On the 10th anniversary of Leeds’ Champions League semi-final in Valencia, YEP columnist and former United skipper Dominic Matteo reflects on what might have been.
I’m often asked if I give much thought to Leeds United’s Champions League campaign and, in particular, that one night in Valencia.
Much thought? Ten years on, it crosses my mind at least once a week. Some things you never forget.
It’s not an obsession or a fixation but, for someone like me, football is everywhere and football provokes memories. I was in Barcelona on Tuesday for their Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, staying in the same hotel as Madrid’s squad. Everything comes back to you – the sights and smells, the patient time-killing and the unspoken tension. I’ve relived the experience of Valencia many, many times.
I’d like to say that the memories are happy and proud but I’d be lying. Of course I’m proud of our run to the semi-finals and some of that campaign was truly magical, but we walked away with regrets; huge regrets. You can’t go close to laying your hands on the European Cup and be entirely philosophical about a narrow failure. For me it was then or never and, as a retired professional, it’s clearly going to be never.
Here’s the thing – if you’re a Manchester United or Chelsea player (or part of the squad at either Barcelona or Real Madrid for that matter), you’re guaranteed to see your share of Champions League football. A team like Barcelona will always be there or thereabouts, unless they’re in a period of crisis or they’re the victims of a freak result. European football is in their blood.
At Leeds United, I realised early on that I might play in the Champions League once and once only. By the time we got to the semi-final, it was perfectly obvious that I wouldn’t have as good a chance of lifting the European Cup again. I never thought of myself as a world-class player but I was probably as ambitious as they come. Did the loss in Valencia hurt? Too right it did. And it still does.
In my eyes, it’s a story of what-ifs – both home and away. The first leg at Elland Road ended goalless but I still don’t know how I didn’t score in the very last minute. I was already off to celebrate when Santiago Canizares clawed my header off his line, and when I visualise that moment now, I still think the ball’s going in. If we’d taken a lead to Spain then I don’t doubt that the outcome would have been different. We’d have been able to call the shots.
Even so, we weren’t in a bad position before the second leg. But I remember feeling that something wasn’t right in the dressing room beforehand. I can’t put my finger on what was wrong but the lads were unusually quiet and subdued. In general, we were a loud, bubbly group and we were very good at firing each other up, in a very positive sense. But the Spanish changing rooms were huge – absolutely cavernous – and there was an eerie atmosphere inside ours. It added to the nerves and the tension. I don’t blame doubt or a lack of confidence but you probably wouldn’t have guessed that we were heading into the biggest game of our lives.
It didn’t help that we’d lost Lee Bowyer to suspension the day before. He was a huge player for us and, perhaps, the worst player to lose for a game like that. If I trusted anyone to turn it on in Valencia, it was Bowyer – a lad with total confidence, creativity and real genius at times. Single players don’t make a team but losing single players can knock a team sideways. We missed him that night and we missed him badly.
In the past 10 years I’ve watched highlights of the second leg a few times and I’ve seen the goals, but I’ve never watched the entire game. It would be too much like torture. The evening started badly with an early goal for Valencia – a goal which several of our players, Rio Ferdinand especially, thought Juan Sanchez scored with his hand – but what really knocked the stuffing out of us was two quick goals straight after half-time. It was obvious from then on that we were beaten. The last half-hour was a horrible, angry blur.
My reaction to defeat was always to go quiet – to sit and reflect on my own. Other players cried in the dressing room and a few threw things around. I’m told over and over again that our appearance in the semi-finals was a sensational achievement and I guess it was. We went further than any other English team and, on another evening, we might easily have reached the final and won the entire tournament. But I honestly doubt whether any of the players who featured in Valencia see our run as an achievement. They’ll think of it as an opportunity missed.
I never played in the Champions League again and that defeat in Valencia is hard to take, even now. It would be nice to blame the referee or bad luck but, in the cold light of day, I didn’t perform; we didn’t perform. Over the entire campaign we had the right to be proud but I’m not proud of the way it ended. I watched the final between Valencia and Bayern Munich and thought ‘at our best, we’d have won this game’. Those are meaningless words when you’re sat in your living room, sipping on a beer.
Yet, for all my negativity, you feel a real sense of fondness when supporters in Leeds talk about the Champions League days. What I’ve come to realise is that nobody held that performance against us; nobody resented our failure in Valencia or berated us for it.
They seemed happy to walk away with the memories. The players were devastated but the fans were realistic; happy almost. And at the end of the day, what matters most at any club is the satisfaction of their supporters. How players feel is almost incidental in comparison.
Going to Barcelona this week made me realise (as if it was any great mystery) the sheer expense of following Champions League football. You’ve got your flight, your hotel, your transfer and your match tickets. All that before you’ve eaten three meals and sunk 10 pints. To think that thousands of Leeds fans paid that eight or nine times in one year is frightening and quite humbling. It’s easy to assume that by qualifying for the Champions League, you’re doing the supporters a massive favour. In actual fact, you’re causing them no end of complications.
I was chatting to a fan the other day about the whole experience. At the start, he assumed that we’d take a beating in the first group stage and promised his wife that, at the most, he’d go to two ties abroad. According to him, our run to the semi-finals nearly cost him his marriage. His wife was happy to see him pay for the odd game. By the time he was paying to go to Valencia, she was starting to think about a divorce. Other people tell me that the night when I scored at the San Siro was the best night of their lives, and that makes me think. If people got so much pleasure from our adventure then what does it matter if I finished without a medal?
I’ll always mark Valencia down as a sad, sad night. That’s how it felt at the time and that’s how it feels now. You’re close enough to touch the biggest prize in Europe and the prize slips away. But what saddens me more is that the Champions League was the end of something, rather than the start. I’ve said many times in the past that if the squad at Leeds hadn’t been torn apart so viciously, we’d have won something and won something major. One of my lasting regrets is that I never helped bring a trophy to Elland Road.
It was all downhill after the Champions League and, looking back, it seems to me like the last of the good times for the club. I know they won promotion last season but the point of Leeds United is not to dominate League One. The point of Leeds United is to challenge and compete with the best of the best. For one season, we did exactly that.
UNITED travel to London on the final day of the season to take on QPR. Nothing less than a convincing win will do to give Leeds an outside chance of reaching the play-offs.
Sportingbet, betting partner of Leeds United, are offering odds of 9/4* on Leeds spoiling the promotion party by winning at Loftus Road. For the best range of Sportingbet odds visit www.sportingbet.com
*Odds correct as of 04/05/11