Leeds United nostalgia: Inconsistency and broken promises beset Venables era

Terry Venables is unveiled as Leeds United boss in July 2002.
Terry Venables is unveiled as Leeds United boss in July 2002.
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Eleven days was all it took Leeds United to find David O’Leary’s successor. In former England coach Terry Venables, they secured a manager who in Peter Ridsdale’s words had a “pedigree second to none.”

Ridsdale was not the only person who thought he’d struck gold. One national newspaper called the partnership between Venables and Leeds “a marriage made in heaven” and Venables himself said the job was “irresistible.” For a brief moment, the brave sacking of David O’Leary was almost forgotten.

O’Leary left behind big shoes to fill, in spite of Ridsdale’s feeling that his successful tenure as boss had run its course. Leeds were UEFA Cup and Champions League semi-finalists under O’Leary and genuine title contenders for a while. Rio Ferdinand called his dismissal a “massive shock”.

How much Venables really knew about the bigger picture at Elland Road was shown by his willingness to rapidly accept Ridsdale’s offer. A two-hour conversation at Venables’ holiday home in Spain was all it took for a deal to be done. He signed a two-year contract on July 8, 2002.

“I honestly felt I’d had enough of (management) after Middlesbrough,” Venables said. “What surprises me most is how good I feel about taking on this job. I’m genuinely excited by the thought of it. The whole business had been conducted like a whirlwind. It was irresistible. That’s how it seemed to me. I can hardly believe it’s been finalised so quickly.

“If people are surprised about it then no more than myself. I simply didn’t anticipate this outcome.”

At the press conference unveiling him, Ridsdale promised that Ferdinand – United’s captain, centre-back and stand-out player – would not be sold, despite badgering from Manchester United and talk of a record-breaking transfer. Within three weeks, Leeds had accepted an offer of around £30m and Ferdinand’s exit was confirmed.

That situation was a recurring theme for Venables and both his reign and his relationship with Ridsdale were in serious trouble when, at the end of the following January transfer window, Leeds buckled and allowed Jonathan Woodgate to leave for Newcastle United.

Prior to that, the club’s results ebbed and flowed. Leeds routed Manchester City on the first day of the season, easing to a 3-0 win at Elland Road, but their inconsistency was rife and they reached the end of September with a record of four league wins and four defeats.

The run-up to Christmas became anxious and the club were knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Malaga midway through December. That match epitomised the tension at Elland Road – Lee Bowyer stamping on an opponent and Jason Wilcox and Gary Kelly squaring up to each other in the second half.

Venables looked for respite but found none. A promise to keep Woodgate was broken – a transfer which deprived Ridsdale of credibility in the eyes of many supporters – and an FA Cup defeat to Sheffield United was almost the final straw. On March 21, 2003, Venables and Leeds parted company. His record showed 16 wins from 42 games and the table showed United heading for relegation.

“It’s been a difficult few months for Leeds United and I wish to thank Terry Venables for doing the job he did in difficult times,” Ridsdale said.

“Neither he nor I expected to have the roller-coaster ride we had but it’s right and proper to thank him for the job he did.”

Terry Venables factfile:

Born: January 6, 1943 in Dagenham.

Clubs played for: Chelsea, Tottenham, QPR, Crystal Palace, St Patrick’s.

Other clubs managed: Crystal Palace, QPR, Barcelona, Tottenham, Middlesbrough.

Appointed Leeds United manager: July 8, 2002.

Sacked as Leeds United manager: March 21, 2003.

Games in charge: 42.

Wins: 16.

Draws: 7.

Losses: 19.