Derby County have not always had Leeds United’s number. It just feels that way. One point is all Leeds have mustered from their last 11 meetings, the club’s worst head-to-head record since their relegation to the Football League.
The Premiership years were different. In that period Derby struggled through 14 games against Leeds without winning once. There were epic scorelines – County’s 5-0 beating in 1998 and their capitulation from 3-0 up four months earlier – but no result carried more weight than United’s 1-0 victory at Pride Park 15 years ago this week.
Nigel Martyn, United’s goalkeeper at the time, remembers two things about it: the significance of the outcome and the spectacular dive from Harry Kewell which won Leeds a penalty in the fourth minute of injury-time.
“It was a dive,” Martyn says. “It was definitely a dive. There was a lot of arguing afterwards about whether Harry’s heel had been clipped or whether there’d been contact but I had a perfectly clear view from the other end of the pitch.
“When he went to ground, my first reaction was ‘oh Harry.’ It looked so obvious. But the referee bought it and Ian Harte – well, his penalties were absolute bankers.”
The injury-time goal and the scrambled win made a point to the Premiership. The previous weekend, David O’Leary’s squad had climbed to the top of the division after a dramatic win over Southampton, salvaged in the closing minutes by a 25-yard finish from Michael Bridges. Their visit to Pride Park on December 5, 1999, was scheduled for a Sunday, 24 hours after Manchester United regained first place by smashing Everton at Old Trafford. Derby away was a test and one Leeds passed with Kewell’s help.
The Australian led a final attack in the 94th minute, sprinting down the left side of Derby’s box and drawing Horatio Carbonari towards him. Carbonari lunged in with his right leg and Kewell went to ground as the away end behind Mart Poom’s net appealed as one. The referee, Paul Alcock, penalised the tackle and Harte stroked a risk-free penalty down the centre of Poom’s goal.
The arguments about the foul on Kewell raged in the aftermath. O’Leary defended him, saying: “It was a definite penalty. It’s not my fault their player pulled him down. A rash tackle and thank you very much – we’ve won.”
Tony Dorigo, the former Leeds defender who had come back to England in 1998 after a short stint at Torino, disputed O’Leary’s view and accused Kewell of cheating.
“I don’t think Horacio touched him at all,” Dorigo said. “That means Kewell must have dived.”
Martyn agreed with Dorigo and still does. “It left a bit of a sour taste,” Martyn said. “The players were bouncing around in the dressing room afterwards, the music was on, people were chanting ‘top of the league’ and I was no different. But I didn’t feel comfortable about the way we’d won.
“Maybe I’m supertitious but I always felt that you’d pay for things like diving in the long run. Somewhere down the line it would come back to bite you. Everyone’s different, I guess, and some players are more than happy to take the rough with the smooth. I just wouldn’t choose to do that.”
Until Harte’s penalty, nothing about the game had promised anything other than a goalless draw. Kewell came closest to scoring with a 58th-minute shot which flicked off the top of Derby’s crossbar and Alan Smith’s effort four minutes from time was disallowed for a foul on Poom.
Derby’s threat eminated from Georgi Kinkladze, making his full debut after a move on loan from Ajax.
Kinkladze kept United’s defence busy but could not outwit Martyn. The England goalkeeper saved one goalbound shot with his foot, tipped a header from Steve Elliott over his bar and got his positioning right when Craig Burley attempted to prod a chip over his head.
“It was a pretty dogged game but I remember thinking that to win at Derby was a big result,” Martyn says. “We might have had a good record against them but I never expected to turn them over easily.
“I don’t know if many of us were starting to think that it was going to be our year but we were all aware that we had a real chance. You win in the last minute against Southampton and then again in injury-time at Derby and things seem to be falling into place.
“The problem for us was that we lacked a bit of know-how and experience. Our European commitments got very heavy after Christmas and not many of us had coped with two fronts before – chasing the title on one hand, progressing in Europe on the other. People talk about the importance of getting through Christmas and into the new year unscathed but I actually reckon that what matters is where you are at the beginning of March. December, January and February is one massive, uphill slog.”
A first title since 1992 eluded O’Leary’s squad. His side remained at the top of the Premier League at the turn of the year but dropped points regularly during the early months of 2000 as the UEFA Cup congested their fixture list. Manchester United won the league with 91 points. Leeds, in third, finished with 69 and the consolation of Champions League qualification.
“Manchester United and Arsenal had done it before,” Martyn says. “That’s significant when you’re talking about a title race. If we’d stuck around until March then I’m sure we’d have been a worry but in December I don’t imagine (Arsene) Wenger or (Sir Alex) Ferguson were panicking about us. They won’t have been complacent. They’d just have been asking whether we were capable of doing what we did at Derby time and again, or whether the strain of it all would get to us eventually.
“That was a very good season for us but the title was asking too much. I don’t look back and think ‘it should have been different.’ We went as far as we could.”