Eirik Bakke joined Leeds in 1999 as the club were on the cusp of an exciting new era, but just eight years later the club were in League One for the first time. Leon Wobschall reports.
THE reference to ‘ups and downs’ in Leeds United’s classic anthem of Marching On Together is something that Eirik Bakke can vouch for more than most.
Part of the golden time of plenty at the start of the century when Leeds were destined to be the talk of the land for the right reasons, Bakke was there when the milk metaphorically turned sour.
The good saw the unassuming lad from Western Norway emerge with prominence during the O’Leary years when United dined with the best in Europe, culminating in the run to the Champions League semis in 2001.
The bad saw crippling injuries ravage his Leeds career and ensure lengthy spells in the treatment room, while the club subsequently plunged into a financial maelstrom and out of the big time.
Bakke was then exiled to the equivalent of the wilderness, an unwitting casualty of the fall-out of the Peter Ridsdale excesses, with the club very publicly not playing him for financial reasons before he ultimately headed back to his homeland in ignominious fashion in August 2006.
Now 37, Bakke, to his credit, is philosophical about those tumultuous events, with his only hope that Leeds fans can enjoy a return to football’s top table again before too long and that the tab is picked up.
Leeds means a lot to many people not just on English soil, but also across the North Sea in Norway, where the Whites retain plenty of support despite their recent troubles and Bakke counts himself among that number, with his pride at playing for the club as clear as the pure waters of the Fjords.
Bakke, 37, now starting out in his second footballing career at a manager at hometown club Sogndal, who sold him to Leeds for £1.75m in May 1999, said: “There are many (Leeds) supporters over here and they are all waiting for them to come back up.
“For me, I was proud to play for Leeds. English football is massive in Norway and my team was Everton and I got a shirt when I was a young boy.
“But Leeds were very big in Norway due to their success in the seventies and it was a dream come true when I got a chance to come over and play.
“The year before I joined Leeds, Sogndal got relegated and I was close to going to Rosenborg, the biggest club because they were in the Champions League. But my father was a director of the club, so they refused to let me go. I am grateful for that now.”
He added: “It was a big step to move to a big club like Leeds, coming from a village of 7,000 people and I remember it was just the hardest pre-season (in 1999-2000), running around Roundhay Park behind Eddie Gray. My first introduction to English football was hard work!
“I had three or four months of getting used to it and then David Batty and some other boys got injured and I got my chance. And the rest was history.”
The lustre of Bakke’s debut season was taken away by those desperately sad events in Istanbul in April 2000 and he took limited solace from his two goals in the second leg of that Uefa Cup semi-final with Galatasaray.
More pleasurable European nights followed in 2000-01. with Bakke sampling plenty domestically, with watching top-flight weekend football from England something ingrained in the Norwegian sporting psyche.
He said: “Galatasaray was a sad time. I scored a couple of goals in the second leg, but all the boys were gutted after what happened before the first game to the two fans (Kevin Speight and Chris Loftus).
“We became a side with many good kids and young players feared across the land. The team spirit was the best thing, we were together on and off the pitch.
“There were great memories going Barcelona, Madrid and Milan. I’ll always remember drawing in the San Siro and singing songs with the fans afterwards and the Deportivo game was great. It was just such a journey.
“It was just a shame we didn’t qualify for the Champions League the year after as if we’d done that, I think Leeds probably would not have had to start selling people. It could have been different.
“It was a big group together with the fans. But the dressing room then started to fall apart and we were selling player after player and didn’t replace them. It was tough and the team split.”
Along with the crash came Bakke’s injury descent, starting with patella tendonitis keeping him out for much of the 2003-04 relegation season before a cruciate injury suffered in a pre-season friendly in Sweden July 2004 saw him sidelined for virtually all of 2004-05.
With Leeds desperate to get Bakke off the wage bill, he was loaned out to Aston Villa under ex-Whites boss O’Leary in 2005-06 before eventually leaving Leeds permanently for a return to Norway at Brann.
Bakke added: “After the cruciate injury, I didn’t come back to my best. If I was injury-free, I could have done more for the club and played many more games. It held me back.
“It was hard at the end with Ken Bates. Me and Gary Kelly were the ones he wanted out. I had a year left on my contract, but didn’t want to stay anymore.
“Football is more than money, it’s playing and having fun. It was a shame to leave, but I had to do it.
“I feel sorry for the fans at what has happened at Leeds. They have stuck with the club for the last ten years and for them, I hope they will come back soon in the Premier League as they are probably the best supporters in England.”