Terry Venables’ demise at Leeds United was death by a thousand cuts, some self-inflicted and others delivered from above. “It’s been a difficult few months,” said Peter Ridsdale, announcing the end of Venables’ reign as manager to the London Stock Exchange on March 21, 2003.
“A difficult few months” underplayed the saga of Venables and Leeds. The truth about their short partnership was that it was fraught from the start. Rio Ferdinand, the club’s captain, was sold to Manchester United a fortnight after Venables took over. Jonathan Woodgate left for Newcastle the following January, prompting Ridsdale and Venables to appear together at an excruciating press conference later that week.
At that stage, Leeds’ embattled chairman was anxiously urging his manager to stick around and fight on but by the middle of March, Venables had lost the support of the boardroom and many others outside it. A 3-2 defeat at home to Middlesbrough signalled the end.
The club were 15th in the Premier League and deeply worried about relegation; a possibility that Ridsdale had not even contemplated six months earlier. An FA Cup loss to Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United was a separate humiliation altogether and Venables’ sacking was a predictable consequence.
The performance against Middlesbrough, his last game in charge, followed a familiarly weak pattern. Mark Viduka opened the scoring after 24 minutes, punishing a moment of hesitancy between Mark Schwarzer and George Boateng, but Boro fought back brilliantly.
Massimo Maccarone equalised with a penalty after Lucas Radebe tripped him inside the box and Juninho produced a 25-yard finish on the very stroke of half-time to silence Elland Road fully. Geremi’s lob gave Boro a two-goal lead midway through the second half and another Viduka strike – his 11th of the season – counted for nothing.
“Our position isn’t much of a concern,” said Venables with remarkable defiance afterwards. “We could get dragged in but I’m not concerned if we play like that. We deserved a draw.”
Steve McClaren, Boro’s manager, looked suitably bemused by that comment and Ridsdale and his colleagues on the board had lost patience. Their statement to the stock exchange said only that Venables had left the club but Ridsdale remarked: “It was the club’s decision to make a change.”
The call went out immediately to Peter Reid, the former Sunderland boss who was out of work and looking for a challenge. He and Leeds did not discuss the long-term future, speaking solely about the importance of keeping the club away from relegation.
“The conversation I had with Peter was ‘let’s get through the next eight games’ and then take stock,” Ridsdale said. “That’s not a slight on Peter’s managerial record.”
Reid himself was chipper and bullish. “I’m going to have a good crack for the next eight games,” he said. “You’d have to be mad not to want to manage Leeds United.”
He promised survival and duly delivered it, conjuring a brilliant 6-1 win away at Charlton during his second game in charge.
But as Reid would find out, the problems at Elland Road were ingrained.
Leeds United 2
(Viduka 24, 76)
Middlesbrough 3 (Maccarone 36 pen, Juninho 45, Geremi 61)
Premier League Saturday, March 15, 2003.
Leeds United: Robinson, Mills, Radebe, Lucic, Bravo, Barmby (Milner 68), Okon, Bakke, Wilcox, Viduka, Smith. Subs (not used): Martyn, Harte, McMaster, Kilgallon.
Middlesbrough: Schwarzer, Parnaby (Cooper 41), Ehiogu, Southgate, Murphy, Geremi, Boateng, Greening, Juninho Paulista, Christie (Nemeth 85), Maccarone (Ricketts 80). Subs (not used): Jones, Job.