LEEDS UNITED’S EUROPEAN ODYSSEY IN THE 2000/01 CAMPAIGN

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Leeds United haven’t exactly had the best of times over the last ten years as they have been lingering in the second and third tier of English Football for some time now. However, in the early 2000s, Leeds were one of the most exciting sides to watch at home and in Europe. Arsenal and Ireland legend David O’Leary was at the helm and he took the Yorkshire club all the way to the semi-finals of the 2000/01 UEFA Champions League season, putting the club on the European map once again, as his young and hungry Leeds side were fearless against any side they came up against.

After overcoming 1860 Munich in the third qualifying round O’Leary “Babies”, as they were called at that time, were drawn against Barcelona, AC Milan and Besiktas in the first group phase of the competition the odds were already stacked against O’Leary’s young side. Playing a 4-4-2 formation O’Leary’s young team had energy in abundance as any young side should have to get up and down the pitch and were boosted by the added qualities of the likes of Mark Viduka and his Australian counterpart Harry Kewell along with the up-and-coming of Rio Ferdinand and Alan Smith.

The local media in England were rather sceptical of Leeds’ chances in Europe that season, with most thinking they needed a major miracle in Europe that season. But this Leeds team were a close bunch after the majority of the squad had come through the youth ranks during the ‘90s, something which would be rare in the modern-era due to the vast commercialisation taking place in football, and more specifically, in England.

Their unity as a group would have to be greater than ever as they were thrown into the lion’s den of the Camp Nou against Barcelona for the opening game of the group and they had their work cut-out, coming up against some of the world’s best in the form of Patrick Kluivert, Rivaldo, Phillip Cocu and more. Before kick-off, Leeds’ two Irish duo Stephen McPhail and Gary Kelly went into the chapel that is unique to the furniture of the Camp Nou tunnel to say a prayer before the game, sadly it didn’t work as Barcelona comfortably beat them by four goals to nil to start the Yorkshire side’s campaign on an incredibly sour note.

However, the young Leeds side used the hammering they got in the Nou Camp as a learning curve for the rest of the competition as they pulled off some fantastic results and performances for the rest of the first group phase.

For the rest of the games, the young Leeds side went in with a fearless attitude and it paid off as they played Italian giants AC Milan in a game where O’Leary’s team showed that they can mix with the elite of European football. A fortunate Lee Bowyer goal, which was vastly aided by a floppy Dida in goal earned the Yorkshire club a famous win at Elland Road. Dealing with injuries, a lack of confidence and poor form, the win came as an immense shock in many people’s eyes and was a morale-boosting win at that moment in time.

They then put six past Beşiktaş in a stunning win, but then struggled in the return fixture as they were held to a draw, before Rivaldo broke Leeds hearts at Elland Road, earning the Blaugrana a late point. As a result, the Whites were left with in a tough spot. They had to earn at least point against AC Milan at the daunting San Siro to save their hopes in Europe as it would prove to be their biggest game in continental competition since 1992, when they came up against Scottish giants Rangers, in a clash that was dubbed as the “Battle of Britain”.

The odds were once again stacked against Leeds. English sides had an underwhelming record at Milan’s famous stadium over the years and Milan came into the clash in impressive form – having gone unbeaten for 10 home games prior. And to add to the psychological disadvantage, Leeds’ record in Italy had not been all that great either – they were six games without a win when on their travels to the country.

An ambitious group of Leeds fans made the trip to Milan hoping that their side could pull it off and advance into the second group phase. As with any European away day involving a British side, they packed out the city’s main square and chanted their hearts out for the club they love. About 10,000 Leeds fans got into the San Siro on this cold, potentially historic November night.

As for the game itself, it played out exactly as many expected. The Rossoneri came into the clash without much pressure, seeing as qualification to the second round was already certain for them. However, they refused to lie down and get complacent as they constantly showed their attacking prowess and flair, forcing Paul Robinson into several good saves early in the contest.

On the stroke of the 25th minute came the game’s first highlight. Full-back Gary Kelly was judged to have handled the ball in the box by referee Kim Nielson, a referee synonymous with the English for his red card shown to David Beckham in the 1998 World Cup, and a penalty had been awarded to the Milan giants to give Leeds a scare. However, much to their comfort, Andrei Shevchenko uncharacteristically fluffed his lines as his penalty rattled the post, much to the shock of the San Siro, and much to the delight of the travelling faithful.

AC Milan continued to press on with Leeds withstanding most of the pressure that was thrown at them. Five minutes before half time, though, the Leeds got some relief as Dominic Matteo headed home to beat Dida at the near post to give O’Leary’s side a shock lead going into half-time. The sheer volume in and around the arena that night was astounding. Against the run of play, Leeds took the lead to boost their chances of qualification on what was set to be a historic night in the capital of Lombardy.

The same pattern of play continued in the second-half, except this time, Milan’s pressure paid off. Fan-favourite Serginho scored the gut-wrenching equaliser as Leeds began to hang on for dear life to pull off their most important result of the season and get through the group phases. Their efforts were rewarded in the end. A 1-1 draw was enough to see them through and it completed a great journey out to Italian shores as Leeds United shunned the doubters and progressed.

The young side learned from their mistakes after the opening matchday when they were easily put aside by Barcelona and it paid dividends as they pipped the Spanish side to second place in the group with O’Leary simply stating that it was “a great night for English football.” The second group phase saw the odds stacked against Leeds once again, as their lack of experience was to be put to the test against European giants Real Madrid as well as Lazio, who were crowned Italian champions just 18 months prior as well as Belgium’s Anderlecht, who themselves were on an unfancied path up until this point and had an impeccable record at home for the best part of two years.

Leeds took three points from their opening two games against Real Madrid and Lazio. In the opening matchday, Leeds United were valiant, but the result didn’t fall in their favour as two second-half goals from Raúl and Fernando Hierro showed exactly why they were European champions. Their response to the defeat was fantastic. Having drawn the previous time they came to Italy, they finally sealed a fine win against Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico, in what was, arguably, their best performance of the campaign up until that point.

An Alan Smith goal ten minutes from time sunk the Italian side to send the Leeds fans in into jubilation. Following the famous result, they were joined by chairman, Peter Ridsdale, as the first team players and staff basked in their glory into the early hours of the next morning in the Italian capital. A double header with Anderlecht was on the cards next and it was important for Leeds to get maximum points from the two games against the Belgian side if they were to progress into the last eight.

The first game was a tense affair at Elland Road as Leeds ran out 2-1 winners from a late Lee Bowyer goal, who seemed to save his best displays for Europe that season. Despite the huge confidence boost, manager David O’Leary played down his team’s chances in the return fixture, citing the opposition’s great home record as a disadvantage. But O’Leary’s side fearless nature blew away the confident Belgian champions as they put four past them – three of which came in the first half, before Ian Harte struck a penalty in the second 45 to give the Belgians their first home defeat of that season, and first in a long time.

Leeds’ final two games against Real Madrid and Lazio were essentially dead rubber contests, but weren’t short of entertainment. It was the sort of scenario they would’ve hope to have been in. The game at the Santiago Bernabéu was a thrilling affair, but ended in a three two defeat, while the clash at Elland Road against Lazio ended in an enthralling 3-3 draw with Lee Bowyer, Jason Wilcox and Mark Viduka’s goals being cancelled out by Fabrizio Ravanelli and a Siniša Mihajlović brace. The results proved that Leeds could mix it up with Europe’s elite, and that doubts at the start of the campaign were well and truly unjustified.

In their first quarter final in the Champions League since 1975, David O’Leary’s side had been drawn against Spanish champions Deportivo de La Coruña, who like Anderlecht seemed to underestimate the quality of this young Leeds side – the Deportivo camp called them weakest link left in the competition at that point. That comment proved to be costly, as Leeds stormed to a 3-0 victory in the first leg at home, leaving Javier Irureta’s side shell-shocked, as O’Leary’s high-pressing leads proved to be unmatchable. Alan Smith’s goal was sandwiched by one each from Ian Harte and Rio Ferdinand to seal an exceptional result and a renowned win.

Deportivo went at it in the second-leg, as the Estadio Riazor, which had become accustomed to well-known comebacks in recent years was preparing for another wonderful night out. An intimidating ground for any side to go to in its day, the atmosphere in the ground that night was harrowing for Leeds, with whistles and hisses around the ground every time the visitors were on the ball. A game largely reliant on luck, Djalminha’s early penalty and Diego Tristán’s goal gave the Galician side hope, but their misfortune to hit the post thrice and not see the ball go in the net more than thrice despite 13 shots on target cost them eventually.

O’Leary’s team weathered the storm though and went through to the last four. The Yorkshire club was defying the odds at every obstacle that they faced beating the likes of AC Milan, Lazio and now adding Deportivo to that list. Their next victim would have to be Spanish again, as they were drawn against Hector Cúper’s defensively-astute Valencia team, who were runners-up from the previous season and were looking to have another shot at continental supremacy.

The crowd at Elland Road were vociferous as the teams came out of the tunnel in what was expected to be a fantastic game between two promising, young sides. Valencia showed their pedigree in the first half, forcing goalkeeper Nigel Martyn into action on numerous occasions and saw Gaizka Mendieta hit the crossbar. Leeds, however, responded with the typical resilience that had got them this far, with the hero from Milan, Dominic Matteo coming close and the European stand-out, Lee Bowyer, hitting the woodwork twice. O’Leary’s side showed signs of a team that grown into the tournament immensely with the 2nd half performance putting Valencia on the back foot.

Rio Ferdinand saw a late chance cleared off the line as the match finished in a stalemate, leaving Leeds with a daunting task of winning at the Mestalla Stadium. They were left with a sour taste in their mouths as they rued missed chances in their bid to make it to their first European Cup final since 1975. Just before the second-leg, the club were put at a major disadvantage as Lee Bowyer was suspended, having been caught guilty of stamping Valencia forward Juan Sánchez. Their star-man was set to watch Leeds’ biggest game of the season at home.

Their day of reckoning came with the encouragement that they played best when the odds were stacked against them, and the team showed their unity by shaving their heads as it became clear to the world that this side was together and fighting for a common cause. O’Leary’s team matched their Spanish counterparts throughout, until a rather disgraceful moment in the game where the Juan Sánchez, the man in the spotlight since the first-leg, used his forearm to guide the ball past a stranded Martyn in goal to give Valencia the lead. The protests were strong, but they were waved off, as Leeds were set for a heart-breaking end to this magical European campaign.

Cúper’s side took over and dominated the game, eventually sealing their place in the final when Sánchez added another to his tally before talisman Mendieta added insult to injury by adding a third goal. The dream died that night in the Mestalla. A young and hungry Leeds side managed by one of the best up-and-coming managers in the form of David O’Leary matured so much over the course of time. Even though they were comfortably beaten in the end, they were surely one of the most entertaining sides to grace Europe and the Champions League that season.

It’s a shame Leeds never got a crack again at the big time, financial problems started to rack up in the boardroom and this brilliant team were then sold off in the coming years in cut-price deals. Peter Risdale was losing control, and just a year after the defeat in Spain, manager David O’Leary was gone after failing to secure Champions League football. The plummet down the divisions started soon after, but those magical European nights are forever etched in the memory of Elland Road.

BY SAM MCKEEVER

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