LEEDS United might find themselves locked in battle with Newcastle United when it comes to seeking an automatic promotion place from the Championship in May.
A seven-point gap to the second-placed Magpies would be slashed to four with victory in Friday night’s clash at home to Derby County at Elland Road.
Fifteen years ago this weekend, Leeds and Newcastle were locked in combat at the top of the Premier League – with a 3-1 win for the Magpies at St James’ Park sending them top on January 12, 2002.
After three-straight league wins over the Festive period, David O’Leary’s league-leading Whites approached the Magpies clash following a shock 2-1 loss at Cardiff in the FA Cup in which Alan Smith was sent off.
Victory at title rivals Newcastle would be the perfect response and Leeds made a dream start when Smith went from villain to hero by giving the Whites a first-minute lead.
After just 28 seconds, Smith was sent clear by Mark Viduka’s header and the young striker beat Magpies keeper Shay Given to give O’Leary’s men the perfect start, in spite of being without Robbie Fowler who pulled out of the game prior to kick-off due to a family bereavement.
But the Magpies came roaring back at Leeds with Craig Bellamy a constant thorn in the side.
United’s centre-back pairing of Jonathan Woodgate and Michael Duberry both picked up yellow cards for fouls on Bellamy and Kieron Dyer while David Batty also entered the notebook for a lunge on Andy O’Brien.
A Magpies leveller looked inevitable and it finally arrived in the 44th minute from a Leeds player in Duberry.
Nolberto Solano’s free-kick flew into the United penalty area and Duberry’s header flashed past Nigel Martyn to make the game all square.
Newcastle continued to pour forward after the break and Bellamy squandered a fine opportunity seconds after the restart when firing straight at Martyn after Robbie Elliott’s through ball.
But the Welsh striker then set up the home side’s second goal on the hour when chesting the ball into the path of Dyer who beat Martyn from 12 yards to put the Magpies 2-1 in front.
Leeds’ early lead had been long forgotten and the Whites were then left with an even more arduous task when Danny Mills was sent off in the 69th minute after kicking out at Bellamy.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, Leeds then went close to bagging an equaliser with Viduka’s effort blocked before Given smothered the ball at the feet of Smith.
But the Magpies continued to pour forward and the only thing lacking from Bellamy’s performance was a goal which finally arrived with three minutes left.
Dyer repaid the compliment of his earlier assist with a fine through ball and Bellamy did the rest to fire home and send Newcastle top of the league.
The defeat was the sign of things to come for Leeds who failed to win any of their next eight games as part of a campaign that ultimately saw O’Leary’s men finish fifth, four points below Newcastle who also faded but only into fourth, crucially sealing Champions League qualification in the process.
The opportunity to get back into the Premier League is now the holy grail for both fifteen years on.
Newcastle United 3
(Duberry og 44, Dyer 60, Bellamy 87)
Leeds United 1 (Smith 1)
FA Premier League, St James’ Park, Saturday, January 12, 2002
Newcastle: Given, Hughes, Dabizas, O’Brien (Distin 86), Elliott, Solano, Dyer, Speed, Robert, Shearer, Bellamy. Subs Not Used: Acuna, Harper, Lua-Lua, Bernard.
Leeds: Martyn, Mills, Woodgate, Duberry, Matteo, Kelly, Johnson (Wilcox 66), Batty, Bowyer, Smith, Viduka. Subs Not Used: Harte, Robinson, McPhail, Richardson.
Referee: G Barber (Tring).