By Rob Atkinson
As the crowd gathered at Elland Road before the Champions League semi-final match against CF Valencia on Wednesday 2nd May 2001, excitement and expectation were at fever pitch. Leeds had battled through two incredibly tough groups to reach the knockout stage of the competition, making progress despite opposition from the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Anderlecht, AS Roma...you name them, Leeds had managed to sneak past them, despite their billing as one of the less-fancied teams in the competition. In the quarter-final, the coach of Deportivo la Coruña had been daft enough to play on this factor, claiming he was glad to have been drawn against the weakest remaining team. Depor' paid for their man's insolence, getting handsomely cuffed at Elland Road as the United fans sang "3-0 to the Weakest Link" in passing homage to Anne Robinson's then-popular TV quiz. Everything was coming up white roses as Valencia barred the way to a Champions League Final against Real Madrid, Don Revie's dream game, with one of the main stars of the evening being legendary bald ref Pierluigi Collina. I was there that night, and neither I nor any of the others in that 36,437 attendance could possibly have realised that this was to be the high-water mark for David O'Leary's expensively-assembled team. It would be all downhill - and a very steep hill - from here. Leeds United were destined to plummet down that gradient like a greased pig; it's such a good job we can't see into the future.
So, if you'd put it to anyone at Elland Road on that last Champions League night, that a mere nine years and six days later we would be dancing and shrieking in ecstasy, celebrating until our hearts burst and our ears bled - and all because Leeds United had managed to make their agonising way into English football's second tier - well the very least you could have expected was a secure jacket and a fast ride to a rubber room. You might quite possibly have been bound to a stake and set alight, a human sacrifice to the crowd's undoubted God and hero Peter Ridsdale. It would have been the ultimate heresy to suggest that this new and exciting United would so soon be humiliated by third tier football - and the very idea of celebrating escape from such purgatory! Ridiculous. It's funny what a few short years can do to your perceptions.
But there we were, not quite a decade later, sick to death of third division obscurity, even sicker of the continual media reminders that "only xyears earlier Leeds had been in the last four of the Champions League" .... erm, sorry about that opening paragraph, come to think of it .... and desperate to start the climb back, as insanely desperate as any Leeds United crowd had ever been, at any time in the club's history. For this was it. Fail to win today, and we'd almost certainly be overhauled for second place by either Millwall or Huddersfield Town. That would mean an unwelcome third stab at the playoffs in three years, and nobody in a white shirt wanted that. Leeds United notoriously just don't do playoff success. So it was very much win or bust that May afternoon in 2010.
It needn't actually have been that tense. In the earlier part of the season, Leeds had soared clear of the pack and were sitting, not just pretty, but unbelievably stunning and gorgeous at the top of the league. Then we drew Man U away in the third round of the FA Cup. We went there, to the Theatre of Hollow Myths as proud leaders, albeit only of the third division. The reigning champions held no fear for us, nor for our 9,000 travelling army. We set out to take the game to them, we attacked with verve and style, we defended solidly when we needed to. We scored, No.9 Jermaine rolling the ball gloriously if slowly in at the Stretford End (since re-christened the Beckford End). We showed no fear, no respect. We could have had two more in the second half, Becks firing a good chance just wide and Snoddy hitting the angle with one of those beautiful free kicks. It could have been 3-0, but we settled joyously for 1-0 and knocking "Them" out of the Cup whilst S'ralex drank the bitter draught of sour grapes. And then, unbelievably, at the time of our greatest glory in the Cup for decades - the league form started to fall apart.
The very next match, against Wycombe at home, Leeds looked disjointed, unsure, ineffective; a shadow of the team that slew the Pride of Devon only days before. We took the lead and were pegged back, lucky in the end to get a 1-1 draw. Then we lost at Exeter 0-2. Then we lost at Swindon 0-3. What had happened? We only lost one of the next nine, but managed just three wins in that time, Colchester, Oldham and Tranmere. Then we lost an abysmal four on the trot with performances of staggering ineptitude. In the league, we had completely bottled it, despite continuing heroics in the Cup as we drew at Spurs, and had been dragged back into the pack. Disaster - not those bloody playoffs again? But that looked the best we could achieve. Yet, very slowly, a recovery of sorts was mounted - but we never looked the same team as in those carefree league performances prior to beating Man U. Somehow though, by the 8th of May, we had won four out of six to give us a chance, on that final day, of deciding our own destiny. We had hauled ourselves, painfully but with grit and determination, back into contention. Beat Bristol Rovers - the oddly-nicknamed "Gas" at a packed and raucously emotional Elland Road - and we'd finally be up, the nightmare of division three would be over.
To say it was a day of tension would be to show a masterly talent for gross understatement. Everybody was tense. People in the 38,234 crowd -interestingly almost 2,000 bigger than the Valencia attendance nine years earlier - were almost physically sick with tension. It communicated itself to the players on the pitch, who struggled to cope with the demands of facing Rovers. The away team, for their part were ensconced in mid-table, going neither up nor down to any appreciable degree, whatever happened. So Bristol were able to play with a relaxed, couldn't-give-a-toss insouciance, knocking the ball around, playing to the atmosphere and the gallery, enjoying their big day out before the hols started and those Torremolinos beaches beckoned. Leeds played on their raw and jagged nerve endings while the Rovers players sauntered indolently about. It wasn't fair.
Half an hour of this taut drama had been played out. Then, disaster. Mad Max Gradel, the winger discarded by Leicester who had turned out a raw diamond, showed the very worst of his volatile character, losing it completely on 34 minutes over a challenge with Rovers' Daniel Jones in the Bristol penalty area. The ref thought it over briefly, and then ordered Gradel off. And then Mad Max really suffered a burst of legendary insanity, trying to get at the people who had set his fuse alight, having to be restrained by peacemaker and skipper for the day Beckford, a man who had experienced his own tantrums in the recent past. Eventually the raging Maxi was ushered off and play could continue, with United now faced with having to win despite a one man disadvantage.
Three minutes into the second half and that one man disadvantage was compounded by a one goal deficit. That man Daniel Jones, Mad Maxi's nemesis, put a dangerous ball in from the left which was missed by the United defence, knocked back across and there was Darryl Duffy to score, stunning Elland Road into a momentary silence which was broken only by the delighted squeaks of the Gas fans in the cheese wedge. What now? Cometh the hour, alright - but who would be the man?
In the event, it was United's own iceman that stepped up to the mark, Johnny Howson, scorer of previous vital goals when his side had needed him most, notably in the frozen wastes of Carlisle. Outside the Rovers area, Howson was ideally placed, only five minutes after entering the fray as a substitute, to receive a touch back from Luciano Becchio and curl a beautiful equaliser into the net at the Kop end, sending the United support wild with delight and relief. That was just before the hour - but it wasn't enough. Millwall were winning, so the ten men of Leeds simply had to press on and turn one point into an unlikely three.
In the event, it took only a further four minutes for Rovers, battered and bewildered by the sheer desire of a reinvigorated United side, to capitulate. The Rovers keeper Andersen, having routinely collected a header from Neill Collins, inexplicably threw the ball out straight to Brad Johnson who immediately made progress into the left hand channel and fired a low hard ball into the penalty area. With the keeper nowhere, it fell to a Rovers defender to attempt a clearance which fell just right for the season's hero and Leeds captain on his last ever appearance in the white shirt - Jermaine Beckford. The tall striker took the bouncing ball first time, calmly, making sure not to balloon a hasty effort over the bar and into the Kop at this most vital moment of his career so far - and his composure paid off as he struck the ball at the top of its trajectory, just well enough to guide it ownwards to bounce under Andersen's despairing dive and into the net.
The mayhem that then ensued told you all you'd ever need to know about the pivotal importance of that goal. Beckford's look of wild delight, a man off his head with delirious achievement - that told its own story too. There was still nearly half an hour to play, but the season was all over bar the shouting, with nothing that Millwall, Huddersfield or even Bristol Rovers - their bolt well and truly shot - could do about it. There was still time for Leigh Bromby to guide a towering header to thud against the far post for what would have been the absolute tin lid on the matter - but everyone in the stadium knew that it was now just a matter of playing time out until that blessed final whistle confirmed United's escape from the wretched humiliation of third-class football. When that last whistle blasted out, it was a carnival of noise, a pitch invasion as the players were carried shoulder-high in the time-honoured hero's fashion, a champagne shower for manager Simon Grayson as he tried to give a post-match TV interview that dissolved into wild laughter and vintage bubbles. It was the sweetest moment by far since Leeds' long downward slide had started all those years before; sweeter than beating Man U, sweeter by far than the defiant surge into the minus 15 season - simply the best of times. United weren't back - they're still not back- but it was a start on that long, long road which may one day take us back to the heights of the very top European competition - lost to us, seemingly forever, on a warm May night in 2001.
Next: Memory Match No. 16: Leeds United 7 (Seven), Southampton 0
A classic Super Leeds demolition of utterly helpless opponents on 4th March 1972, featuring possibly the cruellest exhibition of
keep-ball ever seen.