Part 1 - Part
The early season honeymoon and promise of Leeds United's showing
under Terry Venables was a distant memory and it was clear as
autumn drew into winter that the former England manager had to
contend with the genuine threat of relegation.
Disastrous defensive blunders and a lack of concentration late
in games cost Leeds dearly in November, but the attack was suddenly
goal shy as well as Spurs, Charlton and Fulham all secured maximum
The defeat at Tottenham saw United play particularly poorly,
evidenced by the report in The Times: "Venables had suffered the
cruellest of twists during the pre-match warm-up when Nicky Barmby
tore an Achilles tendon. Jacob Burns proved a lightweight, inadequate
replacement, but it took Venables until the 37th minute to switch
tactics, with Mark Viduka joining Alan Smith up front and Harry
Kewell reverting to the left flank. Leeds were a mess, ragged
at the back, weak in midfield and impotent up front. When a tame
effort from Kewell was comfortably caught by Kasey Keller, it
drew ironic cheers from the travelling fans. It was the 34th minute
and it was Leeds' first attempt on goal."
The Charlton defeat was the fifth successive home reverse in
the Premiership, although a wonderful run and strike into the
top corner by Harry Kewell in the 42nd minute gave Leeds a lead
which they held for most of the second half. Kevin Lisbie hit
an equaliser ten minutes from time, and that was the signal for
Venables to throw on Michael Bridges for the ineffectual Stephen
McPhail. In the 89th minute it looked like the decision had paid
dividends but Bridges' shot came back out off the foot of the
post and, with 90 seconds remaining of the three minutes of added
time, a wonderful solo run by England midfield hopeful Scott Parker
and a smart shot brought a winner for the Londoners.
back to top
The Fulham reverse on December 7 brought the danger of relegation
clearly into focus for an under-performing side, which was growing
used to the "Terry, Terry, time to go" catcalls which marked their
insipid performances. Venables himself spoke in worried terms:
"We are not playing well enough, and our position is not good
enough. But there's nothing clever or tricky going on ... we are
working hard to get out of a position that is uncomfortable. At
the moment I don't think it's a relegation concern, but if we
don't soon turn it around, it might become that."
||Bottom of Premiership - December 7, 2002
Venables was under intense pressure, and the sports pages were
crammed with rumours of his impending dismissal.
The Sunday Times: "The fall could be swift and violent. Should
Leeds lose today (at home to Charlton), the fans' dissatisfaction
with Terry Venables will increase to a point where even the worldly-wise
manager will find it difficult to ignore.
"Leeds fans were not excited by Venables' appointment, and five
Premiership defeats at Elland Road pushed many to a conclusion
that they were quick to embrace: this is not going to work.
"The difficult part for Venables is that while he may survive
the immediate threat, it is difficult to see how he can move things
Poor management of the club's finances means there is little money
to spend on players, and the squad needs serious strengthening.
They require a centre back, a left back and two central midfielders.
Venables will do well to get one of the four.
"As daunting as the lack of cash is the expectation at the club.
This is based on what David O'Leary achieved during his four-season
reign. Fourth, third, fourth and fifth were the Premiership finishes,
and during that time, Leeds made it to the last four of the Champions
League and the UEFA Cup. Venables was appointed to take the team
further than O'Leary. Although he has been in the job for just
five months, he has not done well. The squad he inherited at Elland
Road was unbalanced, and of course, there was little money available
"Central to the unevenness of the squad was the presence of five
high-class strikers - Mark Viduka, Alan Smith, Robbie Fowler,
Robbie Keane and Michael Bridges. Fowler was injured, Keane was
about to be sold and Bridges was not back to his best. But that
still left Venables with the formidable partnership of Viduka
and Smith. What did he do? He went along with Harry Kewell's desire
to play up front, and so there were six strikers at Elland Road.
Kewell has played up front all season, sometimes in a three-man
attack, and on occasion Smith has played a more withdrawn role
to accommodate Kewell's repositioning. It was an important mistake,
and not just because Kewell would be of more use to the team as
a left-sided midfielder. The greater significance was the perception
among other Leeds players that Kewell had been able to bend the
new manager round to his way of thinking. Viduka shed light on
the atmosphere in the Leeds dressing room when he said that his
Australia international team mate had not spoken to him for two
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"There have been other questionable decisions. Venables handled
the David Batty situation badly. At the beginning of this season,
Batty had two years of his contract to run, and as a local Leeds
man, he was not going to want to move. But Venables decided Batty
had no more to give: he was cast aside and sent to train with
the reserves. Given his popularity with Leeds fans, that was not
an intelligent way to treat the former England player. Considering
how much he has contributed to the team over the past four seasons,
it was also unfair.
"It is clear that Batty's engine has run down, but far from clear
that, introduced from the bench, he would not contribute as much
as, say, Jacob Burns. Venables has also failed to get the best
out of Olivier Dacourt. The French international is now injured,
but he too was spurned during the early part of the season and
made to feel he was not wanted. During Leeds' best days over the
past three seasons, Dacourt had been a central figure. Part of
the difficulty may relate to his proposed transfer to Juventus
or Lazio. At first it appeared that Juventus were prepared to
pay up to £11m for him, then it was reported that Lazio had made
a better offer, but Dacourt was less keen to join the Rome club,
as it has a racist element among its supporters. Both deals fell
through and Dacourt has been in limbo ever since.
"There is a belief that when the transfer window opens, Dacourt
will be flying south to Serie A. With Leeds so light in midfield,
he should have been the main man through what was always going
to be a difficult first half of the season. What will not be lost
on the Leeds board is that players such as Batty, Dacourt and
the reserve goalkeeper, Nigel Martyn, are on big contracts, yet
their appearances for the first team have been few. With Paul
Robinson doing well, Leeds
are committed to the young man, who could be England's successor
to David Seaman. The last thing a club wants is a reserve goalkeeper
on big wages.
"There is no easy solution. Leeds are victims now of the handsome
contracts to which club chairman Peter Ridsdale agreed over the
past three seasons. Martyn might have gone to another club, but
it would have meant a cut in salary, and it is understandable
that he wants to remain at Elland Road and fight for his place.
Leeds thought they had Kelly sold to Sunderland, but the full
back would have had to take a significant cut in salary, so he
said no. Similarly, Southampton found that when they enquired
about Jason Wilcox, they could not come close to matching his
The Times: "Venables' status has fallen from venerable to vulnerable
in rapid time and a siege mentality has set in. Peter Ridsdale
has hardly been a rock of support, criticising results, hurling
brickbats at O'Leary and talking of offloading players. Venables
is due to meet the chairman to discuss transfer policy, but the
club's progress is being marred by a blame culture and the threat
of another severed alliance. The natural bonhomie that characterises
Venables has faded to a fixed grimace. He has been shocked by
the speed of the backlash from supporters and said that he is
at a loss to explain it."
When Malaga came to Elland Road on 12 December and won 2-1 to
put Leeds out of the UEFA Cup at the third round stage, it seemed
that all that was left to look forward to in a wretched season
was an unlikely struggle to avoid the drop. Added to that, Michael
Bridges was stretchered from the field after 9 minutes and would
miss the rest of the season, a dreadful blow to the young striker.
It was lucky indeed that Robbie Fowler was finally back himself
from injury and could replace Bridges, although his own performance
confirmed that he was woefully short of match fitness.
back to top
Venables' experiments with 4-3-3 had long since been abandoned,
and he had reverted to the more customary 4-4-2 formation with
players felt more comfortable, though it was no more successful,
as even increased numbers did not remedy the side's weakness and
lack of creativity in midfield.
Paul Okon had recovered from his own injury problems and Venables
installed him as his holding player, but the fans were unimpressed,
as they were with Jason Wilcox, now a fixture on the left flank.
Alan Smith was often deployed on the right side, with Lee Bowyer
consigned to the bench after disgracefully stamping on the head
of one of the Malaga players in the game at Elland Road. Venables
tactfully made no comment and refused to confirm that as the reason
for his omission. It was not a promising midfield combination
and did little to provide a sound platform from which to exert
any control over play.
It was also clear that Venables was struggling to replace Rio
Ferdinand. When Michael Duberry partnered Jonathan Woodgate for
the away tie with Malaga, it was the ninth different centre back
pairing of the season as Venables mixed and matched, with no combination
proving entirely satisfactory.
This was becoming the most dismal of seasons and few connected
with Leeds United could find smiles and optimism easy to come
There were a few happy moments - the side managed to string together
some good results, a stunning 3-0 win at relegation rivals Bolton,
a 2-1 victory at Sunderland with James Milner, still some weeks
away from his 17th birthday, becoming the youngest ever scorer
in the Premiership, then adding another goal in a sterling 2-0
triumph against Chelsea. But the other scorer against the Stamford
Bridge club was Jonathan Woodgate, who was one of a clutch of
internationals who departed Elland Road in January, despite endless
protests from Peter Ridsdale that the 'crown jewels' would not
Lee Bowyer, disappearing for £300,000 to help West Ham in their
bid to escape relegation, and Olivier Dacourt, loaned out to Roma
to the end of the season, had been considered certain departures
for weeks, but there was more grieving over the sales of Woodgate
and Robbie Fowler.
Fowler's £6m sale to Manchester City was a farcical affair, with
the move being shelved at the last minute and then resurrected
a couple of weeks later, with Leeds accepting a £3m payment on
account and continuing to
stand £500,000 of Fowler's annual wage bill until 2006 as a sweetener
The proposed sale of Seth Johnson for £3m to Middlesbrough collapsed
at the medical stage, and despite endless denials, an offer of
£10m from Newcastle United finally saw Woodgate, one of the country's
premier defenders, on his way out of the club, prompting bitter
protests from supporters, and calls for the head of Peter Ridsdale.
back to top
Terry Venables was becoming a forlorn and helpless figure, apparently
unable even to express an opinion: "It's always been a difficult
job, but it's getting harder. It's frustrating, but I have to
get on with it. I'm in a situation where I'm responsible for the
comings and goings at the club but obviously that's been overruled
on certain situations, because the club feels it has to, because
they know their financial situation better than I do. I would
be lying if I said I would not think about going. There comes
a point when you get so frustrated you wonder what you should
do. Do you ignore things and carry on or do something about it?
I don't want any of my players to go but I don't think my views
are being taken into account.
"At no time did I say I was going to be quitting. All I was saying
was that sometimes when you get frustrations and get disappointed
you think about where we are going to go from here. I will continue
to fight for what I feel is the future of the club. We shouldn't
sell Woodgate, we shouldn't sell any more first team players.
I've thought about this a lot and I've made my stance clear to
the directors. If it gets me in trouble so be it."
It was the clearest hint yet that a parting of the ways (and
another huge pay off) was in the offing.
Rumours were rife that the chairman would also be on his way
out, but Peter Ridsdale was intent on arguing his case to the
last, claiming that the sale of six internationals had not significantly
reduced the strength of Venables' team: "You go through Terry's
first-choice XI and tell me who you would swap for anyone at any
other football club?"
The Telegraph: "Ridsdale argued that he could convince players
to come to Elland Road simply by Terry Venables 'showing them
the first-team team sheet'. The Leeds chairman added: 'If you
do not believe that the likes of Paul Robinson, Danny Mills, Alan
Smith, Harry Kewell and Dominic Matteo are worth playing alongside
then I'd be very surprised. We've a very, very good team.'
"The Premiership table indicates otherwise. 'It's not a top-four
squad,' commented Venables with the weary air of someone restating
the blindingly obvious. 'We've lost a half-dozen players that
no club could lose without suffering in the League. I do agree
we have some fine players but the squad is not strong enough to
make a showing.'
"Leeds' books did need to be balanced but the pendulum has swung
too far from the spend, spend, spend extravagance of two years
the austerity of this season, from Vivian Nicholson to Stafford
Cripps in 24 months. 'We are ahead of a lot of other clubs now
because we've got money in the bank,' crowed Ridsdale. 'In future
months and years, you will be hearing from many clubs who you
might think are big clubs but who are feeling the pinch.'
"It cannot be a 'good idea' to sell crown jewels such as Woodgate
when the board admit there was no immediate pressing financial
need. Sell, sell, sell is as bad a policy as spend, spend, spend.
back to top
"'I accept my share of the blame,' added Ridsdale, 'but to suggest
it was uniquely down to me is fanciful.' Agreed. Leeds' woes have
manifold causes. Woodgate and Bowyer should not have gone to the
Majestyk that night and David O'Leary should not have written
his book on their subsequent trial. Both episodes harmed the club.
But Ridsdale must shoulder overall responsibility. 'I've a responsibility
to the shareholders,' he countered. 'I'm appointed by the board
as chairman, not by supporters.' His arrogance was acknowledged
by the fans in a placard hung over the outstretched arms of the
Billy Bremner statue outside Elland Road. It read: 'January Sale
- 1 Set Of Loyal Fans. Worth Nowt To plc.' As dusk fell, the sign
was discreetly removed by a club official, plc 1, FC 0."
Ridsdale's statement merely fed the growing anger of supporters,
who could only see that for the right price any of the squad was
available for sale.
"If Terry feels I let him down, that's probably fair," conceded
Ridsdale, who had told Venables that the sale of Robbie Fowler
would allow Leeds to keep Woodgate. "Terry probably feels I misled
him - but not deliberately so. When I gave those assurances to
Terry, it was in the belief and hopeful knowledge that we wouldn't
have to sell any more players."
Venables was patently unimpressed: "I don't want to inflame a
situation that's already very raw but I was assured that when
Fowler went, Woodgate would not have to go. When I took the job
I didn't know all these players would
be sold, and the chairman knows that. Whatever our differences
are they must remain private. But the bond of trust has been put
to the test." As for his own future, Venables added: "The more
I think about it, it would be irresponsible to do anything other
than stay. The show must go on."
Leeds could at least welcome one newcomer during the January
transfer window when 21-year-old Spanish international left back
Raul Bravo, Roberto Carlos' cover at Real Madrid, joined on loan
until the end of the season. There was no suggestion of a permanent
move, but the player brought some options at least for Terry Venables,
and he made his debut on 9 February as United welcomed Lee Bowyer
and his new West Ham team for a vital match at Elland Road.
Bowyer predictably faced a barrage of barracking from his former
fans and received a booking for dissent, while Hammers striker
Freddie Kanoute was dismissed after an altercation in the second
Seth Johnson proved what a good player he is by dominating midfield
and settling the match with a powerful 20th minute strike with
his weaker right foot to secure a vital Premiership double over
West Ham. It was a significant win, hinting that Leeds were about
to start climbing the table, but it proved another false dawn.
back to top
The previous four games had brought disappointing away defeats
at Manchester City, Chelsea and Everton, with only a poor goalless
draw at home against struggling West Ham to show for the run,
and they now stumbled further, with Newcastle dissecting them
at Elland Road in a 3-0 win. A Mark Viduka header after 64 minutes
brought Leeds temporarily back onto level terms with Manchester
United at Old Trafford on 5 March, but Mikael Silvestre headed
home the winner ten minutes from time to secure all three points.
Terry Venables could comfort himself with a decent cushion of
points over the relegation zone, but Leeds had badly lost their
way and were being sucked inexorably into a miserable relegation
battle. Just as inexorably, the trapdoor was beckoning the manager.
For a time at least, a decent run in the FA Cup delayed the inevitable,
as Leeds enjoyed favourable draws, all against opposition from
the lower divisions, although they had to travel on each occasion.
A professional performance saw Scunthorpe disposed of 2-0, but
a replay was needed to see off Gillingham. Leeds took the lead
in the first match in Kent, but lost their way when Mark Viduka
was dismissed for an elbow in the head of Gills player manager
Andy Hessenthaler after a clash a few minutes earlier.
United took the lead away to Crystal Palace in the fifth round
with a smart free kick from Gary Kelly before the defence and
keeper had settled themselves, but then saw Julian Gray equalise
with a splendid left foot drive. What looked like a perfectly
good goal from Palace was disallowed before Harry Kewell scored
a wonderful individual goal from the edge of the penalty area
to secure a place in the last eight. Expectation was high.
However, Sheffield United, Leeds' conquerors in the Worthington
Cup, returned to haunt them in the sixth round and won by the
only goal, deserving their win for the way they hustled and dominated
their stricken opponents.
The following weekend saw Middlesbrough win 3-2 at Elland Road
for only the second time in 20 attempts. The defeat dropped Leeds
into 15th spot and within the week the manager's inevitable dismissal
was confirmed, with the club making the following statement to
the Stock Exchange on March 21: "Leeds United today announced
that Terry Venables, Manager of Leeds United Football Club, has
left the Company. The Company expects to appoint a permanent successor
in the summer, and intends to announce the appointment of an interim
manager to supervise the first team for the remaining games of
the season. Leeds United would like to place on record its thanks
to Terry for his contribution in difficult circumstances and to
wish him success in the future."
Within hours, former Sunderland manager Peter Reid was appointed
caretaker manager until the end of the season, asked to preserve
Leeds United's Premiership future, something which was looking
increasingly tenuous, as Bolton Wanderers and West Ham were stirring
themselves at the foot of the table.
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