Twelve years ago, Leeds United spent New Year’s Day at the top of the Premiership.
I say that now like a throwaway nostalgic statistic, but one of my biggest regrets in football was our failure to go on and win the title. In 2002 I had a couple of those. Losing in the quarter-finals of the World Cup was a kick in the teeth because I knew I’d never get the chance to go further. The same goes for that Premiership season. The opportunity to lift the biggest domestic trophy never came my way again.
If you look at the league table as it stood on January 1, our statistics were phenomenal. We’d lost three games in 21 and conceded about 14 goals so our position in the league was no fluke. But closing out a campaign when you’ve got more experienced squads breathing down your neck is no gimme.
Up until 2002 there’d been little in the way of serious challenges to Manchester United and Arsenal, the only two clubs who’d won the Premiership title. We were among the first to have a go at breaking their stranglehold and Chelsea were the first to do the business. The way we played was very simple. Our attitude was that we’d try to steamroller clubs from the first minute and that season was full of games where we went a couple of goals up in the first half and started to bully whoever we were playing. You look like title contenders in those matches because you’re taking sides to the cleaners and swaggering about the field, operating as if you’re full of assurance and under no pressure. But the big failure on our part was our inability to do the same against the teams around us.
I suppose in a way you could call us flat-track bullies. We were very good against inferior opposition. Very good. Some of the performances were blistering. But beating the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea seemed to be an impossibility. It was like a jinx. They had our number and slowly the cost of bad results at bad times started to take its toll. I still maintain we suffered from a few handicaps. Tactically we had no Plan B. If we were comfortable at half-time, fine. If we were trailing or in a tight game, we had less of an idea about how to work those situations in our favour.Towards the end of the season we suffered from suspensions (mine included) and we also had the end of the court case and the publication of David O’Leary’s book. In hindsight, there were far too many problems and distractions for a team with designs on the title. But did I think we were going to win it this time 12 years ago? I remember being seriously, seriously hopeful.
It’s interesting to look back at 2001-02 because the Premier League at the moment is as open as it’s been for a long, long time. In many ways, the two seasons are similar – four or five clubs in contention, some of them proven champions and some with less knowledge of what it takes to win a title and survive the pressure.
For me, the squad at Leeds had enough talent to win the Premiership. But over time you become more philosophical about football and I’ve long since come to accept that we weren’t good enough.
Champions have a way of picking up results week after week. They don’t get into the mindset of ‘we’ve lost a game but never mind, we’re still in a good position.’ They keep on course by making sure they don’t get beat and don’t concede ground. As someone who never won the title I’m guessing here slightly but it must help massively to have been there before. Experience and nous count for so much.
From a different sport, Bradley Wiggins is an example I’d use. He’s clearly had bundles of ability from day one but I read once about how sports psychology helped him to become a Tour de France winner and an Olympic gold medalist. It seems to be that for many years, Wiggins never believed. And perhaps back in 2002, we at Leeds didn’t really believe either. Not properly.
Roger Bannister is another case in point. Before he ran the four-minute mile, people assumed it was impossible. But once he smashed the barrier, his record was broken again and again in a matter of weeks. He shattered a mental barrier.
Football’s a little different because to know how to win a title, you really need to have done it. Only occasionally does a dark horse break the mould. That’s why when this Premier League title race boils down to it in May, I expect to see one of the usual suspects walking away with the silver.