With Leeds United currently playing in the Championship some younger people may forget there was once a time, not so long ago, when they were playing at the highest level. Gracing the semi-final’s of the Champions League in the 2000-01 season. It’s also a well documented fact that Leeds United would fall into financial trouble after failing to qualify for the 2001-02 Champions League. It was not really the semi-final loss to Valencia that would spell the end for the talented Leeds side but a Premier League game between Arsenal on 5th May 2001.
At the time Leeds United had an extremely talented side. Led by the Irish manager David O’Leary and backed by chairmen Peter Ridsale the club had assembled an expensive squad. There was also a number players from the youth set up that played in the first team. Names like: Jonathan Woodgate, Alan Smith, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Robbie Keane, Paul Robinson, Lucas Radebe, Olivier Dacourt, Robbie Fowler and Rio Ferdinand all played for Leeds United during this time. All international players at some point in their careers.
Getting these players was not cheap. Rio Ferdinand cost £18m, a record fee for a defender at that time. Robbie Keane arrived on loan from Inter Milan and later sealed a permeated move for £7m. Dacourt arrived for over £7m which was a record fee for the club at the time. Fowler arrived from Liverpool for £12m and Seth Johnson from Derby County again for the magic fee of $7m. The club took on massive loans to help complete these deals. All hopes of repaying these loans depended on the club continuously making the Champions League. With Champions League football came lucrative sponsorship and TV money. Something the club couldn’t afford to miss out on.
In the first group stage Leeds would find themselves together with FC Barcelona, A.C Milan and Besiktas. Few gave Leeds much hope of making it pass Barca and Milan. But they would prove the doubters wrong and finish 2nd in the group. Despite a 4-0 loss on match day 1 to Barcelona, a 1-0 win against Milan thanks to a Lee Bowyer goal (and a handling error from goalkeeper Dida) would give Leeds the belief they could progress. A 6-0 win against Besiktas was followed by 3 draws to leave them one point above Barcelona in the group.
Back in 2000-01 the Champions League had two group stages. Leeds was again not so lucky in the draw. They were pooled with Real Madrid, Lazio (who were a strong team back then) and Belgium champions Anderlecht. A loss to Real Madrid at home was followed by three straight wins. While they lost again to Real Madrid at the Bernabeu and drew with Lazio 3-3 on the final matchday, they did enough to finish 2nd 3 points behind Real. Leeds United had defied the critics and made the knock out stages at their first attempt.
However even though the club was doing well in Europe, Leeds were feeling the effects of playing on two fronts. Matches were lost that you would expect them to win. Losses to Leicester City, Manchester City (Who were relegated that season), Ipswich Town as well as draws at home to Derby and Middlesbrough would come back to hurt Leeds at the end of the season.
Back in the Champions League, Leeds were paired with Deportivo La Coruna who were the reigning Spanish Champions at the time. The first match was at Elland Road, United ran out 3-0 winners thanks to goals from Ian Harte, Alan Smith and Rio Ferdinand. The return leg was not as straight forward, Leeds were 1-0 down after 9 min minutes thanks to a Djalminha penalty and when Diego Tristan made it 2-0 in the 73rd min, Leeds were living on the edge. Yet they did enough to hold on to their slight advantage and advance to semi-final for the first time since 1975. David O’Leary was now two matches away from a final at the San Siro. Valencia would be the only obstacle in their way. It would be the fourth Spanish team that they had encountered on their European run. The first game finished 0-0 at Elland Road.
Back in the Premier League, Leeds were facing the scary prospect of missing out a top 3 spot and with that qualification for next seasons Champions League. Liverpool had been hot on their heels and were pushing Leeds for that 3rd spot. Leeds had beaten Liverpool both home and away but dropped points against supposedly lesser teams where now coming back to hunt Leeds. The match before the trip to Valencia was against Arsenal FC who had second place secured for themselves.
Leeds went into the game on the back of a 7 match winning streak, while the gunners had won their past 3 Premier League matches. But Arsenal no longer had European football to contend with so went into the game, in theory, fresher. Leeds knew they could no longer afford to drop any more points. So much was made of their need to finish in the top 3, yet there was also the return leg of the Champions League to take into consideration. Would O’Leary go for broke and play his strongest 11 or risk resting players for the trip to Valencia.
In the end O’Leary went for something close to his strongest 11. With Robbie Keane starting ahead of Alan Smith, who had been in good goal scoring form (don’t often hear that about him these days.) He paired Mark Viduka up front with Harry Kewell playing in the hole behind the two strikers. The only other significant changes were Gary Kelly in for Danny Mills at right back and Eirik Bakke in for David Batty who was suspended. The match would turn out to be a rough affair with the referee handing out 7 yellow cards and match lucky to finish with all 22 players on the field. Freddie Ljunberg had missed a early chance with a header going wide in the 5th min, but it didn’t take him long to make amends when the scored in the 17th min. He was feed a through ball by Henry and the Swede went past the defence and rounded Nigel Martyn in goal to trickle the ball slowly over the line. Agony for Leeds.
Worse to come in the second half when Wiltord scored the 2nd for Arsenal in the 56th min. A shoot on the turn, after being passed the ball by Vieria, that would sail into the top corner of the net. United did offer some resistance when they scored 2 mins later from a free kick from dead ball specialist Ian Harte. With Liverpool winning 3-0 against Newcastle and with a game in hand over Leeds, they could not afford to lose. Tony Adams and Martin Keown would prove to be impregnable as Leeds continued to press forward in search of an equaliser. And while a free kick, again from Harte, would hit the post there would be no more goals for Leeds United. A loss that, while at the time did not seem so dramatic would prove to be the starting point of all that went wrong for Leeds.
In their next match against Valencia, it would prove a step too far. Alan Smith, David Batty and Danny Mills all returned for the match but it would turn out to be a fruitless move. Leeds went down 1-0 after 15th min to a Juan Sanchez goal, even though replays showed the player had blandly used his arm to turn home a cross. The players’ protests fell on deaf ears, then Sanchez doubled the pain for Leeds in the 47th min. Valencia captain Gaizka Mendieta scored the final nail in the coffin on the 52nd min mark. The night was made worse by a red card to Alan Smith for a reckless tackle in the 90th min, but by then the damage had been done. A 3-0 loss and the end of Leeds European adventure.
Leeds won their last league game but Liverpool did what they need to do to and finished 1 point above Leeds to secure 3rd spot. During the next few seasons the repercussions would be felt of Leeds failure to secure Champions League football. David O’Leary was sacked after the 2001-02 season after the club had finished 5th, with largely the same squad. Rio Ferdinand was sold to hated rivals Manchester United for £25m. Terry Venables was appointed as O’Leary’s successor but he too would leave the club near the end of the 2002-03 season after what he saw as lies from the board. Players were being sold after he had been assured no players would leave the club. Jonathan Woodgate joined Newcastle United for £9m, Lee Bowyer joined West Ham while Robbie Fowler went to Manchester City and Harry Kewell joining Liverpool.
However it was in 2003-04 season that would be season where everything went wrong for Leeds United. No longer with all their big stars they were unable to string the wins together and were relegated from the premier league. The club finished in 19th place with only 8 wins. The remaining stars were sold to balance the books and Leeds had gone from Champions League Semi-finalists to relegation in the short space of 3 seasons. How different it al could have been if they had won on that day, 5th May 2001.