AS LEEDS UNITED supporters filed out of Elland Road 15 years ago this week, the feeling was that the club’s passionate love affair with European football was over for a generation.
And sadly they were right. Terry Venables’ Leeds were a side in rapid decline, staring into the abyss of a relegation dogfight and on a run of five games without a win.
With a squad a pale reflection of its former self and the club in turmoil behind the scenes, the UEFA Cup had served as a joyous distraction for all involved with Leeds. The sinking feeling had long since set in for many.
Malaga had been the visitors on a bitterly cold West Yorkshire evening, running out 2-1 winners and taking their place in the fourth round thanks to a brace from veteran striker Julio Dely Valdes.
The frustration was that the Whites had seemingly done the hard work.
The supporters who had made the trip to Spain a fortnight earlier had witnessed a hard-fought 0-0 draw, and the feeling was that Leeds would have enough to sneak through in front of their home crowd.
It wasn’t to be. Dely Valdes opened the scoring after just 14 minutes and with an away goal in the bag, Leeds were up against it. Two minutes later Lee Bowyer hacked at the legs of Gerardo before callously stamping on his face and the match descended into a fiesty affair.
Both sides traded blows, both on and off the ball. If Bowyer’s antics had been designed to stoke up the crowd it had worked and when Eirik Bakke bundled in a back post finish from a looped Robbie Fowler cross, volume levels went through the Elland Road roof.
The fact is, though, that this was an ugly evening for Leeds United Football Club. Fowler was only on the pitch as a replacement for Michael Bridges, whose ruptured knee ligaments all but destroyed the career of the 24-year-old.
Bridges continues to play to this day, in Australia, but he would never get close to returning to the form that had seen him bag a hat-trick on just his second Leeds appearance, against Southampton.
Venables’ assistant Brian Kidd became involved in an argument with the Malaga bench while the players continued exchanging retaliations.
Level heads were in increasingly short supply.
Things just seemed to pile on top of one another during this period of the club’s history and when a disgruntled supporter appeared next to the dugout hurling abuse at Venables and his staff, it was clear that theexit from the UEFA Cup was the least of the club’s problems.
And exit they did after Dely Valdes added his second with 10 minutes to go. Leeds had not so much launched an assault at the Malaga goal than probed at it from distance, and it was Paul Robinson who had been the busier of the goalkeepers, producing a handful of quality saves.
Surprisingly, the evening’s saltiness acted as a watershed moment in Leeds’ survival in the Premier League that season. They’d go undefeated in their next five league fixtures, including a famous 2-0 win over Chelsea.
The 2002/03 season was a topsy turvy mix of winless months and shock defeats, a soap opera of a campaign producing as many headlines off the field as on it. The enduring images are of Peter Reid’s players celebrating after that dramatic final day win over Arsenal, of course, with their sorry exit of Europe a sepia faraway memory.
As European nights go, it rates of Leeds’ worst. How long before the bright lights of Elland Road welcome European opposition again is another question altogether.
Leeds United 1 (Bakke 23) Malaga 2 (Dely Valdes 14, 80) (Malaga win 2-1 on aggregate)
UEFA CUP third round, THURSDAY, December 12, 2002
Leeds United: Robinson, Mills, Woodgate, Duberry, Kelly, Bowyer, Bakke, Okon, Wilcox, Smith, Bridges (Fowler 9). Subs not used: Martyn, Harte, Radebe, McPhail, Seth Johnson, Kilgallon.
Malaga: Contreras, Josemi, Fernando Sanz, Roteta, Valcarce, Manu (Sandro 57), Gerardo, Romero, Musampa (Miguel Angel 78), Silva, Dely Valdes (Litos 90). Subs not used: Arnau, Iznata, Leko, Koke.
Referee: Massimo Busacca (Switzerland). Attendance: 34,123.