Leeds United’s first game of the 1996-97 season was the type of match which neutrals enjoy more than managers. An engaging 3-3 draw at Derby County, snatched by Derby in the 88th minute, was an example of the fragile team that Leeds had become under Howard Wilkinson.
It would prove to be one of only five fixtures handled by Wilkinson before his dismissal in September 1996 and Leeds’ frustration at Pride Park was palpable.
Derby were new to the Premier League, promoted after finishing second in Division One, and United led from an early stage. But 2-0 up with 13 minutes to play, Leeds contrived to drop two points in a frantic finish.
Wilkinson said the afternoon had been summed up by Brian Deane’s substitution in the 57th minute.
The forward was lost to a boot where it hurts – “in the nether regions” as Wilkinson put it – and Leeds became ragged as the last half-hour played out.
Having looked for breathing space after a poor finish to the previous season, United’s manager was under the cosh again.
In his defence, Wilkinson pointed to the changed nature of his line-up.
Gary McAllister and Gary Speed had been sold and a young Lee Bowyer started in the centre of midfield. “We’ve got a new team,” said Wilkinson asking for patience in his own way. “New teams don’t happen overnight.”
For much of the game, Wilkinson did not seem to need excuses. Derby made a good fist at doing themselves in when debutant defender Jacob Laursen swiped his foot at a Bowyer cross and diverted the ball into his own net on 19 minutes.
Midway through the second half, a thumping strike from Ian Harte found the bottom corner and put clear water between Leeds and County.
Derby had made a habit of comebacks during their promotion year but their manager, Jim Smith, admitted that the Premiership would be far less forgiving.
Leeds, however, were generous and unable to hold out after Dean Sturridge sparked a fightback with a brilliant volley over Nigel Martyn from the edge of the box on 77 minutes.
Straight from the kick-off, a weak backpass from Richard Jobson dropped between Martyn and Paul Simpson and allowed the Derby forward to force the ball through the goalkeeper and into the net.
Even then, Leeds had the gumption to nick a third goal when Bowyer popped up to score from close range as Derby struggled to defend a high ball but the advantage gained on 85 minutes was shortlived.
Three minutes later, an uncustomary error by Lucas Radebe left him “on his arse”, as Wilkinson put it, and Sturridge was waiting to turn and ping the ball to Martyn’s right.
Smith was happy but very honest about the hole Derby had escaped from. “I don’t think we’ll do that too many times in this league,” he said. In a different sense, Wilkinson knew that he could not afford days like it either.
As the headline in The Independent read: ‘Leeds need surgery.’
Derby County 3
(Sturridge 77 & 88, Simpson 78)
Leeds United 3 (Laursen og 19, Harte 72, Bowyer 85)
August 17, 1996, Premiership
Leeds United: Martyn; Radebe (Wetherall 89), Kelly, Jobson; Sharpe, Palmer, Bowyer, Couzens (Tinkler 87), Ford; Deane (Harte 56), Rush. Subs not used: Beeney, Wallace
Derby County: Hoult; Laursen (Flynn 75), Yates, C Powell, Dailly, Rowett; Asanovic, D Powell (Simpson 75), Parker; Gabbiadini (Willems 75), Sturridge. Subs not used: Taylor, van der Laan.