By Steve Jennings
As soon as I heard the draw I knew I had to go. A day or so before I had listened to radio commentary until well after midnight as Leeds beat Portugal’s Maritimo in the Uefa Cup on penalties having lost the game 1-0 on the night. And now in the next round Leeds were off to the Olympic Stadium in Rome to play AS Roma and I just had to be there to fulfil two dreams – seeing Leeds United play away in Europe and visiting that famous city.
But ours was a comfortable home with a single, modest income and there were two young daughters to feed. Treats were rare and had to be planned and accounted for including trips to Leeds games. But I did work for a company that paid out thousands of Air Miles as sales incentives and I had about 20,000 in my account so this was my only real option. I spent hours online and on the phone but it looked like my dream would be shattered. The only flights to Rome included huge supplements (making the Air Miles option more expensive than booking direct with another airline) and I did consider flying to Milan or Naples and travelling to Rome by train, but this would have included high train fares and at least one night in a hotel so eventually I gave in and accepted that this wasn’t going to happen this year.
Then, three days before the game, my wife rang me at work. She had managed to find and book a flight from Heathrow to Rome at 7am on the day of the game with return 5am on the morning after the
match. All costs paid for by Air Miles with no extras and no need for a hotel either. Sorted! I negotiated a ticket from the Leeds United ticket office and a few days off work and that was it, I was going to watch the mighty Whites at the Olympic Stadium in Rome. And I couldn’t wait.
This was October 1998 and Leeds United was a club undergoing some transition. A few hours after the Maritimo game United Manager George Graham got off the plane from Funchal at Leeds Bradford airport and announced he was leaving the club after only two years in Yorkshire. He had been approached to manage Tottenham Hotspur who were, ironically, Leeds previous opponents in a 3-3 draw at White Hart Lane. This looked a strange move for both parties as Graham had spent the majority of his career playing for and managing Spurs bitter rivals Arsenal and was unlikely to be a popular appointment. It would appear that Graham’s heart was in the home he had in Hampstead rather than the one had in Harrogate so was heading back to North London. His assistant David O’Leary was appointed in temporary charge and his first game prompted another irony as the opponents were Leicester City, whose manager was Martin O’Neill and United chairman Peter Ridsdale had publicly announced his intentions to make O’Neill the next Leeds boss. A 1-0 home defeat was followed by a 1-1 draw at the City Ground where O’Leary threw caution to the wind and started with Stephen McPhail, handed youngsters Jonathan Woodgate and Danny Granville their debuts and recalled Harry Kewell having dropped him for the previous game. It was as if O’Leary knew he would only be in charge for a limited time but, with the O’Neill discussions at stalemate, it was O’Leary who would lead Leeds out in the Roman capital.
On the morning of 20th October 1998 I left our village in Devon at 4am for the 7am flight. I under-estimated the travelling time and encountered some unexpected traffic delays and only got to the Departures area of Heathrow at 6.50am so had 10 minutes to find gate 52. Luckily I had no luggage but remember the look of hopelessness on the face of the Heathrow attendant who faced me in the right direction as I started running. And run I did as I was a man on a mission and I doubt Usain Bolt would have kept up with me as I ran up stairs, down stairs, up escalators and through crowds of American tourists until I finally found gate 52 with only two people left to board the plane. But I made it, just. I felt sorry for the American lady who sat next to me on the plane and had to put up with my coughing, wheezing and sneezing all the way to Italy.
At Passport Control in the airport in Rome I met two residents of Windsor, both Leeds fans and originally from Yorkshire, and these became my buddies for the day. A short train ride into the city and we were there – the home of the Roman Empire! After visiting the usual tourist haunts the three of us had a late lunch near the Trevi Fountain but Rome was “dry” to any English people under Police orders so there was no wine or beer with our pasta. Time flew by and it was soon 5pm and time to meet the coaches Leeds United had arranged for our trip to the ground. On arrival two things struck me, first the Rome Police were not particularly friendly and had huge batons drawing them at will and, secondly, the Olympic Stadium was a dump! A bit like the old Wembley was, big but falling down.
There were about 1,000 Leeds fans in the ground (maybe more?) and we were packed high at the back and the pitch seemed miles away. But, as always, we were loud baiting the Roma fans with chants of “Lazio Lazio Lazio” and they responded by singing songs about Liverpool (eh?) and throwing flares.
Leeds young team were lead onto the pitch by Lucas Radebe and it did look it may have done when the Christians were being fed to the Lions. If there was a team announcement then neither I nor anyone near me heard it. We couldn’t work out who had taken the left-back position? I knew it wasn’t Ian Harte so who? Is that really McPhail playing central midfield in such an important game with so little experience? It couldn’t be! It is! At least I think it is?
The game started and Roma came at us from the off and it was men against boys. Nigel Martyn pulled off two great saves early on and the Leeds woodwork was rattled at least twice and the inevitable happened in the 17th minute when Delvecchio put Roma one-up and it looked like the floodgates would open. But Leeds rallied and Radebe in particular was magnificent at the back even with the clumsy Molenaar next to him. Leeds started creating chances and the unknown left-back had two surging runs and hit the woodwork twice and Bowyer should have scored late on which would have earned the young Whites a draw. We were so far away that no-one in my part of the Leeds end even noticed that Bruno Ribeiro was sent off late in the game and we only found out after the final whistle.
Leeds had played magnificently and it was the Roma fans who were relieved at the end. If you are going to see your team lose 1-0 then this was the way to do it. And the unknown left-back? That was none other than George Graham’s favourite right-sided midfielder Gunnar Halle.
The Police kept us in the ground until midnight. At one stage David O’Leary’s face appeared on the big screen as he addressed the Leeds fans inviting us to enjoy our night in Rome but reminding us to stay safe and behave as we were effectively representing Leeds United. I turned to my right and the empty terracing between the Leeds and Roma fans and there was Peter Ridsdale. He ushered a cameraman to follow him as he approached the Leeds fans and applauded. The Leeds fans sang: “There’s only Peter Ridsdale” followed with “Who’s the Manager?” When Ridsdale pointed to O’Leary’s face on the big screen there was a huge cheer. The guy next to me said: “He likes the publicity does Mr Ridsdale!”
Finally the Police lead us to the buses to head back into the city. Some friendly locals followed us on Vespa’s throwing bricks and more flares but were not evident when the buses stopped to let us off in central Rome. The Windsor boys and I found a nice Pasta bar and were even allowed a couple of glasses of wine each to go with our Carbonara. At about 2.30am I offered farewell’s to my new mates and headed back to the airport. The flight was on time and as soon as I sat in my seat I was fast asleep having been awake for 25 hours. I woke just as the plane was hovering over Twickenham during our descent into London. I remember walking back through the corridors of Heathrow half asleep when I turned a corner and a mass of photographer’s cameras flashed at once creating a blinding mass of light. I turned to my left and there was Geoff Boycott walking down a corridor that joined ours and he was so close I could have slapped him on the back. He had landed back in the country amidst a flurry of publicity after some newspapers had claimed on their front pages that he beat up an ex-girlfriend which, I believe, were never proved.
I haven’t a clue how I managed the 3 hour drive back to Devon but I did. It had been a brilliant couple of days and Leeds had played one of Europe’s finest and done themselves proud.
The following day O’Leary was indeed named as the new Leeds Manager and lead the team to draws against Chelsea at home and at Derby before enjoying his first win as Leeds boss on TV against Sheffield Wednesday. Prior to that his young team had played Roma in the home fixture and drew 0-0 so went out of the Uefa Cup on aggregate. A year or so later Leeds played Roma again in the same competition this time drawing a scoreless game in Italy before a Harry Kewell goal at Elland Road saw Leeds put Roma out.
That night in Italy in 1998 was the night we started to dream. We had an excellent group of young players, a young and highly promising Manager and a Leeds supporting chairman with Football ambitions who seemed hell bent on bringing success to Leeds. What could go wrong?
Regardless of how it ended with the financial meltdown those years under David O’Leary were brilliant to be a Leeds fan and great fun. And dream we did, constantly at the head of the Premier League table and the young team looked every bit the champions elect and it seemed inevitable that winning trophies was not that far away.
Now the annus horribilis that was 2012 has become 2013 it is inevitable that hopes will be high for the new year especially with GFH’s purchase of the club just before Christmas. This is written after United’s first game of this year, an unconvincing win against Bolton. Our dreams and aspirations will be different from that night in Rome but as important. Let’s hope the club implements and practices some strategies
to bring success and the crowds back to Elland Road and good times are ahead. It is not about throwing silly money around as some clubs have shown that careful recruitment of quality players to compliment a hard working unit is suffice to get into the Premier League.
We will learn much about the new owners in the next few weeks.