LEEDS United minds were naturally drawn back to yesteryear when Stephen McPhail announced his retirement from football last October.
In seven years at Leeds, the midfielder made 107 appearances, netting three goals in the process.
Two of those goals came 17 years ago this weekend when a 20-year-old McPhail enjoyed probably his finest day in a Leeds shirt as his brace sank Chelsea 2-0 at Stamford Bridge to put the Whites top of the Premier League.
Leeds had finished fourth the previous season under David O’Leary – eight points behind a Chelsea side managed by Gianluca Vialli and under the stewardship of Ken Bates.
But Leeds were mounting a serious title charge the following season and approached December 1999’s visit to Stamford Bridge having lost just one of their last 13 league games – 10 of which had resulted in victory.
Manchester United had taken back top spot with the previous day’s 4-2 win at West Ham but Leeds knew victory at Stamford Bridge would put them top at Christmas.
Leeds lined up with Nigel Martyn in goal, behind a back four of Gary Kelly, Jonathan Woodgate, Lucas Radebe and Ian Harte. McPhail, Lee Bowyer, Erik Bakke and Harry Kewell filled the midfield, with Michael Bridges supported by Darren Huckerby up front.
Chelsea’s starting XI included a future Leeds manager and assistant in Dennis Wise and Gus Poyet, not to mention Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps and Roberto Di Matteo.
Vialli’s men created a wave of opportunities in the first half and again bombarded Leeds after the break in a bad- tempered game that featured six yellow cards and one red.
But against the run of play it was United who took a 66th-minute lead when Bowyer’s low cross was met by the onrushing McPhail who produced a clinical low finish from around 12 yards out to net the first goal of his Leeds career. A real “smash and grab” as commentator Andy Gray labelled it. Chelsea were stunned and their day then went from bad to worse just two minutes later when Frank Lebeouf was sent off after receiving a second yellow card for a blatant trip on Kewell.
After a shoving match with Woodgate who quickly became involved, Lebeouf was ushered off the pitch by Huckerby as Vialli attempted to comprehend four mad minutes which left his men shell-shocked.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, the hosts continued to push forward in search of a leveller. But Leeds held firm and O’Leary’s men flattened Chelsea further by bagging a killer second with three minutes left and again through McPhail.
The midfielder stepped up to take an 87th-minute free-kick wide on the right-hand flank and a low left-footed delivery sailed through the Chelsea area and crept in at the far post without touching a single player.
Leeds were heading top and it was difficult to envisage that by May, United would finish third and 22 points behind Manchester United and four behind runners up Arsenal.
Chelsea finished fifth so Leeds at least edged that score – as well as taking bragging rights 17 years ago this weekend through the brilliance of McPhail.
Leeds United 2
(McPhail 66, 87)
December 19, 1999
Chelsea: De Goey, Ferrer, Desailly, Leboeuf, Harley, Wise, Deschamps, Di Matteo, Poyet, Sutton, Flo. Subs: Petrescu, Hogh, Morris, Cudicini, Zola.
Leeds: Martyn, Kelly, Woodgate, Radebe, Harte, Bowyer, Bakke, McPhail, Kewell, Huckerby, Bridges. Subs: Robinson, Wilcox, Mills, Jones, Duberry.
Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).