Bygones: ‘He was that good’ - Eddie Gray on what made Leeds United’s Stephen McPhail so special

Stephen McPhail. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Stephen McPhail. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
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WHERE many of the fated David O’Leary ‘babes’ went on to superstardom, it’s fair to say that one or two of them ended up falling by the wayside.

Stephen McPhail was one of the brightest prospects in English football as a youngster at Leeds United, not least after a memorable match-winning performance at Chelsea 18 years ago this week.

Leeds players mob Stephen McPhail aftre his second goal at Chelsea  gave Leeds victory.

Leeds players mob Stephen McPhail aftre his second goal at Chelsea gave Leeds victory.

The creative midfielder scored both goals in a famous 2-0 win that took them to a run of one defeat in 11 Premiership games and to the top of the 1999-00 Premier League table. After a favourable run in the lead-up to Christmas, the trip to Stamford Bridge was billed as a real test of Leeds’ mettle. With Manchester United there to be leapfrogged, this was was a test of Leeds United as title contenders.

It’s easy to forget just how strong that pre-Abramovich Chelsea side was. Leeds’ bright young things would have to take on a team of internationals including Roberto Di Matteo, Didier Deschamps, Marcel Desailly and Gus Poyet.

Much of the pre-match focus was on Harry Kewell’s sparkling run of form and whether Lee Bowyer would be able to hold Chelsea’s advances at bay. As was often the case, McPhail’s considerable talent had been overlooked.

An hour into the match, Leeds’ resolve was buckling. With wave after wave of Chelsea attack weighing heavy on the defence and top spot sliding out of reach, a McPhail-inspired Leeds launched a response. On 66 minutes a Bowyer cross found the 20-year- old open in the Chelsea box, where he opened the scoring against the run of play. Frank Leboeuf was sent off ten minutes later for his second bookable offence and after McPhail’s free-kick supplied the second with just three minutes to go, Leeds were top of the league. Were it not for ill health, many believe the ten-cap Ireland international would’ve gone on to scale the heights achieved by the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate and Harry Kewell in becoming a household name.

That yard of pace stopped him becoming a household name. That’s a bold statement, I know, but I have no doubt it’s true. Stephen could so easily have been up there with the absolute best.

Eddie Gray on Stpehen McPhail

McPhail’s promising career reached its apex at Elland Road. He signed for Barnsley in 2004 and, having signed for an ambitious Cardiff two years later, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer.

He also has Sjögren’s syndrome and Raynaud’s phenomenon. It is suspected his health problems date back much earlier. United legend Eddie Gray, who was instrumental in the development of McPhail and many of O’Leary’s side, spoke retrospectively of McPhail’s enormous potential.

“If Stephen had just another yard of pace he would have been as good as any player I have seen. He can pass like a dream and, yes, he was that good. That yard of pace stopped him becoming a household name. That’s a bold statement, I know, but I have no doubt it’s true. Stephen could so easily have been up there with the absolute best.”

At the age of 38 and thankfully in a fine bill of health, McPhail still plays and is into his third season with League of Ireland outfit Shamrock Rovers. He has retained cult status in the stands of Elland Road and while he may never have scaled the heights of the O’Leary babes around him, he played a vital role in one of the most memorable periods of Leeds United’s history.

Max Gradel

Max Gradel

Other memorable moments in Leeds United’s timeline ...

2010

Max Gradel grabbed both goals to earn Leeds United a 2-0 victory over league leaders Queens Park Rangers.

1993

An own goal from usually reliable Tony Adams helped Leeds United claim a 2-1 win over Premiership top-four rivals Arsenal. Gary McAllister’s opening strike for Leeds was soon cancelled out by Kevin Campbell’s effort, before Leeds eventually overcame the Gunners.

1971

One match in a very unusual and mixed season for Don Revie’s Leeds saw his title-chasing side held 1-1 by struggling Crystal Palace. Peter Lorimer put Leeds in front just before half-time before John Craven’s late goal earned a point for Palace. The points dropped would prove to be crucial later in the season.

1968

Don Revie’s Division One champions easily dismantled German side Hannover 96 in the Fairs Cup. Peter Lorimer bagged a brace for the Whites and goals from Jack Charlton, Norman Hunter and Mike O’Grady earned a classy 5-1 win for a Leeds side brimming with confidence.

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