THE stunning three-goal first leg victory over Deportivo La Coruna in the Champions League quarter-finals is often held up as the high point of Leeds United’s all too brief rise around the turn of the Millennium.
It was a night when everything came together, as Rio Ferdinand netted his first goal since joining for a record £18m and David O’Leary’s young, vibrant side made a mockery of the pre-match assertion by Victor, the Spanish club’s outspoken midfielder, that Leeds were the “weakest side left” in the last eight.
The atmosphere at Elland Road when I played for England was buzzing, even though it was only a friendly. I am a massive believer in taking the England games around the country.Robbie Fowler
A little over a year later, however, Elland Road staged another game that perhaps symbolises better than even that demolition of the reigning La Liga champions just why United were once considered so integral to the future of English football.
Over a 24-month period leading up to Italy’s visit to Leeds for a friendly in March, 2002, no less than seven United players had sported the Three Lions. Another, Lee Bowyer, would make his international debut the following September against Portugal, when he marked the occasion by setting up club-mate Alan Smith for England’s goal in a 1-1 draw.
Three of those were on duty against the Italians as Nigel Martyn started behind a defence containing Danny Mills. Robbie Fowler came on at half-time and marked being handed the captain’s armband by Sven Goran Eriksson with the opening goal in England’s 2-1 defeat.
“To have three Leeds players on the Elland Road pitch was great for the club,” recalls the 51-year-old former goalkeeper about a night that also saw the injured Ferdinand and Smith watch from the sidelines.
“At the time, you maybe don’t realise the significance. We certainly didn’t. Mainly because none of us knew what was around the corner and what financial problems the club had. We thought things would carry on like that for years to come.
“That is what I mean when I say it is only with hindsight that you realise what a huge thing it was for Leeds as a club. Hosting an international is huge anyway, especially against a team like Italy. Even when it is a friendly, this fixture is a big deal so a real honour for Leeds as a club.
“But to have your own players in the England team at your own stadium, that is a big thing.”
The second visit to Elland Road inside seven years by the national team came with a sense of optimism surrounding Eriksson’s men.
Qualification for the World Cup may have come the previous year via ‘that’ late, late equaliser by David Beckham against Greece at Old Trafford.
But the 5-1 thrashing of Germany in Munich that had nudged England so emphatically towards Japan and South Korea was still fresh in the mind.
Eriksson also had some fine players at his disposal, meaning there was a palpable sense of anticipation ahead of the West Yorkshire encounter with Italy.
Sadly, the game itself failed to live up to the billing. The first half was awful and it took Fowler breaking the deadlock on 63 minutes to bring the evening to life.
“I am not a great one for remembering the fine details of games in my career but I do remember the goal,” the former United striker told The Yorkshire Post ahead of tonight’s return against Costa Rica. “Joe Cole nicked the ball and gave it to me on the right side of the box, and I finished with my right foot past (Gianluigi) Buffon. It put us ahead, but we eventually lost the game, with (Vincenzo) Montella, I think, scoring a couple.”
Fowler, one of nine substitutions made by Eriksson at half-time, may not recall much about how Italy hit back to triumph in Leeds, the winner coming in the final minute via a Montella penalty after David James had tripped Massimo Maccarone.
But a striker who won 26 international caps does have one standout memory from what was, ultimately, a proud night for both the Liverpudlian and his adopted club in Yorkshire.
“There were people like Gary Neville, Teddy Sheringham, Phil Neville and David James on the pitch,” recalls Fowler, who still has the shirt he wore that night at Elland Road. “But Sven gave me the armband.
“I have never really read too much into it, as Beckham was very much the captain then. But, obviously, I am still proud.
“I am not sure it is official if you only wear the armband for half a game. But I have still captained my country, still led England. I guess it is something I can tell the grandkids about.
“Gary Neville hadn’t been England captain back then. I am not sure that he ever was, which is a surprise. So, I suppose to be given the job ahead of someone like him makes me realise it was a bit of an honour.”
Tonight’s friendly is just the third international away from Wembley since the national stadium re-opened in 2007, the Etihad and Stadium of Light having done the honours two years ago. Another ‘on the road’ game is planned for September, when Switzerland will visit these shores for a friendly.
If, as seems likely, Wembley is sold then the likes of Old Trafford, St James’ Park and Villa Park can expect to once again welcome the national team in the coming years.
Fowler, for one, thinks the players will relish the chance to represent the Three Lions around the country.
He added: “The atmosphere at Elland Road when I played for England was buzzing, even though it was only a friendly. I am a massive believer in taking the England games around the country.
“For me, that period back then, when Wembley was being rebuilt, proved it. We had some wonderful games. I remember a couple of St James’ Park, too, plus Anfield, Old Trafford and Pride Park.
“The atmosphere was always better, the fans seemed to be involved more and got behind the team more.
“I think by taking the internationals around the country we got the fans onside, got them behind us. It created more of a connection. For me, it is something the FA should be looking at now.
“If they sell Wembley, then it is the chance to invest in the grassroots of the game, which can only be a good thing. But also it may offer the chance to eventually take the game back to the country, by having games in different stadiums.”
Martyn, too, relished turning out in front of the same fans who cheered him on every other Saturday in the Premier League.
“I got a great reception from behind the goal that night against Italy,” he added. “It just seemed to be filled with Leeds fans.
“For my part, I kept a clean sheet in my 45 minutes. Being able to play at my home ground was a good feeling. The opportunities to play were few and far between back then but it being at Elland Road made things that bit more special.”