David O'Leary had taken over from his mentor George Graham as
Leeds United manager towards the end of 1998 as the Scot accepted
the job of reviving Tottenham Hotspur. The Irishman had made a
good start to his time in the role, blooding a batch of superbly
gifted youngsters and still guiding the team through to a fourth
place finish and qualification for the UEFA Cup.
As he entered his first close season at the helm, O'Leary was
faced with a much busier time of things than he had anticipated,
with the main challenge being to try and persuade marksman supreme
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to sign up for an extension on his contract.
The Dutchman had been the club's leading scorer in each of his
two seasons at Elland Road and settled in well to life in the
Premiership after a sticky time of things earlier on. Graham had
brought him to England in 1997 and his departure had clearly unsettled
Negotiations had been in progress since the spring and came to
a head at the end of July as Hasselbaink handed in a written transfer
request. He had been offered a new four year contract which would
have made him the highest paid player at the club, but had held
out for a rise which would have seen him earning half as much
again as any of the squad, in excess of £30,000 per week.
O'Leary and Chairman Peter Ridsdale were reluctant to disrupt
the amazing team spirit which had built up among a young squad
during O'Leary's short time in charge and the club would not be
held to ransom.
"The club cannot do any more, It's up to Jimmy," said O'Leary.
"What he is looking for I don't think any club in the country
could afford and I don't think there is anyone on that kind of
money over here."
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Within a week, on the eve of the new season, Leeds had accepted
a club record fee of £12million from Spanish club Atletico Madrid
and Hasselbaink was on his way to a new life in Europe, insisting
despite the move that he loved Leeds United, the supporters and
always wanted to stay with the club he joined two years before.
O'Leary had other bitter disappointments that Summer when Ipswich
Town's exciting young midfielder Kieron Dyer opted to join Newcastle
instead of Leeds, and then missed out on the signing of Dutchman
Willem Korsten who had been on loan at Leeds for the second half
of 1998-99. George Graham had intervened and persuaded Korsten
that life at White Hart Lane would be a better bet and the affair
caused a long running rift between the two men who had enjoyed
such success together at Highbury in the late 80's and early 90's.
Sunderland's young forward Michael Bridges had also looked like
opting for Tottenham rather than West Yorkshire when he went for
discussions in London, but in the end he settled for Leeds and
joined the club for £4.5million. O'Leary had splashed out almost
£9million to bring in Charlton's England Under 21 right back Danny
Mills and Chelsea centre back Michael Duberry, while it had taken
another £1.75million to secure the services of unknown Norwegian
midfielder Eirik Bakke, so the Hasselbaink windfall was a welcome
The defensive recruits were vital, because Gunnar Halle, Lee
Sharpe and David Wetherall had all departed to Bradford City,
while Gary Kelly, Robert Molenaar and Martin Hiden had all been
unavailable through injury since before Christmas 1998.
The departure of Hasselbaink, now reviled as Judas Jimmy, left
United fans wondering where the goals would come from as the new
season approached. Bridges had been out of the Sunderland side
more often than not, with Peter Reid normally preferring the Little
and Large pairing of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips, and was not
seen as the finished article, while young Alan Smith was still
learning his trade. Clyde Wijnhard and Derek Lilley, who had been
failures in their time at Elland Road, also left the club during
The side could still field internationals like Nigel Martyn,
Ian Harte, Alfie Haaland, Lucas Radebe, David Hopkin, David Batty
and Harry Kewell, while young centre back Jonathan Woodgate had
won his first cap for England in the close season after starting
1998-99 in the Leeds Youth team, but huge doubts remained over
the attack. An opening day scoreless draw at home against Derby
County seemed to be confirmation of a struggle to come. Bridges
bagged a hat-trick in the 3-0 win at Southampton which followed,
but that seemed to be a flash in the pan, when Leeds lost 2-0
at Old Trafford in the next game. They had countless scoring opportunities
really should have won, but their lack of punch in front of goal
seemed to be a serious problem.
Even the arrival of Coventry's direct flank player, the speedy
Darren Huckerby, in another multi million pound move had made
little difference and it was Kewell who looked the most dangerous
Leeds player at Old Trafford. There was scant reward for David
O'Leary's side, upset by an early injury to Bridges, who up until
15 minutes from the end had been worthy of a point and had a shot
from Kewell in the second half not come back of the post and crept
in instead, the finish could have gone Leeds' way.
A narrow win at home over Sunderland was followed by a depressing
home defeat versus old rivals Liverpool despite an early lead,
and the critics started to go for them. This team would struggle
in the Premiership and have no chance in Europe. O'Leary was out
of his depth and it was obvious that Leeds should have gone for
a proven manager. The imports had made scant impact and looked
to be poor buys by an immature manager.
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But then something changed. On August 28, Alan Smith scored his
first goal of the season and then got sent off for a butt in a
2-1 win at Tottenham (a prelude to the war between the clubs later
in the year). In some strange way, the aggression and will to
win of Smith set off a powerful chain reaction.
Following on from the Tottenham victory, Leeds had a wonderful
4-3 win at Coventry when they were simply irresistible. That was
good enough, but they then followed it up with a startling 3-1
triumph in the UEFA Cup away to Partizan Belgrade after going
1-0 down early on. The Elland Road faithful started sitting up
and taking notice. Lee Bowyer scored twice in that game and was
having a wonderful time in front of goal. By the end of October,
the all-action midfielder had scored 7 goals in the first 15 games,
including 4 in Europe. Leeds had entered a devastating spell of
When they faced Everton at Goodison on October 24, Leeds had
won 10 games on the bounce in the space of 55 days, scoring 24
goals against just 9 conceded. They were on top of the table and
poised for the Third Round of the UEFA Cup after a 4-1 home win
over Locomotiv Moscow, who had looked a strong side. The Elland
Road team were flying and winning over a lot of neutrals with
their new brand of attacking football.
The game at Everton was an astonishing match. Leeds went behind
early on when John Collins supplied Kevin Campbell who finished
superbly from just inside the area. Leeds equalised on the quarter
of an hour mark after Kewell broke down the left flank and laid
on a perfect cross. Michael Bridges slid home the ball after a
miskick by Smith. Leeds then started to dominate but shortly afterwards
Woodgate and Radebe were at fault when allowing Don Hutchinson
to put Campbell through for his second goal, before Kewell's cross
somehow evaded goalkeeper Gerrard after 35 minutes to draw Leeds
level for a second time. Leeds were 3-2 down at the interval,
however, when Hutchinson fired home. 23 minutes into the second
half, Darren Huckerby unsettled the Everton defence before Bridges
volleyed the ball home adroitly for his second goal. A late header
by Woodgate from a corner looked like it had secured all three
points, but an even later equaliser by Weir meant Leeds had to
settle for a thrilling 4-4 draw, but this was scintillating stuff
and a shock for fans who had got used to some pretty dull fare
under George Graham and Howard Wilkinson. Could Leeds actually
be in with a shout of the title?
The winning run was a new record for the club, which took some
doing when one remembers exactly how good Don Revie's side of
another generation was. In 1969, the first championship-winning
side only lost two out of 42 games, conceding just 26 goals in
the process, but they never managed to gain 10 straight victories.
In Moscow a couple of weeks later, Leeds finished off the job
they had started against Locomotiv at Elland Road and booked their
place in the Third Round of the UEFA Cup after their young guns
turned on the style to dismantle the Russians 3-0 on the night
to win 7-1 on aggregate. But it wasn't all Leeds as Locomotiv
had the early pressure, with Sarkisan and Boulykin both having
chances before Ian Harte set the ball rolling with a penalty on
16 minutes, after Harry Kewell had
been brought down in the area following a Michael Bridges flick.
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A midfield combination of Lee Bowyer, Eirik Bakke and Harry Kewell
tore the Russian defence to shreds and they combined to let Bridges
grab a brace to seal the match before half time. For his first,
Harte's cross was headed back across the goal by Bowyer to Bridges,
who lifted the ball over the onrushing Nigmatoulline and then,
on the stroke of half-time, he ran onto a Bakke ball before toe-poking
the ball past the hapless keeper to seal the victory.
The early superiority meant that in the second half Leeds could
afford to go through the motions, with Bowyer being replaced to
rest his injured groin.
David O'Leary was pleased with his side's performance and must
now, secretly at least, have been beginning to believe in the
quality of the team, though he continued publicly to doubt the
staying power of his 'Babies'.
"In the end we ran out miles in front. Against a side like that
I was very flattered. All credit to the players, they were fantastic."
said O'Leary afterwards. "It's a young team who will only get
Understandably, Leeds could not keep up that level of performance
and they came back down to earth with a bang when they lost 2-0
at Wimbledon the weekend following the Moscow trip. They were
still winning games in the Premiership after that, but they started
to become tense and scrappy affairs with the side obviously starting
to feel the pressure.
They continued to be among the pace setters in the title race,
however, and on November 28, a last minute goal from Michael Bridges
at Southampton gave Leeds the win to put them top of the Premiership.
United's leading scorer took his tally to 12 for the season when
he shot past Saints keeper Paul Jones with a sensational strike
from outside the area in stoppage time, to seal victory and give
United a two point
lead at the top of the table.
Four days later, Leeds came away from another trip behind the
Iron Curtain, this time against Locomotiv's Moscow rivals Spartak,
with a 2-1 defeat, but knowing that a 1-0 victory would be enough
to see them through to the last sixteen of the UEFA Cup. The match
was played in Sofia in Bulgaria, because the Russian pitch was
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The Russian champions, who had failed to make the latter stages
of the Champions League, proved much tougher opposition than their
cross city neighbours. David O'Leary indeed had to be grateful
after seeing his side take a 14th minute lead through Harry Kewell
that United, who were under the cosh for the last hour of the
game, escaped with the minimum margin of defeat. The United boss
admitted after the game that his side had missed the calming experience
of David Batty in the second period.
"It's disappointing, but 2 -1 is not by any means a bad result
in the first leg, as I know we can play better. I thought we missed
David Batty's influence in the second half and we gave away two
silly goals, but the away goal stands us in good stead."
Playing just one man up front, Leeds had started in positive
fashion and had hit the woodwork before Kewell made the breakthrough
on 14 minutes, but after that the Russians worked their way back
into the game and netted a deserved equaliser seven minutes before
the break, before dominating the second half. However, they managed
only one more goal, though United were lucky to escape as Kelly's
goal-line clearance and Martyn's fine save in the final minutes
ensured the score remained unchanged.
All the travelling was starting to weary the young side and three
days later Leeds looked decidedly off colour when they visited
Derby. However, they managed to regain the top spot in the Premiership
with another amazing late show, as Ian Harte's injury time penalty
gave them a deserved 1-0 win over Derby at Pride Park.
Harte coolly converted the spotkick after the impressive Harry
Kewell had been felled in the box by Horacio Carbonari. The penalty
had been hotly disputed and Derby claimed that Kewell had dived,
but no one from Elland Road was complaining and the three points
put Leeds two ahead of Manchester United.
Manager O'Leary had refused to risk David Batty in the match
because of an Achilles injury and indeed the all action midfielder
did not play again all season and feared for a while that his
career might be over.
His absence, however, was mitigated
by the form of young midfielders Eirik Bakke and Irishman Stephen
McPhail who seized their chance and made themselves regulars as
the season drew on, impressing many with their contribution and
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The return with Spartak was a very tense affair which went without
a goal right to the closing seconds. There were only six minutes
remaining when a corner from McPhail found Radebe, who held off
his marker and headed home from close range. Elland Road erupted
and, although Leeds had still had to endure a nervous finale,
the bedlam that greeted the final whistle was understandable.
South African international centre-back Radebe said afterwards:
"I don't score too many goals but it's one many people will talk
about. I went in with the keeper, stuck my head in and there it
was. It was a brilliant goal and I really enjoyed it. We knew
we had nothing to lose. We had to get forward and get the first
goal. We've been scoring late goals and today we knew we had to
keep going until the whistle. We take each game as it comes. We've
got a great bunch of lads and this season we set ourselves a target
to do better than last year. We have taken a step up and we will
take our chances," he added.
It was a night of great elation and David O'Leary's celebrations
at the end were memorable. They also showed how badly he had taken
the contention between the two sides. Spartak officials had accused
Leeds of gamesmanship and trying to take advantage of the state
of the Moscow club's pitch by arguing for a neutral venue.
A year into his managerial career, O'Leary was doing well. The
team had progressed and were carrying his distinctive stamp. That
pleased him, as did the general perception that he had taken the
team forward. "People may not believe it now but at the time of
George leaving, quite a number of football people believed this
club was going nowhere and I was taking a no-hoper job."
The manager's own report on his year's work was favourable, too.
"I am pleased that I have put my team on the field, this is not
simply a carry-on of what George had here. I've gone my own way,
he has gone his. When George was manager here I would be saying,
'Get Batty, he should have never left here'. I was also saying,
'Woodgate is ready, blood Woodgate'. But George was his own man.
He had got Derek Lilley, who was a nice lad, but I thought we
were going nowhere with Derek. Alan Smith was the future. Then
I got the job and I had the chance to do what I'd been saying.
And I'm happy that I did exactly those things.
"When I took over they said here they hoped I stabilised things;
I think we've done better than that. I have sold £16m worth of
players, spent £23m on players, and for £7m, I feel I've not done
badly. I think we're playing better football and the crowds have
gone from 30,000 to 40,000. I want people to be sitting at home
saying, 'Oh, Leeds are on Sky today, they're worth watching'."
Suggesting that Leeds were missing Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink offended
him. Hasselbaink didn't want to be part of Leeds, he didn't behave
properly and, ultimately, forfeited his right to respect. "I don't
think we've missed Jimmy, not remotely. He wasn't a bad lad but
he wasn't a team player. He did score a lot of goals but after
17 Premiership games this season we've scored more goals than
we had after 17 games last season. You couldn't dislike Jimmy
but the way he went about leaving was a disgrace. He wouldn't
kick a ball unless he got an obscene amount of money, more than
anybody in this country is paid, including the latest Roy Keane
deal. You ask any of the players; they are
delighted he is gone. They have become closer as a team since
The dignified approach of O'Leary and Chairman Peter Ridsdale
throughout the Spartak episode, refusing to get drawn into a public
slanging match, won the club a lot of friends. The Russian club
had been whinging like mad throughout. Such sideshows, however,
were starting to take their toll on the side.
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Radebe had had lengthy periods out of the side while he was away
with South Africa in the the African Nations Cup tournament and
the form of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate both dipped badly
following their arrest, along with Michael Duberry and reserve
striker Tony Hackworth, after drunken incidents in Leeds city
centre in January when a student was beaten up. A malaise had
descended on the players as they started to appreciate their lofty
The side's form now became inconsistent - they crashed out of
the Worthington Cup on penalties to a robust Leicester side, but
then pulled off a shock 2-0 win away to Chelsea with Stephen McPhail's
first two goals for the club. Jason Wilcox had arrived from Blackburn
and his presence on the left flank freed Kewell to play as an
out and out striker for the rest of the season, which saw his
level of performance reach new heights. It was a good move for
Leeds, but things started to go quite badly in the Premiership
and they went through a period between December and February when
they lost 4 out of 6 games, including a 1-0 home defeat to Manchester
United, and bad beatings at rivals Liverpool and Arsenal.
Leeds had been unlucky in the game against United and deserved
at least a point against the Premiership favourites, but were
unable to capitalise on their chances while the Reds seized their
own opening with Andy Cole scoring the only goal of the game.
Disaster hit Leeds on 52 minutes after they had had the best
of a tight first half. Radebe, who looked far from fully fit,
missed a ball over the top and Cole got ahead to guide the ball
over a back-peddling Nigel Martyn into the back of the Leeds net.
A minute later Keane hit the post after the ball deflected off
Nigel Martyn, a let-off for Leeds who were rocked by the Cole
Goalkeeper Mark Bosnich kept an Ian Harte free kick out, palming
away the ball as it seemed destined for the top right hand corner
and moments later Bakke's header hit the bar, with the Reds defenders
rooted to the spot.
Then with just ten minutes remaining, Leeds missed a golden chance
of an equaliser. Wilcox took advantage of a slip by Neville, drove
the ball goalwards and as Bosnich spilled the ball, Alan Smith's
shot hit the post, rebounded to Lee Bowyer six yards out with
the goal at his mercy. The Leeds faithful waited for the ball
to bulge the back of the net, but inexplicably Bowyer blazed over
to the dismay of all the United side.
O'Leary refused to be downcast afterwards, despite seeing his
side fail again against one of the top four teams. "They are the
team that I've made favourites from day one but we're not going
to give up hope," he vowed. "We've got 13 games left and we're
going to try to win those 13 games. We're a young emerging side
learning our trade, playing against a great side and there wasn't
much in the game. They got their chance and they took it. We got
our chances and didn't take them. I know what my side is about.
We've had our little setbacks but we're a young side doing marvellously
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