When Paul Merson had a very different role as Leeds United battled next hosts Aston Villa

Paul Merson has been presiding over Leeds United’s Premier League return of late.

By Lee Sobot
Sunday, 30th January 2022, 4:30 pm
Updated Sunday, 30th January 2022, 4:32 pm

The former midfielder is, of course, a mainstay of Jeff Stelling’s Soccer Saturday panel on Sky Sports News.

But two decades ago Merson was still battling it out with Leeds, the frame of the goal twice denying the midfielder as United left Aston Villa with a 2-1 success in January 2001.

Twenty one years on, Villa will provide United’s next opponents this month for the third fixture between the two sides since their recent top-flight returns.

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UNBELIEVABLE JEFF: Paul Merson, centre, and Whites star Lee Bowyer, right, look on after Merson's shot rockets back off the post in Aston Villa's 2-1 defeat at home to Leeds United of January 2001. Picture by Stu Forster/Allsport via Getty Images.

But the two clubs had 12 consecutive seasons of battles between 1993 and 2004, and Merson’s frustration came in one of United’s final triumphs at Villa Park before going down.

Leeds had finished the previous season in third place and were on their way to the Champions League semi-finals the following term, the clash at Villa coming one month after a 1-0 triumph at Lazio.

But David O’Leary’s side then lost four of their next seven league games and lined up at Villa Park on a Wednesday night in January on the back of a 3-1 loss at home to Newcastle United.

Villa had ended the previous campaign in sixth and the 2000-01 season brought a first experience of the Intertoto Cup in John Gregory’s third full season in charge.

But Gregory’s side lined up against Leeds having won just one of their last 10 league games, that triumph coming in the reverse fixture at Elland Road on December 23.

Gareth Southgate and George Boateng had given Gregory’s side a 2-1 triumph at LS11, but Leeds turned the tables with the same scoreline one month later at Villa Park.

Villa lined up with David James in goal behind Alan Wright, Alpay, Steve Staunton, Gareth Barry, Boateng, Ian Taylor, Steve Stone, Lee Hendrie, Merson and Juan Pablo Angel.

David Ginola featured on the bench alongside Dion Dublin, Darius Vassell, Mark Delaney and Peter Enckelman.

United’s XI consisted of Paul Robinson, Gary Kelly, Woodgate, Rio Ferdinand, Ian Harte, Dom Matteo, Olivier Dacourt, Lee Bowyer, Eirik Bakke, Mark Viduka and Robbie Keane as Nigel Martyn, Danny Mills, Jason Wilcock, Alan Smith and David Batty filled the bench.

Villa went ahead in the 24th minute as Barry’s long ball was flicked into the path of Merson, who rifled home a fierce drive into the far left corner.

Leeds drew level four minutes later as Bowyer slotted home a neat finish following a superb ball from Keane which dissected the Villa defence.

Villa went close to going back in front after the interval as Boateng let fly with a low shot that was heading for the bottom left corner until Robinson’s save.

Stone looked to bury the rebound but walloped his effort from six yards out over the bar.

Leeds were then handed the opportunity to go in front as Keane was shoved to the ground as he looked to connect to a Viduka cross.

Harte stepped up to take the spot kick and coolly slotted into the bottom left corner as James dived the wrong way.

The penalty proved the game’s winning goal, much to Villa and Merson’s disbelief as Leeds were then twice saved by the frame of the goal.

First, Merson latched on to a pull back from the byline to produce a shot that looked to be heading for the bottom right corner only to crash back off the top of the post.

Merson held his face in disbelief and was then left with a sense of déjà vu as the woodwork denied him for a second time.

The Villa star picked up the ball some 30 yards out and made his way to the edge of the ‘D’ before attempting to lob Robinson.

His brilliant effort looped over the Whites keeper but dropped onto the bar and a grateful Robinson was able to catch the rebound.

Having earlier given Villa the lead, he might have had a hat-trick yet instead ended up on the losing side.

Unbelievable Jeff.

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