Leeds United nostalgia: From the cusp of immortality to downward spiral

Harry Kewell
Harry Kewell
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It’s hard to imagine, looking back on it, but as Leeds travelled to the Iberian Peninsula, the side was on the cusp of immortality.

Leeds had not won Europe’s elite prize in their history, but they were the last English side left in the Champions League by the time the semi-finals rolled around.

The Whites had also outperformed Valencia in the second half of their first leg, coming close to taking a lead to the Mestalla. With the tie level and no away goals, Leeds only had to secure a score draw to progress to the final.

They would have been buoyed by the praise lavished on them by legendary player and manager Johan Cruyff.

He said: “Leeds are another story. They’ve met Barcelona, AC Milan, Deportivo La Coruna and Real Madrid and survived.

“They’re always positive, they run and battle and they believe in themselves.

“Like all English teams, if you give them the ball they will make you dance the way they want.”

Leeds emerged from the dressing room like warriors reborn, with the entire side having chosen to shave their heads in a show of team spirit. Only Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer, taking advice ahead of court dates, and Ian Harte, two weeks ahead of his wedding, abstained from the gesture. The Yorkshire club had been unlucky in Spain throughout their European campaign. Trips to the Nou Camp, the Santiago Bernabeu and Deportivo La Coruna’s Estadio Riazor had brought three losses.

Their clash with Barcelona in the first group stage of the competition had taught Leeds a footballing lesson, as one of the continent’s top sides beat them 4-0, but it was Real Madrid’s equaliser against Leeds earlier in the competition that was replicated in the Valencia clash.

Controversially, Juan Sanchez copied his compatriot Raul’s goal by clearly handling the ball into the back of the net to give Valencia the lead. Protests from Nigel Martyn and Ferdinand were ignored by the referee. It could have been a hammerblow for Leeds, who had settled after an uncomfortable opening and were looking to control the game.

However, they came back with energy in an attempt to tie up the game. Harry Kewell curled an effort over the bar, Olivier Dacourt fired directly at Canizares, and David Batty, on his 500th appearance for the club, almost brought things level but couldn’t beat the Spanish stopper.

Minutes after half-time, Sanchez put a dampener on hopes of Leeds fulfilling their Champions League dream by hitting a sensational strike into the bottom right-hand corner of Martyn’s goal.

Those hopes were crushed only six minutes later. Gaizka Mendieta fired home a carbon copy of Sanchez’s goal, sending the tie beyond Leeds.

David O’Leary’s team tried to muster up a response to the three goals, but they struggled. It ultimately proved impossible for them, and frustration built. Alan Smith, the local Leeds hero, was sent off for a reckless tackle on Vicente shortly before the final whistle.

The semi-final was to be the high point of O’Leary’s time in charge and their millennial samba with success. Leeds failed to qualify for the Champions League that season or the next, which heralded the end of the Irish manager’s reign at the club.

Stats

Valencia 3

(Juan Sanchez (2), Gaizka Mendieta)

Leeds United 0

Champions league semi-final second leg May 8, 2001

Valencia: Canizares, Angloma, Ayala, Pellegrino, Aurelio, Albelda, Mendieta, Aimar, Kily Gonzalez, Carew, Sanchez.

Leeds United: Martyn, Mills, Ferdinand, Matteo, Harte, Bakke, Dacourt, Batty, Kewell, Viduka, Smith.

Referee: Urs Meier (Switzerland)

Attendance: 53,000.

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