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Thursday, February 4, 2010
Rewind: The last time Leeds United were good

Ben Blackmore

While Leeds United made it their personal mission to breathe shock and unpredictability into this year's FA Cup, it could be argued that Jermaine Beckford's goals at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane - not to mention Luciano Becchio's at Elland Road on Wednesday - have been the most passionately-celebrated strikes scored by a Leeds player since Rio Ferdinand's against Deportivo La Coruna in their dramatic Champions League campaign of 2001.

Ferdinand's goal in that electric quarter-final at Elland Road, a towering header from Harry Kewell's corner, was his first in the famous white of Leeds United and ultimately proved to be the strike that swept Leeds into the European Cup semi-finals. At that point few would have thought he would go on to kiss the badge of hated rivals Manchester United, and even fewer would have predicted Leeds' epic demise that saw them relegated just three years later.

Back then David O'Leary's 'pups' were threatening to overhaul the Premier League's established order, registering three consecutive top-four finishes between 1998 and 2001 whilst chopping the gap separating themselves and league leaders Manchester United from 22 points to 12 in the space of one year.

They were also following the same template for success that Sir Alex Ferguson had used at Old Trafford, blending a brilliant set of youngsters including the likes of Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer, Paul Robinson and Harry Kewell, with a chairman in Peter Ridsdale who was willing to back the manager at any cost - courage that would eventually haunt Ridsdale as his reckless spending backfired.

Against all the odds, given their FA-inflicted "Dirty Leeds" reputation dating back to Don Revie's aggressive side of the 1960s and 70s, Leeds were arguably becoming everybody's 'second team'. Even O'Leary's constant insistences of (in an Irish accent) "we've only gaat a young team" and "we're just a bunch of babbies" met with humour, not dismay.

Ferdinand's header against Deportivo was enough to take the Elland Road outfit into a meaty Champions League semi-final with Valencia back in 2001. Marching on together, Leeds were one two-legged tie from a European Cup final, their first since their bitter 2-0 defeat to Bayern Munich in 1975. Back then an unrewarded penalty and a disallowed goal denied Revie's men the chance to become only the second English club after Manchester United to lift football's premier club trophy, and violence among the Leeds supporters led to a consequential suspension from European football.

This was the chance to exorcise those ghosts. Valencia were a magnificent, well-oiled machine boasting the likes of Gaizka Mendieta (who moved to Lazio for 48 million euros during the following summer), but Leeds had already negotiated the obstacles of AC Milan, Barcelona, and Lazio. Moreover, they had shown unbelievable character along the way.

Having been battered 4-0 by Barcelona at the very start of the European campaign, O'Leary's young team roared back in their first home game against Milan, triumphing 1-0 at the death when Dida dropped Bowyer's effort over his own line. A sign of things to come for the erratic Brazilian goalkeeper.

After picking up four points against Besiktas, Bowyer was at it again at home to Barcelona, but just as Paul Robinson appeared to have proved himself the kryptonite to Rivaldo's superman-like left foot, the former World Footballer of the Year pierced Leeds' hearts with a late equaliser for 1-1. They now needed a surely-impossible point in Milan to qualify.

O'Leary may have had an inexperienced squad, but they came of age that night at the San Siro, a game that saw Dominic Matteo provide the crucial goal to take United into the next group phase. Italy, notoriously the most difficult place in Europe to pick up a result, had played host to a famous night in Leeds' history. It wouldn't be the last time either.

Defeats home and away to Real Madrid in the second group stage meant results against Lazio (and to a lesser extent Anderlecht) would determine Leeds' destiny. Little did they know at the time of the financial desperation going on behind-the-scenes - the heavy spending that made Champions League glory a lifeline, not a desire.

For Jermaine Beckford of the current era, read Mark Viduka, a flawed maverick with an uncanny thirst for the big occasion. Treading the same hallowed Stadio Olimpico turf that played host to the 1990 World Cup final, Viduka produced a piece of skill worthy of such an occasion to set up Alan Smith for a famous winner as Lazio were beaten 1-0. Then, back at Elland Road, it was Viduka's header that earned Leeds their passage to the quarter-finals.

Cue Ferdinand's header from Kewell's corner against Deportivo, leaving Juan Carlos Valeron and Co. too much to do in order to overturn a 3-0 deficit in the return leg at the Riazor. Like Leeds have done at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane this season, O'Leary's side were upsetting the form books and beginning to capture the attention of the nation.

Everything led to two cauldron-like atmospheres, at Elland Road and El Mestalla, for moments of destiny with Valencia. Passion boiled and spat out of every corner of both grounds, Leeds went at their rivals as if they knew of the financial ruins that awaited defeat, and a 0-0 draw at home meant an away goal would leave Valencia needing three in Spain. Unfortunately for Leeds, Los Ches did score three in addition to keeping a clean sheet in the second leg as Juan Sanchez's brace proved the difference for the Spaniards.

Leeds' dreams that once burned so furiously had flickered and died. Had they reached a one-off showdown in the final against Bayern Munich, who knows what would have happened. As Valencia succumbed on the lottery of penalties, O'Leary undoubtedly would have allowed himself a brief deliberation into whether Leeds would have faired better.

As it was, Munich held the famous European Cup aloft while Leeds missed out on Champions League qualification for the following season to Liverpool, sparking arguably the most amazing fall from grace football has ever witnessed.

Now, under Simon Grayson, Leeds are marching once again. Having beaten Manchester United and then given Spurs the fright of their lives, they can at least take consolation away from Wednesday's 3-1 defeat that, for the first time since that loss to Valencia, the majority of the nation were rooting for them.

Ben Blackmore is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk


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