newspaper headlines, telling the tale of Leeds United Football
Club's descent into despair, had been screaming the news all
season: "Judgement Day", "Venables future in doubt", "Weakened
Leeds now no match for the elite", "Knives out for Leeds messiah",
"Venables exits as stricken Leeds left rudderless", "Desperate
Leeds", "Player sales 'a final resort'", "Ridsdale exits as Leeds
get legacy of £79m debt". This was a club that had as recently
as 2001 reached the final four of UEFA's Champions League, but
was now seemingly on the verge of bankruptcy. The 'dream ticket'
of Terry Venables and Peter Ridsdale had been exposed as a marriage
made in Heaven rather than Hell.
After a bright start to Venables' tenure at Elland Road, which
encompassed a win at Newcastle and a defeat
of Manchester United, things went badly for El Tel during
the autumn and the shaky financial position facing the club was
crystallised in the January transfer window as Lee Bowyer, Olivier
Dacourt, Robbie Fowler and, most grievous of all, Jonathan Woodgate
all departed the squad in what was popularly touted as a closing
down sale. Having already seen Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Keane
depart in the previous transfer window, Venables could find no
way to inspire his remaining names and had seen them sink towards
the bottom of the table, with First Division Sheffield United
dumping them from both domestic Cup competitions.
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Inevitably, Venables paid the price for failing to deliver against
unrealistic expectations with his job, and shortly after, the
man known as Publicity Pete had also been shown the door as Leeds
announced dismal interim financial results.
On 21 March 2003 former England player and Sunderland manager
Peter Reid took over as caretaker manager for Leeds United's final
eight Premiership games in the desperate hope that he could revive
a dying patient. As Reid
took over Leeds were in 15th position, just seven points clear
of the relegation zone and facing a run in which would test their
resolve to the limit.
Reid had been out of football since being sacked by the Teesside
club in October, and jumped at what many good judges felt was
a poisoned chalice, saying: "I got a phone call around about 9
o'clock and I snapped Mr Ridsdale's hand off. It was a pleasant
surprise but I was just delighted. I want to go in there, enjoy
the eight games and get as many good results as we can. We've
got to get results, anybody who understands football will know
that one team always gets sucked into the mire and I've got to
make sure that it isn't Leeds."
It quickly became very clear to Reid exactly how big a task he
had taken on when Leeds lost his first match in charge 3-1 at
Liverpool, falling to sixteenth in the table, with only five points
separating them from Bolton Wanderers who had a game in hand.
The next match, on 5 April, offered no solace as they faced Alan
Curbishley's exciting Charlton team, enjoying a remarkably good
season, sitting in seventh position and just eight points below
a Champions League qualifying position. Charlton had already pulled
off a shock win at Elland Road earlier in the season after a last
minute goal from England hopeful Scott Parker, and were odds on
to complete the league double over their under performing opponents.
Charlton's splendid form and steady ascent up the Premiership
table might have been dented in the weeks preceding the game,
but, with just four points out of the 27 available since they
beat Birmingham 2-0 on New Year's Day, it was the shortfall in
Leeds United's form which was much the more significant.
For his first game, Reid had kept faith for the most part with
Terry Venables' selection, but now he chose to ring the changes,
with five players dropped, including the former manager's four
recruits, Teddy Lucic, Raul
Bravo, Paul Okon and Nick Barmby. Defenders Gary Kelly and Dominic
Matteo were recalled and deployed in midfield, alongside Eirik
Bakke, while Alan Smith and Harry Kewell were given free rein
to support Mark Viduka up front in a flexible 4-3-3 set up.
There was definitely something new about Leeds' performance,
but it came down to something as simple as that quintessential
British footballing quality - spirit. Viduka and Kewell's game
may have been all about refinement and skill, but Bakke and Lucas
Radebe competed like honorary Brits, and the seven others in the
team originated from these shores. Good old fashioned fire and
determination shone through in a display which hearkened back
to the best days of Leeds United's glorious assault on the Champions
League a couple of years earlier.
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Gary Kelly was in the Charlton players' faces immediately from
the off and soon an inspired Alan Smith was giving them further
problems all over the park with a masterclass in how to mess up
the opposition without resorting to violence. He was continually
probing where it hurt the Addicks' defence most and gave them
an uncomfortable afternoon.
The opening goal came in the 12th minute, rewarding United for
their utter dominance. It had been fully nine minutes before Charlton
managed to get out of their own half, so total was Leeds' command
as they forced a series of early corners, pinning the Londoners
back inside their own area.
The three United forwards combined skilfully to engineer the
opening, with Kewell starting things off with a dangerous run
from the left before laying the ball off to Viduka in the area.
Instant control gave the striker time to
find Smith who drifted to his left, found space and angled the
ball cleverly across the face of goal. Kewell had drifted in after
his run and had a simple sidefoot home with acres of space around
him as the defence was attracted towards his attacking colleagues.
Leeds continued to hustle and harry and went 2-0 ahead in the
34th minute. They had already come close when Kewell's header
on from an Ian Harte corner forced such panic that a Charlton
defender knocked the ball goalwards before the outstanding Parker
managed to head off the line. Goalkeeper Dean Kiely then blocked
Viduka's rising drive and Kewell wasted the rebound, but the pressure
Again Smith was the architect. Gary Kelly played the ball to
him in the area. With his back to goal, and closely policed by
Richard Rufus, who seemed to be trying to share his shirt, Smith
rolled around his assailant, whose instant reaction was to fling
out an arm and a leg, sending the striker sprawling for a clear
Eagerness to make Charlton pay for the error saw Harte and Viduka
bickering testily over who would take the spot kick, before the
Irishman snatched the ball and fired it home. Viduka was clearly
annoyed by Harte's actions and gave him a verbal roasting, continuing
to show his displeasure with his team mate even after the goal.
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It was unfortunate for Leeds that the Aussie did not get as riled
as this every week because from that moment on he simply destroyed
Charlton with some sharp movement and even sharper finishing.
Three minutes from the interval, Smith was at it again, beating
Rufus in the air and nodding the ball on for Viduka
to chest down and drive home a low shot from a sharp angle 20
yards out. The ball went across Kiely and its bounce beat him
but there was no blame attached to the keeper because Viduka's
effort was driven by a unique combination of irritability and
Moments later, Charlton somehow found a response and Parker stormed
into the area, prompting Radebe to bring him down with a crude
challenge. It was another easy penalty decision for referee Eddie
Wolstenholme and Jason Euell gratefully converted with Charlton's
first real attempt of the day, sending Paul Robinson the wrong
Coming as it did, on the stroke of half time, being pulled back
to 3-1 could have set the Leeds nerves on edge, and Alan Curbishley
did his best to press home any advantage by sending out fresh
legs after the interval with Powell and Svensson replacing Kishishev
and Lisbie. Parker and Euell combined well early on to threaten
the goal but Robinson's instant reaction save denied them, and
from then on normal service was resumed as United overran flagging
opponents who could find no answers on the day.
Eight minutes after the interval, Smith was away again to set
up Viduka's second and Leeds' fourth. He trapped a throw in on
his chest, although Charlton felt his hand played a part, turned
cleverly and wriggled away from two challenges. The defence retreated
in disarray before his run and he slipped the ball sideways to
Viduka, who steered the ball home with calm assurance from the
edge of the box.
The away support, bemused by the turn of affairs broke into cries
of "What the f*** is going on?" with gleeful exuberance. The home
fans' response was limited to sullen silence and some early departures.
Smith was destined not to make it onto the scoresheet, but he
had a hand in everything that was best about the performance,
giving a prominent dig in the ribs to the watching England manager,
Sven Goran Eriksson, to remind him of his considerable assets
when on form. It was no surprise when he secured another penalty
after 56 minutes, slipping clear of the unfortunate Rufus to bear
into the area only for Luke Young to send him flying.
Harte knew it would have been more than his life was worth to
try to deprive Viduka a second time, and graciously withdrew,
Australian to complete his hat trick, with a deft and impertinent
chip after committing Kiely to the dive. It was the sign of a
master at work.
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Viduka nearly crowned his contribution with a smashing fourth
when substitute Jason Wilcox played him clear in the middle, but
his powerful drive thundered out after crashing against the crossbar.
By then, however, Leeds were already 6-1 up. The predatory instincts
of Harry Kewell allowed him to intercept a loose square pass from
the replacement defender Tahar El Khalej and race through down
the left channel before curling home his own second goal of the
Euell's effort was disallowed for a foul on Radebe, and Charlton
had two penalty appeals refused, but in reality they were only
irritations as a committed footballing display by Leeds United
rolled them over. At times their play was as good as any side
in the Premiership and there would have been few teams who could
have lived with them on this particular day. The commitment and
drive of Alan Smith had been the key factor which had made the
difference but on this occasion it had been directed at punching
holes in the penalty area rather than in fruitless exhibitions
of thuggery. Peter Reid acknowledged as much afterwards: "I wouldn't
like to play against him. He turns people, he brings people in
Reid gushed over with pleasure at the quality of the all round
display, which saw Leeds rise to 14th and establish a six point
cushion over the relegation zone. "The players deserve all the
credit. I couldn't have asked any more from them. Morale wasn't
great at Anfield during the first half, but it's the players who
have done a really good job here. They were in a difficult position
but have set themselves some really good standards that they now
need to keep up. The catalyst
for our win was the work ethic. The players let their football
do all the talking.
"When the whistle blew, Gary Kelly shut someone down almost immediately
and, when we were 6-1 up in the last minute, there were still
three of them shutting someone down. I would like to come away
and win every week. We've played two games now and I've won one
and lost one, so I need to improve that record. We've got six
games left and let's try to win all of them."
Clearly the job was not yet done and Leeds still required a decent
return of points from their six remaining matches, but this was
a morale boosting triumph, their most emphatic of the season,
and the team's best result since they despatched Leicester 6-0
in the League Cup in October 2001.
One could only wonder what the departed Terry Venables was thinking
if he were to compare this performance with the tepid displays
served up by the same set of players under his leadership. Certainly,
new chairman Professor John McKenzie sported a broad smile throughout
the day, even before kick off, and must have considered professional
football a very easy and enjoyable way to earn a living.
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