MANY may have lamented England’s meek Champions League entrance earlier this month, but there were few complaints from the viewing public at the fayre provided by Leeds United on a famous night in 1992.
Although it was just as well that a few eagle-eyed German football supporters were watching as well on the TV back home.
In the old school days when only the champions of each nation took part in Europe’s blue-riband club tournament, Leeds, in their first home game in the European Cup format since March 1975 and their first in Europe at Elland Road in almost 13 years, captivated the nation in a truly barnstorming second leg comeback against German champions VfB Stuttgart in their first-round second-leg clash.
It ultimately ended in heartache with Howard Wilkinson’s pumped-up side, who trailed 3-0 from the first leg at the Neckarstadion, producing one of the greatest comebacks in the competition’s illustrious history in a stunning 4-1 triumph, only for Christophe Daum’s side to seemingly have the last laugh after squeezing through on the away goals rule after two fluctuating legs ended deadlocked at 4-4.
Daum admitted as much after the game, which saw Leeds display with courage, commitment and class in equal measure, stating simply. “We weren’t the better side, but we were the luckier.” So he thought anyway...
It proved not quite so, with it transpiring that Stuttgart had in fact broken UEFA rules by using Swiss international Adrian Knup, taking their number of foreign players used up to four from the permitted three.
It was rumoured that fans of an opposing German club had actually spotted the error on TV and contacted officials.
The end result was that the match was declared void, Leeds awarded a 3-0 victory and the teams were ordered to play-off in Barcelona for the right to meet Scottish champions Glasgow Rangers in that 1992-93 season, when the European Cup was re-named the Champions League.
That night at the Camp Nou was also the stuff of legend and while it superceded the game at Elland Road, few present among the 31,460 crowd will forget that night in West Yorkshire when Leeds went so close to becoming the first British side in the competition’s 37-year history to overturn a three-goal deficit and progress into the next round.
The fun began 18 minutes in when a tousle-haired Gary Speed volleyed home from close range, to give United an inkling of hope.
It lit the blue-touch paper with Leeds pouring bodies forward and unhinging the flustered Germans at regular junctures, with the attacks turning into waves.
But unfortunately a hush descended on Elland Road on 34 minutes when Stuttgart levelled when Andreas Buck cut inside before firing home the leveller and a precious away goal to give the hosts a mountain of Everest proportions to climb. That’s that then – or so most people thought.
Fortunately, Leeds’ European story still had plenty of legs and within four minutes, Gary McAllister put the hosts back in front from the spot. To their credit, Leeds kept banging on the door and on 66 minutes, hopes were rekindled when Eric Cantona fired home from close range after great play from Gordon Strachan.
Baying home supporters, raucous all evening, then helped ‘suck’ in another goal, when Lee Chapman headed home with 10 minutes to go, to make it 4-1 on the night and 4-4 on aggregate, with Leeds throwing the kitchen sink at the Germans, mindful they needed another goal to go through to realise their heroic mission. Then the decisive act, with Stuttgart throwing on Knup and Jovo Simanic for striker Fritz Walter and midfielder Maurizio Gaudino to bolster his side’s palpitating defence. The dual move added ballast and enabled Daum’s side to hold out, with Leeds having to settle for a moral victory, but praise from the watching millions.
Captain Strachan summed up: “You can talk all you like about Italian and Spanish football, but there is no better spectacle than a British team, going at it as we did against Stuttgart.”
Thankfully, there was another nice instalment to come.