Part 2 - Part
By the summer of 2002, for those who were willing to see it,
the writing had been on the wall for Leeds United for several
months. The lacklustre end of season form had been merely the
symptom of a deep running malaise. After topping the Premiership
table at the turn of the year, the side had enjoyed a nightmarish
spell in the spring, punctuated by insidious rumours of dressing
However, it was the precarious financial position that gave
the greatest cause for concern.
At the beginning of March, chairman Peter Ridsdale announced
interim losses of £14m, adding that there was a pressing need
to lower the club's debt burden. At least £15m was required from
player sales in order to improve liquidity. Long-term borrowing
had risen to more than £85m in the pursuit of the golden egg of
the Champions League. Now, it was clear that the price of failure
was crippling. Ridsdale sanguinely demanded the sale of six players:
"One of the transfers will probably be more than £10m with three
or four smaller deals made up of squad players who are not regular
first-teamers. The amount left for the manager to spend will depend
on European qualification."
The news confirmed fears in the City that the club had borrowed
much too heavily. The squad was independently valued at £198m
but the share price placed the worth of the entire club at just
A late revival on the pitch helped to secure a place in Europe,
but in the less attractive environs of the UEFA Cup, rather than
the Champions League, and it was estimated that the difference
between the rewards on offer was more than £20m.
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On the playing side, the club was resigned to the departure of
Lee Bowyer. The dynamic midfielder's relationship with the chairman
had been badly soured following his acquittal from charges of
grievous bodily harm. Ridsdale insisted that Bowyer should pay
a fine for his drunken misbehaviour while Bowyer was equally resolute
that the fine was both unfair and excessive. There was only a
year to go on the Londoner's contract and permission had been
given for Liverpool to discuss a move. Leeds had hoped for a £15m
fee, but in the end agreed on £9m. The deal had been all but sealed,
but at the twelfth hour it fell apart, with Liverpool manager
Gerard Houllier claiming that Bowyer was not wholly committed
to a future at Anfield. It was a shock to all concerned, and left
Leeds in a sticky financial position, needing to raise funds,
but finding it increasingly difficult to find takers for any but
the most valued assets.
One major transfer did eventually go through and proved a particularly
bitter pill for the Elland Road faithful to swallow. Captain Rio
Ferdinand had proven himself possibly THE jewel in the Leeds crown
after his record breaking £18m move from West Ham a couple of
seasons previously. His outstanding performances during the World
Cup finals in Japan and South Korea prompted transfer rumours
and the newspaper talk unsettled the player, as did his discussions
with squad colleagues while he was in Asia. Ferdinand roomed with
Manchester United defender Wes Brown, while David Beckham, Paul
Scholes and Gary Neville were also on hand to hint at the advantages
of playing for their club.
Peter Ridsdale gave assurance after assurance that the club would
not sell Ferdinand, and the player himself professed his loyalty.
However, the promises were empty and a £30m record fee was eventually
agreed with Manchester United. Ferdinand became an Old Trafford
player on July 22, provoking bitter reaction from fans, distraught
at the news of another favourite deserting the club. The fact
that it was the reviled Red Devils and the lure of filthy lucre
behind the move made the taste an even more bitter one.
By then, more controversy had engulfed Elland Road, as manager
David O'Leary was sensationally and suddenly sacked on June 27.
The press release read: "After four successful years the pressures
of some of the off-field incidents have resulted in the Company
deciding that it would be beneficial for a change of manager.
It is hoped that news of a successor can be announced in the next
few weeks. Leeds United would like to place on record its thanks
for David's enormous contribution over the last four years."
The public statement hid cracks in a relationship which had become
increasingly fractious. The Guardian's Daniel Taylor wrote: "Had
O'Leary not been prone to so many foolish utterances and crass
judgment, it is a safe bet his relationship with Ridsdale would
not have disintegrated to the point that his first day on holiday
will be spent contemplating a new life among the nation's unemployed.
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"What has become apparent is that Ridsdale has become increasingly
resentful towards O'Leary. The lack of silverware was not enough
to justify O'Leary's sacking. Likewise, his implied criticism
of the plc over the proposed sale of Rio Ferdinand has been annoying
but not earth-shattering. And O'Leary is certainly not the first
manager to be disliked by his players, even if it has reached
the point where one first-teamer, at a recent club function, refused
to sign a book bearing the manager's picture.
"Where O'Leary made his fatal error is by persistently upsetting
a chairman whose nickname of Publicity Pete reflects his obsession
with the club - and himself - being seen in a positive light.
Ridsdale was appalled by the level of criticism that O'Leary brought
upon the club by releasing Leeds United on Trial immediately after
the court case involving Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, so
becoming the one person at Elland Road to profit financially from
the revolting street attack on the Asian student Sarfraz Najeib.
Over the last few months, Ridsdale has watched with dismay as
the media have launched a sustained campaign against O'Leary,
himself and the club."
As speculation turned to the matter of who would succeed O'Leary,
many felt that Ridsdale would attempt once again to lure Martin
O'Neill, who had been the original favourite when O'Leary was
appointed in 1998, but Celtic acted quickly to block any move.
O'Leary himself believed Ireland manager Mick McCarthy had already
been lined up by his former masters, while newspaper talk focused
on Middlesbrough boss Steve McLaren.
In the end, however, former England main man Terry Venables was
the shock appointment at the beginning of July. Ridsdale spoke
glowingly as an initial two year contract was agreed: "I had lunch
with Terry in Spain on Saturday and within 10 minutes, so infectious
is his enthusiasm, that he has you believing that you can play
for England. I firmly believe we have the best - the very best.
Players respect him, coaches admire him and I do think that Terry
"For tangible evidence of his qualities you only have to look
at the incredible rescue act he performed at Middlesbrough the
season before last. Barring a miracle they were down and out of
the Premiership with not even a hope of survival. They couldn't
get a result to save their lives, but in walked Terry and from
the moment he made his entrance things changed for the better.
It takes a special man to be able to do that."
Venables had been out of the game since the Middlesbrough role
in 2000/01, and was released by ITV from his contract as a TV
pundit to take up the Leeds job. Venables was as pleased as Ridsdale
with the deal: "It has all happened so quickly. I had a call from
Leeds at my home in Spain when I was told they wanted to meet
me. The whole business had been conducted like a whirlwind. It
was irresistible. What surprises me most is how good I feel about
taking on this job. I am excited by the thought of it, genuinely
There was much talk of the new players Venables would bring in.
Expectancy was high and there seemed to be new rumours every day
of big money deals. However, reality soon began to bite, and the
only arrivals were two experienced midfielders the manager had
worked with previously in Paul Okon and Nicky Barmby.
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Okon was the Australian national team captain and had figured
for his country in the period when Venables was in charge. He
had also worked with the coach at Middlesbrough, and had played
in Italy with Lazio. He had been released on a free transfer by
Barmby moved from Liverpool for £2.75m, but had probably enjoyed
his best form at the start of his career when he played under
Venables at Tottenham. He had gone on to win England caps and
had also played for Middlesbrough and Everton.
The Leeds United faithful started to rumble and grumble as days
went by with no more news, but there was still a crowd of 40,000
plus for the opening game, as newly promoted Manchester City visited
Elland Road. Young keeper Paul Robinson was preferred in the net
to Nigel Martyn, following the England international's decision
not to accompany the squad on a pre-season tour, while Barmby
made his debut. A fit again Lucas Radebe partnered new captain
Dominic Matteo at the heart of the defence, with Danny Mills and
Ian Harte also present after good showings in the World Cup finals.
Eirik Bakke and Lee Bowyer completed the midfield set up, while
the manager went for three up front with Mark Viduka, Alan Smith
and Harry Kewell. The 4-3-3 formation looked interesting and hinted
at a refreshing approach. Venables had spoken of his desire to
employ Kewell as an out and out striker, rather than his customary
left flank role.
Venables' original intention was to employ a 3-5-2 formation,
using Jonathan Woodgate, Rio Ferdinand and Dominic Matteo, but
the departure of Ferdinand had ruined those plans, while Woodgate
missed the first game after needing eight stitches in a knee wound
suffered in a pre-season friendly with Rangers.
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A successful promotion campaign under former England boss Kevin
Keegan had brought fresh confidence to Manchester City, who gave
Leeds a number of problems at the back, particularly in the first
half with Ali Benarbia, Eyal Berkovic and Nicolas Anelka all in
good form. City hit the woodwork twice and had several good chances,
but it was Leeds who struck first. New boy Barmby opened the scoring
after 15 minutes, stealing in on a deep cross from Bowyer to force
the ball home from close range.
On the stroke of half time Barmby played Viduka into the clear
and he finished clinically past City keeper Carlo Nash, deputising
for the injured Peter Schmeichel. Robbie Keane came off the bench
to replace the burly Aussie after 70 minutes and ten minutes from
time wrapped matters up after breaking clear. He exhibited outstanding
presence of mind to chip the ball over the advancing keeper for
one of the most spectacular finishes of the season's opening day.
A week later Leeds faced another of the promoted sides. They
defied the passionate home support of the West Bromwich Albion
fans in a difficult opening half hour as the Midlanders pressed
them back. However, Leeds had too much finishing power and confidence
for a side tipped from the start for relegation and six minutes
before half time Harry Kewell sidefooted home a Danny Mills cross.
After that, there was little doubt who would be the victors and
in the 52nd minute Lee Bowyer curled home an outstanding long-range
shot from the right after neat interplay between Smith and Kewell.
Viduka rounded the keeper after 70 minutes to tap in a third and
even though Lee Marshall claimed a consolation goal in the closing
seconds, Leeds had emerged as
easy victors in the end.
Venables: "We knew they would throw everything at us and they
did, but we had a bit of good fortune early on, and I thought
we slowly got the game back 15 minutes before half time. I changed
the way we played, which I said we would at times, and it pleased
me that we adapted well to it." Despite the muted response, it
was clear that the chirpy Londoner felt his side could genuinely
contend for Premiership glory.
The optimism was rudely dispelled, however, as Leeds lost 1-0
in midweek at home to struggling Sunderland. Tellingly, the game
brought Sunderland's first goal and points of the season, providing
much needed solace to Peter Reid, their beleaguered manager. Days
later, Leeds came away pointless from a trip to the third promoted
side, Birmingham City.
The departure of 22-year-old Robbie Keane in a £7m move to Tottenham
before the transfer window closed at the end of August brought
more grumbling, particularly when the replacement was an unknown
Swedish defender, Teddy Lucic,
joining on a loan deal from AIK Solna. He had seen previous action
in Serie A with Bologna, but was not the sort of high profile
name the fans had hoped for, while the exciting Keane had been
a favourite with the fans.
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The expected big money arrivals had failed to materialise and
the fans wanted to know what had happened to the treasure trove
generated by Rio Ferdinand's departure. When it had looked like
there would be money to rebuild, the fans grudgingly accepted
the sale as good business, but now it was apparent that the bargain
basement was the only store in town. This was no brave new world.
The mood around Elland Road was noticeably lighter than during
the final six months of David O'Leary's time, but there were few
signs that Terry Venables was the Messiah who could rescue a club
firmly on the downward curve.
Since his arrival at Elland Road, the manager had bemoaned the
lack of opportunity to work on the training ground to get the
players in tune with the style he wanted to employ, but the season's
first round of international games brought an opportunity to do
so. However, call-ups for those matches decimated his squad.
"I don't welcome this break at all," said Venables. "The problem
now is that we've played Wednesday, played Saturday and you think
to yourself that you want a nice clear week to top and tail what
I want to do with them, but they're all off and I can't. I suppose
the rest of the clubs are the same, but with me not knowing them
as much it makes it a bit frustrating. We've almost got to close
down whilst all the internationals are away."
However, both Alan Smith and Lee Bowyer were on their way to
memorable performances for England against Portugal. Smith
scored his first international goal with a remarkable diving header
and Bowyer gained his long delayed first cap, laying on the goal
for his team mate.
The pair took their good form into their next club game, at Newcastle
United's St James' Park, as Leeds pulled off one of the season's
most outstanding results. Five minutes in, Harry Kewell broke
clear on the left and crossed for Mark Viduka to open the scoring.
The Newcastle defenders vainly appealed that Kewell had been offside,
but the fault was more with their slack marking than the assistant
After that, Paul Robinson demonstrated the form that had seen
him promoted to the England bench by pulling off a string of marvellous
saves, denying Newcastle again and again. Jonathan Woodgate, who
had also returned to the international fold against Portugal,
was another star performer as Leeds gave ample proof of their
Three minutes from time, Smith crowned a wonderful personal week
by blasting home a splendid second goal from the edge of the area
after Newcastle failed to clear a corner.
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The 2-0 score was flattering, but Venables had seen his side
demonstrate some real potential, lifting his spirits: "I'm really
very pleased for the players, they worked very, very hard and
everyone played their part. This is a very hard place to come
and get a result."
When Rio Ferdinand returned
to Elland Road with his new Old Trafford colleagues a few
days later and went home disconsolate after losing out to Harry
Kewell's header, things suddenly became even rosier. Leeds United
over Manchester United are rare things, and the crowd forgot for
a while their feelings of betrayal.
Two such unexpected victories provided a marvellous fillip, and
the early kick off time of the United match meant that for a few
hours at least, Leeds United sat on top of the table.
There was more good news when striker Michael Bridges, out of
action with a bad injury for the best part of two years, returned
to the subs' bench for the UEFA Cup tie against Metalurgh Zaporizhzhya
of the Ukraine. He came on to heartfelt applause after 64 minutes
with Leeds struggling for a goal, and had a key role when Alan
Smith finally broke the deadlock.
It looked like the Ukrainians would escape with a priceless 0-0
draw after a mean defensive display, but Bridges seemed to act
as a good luck charm. There were just ten minutes remaining when
Leeds finally pierced the defensive rearguard. Ian Harte pumped
a ball forward and Bridges was lightning quick to get on the end
of it. He prevented it going out for a goal kick right on the
byeline, then with a defender in close attention he turned it
back into the path of Smith who fired home from six yards.
Leeds couldn't add to the goal and were disappointed with their
performance, but had crucially managed to keep a clean sheet.
Terry Venables said afterwards: "I thought Michael did very well.
It has been a hard story for him. He must have had times when
he was very low. But in the two years he has been out he has worked
extremely hard. He has been frustrated because he wanted to get
back into the team, but this was a big moment for him tonight
and I thought he not only played well but contributed well to
the goal. I am very happy for him."
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Venables was less enamoured, however, with events in the weeks
that followed. Alan Smith missed a penalty as Leeds went down
by a single goal at Blackburn, and then were on the wrong end
of a resounding 4-1 drubbing at home to champions Arsenal, who
were in outstanding form as they chased a second title in succession.
Some of the Gunners' football was breathtaking, but Leeds' own
problems were evident for all to see.
Ian Harte had been given a chasing by Keith Gillespie at Blackburn
and was omitted against Arsenal, with Danny Mills switched to
left back and Gary Kelly on the other flank. The changes left
Leeds looking lop-sided and out of sorts and if truth be known
the result was flattering, for Arsenal had won at a canter.
A late equaliser from Nick Barmby saw Leeds through in the UEFA
Cup away to Metalurgh. Back in domestic football, however, Leeds'
stop start campaign continued to stutter. Neither one of two poor
sides could manage a goal when United visited Aston Villa on 6
then Leeds lost 1-0 at home to Liverpool. Twice Leeds took the
lead at Middlesbrough, twice conceded an equaliser, and then saw
Alan Smith dismissed for a second bookable offence, harsh though
the decision seemed to be. Everton won at Elland Road for the
first time in more than fifty years when the youthful Wayne Rooney
made Lucas Radebe look leaden footed. Even worse, two goals in
the closing seconds saw a Worthington Cup lead at First Division
Sheffield United turned upside down and Leeds tumbling out of
the competition at their first hurdle.
The first half hearted cries of "Venables Out" were heard on
the terraces. "It is frustrating, we are not getting the results
that our play deserves," said Venables.
The frowns were temporarily lifted by a gripping 4-3 win at West
Ham, but Leeds had almost contrived to throw away a 4-1 half time
lead and had been left hanging on grimly for three points which
would be so crucial at the end of the season. West Ham were in
the most appalling run of form, and defended abysmally in the
first half, allowing Barmby, Kewell (2) and Viduka to profit.
The Hammers looked a different side in the second half as they
enjoyed almost total dominance. The United team retreated into
desperate defence, looking bemused and bewildered in the face
of a determined and sustained assault. Terry Venables was on the
edge of his seat throughout a terrible second half, but could
at least breathe a sigh of relief at the end.
Mixed in with those stuttering performances had come two UEFA
Cup ties with Hapoel Tel Aviv, both of which Leeds had managed
to win. In fact, the second away match (held in the neutral stadium
of Fiorentina in Florence) had seen Alan Smith turn in a virtuoso
performance with all four goals in a sparkling 4-1 success. The
Israelis had pilloried Smith after the first leg for his aggressive
approach, but he now showed what a good player he is, revelling
in the praise of his exultant manager.
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It was only a temporary relief, however, for Venables, as he
suffered a string of dire results. Any faint hopes Leeds still
harboured of a decent season vanished completely during November
After the Hapoel victory, Leeds lost four straight Premiership
matches, with the first an amazing 4-2 defeat at home to Bolton
Wanderers who, like Sheffield United, came back strongly at the
death. Leeds had the lead, then saw Bolton equalise before two
late goals stole all three points.
The Times ran an interesting piece on Lee Bowyer, who was rumoured
to be off to Tottenham: "Bowyer's loss of form has contributed
to five defeats in seven home Barclaycard Premiership matches,
although others such as Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka, have been
performing worse. It is a dressing-room where too many players
appear to have one eye on the exit, but Bowyer is annoyed by the
suggestion that he is ticking over until the day he can leave.
"'They can use me as a scapegoat - it has happened in the past
- but if I am performing on the pitch, then what more
can I do?' he said. 'Would you rather someone on a four-year contract
who is not going to do as well as me? Our record is crazy and
I don't know why. We have two good results and then I turned on
Teletext at home on Sunday and it was 4-2. You just think: How
have we lost 4-2 against Bolton at home? These are the same players
we had when we almost won the title and got to the semi-finals
of the Champions League.
"'I never had a problem with David O'Leary, but it started last
year. Before then, things were fine. The club has brought in a
new manager (Terry Venables), but he can't work miracles. I feel
sorry for him because it must be so frustrating to see the quality
of players and yet it is just not happening. He is there every
hour he can be. We just had a meeting. He said: Listen, it's mad.
It is 2-2 with five minutes left and you have put six men in the
box for a free kick. We have good enough forwards that we can
get a goal without throwing everyone forward, but they break,
score and it is over. You are unbeaten for two games and then
you lose to Bolton at home and you are low again.'"
Some of this smacked a little of self-justification for a disenfranchised
talent, but clearly there were problems in the camp and Leeds
United were tottering on a dangerous precipice. No one, it seemed,
could adequately explain what had happened to the most exciting
young team in the Premiership. The loss of Ferdinand and Keane
had been damaging, sure, but Terry Venables still had a strong
squad from which to pick, and one which had been good enough to
beat both Newcastle and Manchester United without conceding a
goal. However, he also had a dispirited group which could lose
to Sunderland, Birmingham, Bolton and Sheffield United, and for
which the clichéd phrase, "too good to go down", could have been
Part 2 - Part
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