Leeds United nostalgia: ‘Cut price’ hot shot who was a class act

2004: Mark Viduka celebrates with then Leeds United team-mate James Milner.
2004: Mark Viduka celebrates with then Leeds United team-mate James Milner.
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The truth about the divorce between Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Leeds United depends on who you speak to.

Hasselbaink will tell you that he never wanted to leave but was undervalued by the contract given to him; United felt that the Dutchman twisted their arm into selling him to Atletico Madrid.

His departure in 1999 raised £12m. Within a year, David O’Leary had replaced Hasselbaink with Michael Bridges, Mark Viduka and £1.5m to spare. It was, unintentionally, a skilful trade-off and while Bridges’ body failed him for all but one season at Leeds, Viduka fitted the Hasselbaink mould – a classy, clinical striker with a sharp forthright temperament.

The Australian wanted for pace and, from time to time, better discipline but little else in his locker was lacking. Strong and balanced with a magical touch, his awareness in the box was shown by an average of close to one goal from every two appearances. Unlike Hasselbaink, Jermaine Beckford or any other finisher of this generation at Elland Road, Viduka’s strikerate was maintained at the very height of domestic competition – the Premier League, the UEFA Cup and the Champions League.

Leeds paid £6m for Viduka in one of the earliest shows of intent by Peter Ridsdale’s board. Signed from Celtic for the half of Hasselbaink’s price tag, O’Leary saw the valuation as a snip. “People shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that Mark’s fee detracts from his quality as a player,” O’Leary said. “That would be disrespectful to him. He’s a really class act.”

Celtic had taken a punt on Viduka by recruiting him from Croatia Zagreb and his time in Glasgow was not without problems. Prolific on the field, he was painted as a troublemaker off it.

His initial move to Celtic was delayed by a month with Viduka claiming to be suffering from stress and he had a habit of talking out of turn. But the statistics during the 1999-2000 season spoke for themselves. Twenty seven goals in 37 appearances earned him the Players’ Player of the Year award in Scotland and O’Leary made a beeline in his direction.

Viduka’s first impressions at Elland Road were inauspicious. He missed five games after travelling to Australia to take part in the Sydney Olympics but on his return he scored in a rout of Besiktas and produced four more goals in consecutive league matches. It was the precursor to Viduka’s finest hour; his exhibition of brilliance against Liverpool on November 4, 2000.

The forward did not need so much as 60 minutes to strike four times in a blinding win at Elland Road. Leeds trailed 2-0 and 3-2 but Viduka’s efforts on 24, 47, 73 and 75 minutes were those of a complete striker – an opportunistic chip after a defensive error, a glancing header inside the near post, a low strike on the turn and the deftest of touches to win the game as Liverpool’s defence stood static behind him. In 90-odd years, Elland Road has seen little like it.

Viduka never looked back. He scored 22 times in two of his four seasons with Leeds, 16 in another and 12 in his last. His final goal came on a fateful day at Bolton Wanderers when he opened the scoring with a penalty but earned himself an early red card with frenzied aggression.

United lost 4-1 and were relegated, and Viduka left for Middlesbrough. Few in Leeds would hold it against him.

Paul Heckingbottom watched on at Bramall Lane.

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