By Rob Atkinson
Just over 21 years on from this memorable European night at Elland Road, two over-riding impressions remain with me, as strongly as if the match had been yesterday. One is of the sheer passion and power of a crowd of only 20457 as events unfolded before them and their heroes rampaged to within a whisker of hauling back a three goal first-leg deficit - something that had never before been accomplished by a British side. At times, as the white shirts harried, hunted and chased their bewildered opponents, the volume was almost literally ear-splitting. It has been said that the twenty thousand crowd that night sounded more like the fifty thousand fans who saw the vintage Leeds team conquer Barcelona, Johann Cruyff and all, in 1975 - my second ever visit to Elland Road. Having been present on both occasions, I can testify to this - never have I heard a smallish attendance generate such ferocious passion and noise as the reduced band of Leeds faithful did during their team's assault on the daunting mountain they had to climb.
The second impression is from just after the final whistle, when the Stuttgart players, having been put through a ninety minute wringer of merciless pressure, run off their feet and reduced to their last gasp and final drop of sweat, thought they'd made it by the very skin of their teeth. The relief must have been enormous, and as full-time was signalled it was the apparent victors who sank to the turf abjectly, not the seemingly-vanquished Leeds side. The Stuttgart team were scattered limply across the field of battle like the casualties of a small war as the Leeds players, trooping off having given their all in vain - or so we thought - took the applause of their pumped-up followers. It looked like carnage, the aftermath of a siege - but of course the real battle, off the field, was yet to come.
Winding the clock back to the first leg in Germany a fortnight before, we can briefly set the scene. Leeds had played well enough in the first half and, in fact, probably should have been leading at the interval. David Rocastle and Eric Cantona had both missed passable chances, but Leeds were comfortable enough at 0-0. In the second period though, things went badly awry. Cantona, nursing a leg injury that would see him substituted, tried a lazy cross-field pass that was never on, and the resulting interception saw our defence exposed. Fritz Walter's chipped finish past John Lukic, put us one behind; this swiftly became two when a corner was inadequately cleared, Lukic beat out the first shot and Walter was there again to score. Eight minutes from time, United's agony was complete when Andreas Buck beat out-paced Chris Fairclough to plant a cross shot into the far corner. Manager Howard Wilkinson could not hide his disappointment afterwards, giving short shrift to a tactless ITV post-match interviewer who had asked what had gone wrong. "They got three and we got none, that's what", he snapped. Later, a little more calmly, he remarked that it had been a "crazy game". Indeed it had. Leeds had been so comfortable for so long, but lapses in concentration had left them with what looked like a hopeless task in the return at Elland Road.
Two weeks on and it was time to start climbing that mountain. A breakthrough as early as possible was of paramount importance, the Germans had to be rattled out of any air of calm and confidence; Wilkinson recognised this and set his team up for all-out attack. In fact, it took 17 minutes for United to strike the first significant blow, though Gary MacAllister had been taking pot-shots at the Stuttgart goal from the off. It was a combination of skipper Gordon Strachan's diagonal cross and Cantona's header down though which fashioned the chance for Gary Speed to volley home and give Leeds their start on an unlikely comeback. Elland Road erupted in a burst of jubilation and rediscovered optimism, but disaster was just around the corner. Cutting in from the right, Andreas Buck - who had dealt the final blow in Stuttgart - hurt Leeds again, firing home from just outside the area in what was an isolated raid on the home goal. This vital away goal meant that Leeds now had to score four more in order to go through - a highly unlikely proposition against the champions of Germany.
And yet United's heads did not go down, as so many other teams might have allowed to happen. Undismayed, they pressed on and were back on track after the over-enthusiastic Kuntz committed one too many fouls in the area and MacAllister slotted the penalty away in his usual efficient manner. Leeds emerged for the second half knowing they needed three more and set about applying ever-increasing pressure on a Stuttgart defence which would creak more and more obviously as the match went on. After 66 minutes, Cantona took a Strachan high ball on his chest in the area, gathering it under control as he turned and finding the time and space to poke a shinned effort over the Stuttgart keeper Eike Immel and just under the crossbar to put Leeds 3-1 up and just two short of their miracle. Game on in earnest now. Stuttgart were being run ragged, struggling vainly to cover and contain as United came at them from all angles, tirelessly probing, always threatening. With ten minutes to go a corner from the left just cleared Chris Whyte's efforts to flick on and found Chapman just behind him at the near post. Where some strikers might have been surprised to find the ball flying at them from behind the towering Whyte, Chappy had no such problems as he stooped to conquer, sending his header through a narrow gap between defenders and into the net. One more goal needed, ten more minutes to get it against tiring and rattled opponents.
That was it for the evening though. Leeds continued to press but just couldn't make that last break-through which would have made history. The final whistle blew, the exhausted German team collapsed and called for oxygen and the crowd, thwarted in their hopes so it seemed and yet exultant at such a courageous display, filtered away into the night. I remember seeing a knot of German fans at Leeds City station on my way home and, feeling magnanimous because we'd battered them, I offered my rueful congratulations. "Ja, it was a nice game", one responded. I took my leave disconsolately, thinking of what might have been and muttering "jammy sods" under my breath, the brief mood of generosity gone.
It had been a night to remember, glory in defeat, incredible atmosphere but ultimate disappointment. By the time I got home, I just wanted to sleep - the next day of course would bring the news of unexpected reprieve because of a technical transgression by the normally error-free Germans - and the road to Barcelona and eventual progress would open before us. That story had a happy ending one day short of match-winner Carl Shutt's 31st birthday in an eerily empty Nou Camp stadium - but the resumption of European Cup football at Elland Road after a gap of over seventeen years had been a fantastic occasion in itself and one I will make sure I never forget. Who knows, after all, when we shall see nights like this one again?
Next: Memory Match No. 15: Leeds United 2, Bristol Rovers 1 -
The League One Promotion Party at Elland Road on 8th May 2010.
Leeds had to win to go up in second place after having looked certs for the
Title earlier in the season. It looked as if we were on course for disaster
when we were a goal down in the second half having had Mad Max Gradel sent off - but local lad Johnny Howson got us back level. One more goal needed - it was time for Jermaine Beckford to make his last, historic contribution in a United shirt...