Pints in Spain: When Leeds went toe to toe with the big guys of Europe

It is said that Leeds United legend Don Revie adopted the fully white kit as an homage to Europe’s most successful club, Real Madrid. Many years have passed and while Leeds may not quite be on the same level as the 13-time Champions League winners, in the 2000/01 season the lads from West Yorkshire went toe-to-toe with the very best.

Leeds United’s financial implosion and subsequent tumble down the English footballing ladder seems to cast an unfair shadow upon the fact that, in the early 2000s, they had one of the best young teams in the country. Before punch ups in Newcastle, Lee Bowyer was a tidy little midfield goalscorer, Jonathan Woodgate and Paul Robinson were well on the way to becoming Premier League stalwarts and a bleach blond Alan Smith was scoring goals for fun. Galvanised by the leadership of Captain Lucas Radebe and fan favourite Nigel Martyn, the team finished third in 2000, thus guaranteeing top tier European football at Elland Road for the first time since the early 1990s.

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Despite this wealth of criminally underrated talent, reinforcements were needed if they were to take that next step, so, much like a lawyer trying to impress a girl at an artisanal beer cafe in south-west London, they pulled out the platinum AMEX. Back then, transfer “windows” were not quite the same. Clubs were able to sign players at any time throughout the season, up until March. This meant the record signing of Rio Ferdinand didn’t actually happen until 26th November whereas Robbie Keane, initially joining on loan in December, didn’t join permanently until April. There were of course some signings made in the summer period, most notably Olivier Dacourt coming in from Lens and the big Australian, Mark Viduka joining from Celtic.

Nowadays finishing third in the Premier League would send you straight into the group stages but all those years ago, while the new English top division was still in its infancy, Leeds would have to settle for a third qualifying round tie against 1860 München. You’d be hard pressed to find a game more stereotypically Leeds than the first leg. There were as many red cards as there were goals with both teams having their numbers reduced. It didn’t take long for Smith to pounce on a defensive mishap, gently heading the ball past the opposition goalkeeper. The lead was doubled by a controversial Ian Harte penalty before the Germans managed to get one back, setting up a nervy second leg in Munich.

History proves a 2-1 lead in a Champions League knockout game is precarious at best and with Dacourt and Erik Bakke suspended for the upcoming away leg, Leeds were in danger of heading out prematurely. A thoroughly professional job was needed and that is exactly what David O’Leary got from his team. On the back-foot for large parts of the game Smith popped up again to secure a 1-0 win, sending them through to the group stage, to be drawn against the big boys.

Leeds have a habit of having to do things the hard way. If you’re looking for proof of that just take a look at the group they were given. Drawn against star-studded Barcelona and AC Milan sides led by Patrick Kluivert, Rivaldo, Paolo Maldini and Andriy Shevchenko, all that was missing was David Beckham and Elland Road could have been used for an early 2000s Pepsi advert. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, Leeds were given a lifeline, a suitably easy opposition in the form of Beşiktaş. Although arguably not a bad side, the Turkish team’s standing as the whipping boys of the group was clear, so, maybe with a bit of luck, Leeds could progress.

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Like most teams, Leeds were the undoubted underdogs going into the game at the Camp Nou but I doubt even the most pessimistic of fans could have foreseen the dismantling that ensued. Former world player of the year Rivaldo opened up the scoring, slotting home after the 10th minute mark. Not long passed before Frank de Boer doubled the scoring with the kind of free kick two Martyns couldn’t have saved. Leeds managed to go into the break without conceding again, in fact they managed to hold them off until 74th minute, Kluivert finally joining the party with a neat first-time finish after a pinpoint cross from Simao. The Dutchman finally rounded it all off, once again wriggling through the defence and grabbing his second.

Things were looking dire for Leeds. A defeat to Ipswich in the league prior to meeting AC Milan was an ill omen; many expected another spanking for David O’Leary’s young side. Things were made even more troublesome by the injury Radebe picked up in the dying minutes against Barcelona. Leeds were in need of a miracle; luckily, that is what they got. They were everything they weren’t against Barcelona, never giving the visitors a moment’s rest in the pouring rain at Elland Road. The old English adage of ‘wanting it more’ couldn’t have applied any better.

Although they dominated, they struggled to make any inroads through an obstinate Milan defence, until, up steps Lee Bowyer. It should have been a routine save for Dida. It was a fairly hopeful shot from the Englishman but instead of simply catching it, the usually reliable ‘keeper dropped it right over the line. It was 1-0 and the result stayed that way with Leeds playing out a famous victory against one of the best sides the world had seen.

The rest of the group stage went by like a dream. A 6-0 thumping of Beşiktaş, a game in which even Darren Huckerby managed to get on the score sheet, was followed by an emotional return to Turkey. Tributes were paid to Christopher Lotus and Kevin Speight, the two Leeds fans murdered before the game against Galatasaray just six months earlier. Leeds managed to get out with a 0-0 draw, a result that, at the time, seemed like a disappointment but 1-1 draws against both Barcelona and AC Milan in the reverse fixtures guaranteed their advance to the second group stage, at the expense of the Blaugrana.

Back then, the Champions League was very different. Instead of being immediately flung into knockout rounds, there was a second group stage. Any hopes of a kinder draw for Leeds were soon dashed as Lazio, Real Madrid and Anderlecht’s names were pulled out. Lazio, managed by future England boss Sven-Göran Eriksson, were fresh off their first Serie A title since 1974, boasted of a free-scoring Hernan Crespo, a pre-Juve Pavel Nedvěd and a young Alessandro Nesta. Real Madrid were the holders and they invested heavily in an attempt to become the first team to win it back-to-back since Nottingham Forest, signing Luis Figo from arch-rivals Barcelona for a massive €60 million. Finally, there was Anderlecht; although the least threatening of their opponents, to underestimate them could have been ruinous for Leeds. The Belgians had just qualified top of their initial group, above Manchester United, after all.

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The story of the second group was remarkably similar to that of the first. It was the Spaniards’ first, again, although this time around Los Galacticos would be making the trip to Elland Road. Also, like the first game against Barcelona it was a bit of a humbling for Leeds. Two goals in as many minutes from Hierro and Raúl meant that Real Madrid walked away with all three points. This time, however, there wasn’t much to feel disheartened about, other than losing of course. Leeds played well, Real didn’t really pose much of a threat with a two-minute lapse ultimately costing Leeds. They could go to Lazio feeling quietly confident.

The trip to Rome was pivotal for Leeds, and fortunately the stars had somewhat aligned. Lazio had proven unable to capitalize on their title win, Eriksson’s job was on the line and after a good showing against Real Madrid, there wasn’t a better time to play the Italians. With all that said, it would be a mistake to assume that Leeds walked all over them. It was always going to be difficult, regardless of the circumstances. Lazio actually looked the better side on many occasions. Jonathan Woodgate having to make an important off-the-line clearance to deny a goal bound Salas header, for example. It took until the 80th minute for Leeds to get their goal, Smith finishing off a passage of play that would make Pep Guardiola blush. Leeds held on for a much needed 1-0 victory.

Everything seemed to be going Leeds’s way. Real Madrid and Anderlecht had both managed to get wins against Lazio, putting Leeds firmly in a position to capitalize on the Italian side’s misfortunes, and that’s just what they did. Successive games against Anderlecht followed and with them came two straight forward victories. The first came at Elland Road. Ferdinand’s European debut ended in a 2-1 win, thanks to a long-range Harte free kick and a sultry little finish from Bowyer. Leeds travelled to Brussels knowing victory would put them in pole position to qualify and they produced their best performance of the tournament. The game ended 4-1; Ian Harte with another penalty, Viduka with a trademark big header and Smith with two poacher’s finishes, the best being a lovely lob over the opposition keeper.

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The final two group games were high scoring but inconsequential, a 3-2 defeat to Real Madrid and a 3-3 draw with Lazio did nothing to quell the party atmosphere. The last time they made it this far, they’d gotten all the way to the final. Trips to Spain had become a regular occurrence; so when they got Deportivo La Coruña, fans were practising how to order pints in the mirror, “Tienes algún Carling?” for those that need it. Luckily, they’d have time to practice as the first leg was at Elland Road.

Deportivo, much like Leeds, are a bit of a fallen giant, after being controversially relegated from the Spanish second division, thanks to COVID-19. They are a far cry from their 1999/00 La Liga win. Midfielder Victor claimed before the knockout game that they had been drawn to the “weakest team” remaining in the tournament. That pre-match confidence soon took a knock after Harte scored a beauty. The set-piece specialist had done it again, banging is a great free-kick from the penalty area arc. The goalkeeper didn’t see it coming.

Deportivo had become infamous for their comebacks, most notably beating PSG 4-3 after going three goals down, but there was no sign of that happening at Elland Road. They just weren’t at the races. Smith soon doubled Leeds’s lead after the interval with a deft header from a pin-point Harte cross. Suddenly the “weakest side” looked like contenders. Ferdinand finally wrapped it up with another header, this time coming from a corner, his first goal for the club. Leeds had one foot in the semi-finals. Just how far could they go?

Leeds were rightfully in a celebratory mood. It doesn’t matter who you are, the likelihood of surpassing a 3-0 deficit is low, but nobody told Deportivo that. Instead, the Spaniards were intent on showing Leeds just why they were reigning La Liga champions. Right from the off they were on top, taking just nine minutes to exploit a shocked looking Leeds defence through what could be described as a soft penalty after Victor took the slightest of nudges from Harry Kewell. Brazilian Djalminha tucked it away comfortably.

The visitors didn’t look like they could string two passes together. Deportivo kept on coming, wave after wave, although without creating any bonafide chances. Leeds managed to keep it 1-0 at half-time. The second half was much of the same; Leeds’s resistance was somehow passing test after test, Martyn managed to get fingertips to a fierce Romero shot, knocking it on to the crossbar just before Roy Makaay rattled it again with a header. It was only a matter of time until Deportivo got another, and with 16 minutes left on the clock, it happened, a quickly taken free kick found substitute Tristan and he finished from close range. Leeds were in dire need of pulling their thumbs out. It was nervy, but they managed to hold them off. Leeds were through to the semis.

A season of tough draws had defined Leeds’s Champions League adventure and looking at the teams left, O’Leary must have held his breath as he saw his team in the same bracket as the ever-efficient Bayern Munich and a Real Madrid side that had already beaten them twice. Fortuitously, they were drawn against Valencia and the gaffer could breathe once more. By no means an easy draw as Valencia had made it to the final the year prior, but compared to what might have been, the words “why not?” were being quietly muttered in pubs across West Yorkshire. Elland Road was ready to host its first European semi-final since 1975, a year known to Leeds fans young and old as a near miss. Would they finally get their chance this time around?

From the very beginning, the atmosphere was electric. It’s just a shame that the game couldn’t live up to fans’ expectation. Leeds and Valencia played out a 0-0 draw, leaving the home team’s chances of making the final hanging in the balance but it wasn’t all bad as they had not conceded what would have been a disastrous away goal. Not only were Leeds on top for large periods of the game, Valencia would be without Rubén Baraja and Amedeo Carboni in the second leg after both players picked up yellow cards, consequently being suspended. Leeds could salvage this.

It’s fair to say that Leeds rode their luck at times throughout their campaign but it took just 15 minutes in Valencia for that luck to run out. Much like in 1975 they came unstuck, thanks to incompetent officiating. The referee failed to notice Juan Sánchez convert a Gaizka Mendieta cross with his arm. For most teams, heads would bow but that’s never been the ‘Leeds way’. A steely determination seemed to take over the boys in yellow, hoping to carve through a rigid Valencia defence. Kewell shot just over, Dacourt made an amazing run just to shoot straight into the hands of Cañizares, David Batty also forcing a save from the goalkeeper.

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Going into half time there was a hope that they could pull this off. While Valencia were starting to show some cracks before the break, Leeds were showing glaring holes afterwards. It took just 100 seconds for Sánchez to score his second and there was no controversy about this one. The forward got the ball on the edge of the box and drove it home, straight into the bottom right corner, catching out Martyn. Five minutes later Gaizka Mendieta finished off the scoring with a carbon copy of Sanchez’s second. Leeds were knocked out at the last hurdle but they didn’t go quietly. Smith was sent off in the 90th minute for a rash challenge on substitute Vicente.

The adventure was over but this young Leeds team had done themselves and the fans proud. Fathers, mothers, sons and daughters were taken to stadiums they had never even dreamed of. It may have ended in a heartbreak but the memories made along the way are what it means to be a football fan.

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