Over the last decade there have been many attempts to pinpoint what exactly caused Leeds’ drop from Champions League contenders to lower-tier strugglers.
Even putting aside the behind-the-scenes issues, there was an on-field collapse that saw Leeds fall over the second half of the 2001/02 campaign.
Many view the loss against Newcastle as the starting point of the end of David O’Leary’s time at Elland Road.
Leeds went into the game in fourth in the Premier League, a position that would have earned them entry into the Champions League the following season.
Qualification for Europe’s elite club competition was the minimum required of Leeds that season, not just in terms of footballing expectations but also the club’s financial situation. The Whites had mortgaged potential future revenue from the competition to pay for their increasingly expensive transfer business.
By the end of the season, Leeds had slipped to fifth. O’Leary was sacked as a result and the great firesale began, ultimately culminating in relegation from the top flight in May 2004.
It’s easy to trace it all back to the game against Newcastle, when a comfortable lead slipped to a damaging defeat. The loss felt like the point at which O’Leary’s methods were found out. Despite having one of the most expensively assembled sides in England, the Irishman could never quite establish a dominant force at Elland Road. A victory against Bobby Robson’s team would have put Leeds at the top of the pile heading into Christmas.
Newcastle went into the lead after 38 minutes, Craig Bellamy firing into the roof of the net after Kieron Dyer out-foxed Ian Harte down the right wing.
It took only 60 seconds for Leeds to respond. Lee Bowyer provided the equaliser, breaking past the defence and firing home to score his first since the opening weekend of the season.
Leeds then flew into the lead. Nikos Dabizas was withdrawn at half-time for Sylvain Distin, which seemed to cause chaos in the Newcastle back-line.
Mark Viduka scored Leeds’ second, picking up the ball on the edge of the area before turning future Whites defender Andy O’Brien. The skilful Australian then curled the ball past Shay Given.
Viduka’s strike was followed by Harte making amends for his earlier defensive lapse of concentration. He thumped the ball into the net from the edge of the Newcastle area.
It was the high point of Leeds’ afternoon, and arguably their season.
Robbie Elliot struck for Newcastle, diving to head the ball into Nigel Martyn’s goal after the England international had parried a Dyer cross.
Referee Jeff Winter then made a contentious decision, awarding Newcastle a penalty after Eirik Bakke was judged to have handled the ball. As he often did, Alan Shearer buried the spot kick.
With 90 minutes on the clock, Peruvian winger Nolberto Solano completed the comeback, the brilliant Dyer teeing him up to slot home and end the Leeds United fight.
It was a collapse unlike any suffered at Leeds’ Millenial high point and clearly had a negative impact on the team.
While it was not the only issue, it is understandable that many see such a defeat as catastrophic in a period when the only way at Leeds seemed to be up.
Leeds United 3
(Bowyer 38, Viduka 50, Harte 56)
Newcastle United 4 (Bellamy 38, Elliot 59, Shearer 71)
Barclays Premier League December 22, 2001
Leeds United: Martyn, Kelly, Ferdinand, Mills, Harte, Bowyer, Batty, Johnson, Kewell (Bakke 47), Viduka, Fowler. Unused subs: Woodgate, Keane, Robinson, Smith.
Newcastle United: Given, Hughes, O’Brien, Dabizas (Distin 45), Elliot, Solano, Dyer, Speed, Robert (Bernard 78), Shearer, Bellamy (Lua-Lua 90). Unused subs: Acuna, Harper.