FOR former Leeds United midfielder Lee Bowyer, the opening to 2000 was somewhat torrid.
Thankfully, he was afforded the right type of headlines in his day job exactly 15 years ago today when he helped United sweep aside Slavia Prague 3-0 in a thoroughly convincing Uefa Cup quarter-final first-leg triumph at Elland Road.
The Londoner fired Leeds’ final goal of the night to crown an impressive display as the Whites’ enthralling European adventure reached new heights.
It arrived on the night before being due to appear in court alongside Jonathan Woodgate on a much-chronicled GBH and affray charge following an alleged assault outside the Majestyk nightclub in Leeds on Sarfraz Najeib on January 15.
Ahead of the tie, manager David O’Leary vowed to stand by both players, stating: “Until someone finds them guilty they will continue to be involved in our games without any doubt.”
In the event, Woodgate missed the tie through a calf injury, but Bowyer lined up in the starting XI, and when the teams were announced before kick-off his name was afforded a rousing cheer.
Thankfully, the decibel levels were cranked up on several more occasions on a memorable night for United, who had disposed of Partisan Belgrade, Lokomotiv Moscow, Spartak Moscow and AS Roma en route to the last eight.
It was Leeds’s most distinguished run in Europe for 25 years, with O’Leary’s vibrant side further adding to their growing reputation at the expense of Slavia, who were well beaten by the end despite fielding a side containing seven internationals.
Leeds were almost afforded a dream start on two minutes when Harry Kewell, who fired the only goal in two legs against Roma in the previous round, was presented with a chance following a flowing move involving Jason Wilcox and Michael Bridges, but the Aussie shot straight at Radek Cerny.
A looping Bridges volley then flew just over before Bowyer made his first positive contribution with his 20-yard effort blocked by Libor Koller before Kewell’s first-time shot was brilliantly saved by Cerny.
A home goal looked just a matter of time and it arrived six minutes from the interval – no prizes for guessing that Bowyer made an instrumental contribution.
Bowyer, who drew a foul from Petrous on the half-hour which yielded a yellow card, made a telling burst which saw him slalom his way past two opponents before supplying Wilcox, who raced clear to lift the ball beyond Cerny.
Seconds later, Bowyer also doubled Leeds’ tally, but his close-range effort was saved.
But Leeds were not to be denied and they struck a second on 54 minutes.
Nigel Martyn’s long punt downfield was controlled by Bridges and he fed the ball to Eirik Bakke.
The Norwegian’s persistence helped him past two challenges before he drilled the ball across for Kewell to force home at the far post.
Just a minute later, fittingly on the night, Bowyer finished off the best move of the match when he was sent clear by a magnificent touchline pass by Bridges before coolly slotting the ball home – his fifth European goal of the campaign.
Other chances to increase United’s tally were squandered, but the win left them with one foot in the semi-finals – on a night that Bowyer will still no doubt recall today.
Leeds United 3
(Wilcox 30, Kewell 54, Bowyer 59)
Slavia Prague 0
UEFA Cup quarter-final March 16, 2000.
United: Martyn, Kelly, Haaland, Radebe, Harte, Bowyer, Bakke, McPhail (Huckerby 76), Wilcox, Bridges (Smith 86), Kewell.Not used: Hopkin, Mills, Jones, Duberry, Robinson.
Slavia Prague: Cerny, L. Dosek, T. Dosek, Vlcek (Vagner 55), Ulich, Dostalek (Hysky 64), Horvath, Petrous, Rada, Koller, Kuchar. Not used: Lerch, Kozel, Skala, Vozabal, Vaclavik.
Referee: Markus Merk (Germany).