AS once in a lifetime experiences go in sport, a trip to the Bernabeu is up there.
Several thousand Leeds United made the voyage to Madrid 17 years ago this week, painting the Plaza Mayor white and leaving the Spanish capital somewhat short of cerveza.
It was one of the great Leeds away days. By hook or by crook, those unable to obtain tickets in the away end snaffled a seat amongst the Spaniards. Many more watched the match in bars. For just a few days in March 2001, Madrid was a sunny district of West Yorkshire.
They returned without points, however, after the superstar-laden Spaniards overcame a brave, fluent and daring Leeds performance to win 3-2.
It couldn’t have started any better. Their front three of Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Alan Smith was at its most dynamic and it was Smith that sent Leeds into the ascendancy and their supporters into dreamland with a well-taken sixth-minute strike.
Memories of the match centre on refereeing decisions that went the way of the home side, but there was more than a hint of offside about the opener.
Not that it made any difference to the travelling support, of course. A stadium as imposing as Madrid’s can stun some away fans into bewildered submission, but not Leeds’.
The noise coming from the away section, situated high in the upper reaches of the famous old ground, far outstripped that of the home fans for large periods of the match.
On the pitch, Leeds’ lead was shortlived. Within 90 seconds the home side were handed a large slice of luck when referee Ryszard Wojcik missed a blatant Raul handball on the Spaniard’s way to levelling the score.
Leeds’ response was fearless and typical of what was one of the most exciting young sides in Europe. Both sides exchanged attacks with Kewell going close. The away side were going toe to toe with the world’s biggest club.
But they had reason to feel aggrieved once again when Luis Figo’s 41st minute shot took a wicked bounce to escape Nigel Martyn’s clutches.
Both sides had already booked their place in the next round, so the prospect of defeat was far from devastating.
This contributed to the fact that half-time on the Bernabeu concourse held something of a party atmosphere, the feeling that Leeds United had arrived as one of Europe’s elite bubbling under.
And they were level with Europe’s elite after 10 minutes of the second half through Mark Viduka, who, leading the line for the away side, had the better of centre-halves Aitor Karanka and Fernando Hierro throughout.
A sharply delivered Ian Harte corner found its way to the powerful Australian, who rose unmarked to power a header past Cesar Sanchez.
Again, the Whites conceded shortly after scoring when Figo and Raul combined to put the Spanish giants 3-2 up on the hour.
From here, the game changed as Madrid’s midfield took control. Leeds found it difficult to regain possession, the high-octane nature of the first half taking its toll on the men in yellow away strips.
There was no danger of the Leeds men in the gods tiring of course. A European tie under the lights at the Santiago Bernabeu was a stage befitting the level of support afforded to Leeds United, their famous run to the 2000/01 Champions League semi-finals providing some of the finest evenings in the club’s history.
Despite the result, their sun-kissed March trip to Spain was undoubtedly one of them.
MATCH STATS: Real Madrid 3 (Raul 7, 60 Figo 41) Leeds United 2 (Smith 6, Viduka 54) - Champions League Group D (March 6, 2001)
Real Madrid: Cesar Sanchez, Geremi, Hierro, Karanka, Solari, Makelele, Celades, McManaman, Figo, Morientes, Raul. Subs: Casillas, Salgado, Savio, Guti, Munitis, Tote, Rivera.
Leeds United: Martyn, Harte, Radebe, Ferdinand, Matteo, Bakke, Dacourt, Batty, Kewell, Smith, Viduka. Subs: Robinson, Kelly, Wilcox, Burns, Maybury.
Referee: Ryszard Wojcik (Poland).