took his place in the Directors box, no doubt with fingers crossed and hoping for the best. His prayers were answered as the Gods once more smiled on United as a precision free kick and a controversial penalty were enough to give United victory as Kevin Keegan complained loud and long about the referee costing his team dearly. He accused James Milner of obstructing David James as Stephen McPhail scored from a free-kick straight from training ground after 23 minutes. He blasted the referee for giving Smith the late penalty after he had been tackled on the boundary of the penalty area, no doubt feeling that it did not occur within the area. He must clearly have forgotten his own defender scything down James Milner in the last minute and not voicing any opinion as the referee ruled play on in the reverse fixture. The decision that night cost United the full points. So United could say what goes round comes round as it was the first penalty they have been awarded in twenty-nine games, and so justice was done even though it was three months to the day too late!
City had undoubtedly played the better football, and had by far the most chances. But you don’t get points for being pretty, and though often battered and looking beaten the work-rate of the home team made up for their failings and the grafters were more than a match for the crafters in the final reckoning. Captain Dominic Matteo was commanding in defence and kept the always dangerous Anelka in reasonable control. Stephen Caldwell was again in equally commanding form and fully merited his call up to the Scottish team. Shaun Wright-Phillips was a real threat for City and it took a lot of tackling back by James Milner to assist Domi in keeping him reasonably subdued. Tarnat posed a similar threat down the other flank and once again Pennant gave Kelly valuable assistance in quelling the problem. McPhail was the United architect and he and Seth Johnson battled hard even though at times they were out-numbered. Stephen McPhail was rewarded for his outstanding performance by giving United the lead with a dipping free-kick which deceived everyone and crept just inside the post. It may have been against the run of play but it was no more than United deserved for their dogged persistency.
It was the cue for City to step up a gear and just on the break they were rewarded, as Smith conceded a free-kick and after a flowing move Sibierski had a fine touch to set up Anelka to produce a lethal finish. It should have been a killer goal but for all their early second half pressure City was unable to find the goal that their possession probably merited. United just kept on running and filling the gaps to thwart them and in the end it was they who were rewarded with the clincher. Van Buyten had suppressed the Viduka threat, by means fair and mostly foul, and the referee had allowed him to get away with murder, but in poetic justice the same player put in a tackle on Alan Smith outside the area which sent the Leeds striker tumbling. The referee was adamant that it was a penalty and immediately pointed to the spot and also produced the obligatory red card for the last defender and, although his linesman flagged, he stood by his decision.
So Viduka, amid all the ensuing pandemonium was the coolest person in the stadium and stepped up to convert the penalty with ease. United held on for the final 15 minutes to secure the points and on the final whistle the ground literally erupted. Chairman Krasner led the celebrations from the box and European success would not have been acclaimed with any greater fervour. The City players sank to ground in disbelief, but they obviously hadn’t read the script. Leeds had been saved off the pitch and now they were fighting to save themselves on it. There was still a long way to got and in the nine remaining games they had to secure two points more than the two clubs above them, who both had to visit Elland Road, and more than Wolves to survive. The team’s destiny was still firmly in its own hands.
United were unchanged for the visit to Birmingham City’s St Andrews and hoped to build on the renewed wave of enthusiasm which had swept through the club. United set off like a house on fire and it came as no surprise when Viduka, who had already forced an agile save from the Birmingham keeper Taylor, gleefully side-footed United into a third minute lead following a delightful pass from Pennant. In fact United created more chances in the first ten minutes than they had in the whole game against Manchester City and only had the single goal to show for it.
Viduka should have double his and United’s tally as he side-footed the wrong side of the upright with the goal at his mercy. One got the feeling that if it had got to 2-0 it would have been enough or the foundation for a big win such was United’s dominance. It was the strikers who let United down but elsewhere they crumbled under pressure and allowed the home team to finish in command. The midfield which had looked strong early on went AWOL under pressure and the usually reliable defence was caught napping on too many occasions. Leeds failed to stamp their authority on the game that they were more than capable of winning.
It was a frustrating afternoon as United controlled the game for long periods and after one hour the clever money would have been firmly on United. Their build up was incisive and Viduka and Smith terrorised the Birmingham defence and they were forced to defend in numbers. It was all very encouraging, the work-rate was good and Pennant and Milner provided good service to the strike duo. The Blues had replied with a twelfth minute equaliser with an easy chance as the midfield, not for the last time, failed to cope with the home team breaking in numbers and United were lucky just on half time as a free-kick rattled the Leeds bar and from the rebound, with the goal at his mercy, Taylor shot straight at Robinson.
United pressed on the restart with Milner running himself into the ground and causing all manner of problems as United’s outstanding player but they were unable to make the pressure count. They were made to pay and the whole complexion of the game changed in less than three minutes. Lazarides, who had troubled United all afternoon, laid on a pass for Hughes, who had arrived in the box untracked and unmarked, and slammed the ball past a bemused Robinson. Cunningham then launched a long ball over the United’s static defence and Forrsell, who looked well off-side but the lack of vociferous complaints signalled United’s acceptance and capitulation, put his team two to the good. It was all over when Morrison backed into Caldwell in the box and then fell down. This was the only invitation the referee needed to point to the spot and Forssell made no mistake from the resultant penalty. The Leeds players looked resigned to their fate at that stage and while 4-1 clearly flattered the home team, United looked a dejected bunch.
They now had to win their next two games against fellow strugglers Leicester City and Blackburn Rovers to ensure they were not cut adrift as they now trailed seventeenth placed Portsmouth by five points and a far inferior goal difference. A big ask, but not beyond United, if they were on-form.
Matteo moved from defence to midfield and Duberry took his place in defence while McPhail made way for him on midfield. It was the midfield that provided the base for the win but it was the great attacking play that won it. Smith and Viduka caused trouble all night and were well supported by Milner and Pennant, who seemed to have consistently put in outstanding performances since the turn of the year. The two wingers found plenty of freedom down the flanks and kept a steady supply of quality service flowing to their strikers.
That threat was founded on the hard graft put in by Matteo and Seth Johnson in the middle of the park and the return of Matteo to midfield was a tactical switch which paid dividends. It closed the huge gap which often invited opponents to attack them too easily. It was an area which has been a constant worry for United since the departure of Olivier Dacourt. It was his midfield partner Seth Johnson, however, who made the first goal on eleven minutes when his left foot cross was met by Michael Duberry to give the Leicester keeper no chance. Two minutes later it was 2-0, as Domi’s cross was met by Pennant, whose header was deflected to Smith, who in turn put in a delightful chip into the path of Viduka. If the build up was good the finish was even better, with his back to goal Viduka scored with a tremendous overhead kick and sent his team mates and supporters into raptures.
It gave United even more confidence and they battered the Leicester goal with the visitors defence in total disarray and only a series of brilliant saves by Walker kept them in the game. United were playing excellent football with a controlled and balanced build up and were always a threat with strikers in good form. United should have had a penalty just before the break when Pennant was clearly knocked to the ground by Dabizas and Walker was in fine form to deny Smith twice after the break.
It was all so easy but then it went so very wrong. With just over twenty minutes to go United conceded twice in two minutes. Dickov got the first after good work by Bent and, before United had a chance to recover; Muzzy Izzett strolled through unchallenged to deliver a stunning finish. Leicester were back with a vengeance and it was United who now looked vulnerable. Leicester kept attacking and it was a stunning save from Robinson which kept them in the game, when he got down low to deny Canero. That was the turning point and United’s reply was immediate and Smith struck a fine winner.
Milner had capped off another all-action display by doing all the leg-work on the wing and when Viduka held the ball up, Smith was on hand to fire home. There were only four minutes left but disaster was to follow as Viduka who had been caught offside kicked the ball 40 yards downfield in the direction of the Leicester keeper to prevent the kick being taken and the referee quickly brandished a red card for blatant time-wasting. It was an aberration by the big Aussie and the look on his face said it all. He now had to miss the vital game at home to Portsmouth and no doubt would be kicking himself for his mistake.
It should not be allowed to take the gloss off a priceless victory and one which saw them draw level on points with their opponents and move to two points behind seventeenth placed Portsmouth with the following Saturday’s opponents sixteenth, with only one point more. A win at Blackburn Rovers would see a total change in the bottom five!
United were unchanged for the visit to Ewood Park to play fellow relegation candidates Blackburn Rovers. They could not have wished for a better start to the game as Stephen Caldwell gave them a second minute lead. It was the product of a set piece involving Pennant and Kelly and it gave United the boost they needed and left Blackburn with a mountain to climb.
It was the day when United sent out a clear message of their intentions and gave firm proof of their desire to stay in top flight. Leeds snapped and snarled and hustled and harried, while Blackburn merely whimpered and lacked the desire and passion needed when you were in a fight such as this encounter. Hapless Blackburn were the victims of a classic away performance. An early goal, a good rearguard action, an handful of chances to extend the advantage, the odd nervy spell and, finally, a late goal to secure the points.
United showed guts and courage and enough passion to suggest that the great escape was a distinct possibility. While Caldwell and Viduka bagged the necessary goals, United could thank Captain Dominic Matteo for the drive and inspiration that was needed in this relegation dog-fight. It would be hard to pick a weak link but Pennant shone on the wing and Robinson was outstanding when called upon to perform the odd miracle save and Smith covered a lot of ground. Matteo and Johnson harried in midfield while Caldwell and Duberry kept a firm grip on the Blackburn strikers. Kelly and Johnson both went close before Smith was denied by Friedel and then in the second half Friedel made a stunning save from a James Milner shot which had goal written all over it. While at the other end it was Robinson who produced a world class save to thwart Cole.
There was a downside for United as Johnson was carried off on the hour mark, to be replaced by Bakke who later also hobbled off, and it was to be the last contribution either was to make in the season. Viduka left Amuroso in his wake but with only the keeper to beat he put his shot wide. He soon made up for it when Pennant set off on a long run from his own half and Smith turned his low cross towards goal and the rampaging Viduka lashed it past Friedel with two minutes to go. Blackburn came back and deep into the six minutes stoppage time Short headed one for them, but it was too late and United secured their first double of the season and their first back-to-back win.
It lifted United to eighteenth spot but on equal points with Blackburn Rovers and Portsmouth albeit it with a far inferior goal difference, but with six games left it was wide open.
Lucas Radebe answered the call and joined Matteo in midfield with both Seth Johnson and Eirik Bakke out for the rest of the season, but it was another former Leeds stalwart who stole the show. Nigel Martyn came back to haunt Leeds with a brilliant display between the sticks for Everton, as he pulled off save after save to deny his former team-mates and keep Everton in the game as Leeds peppered their goal for seventy of the ninety minutes.
United had started like frightened Rabbits and fell behind to a twelfth minute strike from Rooney and it could have been 2-0 as Radzinski hit the inside of the post and only a valiant tackle from Duberry stopped Rooney from scoring from the rebound. It looked as though the super-human effort at Blackburn had taken its toll on United, who were clearly second best in the first 15 minutes and struggling.
It all changed when a poor clearance from Martyn was picked up by James Milner and somehow he managed to atone by clawing away the winger’s goal-bound lob, just how Martyn managed to get back and pull off such a save is a mystery, but it was as good a save as you are ever likely to witness. He followed that up by twice denying Smith with saves from the top drawer and even though the crowd pleaded “Nigel, Nigel give us a goal” he was not in a charitable mood. He started the second half by denying Viduka, but there was little he could do as James Milner tucked one into the far corner after a great run across the box. It looked as though United were poised for a third consecutive victory but they counted without the unbeatable Martyn as he blocked a Smith shot from point blank range and even though he was twice beatenby Viduka he had team-mates on hand to divert the shots. United had battered Everton mercilessly for the last 70 minutes of the match and Robinson was just a spectator.
The gamble of playing Radebe and Matteo in midfield was an unqualified success after a nervy opening and it was their anchor which allowed the wide men to prosper. Pennant was a constant menace while Milner buzzed around causing problems all night. In the middle Smith and Viduka shirked nothing and no one left Elland Road feeling cheated by the effort and guts on show. They could merely point to Nigel Martyn and say, you denied us two points.
It was those points by which United now trailed Manchester City, Blackburn Rovers and Portsmouth and while the effort had well merited full points the final result had knocked the wind out of United’s sails. With only five games left to play and Highbury and Stamford Bridge still to visit, United had to beat Portsmouth to get back on level terms as the vastly inferior goal difference was as good as a point to their rivals.
United really didn’t need to have to face another Arsenal master class, as they were unchanged for their trip to Highbury, with United hoping that history would repeat its self and they could get a totally against the odds win, as they had done the previous season.
Arsenal showed no mercy against United, who just could not cope with their sheer quality. There was no point criticising individual players. While some tried, many were just not good enough to come to grips with opponents who were superior in all aspects of the game. People say Leeds United are just not good enough to compete with the leading lights of the EPL and this defeat only emphasised that belief.
United defended too deep against players who have destroyed far better teams, and they paid the price as they were ripped apart by Arsenal’s dynamic pace and movement. It was pointless asking Radebe and Matteo to stem the tide; the difference in quality was so immense. Gilberto’s passing was poetry in motion and he breezed through the midfield to link up with the gazelle-like Henry, who waltzed round United’s pedestrian and immobile defence. They toyed with Leeds and, when the mood took them, strung together sweeping passing movements which left United chasing shadows.
Pires gave Arsenal the lead on six minutes, but the first twenty minutes had been a fairly reasonable contest, before Henry ghosted through the Leeds defence to latch on to Gilberto’s precision pass to make it 2-0, with United appealing in vain for offside.
Moments later it was over as a contest when Duberry handled in the area and Henry duly dispatched the ball into the back of the net, to make it 3-0 with only thirty minutes gone. Four minutes after the restart it was 4-0 with Henry again catching out the Leeds defence from a Gilberto through ball. Seconds later it should have been 5-0 as Wiltord got away from Duberry, but shot wide. But on sixty-seven minutes Henry got his fourth and Arsenal’s fifth with a dazzling display of speed and finishing power with the bemused United rearguard looking on in dismay.
Off the pitch United had been roared on by the travelling faithful in a deafening wall of sound, but unfortunately there was little or no response and that support could be depended on for the rest of the season as they cheered, even in the depth of defeat and the cause totally beyond recall. The fans led by example and the team now had got to win at least three of their remaining four games and anything other than a victory against Portsmouth would be the death knell.
Apart from the suspended Viduka, for whom Simon Johnson deputised, United were unchanged for the eagerly awaited visit of Portsmouth. It was a do or die position that United found themselves in and anything but full points would not be acceptable as United trailed the visitors by five points but Manchester City were still only two points ahead of United, but of course there was the goal difference situation.
United looked nervy, edgy, tense and even at times resigned to their fate. They gave away two soft goals and only started to match Portsmouth when the game was over. The midfield which consisted of two central defenders and two youngsters learning their trade was non-existent for almost an hour and that was fateful for a team in United’s predicament.
The two young wingers had run themselves to a stand still week in week out, and were now mentally and physically exhausted. Radebe and Matteo had played out of position and through the pain-barrier of several injuries and no one could expect them to keep on answering the call carrying the injuries they have endured, and Matteo had to give in to a hip injury, sustained after ten minutes, at half-time.
With Johnson and Bakke unavailable through injury, United had few options and injuries which have decimated the team have played a sizeable part in United’s League position. After the decision to axe David Batty and send Morris on his way as well as give early release to most of the Loan players had left United with few other options. Two of them, the oft injured Barmby and McPhail were called upon later in the game and they responded well but it was too late by then. With Matteo limping his way through the last thirty-five minutes of the first half too much of a burden was placed on Radebe, as Portsmouth took advantage of the situation and totally dominated the midfield. United struggled to string any passes together and it was easy pickings for Portsmouth as they were in total command. It was a full hour before United got their act together and started to worry Portsmouth, but by then it was too late.
In the first few minutes Milner showed signs of what the Leeds fans had been hoping for but Hislop got down well to save, and it was a false dawn. Portsmouth hit United quickly as they broke from defence for the lively Steve Stone to race away down the right for Yakubu to head home unchallenged at the far post, after only nine minutes.Portsmouth carried on dominating the first half, and De Zeeuw and Lua Lua were guilty of missing easy chances, while Smertin and Stone forced Robinson to make good saves. Inevitably Portsmouth doubled their lead four minutes after the break and when a corner wasn’t dealt with, there were seven Leeds defenders rooted to the spot as Lua Lua followed up a Yakubu header, to force the ball home from close range. McPhail had replaced Matteo at the break and Barmby came on for the ineffective Simon Johnson on the hour and it was they that sparked a late revival for Leeds and with Lennon replacing the weary Radebe on seventy-one minutes and Smith providing the running, United finally put up a fight.
It took an Ian Harte penalty to get United on the scoresheet after Primus had hauled back Duberry in the box, but it came too late and even though Robinson added his weight to the attacks Portsmouth held on for the last seven desperate minutes. Mathematically it was still possible for United to survive but it seemed a forlorn hope and the game at Bolton Wanderers could decide United’s fate. For now, they hung on to eighteenth spot and hoped.
Viduka was back in place of Simon Johnson and Matteo had recovered from his hip injury to take his place again in midfield, but Radebe had succumbed to his injury and McPhail deputised, with Barmby again on the bench.
United were full of hope when they took the lead after 25 minutes, when Thome hauled down Smith and Viduka converted the penalty. For reasons best known to himself, the referee did not send Thome off, for he was certainly the last defender. If he had been sent off he would not have been involved in a scuffle which led to Viduka’s first booking and after narrowly escaping a second card for an unnecessary challenge on Campo, it came as no surprise when Viduka was sent off for elbowing N’Gotty. It was an act of stupidity that effectively gave Leeds no chance. Down to ten men United looked lost and the hosts were suddenly rejuvenated.
Djorkaeff levelled just after the break after good work by Jay-Jay Okocha and six minutes later he followed up a shot to make it 2-1. Two minutes later Harte bundled the ball into his own net to make it 3-1 and out of United’s reach and Nolan rounded off the rout with twelve minutes left.
United now dropped to nineteenth with only Leicester City two points adrift and Wolverhampton above them on goal difference. So the tears flowed as United’s 14 year tenure in the top flight came to an end. It would not have been so bad if they had put up a fight and though not helped by Viduka’s two moments of madness which resulted in his dismissal, it would be foolish to blame the big striker for United’s loss of Premiership status. The blame should be laid fairly and squarely at the feet of the a former board of directors who allowed the club to get into such a financial mess, a series of managers who failed to take advantage of the resources available, and players who have had things easy for too long.
It was easy to recall where it all went wrong this season. Four goal hidings at Everton and Leicester City spring too mind, followed by a 6-1 thrashing at Portsmouth in November which saw the dismissal of Peter Reid. There was the 3-1 defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers at Christmas when United reverted to 4-4-2 leaving the midfield and defence woefully exposed by a team who were even lower in the League than United. Reality had kicked in with the 2-0 loss at Fulham and despite a mini-recovery by United they could not win vital games and a form revival by Portsmouth and Blackburn Rovers saw United unable to respond in kind. The simple truth was that Leeds United had not been good enough to compete at the highest level and week after week the level of performance had been unacceptable.
For their last home game in the EPL against Charlton Athletic, it was well recognised that several players would be making their final Elland Road appearance for United, as personal ambitions and the club’s inability to meet their wages dictated so. So with Robinson already earmarked for Tottenham Hotspur, Alan Smith certain to move on and Jermaine Pennant’s loan coming to an end they knew it was their last game but others like Matteo, Harte, McPhail, Milner, Wilcox and Barmby may not have fully understood that it was also their last games too.
So it was Robinson; Richardson, Duberry, Kilgallon, Harte; Kelly, McPhail, Matteo; Pennant Smith and Milner who took the field for the last hurrah. With Wilcox on for Kelly on seventy-three minutes and Radebe on for Richardson on eighty-two minutes, with Carson, Barmby and Winter unused on the bench.
It was, to all intents and purpose, the “Alan Smith Show” from the moment he strolled down the tunnel complete with Captain’s armband and accepted the YEP player of the year award, to the time when he was mobbed by the fans after the game had finished and even the game was played in a carnival atmosphere. Smith revelled in the atmosphere and adulation but in the game he was starved of the ball and had few opportunities.
The other departee Paul Robinson had to fish the ball out of the net three times and had now let in more goals than any other goalkeeper, although the blame for that must be shared around a team that had conceded far too easily. Not for the first time did they press the panic button as they were cruising to an easy 3-1 victory in a game that bore a good resemblance to a testimonial.
Holland had given Charlton the lead after ten minutes but then seemed to want to play exhibition football rather than consolidate their lead and, with Leeds playing some neat football in a relaxed atmosphere they were made to pay. Frazer Richardson turned in an impressive display at right back, while Matthew Kilgallon looked assured at the heart of defence. Stephen McPhail gave another reminder of his passing abilities, while James Milner playing up front in place of Viduka, linked up play superbly and Pennant was always a major threat.
It was McPhail who created United’s equaliser, when his pinpoint cross drifted across the goal where it was met at the far post by the arriving Kilgallon to score in the tweny-ninth minute. Smith and Milner were involved in the build up for the United second and it was Pennant who finished off the move by walking it into the net, four minutes before half time. There was of course the obligatory Alan Smith goal. With 20 minutes to go Duberry was wrestled to the ground in the penalty area and Smith converted with his trademark celebration being accompanied by the words “I’ll be back”. That would have been the perfect end but nothing is ever straight forward at Leeds, and Euell took a tumble in the box to allow him to score from the spot and then some Keystone Kop defending by Duberry and McPhail presented him with his second and the equaliser. After that Charlton did little to change the score and the final ten minutes and last rites were played out to the incessant chants of the fans, who then invaded the pitch to give their personal farewells.
The game ended with United Rock-bottom, locked on the same points as their relegation partners, but their inferior goal difference saw them bottom one goal worse than Wolverhampton.
So on the final day of the season United played their last EPL game at Stamford Bridge against second placed Chelsea. The team was Carson; Richardson, Duberry, Radebe, Harte; Milner, Kelly, Matteo, Olembe, Wilcox; Smith. It was Pennant for Wilcox after sixty-one minutes and Barmby for Olembe on eighty minutes, while Allaway, McPhail and Kilgallon were unused on the bench.
Both sets of players looked like they would rather be elsewhere. Rather than going through the motions on a sunny day in West London. Chelsea already assured of second spot and their stars did not want to exert themselves over duly while United’s team of returning players, committed players, disaffected players and anyone else who fancied a game were looking forward to the summer break wherever it might take them.
It was not a good cocktail and the season long frustration of the Leeds fans boiled over and Alan Smith and Nick Barmby were singled out for abuse by a minority. Smith’s final appearance in a United shirt was soured when he made a gesture to the fans after taunts about a potential summer move to Manchester United. Nick Barmby, the other target for abuse had hardly played in the season, through no fault of his own, and he was an unfortunate, if not unsurprising, victim. While there were tears galore at the home farewell against Charlton Athletic there were no such emotions as the curtain fell on United’s Premiership tenure.
Without the appointment of a New Manager and an injection of funds it was hard to see how Leeds United was facing anything other than a long hard scrap in the Coca Cola Champions League. Stand-in Manager Kevin Blackwell reverted to Eddie Gray’s November/December strategy of packing the midfield which added to the protection of the EPL’s worst defence.
Scott Carson proved he was one for the future with a string of fine saves and had to be at his best to tip a Joe Cole effort over the bar and keep out a good effort from Gudjohnsen. As against Charlton, Frazer Richardson looked assured and the right back and was neat and tidy throughout. In the middle of the park James Milner looked jaded on the right flank. Wilcox, playing his first game since August, and Olembe, making his first start since January, were understandably rusty and out of match practice. Smith’s final appearance in the White Shirt will not last long in the memory of many.
Chelsea started like a house on fire and scored after twenty minutes when a Johnson cross was met at the far post by Gronkjaer. United closed ranks and apart from a couple of occasions when Cole and Lampard opened them up, they were untroubled. At the other end United could not muster a single shot on target from open play but strangely nearly equalised on 70 minutes when the substitute Pennant, playing his last game for United rattled the upright from a free-kick, with the goalkeeper beaten. The game then drifted towards its inevitable conclusion.
With Wolverhampton Wanderers losing 2-0 it meant there was an extra £500,000 in the United coffers as United avoided the wooden spoon with equal goal difference but United having scored more goals.
Robinson was once again the player who had the most appearances with 36, followed by Smith 35, Pennant 34(2), Matteo 33, Viduka 30, Milner 27(3), Johnson 24(1), and Harte 21(2), the only players to play more than 20 games. Viduka led the scorers with 11 and Smith got 9 with no other player managing more than 3.
So there was an end, not only to United’s EPL life, but also to Eddie Gray’s second term as Manager. His record was: P26 W6 D7 L13 F29 A48 Pts 25.
Photographs of the era:
Eddie Gray: Manager, Shaun Allaway , Eirik Bakke , Nick Barmby , David Batty , Lee Bowyer , Michael Bridges , Steve Caldwell , Zoumana Camara , Scott Carson , Didier Domi , Michael Duberry , Ian Harte , Seth Johnson , Simon Johnson , Paul Keegan , Gary Kelly , Matthew Kilgallon , Aaron Lennon , Dominic Matteo , Jamie McMaster , Stephen McPhail , James Milner , Jody Morris , Salomon Olembe , Jermaine Pennant , Lucas Radebe , Frazer Richardson , Paul Robinson , Lamine Sakho , Alan Smith , Mark Viduka , Jason Wilcox , Jamie Winter .