a stunning 6-1 win at Charlton Athletic
in only his second game in temporary charge, Leeds United were
still giving caretaker manager Peter Reid sleepless nights in
May 2003 with their haphazard and inconsistent displays leaving
them teetering on the very edge of relegation, a fate which could
have called the future of the entire club into question.
The Charlton triumph had been followed by an ill deserved 2-2
draw at home to Tottenham, while only two goals in the final ten
minutes at Southampton had given the slightest semblance of competitiveness
to a drab 3-2 defeat. Mark Viduka's two goals had eased fears
of the drop by inspiring a strong showing to beat Fulham, but
then Leeds had squandered Viduka's 21st minute lead at home to
Blackburn to slump to another depressing defeat. Coupled with
Bolton's battling draw with Arsenal and West Ham's spirited victory
at Manchester City, the result left United in 16th spot, just
one point above Wanderers and three above the Hammers. The final
relegation spot rested between the three teams with two games
The form of both Bolton and West Ham had been good in recent
weeks, and the first of Leeds' two remaining games was a daunting
one, away to champions and Premiership contenders Arsenal, so
confidence around Elland Road was low in those grim days.
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The game was set for Sunday, 4 May, with Bolton and West Ham
having the opportunity to turn the screw in their Saturday fixtures.
The Hammers were first off, facing a strong Chelsea side at Upton
Park, and the match was fiercely contested with the Blues playing
for a place in the Champions League. West Ham had much of the
play, however, and secured the points with a late goal from Paulo
Di Canio, to move ahead of Bolton and level on points with Leeds,
although with by far the worst goal difference of the three sides.
Bolton were away to FA Cup finalists Southampton for a kick off
in the late afternoon and settled for a goalless stalemate which
left them on 41 points, the same as their rivals and splitting
them on goal difference.
The stage was now set for the ultimate test for Leeds United,
and the Sunday papers flowed over with dark premonitions.
Joe Lovejoy of The Sunday Times: "Behind the scenes, the money
men who had piled up debts of £79m and losses of £3m a month were
heading for the hills, clutching their fat payoff cheques. Ridsdale
went with £383,000 - 12 months' salary as severance payment -
followed by Stephen Harrison, the chief operating officer, with
£234,000. Leeds are now in the hands of non-football people, which
is probably a good thing, if Ridsdale was the archetypal fan let
loose in the boardroom.
"The consequences of relegation would make administration inevitable
for a company already looking to raise a further £15m from the
transfer market, and told to make savings of £5m a year. The loss
of television money would be ruinous. Figures recently released
by the Premier League show that in the 2001-2 season, Leeds received
TV fees totalling £22.5m. Manchester City, who had been relegated,
got only £3.95m as a First Division club. Such a shortfall would
leave Leeds needing to sell.
"Some will be moving on in the summer, come what may. How did
Reid feel about more stars leaving? Sanguine, apparently. 'They're
no use to us if they don't want to be here,' he said. 'There's
no point worrying about it, I'm just delighted to be in work.
It's a great football club that's had a nasty reality check. There's
a need to rebuild, and I'd like to be part of that. I was brought
in to do a specific job, and I've got to do that first. Things
will take a lot of turning around, but I'm capable of that.'"
David Bond of The Sunday Times: "Saving Leeds from meltdown in
the Premiership is proving difficult enough for directors at Elland
Road. Trying to do it on the meagre sums available to clubs operating
in the First Division would be impossible. While senior club sources
talk privately about the contingency plans for each scenario,
relegation is simply not an option.
"One insider predicted that relegation would be a 'disaster'.
Parachute payments of £5m a year help to cushion the blow of relegation
for Premiership sides going down. But the drop in income is still
thought to be between £15m and £20m, caused mainly by the loss
of revenue from the Premiership's contract with BSkyB.
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"The first job for the administrators would be to sell the club's
stars. Australia international Harry Kewell, who would have brought
£18m two years ago, is now worth little more than £5m. Paul Robinson,
Mark Viduka, Danny Mills, Olivier Dacourt and Alan Smith would
all command decent fees despite the downturn. But the administrators
would be forced to let other members of the squad go for free
or next to nothing just to reduce the £50m wage bill.
"Professor John McKenzie has already cut £5m of costs in addition
to the £8m of savings made after the sale of Jonathan Woodgate
to Newcastle for £9m and Robbie Fowler to Manchester City for
£6m. Loan deals for Lee Bowyer to West Ham and Olivier Dacourt
to Roma also cut salary costs. These will make Leeds' end-of-year
financial results look a good deal healthier than the half-year
results announced in April, which revealed a staggering pre-tax
loss of £17.2m. During that period Leeds' operating losses were
£5.6m. That's £215,384 a week flowing out of the club.
"It wasn't only
players' wages that were proving excessive. McKenzie has discovered
a number of examples of largesse, including the fact that 75 employees
had company cars. Not only must the club try to stem the flow
of money, it must also raise new investment. Leeds are in talks
with interested parties, but with a depressed share price of 3.5p,
their options are limited. Restructuring the club's £79m debts
would be aided by the legal protection that administration offers
companies from their non-footballing creditors. The biggest chunk
of that debt, a £60m syndication loan arranged in 2001, is spread
over 23 years and costs the club £4m a year in interest. From
2004 however, Leeds must start paying back the capital, taking
the repayments to £7m a year.
"The best option for Leeds, then, might be to follow the example
of Leicester, who have just emerged from administration. They
negotiated a deal with the bank that lent them £28m to build the
Walkers stadium, giving the lender the ground in return for the
right to lease it back over 25 years. The biggest problem would
be how to pay debts to players and coaching staff who must be
repaid in full. In addition, the Football League is considering
tough penalties, including points deductions, for clubs that go
into administration to gain an unfair commercial advantage. That
would make Leeds' task of returning to the Premiership even harder.
"A win at Arsenal today really is a win at all costs."
A draw would have been of little use to Leeds, but unsurprisingly
Peter Reid sought to make his side difficult to beat by opting
for a 4-4-1-1 formation with Mark Viduka asked to operate on his
own up front, and Harry Kewell working from the left flank. Alan
Smith was out through suspension, following his dismissal at Southampton.
Lucas Radebe was his replacement, slotting in alongside Michael
Duberry at the heart of defence, allowing Dominic Matteo to operate
in midfield with Gary Kelly, Eirik Bakke and Jason Wilcox.
Arsenal had been suffering their own stutter in the Premiership
of recent weeks, and their weakened side, missing Lauren and Sol
Campbell at the back and Patrick Vieira in their engine room,
started apprehensively, although
in the opening seconds Radebe had to be alert to deny Thierry
Henry the space for a shot on goal at the expense of a corner.
Robert Pires took it and Gilberto Silva was unlucky to see his
header batter the United crossbar and run clear.
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Leeds were less generous with their first chance when Wilcox
launched a huge punt upfield towards Kewell on the left hand side
in the fifth minute. The veteran pairing of Oleg Luzhny and Martin
Keown simply could not get close to stopping the Australian as
he collected the ball and without breaking stride lashed home
a glorious left footed curler from fully 25 yards which David
Seaman never came close to seeing, let alone saving.
Arsenal were stunned and their makeshift defence continued to
rock with deputy right back Kolo Toure struggling to stay in position
and the elderly centre backs pulled all over the place by clever
Kewell came close six minutes later after Viduka had held the
ball up long enough to play him in on the right. He rounded Seaman
but went too wide and was unable to pull his shot back far enough,
firing instead into the side of the net. It was not the only time
that Seaman was left with little protection in front of him, as
Viduka threatened twice. Wilcox helped Kelly's cross on but Seaman
gathered the Aussie's flick, while the striker later headed wide
from a perfect free kick from Ian Harte.
It was not all United, however, and on the 15 minute mark Paul
Robinson made a great save when Duberry deflected Henry's shot,
before Mills cleared the loose ball, preventing Sylvain Wiltord
from capitalising on it.
Arsenal were starting to click into gear now, inspired by a dynamic
Ray Parlour performance. After 30 minutes the midfielder fired
in a shot from outside the area which reared up on the bounce,
forcing Robinson into a finger tip save onto the bar. As it dropped
back into play, Henry was in the right place at the right home
to head home the equaliser.
The goal came at the right time for the Gunners, encouraging
them to greater effort with bags of time before the interval to
make it pay off.
Parlour had another long range effort which Duberry blocked on
the line with Robinson beaten. Then Wiltord thought he had given
Arsenal the lead after he followed in to force home the ball when
Henry hit the post, but an offside flag told him otherwise. Just
before half time, Bakke gave away a free kick 25 yards from goal
after blocking off Henry but Robinson collected well behind his
It had been a testing period, but the pairing of Radebe and Duberry
had stood up well, and Matteo had provided a sound barrier in
front of them, absorbing much of Arsenal's increasingly frenetic
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The interval came at just the right time for Leeds, breaking
up the rhythm that the Gunners had started to create, and United
struck even more quickly in the second half than they had the
With just three minutes gone Ashley Cole was adjudged to have
committed a foul on Leeds' right wing and Ian Harte stepped up
to take the free kick from 20 yards out. He had scored for two
years running in this fixture with his hallmark free kicks, but
Arsenal were either not concentrating, or judged that the ball
was too far out, for their wall contained just two men.
The Irishman needed no more bidding and looped over a great strike
which beat Seaman at his far post, although slight deflections
off Gilberto and Cole helped.
Minutes later, Harte was at it again, but this time his dead
ball effort beat the top corner.
But once more Arsenal managed to work themselves up to regain
the initiative despite their stretched resources, finally managing
to get somewhere near their unstoppable form of the autumn. They
had Leeds on the ropes for long stretches, but somehow United's
phenomenal rearguard action managed to withstand one of the most
dangerous attacking forces in Europe.
Nevertheless, the Gunners did manage to fashion a second equaliser
just after the hour. Wiltord was guilty of squandering a free
header at the far post, but then the Arsenal attacking machine
clicked smoothly into action. Henry freed Pires on the left and
he drove straight towards the penalty area, before turning inside
away from Danny Mills, and cutting it back into the middle for
Dennis Bergkamp to thrash eagerly into the roof of the net from
A minute later the Dutchman went into the referee's notebook
for a dangerous challenge on Ian Harte as Arsenal sought to up
the tempo. Bergkamp
nearly added a second shortly afterwards when his bending effort
drifted wide, and then Henry struck the foot of the post. Leeds
were on the ropes and increasingly stretched, with Kanu coming
on for Toure and adding to the mayhem, but the Gunners were becoming
more and more panic stricken as they saw their Premiership chances
drifting away from them.
Kewell, in fact, came close to restoring the lead for the Yorkshiremen
15 minutes from time, but Seaman touched away his drive left handed.
It was the Australian's final contribution of any note, and after
80 minutes Peter Reid brought on young Simon Johnson as replacement.
The striker soon took a leaf out of Alan Smith's book by using
his physical presence to unsettle the Arsenal defenders.
They were so disturbed in fact that they allowed Viduka to go
unmarked in the area as Mills' long free kick came over but the
header was wide. And despite all the Londoners' frantic panic,
they were looking less and less likely to manage a winner, as
Leeds seemed to be willing to settle for a hard won draw. But
Arsene Wenger's tinkering in search of a breakthrough was ultimately
his side's undoing.
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Bergkamp was forced back into midfield where he was less effective
and young Jermaine Pennant was starved of the ball when he was
introduced wide on the right. Consequently he was over eager to
show what he could do when he did get possession and after 88
minutes he lost the ball when trying to take on the Leeds defence
single handed. Matteo seized on the opportunity to set Leeds quickly
onto a raking counter attack with a long ball to Viduka on the
It looked ominously like offside, but the Aussie did not wait
for the whistle and killed the ball instinctively.
His clever drag back through his own legs wrongfooted the static
Luzhny completely and gave him space to advance into the area,
before he steadied himself with amazing composure and swerved
the ball unerringly with his left foot round Seaman and into the
far corner for a quite splendid winning goal.
The Leeds bench and supporters went wild with jubilation at the
sight, scenes which were repeated in Manchester as Old Trafford
fans celebrated their own consequent Premiership triumph as Arsenal
surrendered their crown.
Wenger turned and disappeared from view down the players' tunnel,
while Reid stayed to bask in the glory of knowing his side were
safe and he was almost certain to be given the manager's job on
a long term basis. He brought a sense of perspective when he entered
the dressing room, commenting "I don't want to temper the celebrations,
lads, because you were great today, but really when you look at
the quality here you should never be in this position."
He was rather more upbeat later, however: "It is a great football
club. It has still got great support, anyone at Highbury who has
seen the reaction tells you this place is itching to get back
into the big time and it is my job to do that. The result at Highbury
was terrific for the club, myself and the players."
Skipper Dominic Matteo was just glad it was all over: "I thought
the lads battled unbelievably today, we knew how important it
was for the club. Everyone from the goalie to ... well everyone
just got together and put in a fantastic performance. It's been
a really difficult season, but we have got a lot of good players
in the squad but not done ourselves justice. We've shown today
what we can do and now we need to achieve that next season. Our
home form has really been the problem, away from home we've been
as good as anyone,
so if we sort our home form out we'll be OK."
Five days later Peter Reid was repaid for achieving what had
seemed an impossible task when he had arrived by being offered
a rolling 12 month incentive based contract worth a basic £500,000
a year. He commented: "Obviously I was brought in to do a specific
job and thankfully that was achieved. Fortunately for myself I
have managed to get the job on a permanent basis. When you are
manager of a club like Leeds, with its traditions, you know what
the bottom line is; you have to win football matches. It is a
good challenge and one I am looking forward to. It's the beginning
and, when you look at the table, we have to improve. The hard
work starts with the summer and you have got to get back to basics;
being a hard side to beat."
They had certainly been that at Highbury in the most memorable
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