In 2020, Leeds United finally won promotion back to the Premier League after a 16-year absence. During that time, the club went through turmoil as various owners and managers passed through the gates of Elland Road looking to bring success back to the Yorkshire outfit.
Their last taste of potential success, before their promotion, came during the 2000/01 season when the Lillywhites made the semi-finals of the Champions League. However, their dreams of European glory would ultimately be their undoing as they tumbled out of the Premier League in 2004.
In my latest piece, I’m going to focus on Leed’s run during that season’s Champions League and how the club came so close to winning Europe’s most prestigious tournament.
The Qualifying Rounds
Before the club could participate in the Champions League proper, they first had to face 1860 Munich in the final qualifying round in August. The first leg took place at Elland Road on the 9th of August and in front of a packed Yorkshire crowd, United beat 1860 Munich 2-1 thanks to goals from Ian Harte and hometown hero Alan Smith.
They did, however, concede a 90th-minute goal and gave the German side hope of a comeback in the second leg in Germany two weeks later.
Nothing could separate the sides in the first half, with both teams feeling tense as neither of them wanted to concede the first goal and swing the pendulum to their opponents. But just a minute into the second half, Alan Smith scored a crucial away goal to give Leeds a huge advantage in the tie, adding his second of the tie as well.
1860 Munich couldn’t find a response and thus Leeds progressed into the first group stages of the 2000/01 Champions League campaign.
The First Group Stages
Their first group consisted of Barcelona, AC Milan and Besiktas, a tough group to be sure, and their first game in the group would be an away match against Barcelona at the Nou Camp. A baptism of fire for the Lillywhites.
The Spanish giants dominated an injury-hit Leeds and eventually ran out 4-0 winners courtesy of goals from Rivaldo, Frank De Boer and a brace from Patrick Kluivert. It was a brutal lesson on the level of quality sides possessed in the Champions League, something which they needed to remember if they wanted to go all the way in the tournament.
AC Milan was next for David O’Leary’s men as they took on one of Italy’s biggest teams. Despite still having a big injury list, the Lillywhites put in a brave and stubborn performance to keep the Milan side at bay.
Ukrainian forward Andriy Shevchenko was particularly dangerous for the home side as his speed worried the O’Leary’s defenders and looked to get in behind them. But still, Leeds battled on and in the 89th minute of the game, their hard work would see them get some fantastic luck.
Midfielder Lee Bowyer struck a speculative shot straight at Brazilian keeper Dida, but he split the ball out of his hands and fumbled it into the net, sending the Elland Road crowd into raptures.
The game finished 1-0 and it was a stunning victory for Leeds as they reignited their Champions League hopes, and with Barcelona losing to their next opponents Besiktas, this only boosted their chances even further.
A week later, the Turkish side Besiktas would rock up to Elland Road for the next round of group fixtures and unlike the previous two encounters, this would be a landslide victory for the Lillywhites.
Bowyer got the ball rolling with a goal just seven minutes into the game, scoring his second of the competition before Australian international Mark Viduka made it 2-0 just five minutes later.
O’Leary’s men continued to attack and got their third of the evening thanks to Dominic Matteo with 22 minutes gone. Having gone into the break 3-0, Leeds felt comfortable and believed they could thrash Besiktas even more.
This is exactly what they did when Erik Bakke made it 4-0 in the 65th minute, the thrashing was complete in injury time when Bowyer added his second of the game and substitute Darren Huckerby got in on the action to round off the right with an amazing 6-0 victory in Yorkshire.
Besiktas would be next in the reverse fixture in October and this time around, it was much more of a disciplined affair. The Turkish side had more possession and looked the more dangerous on the attack, but they simply couldn’t break the Leeds defence down.
The game ended 0-0 and their fifth group game would be back at Elland Road to face Barcelona. If Leeds beat the Catalonian side, they would progress to the second phase of the competition, so a lot was riding on this one.
Five minutes into the game and Leeds won a free-kick in a dangerous position and Bowyer stepped up to send the ball over French keeper Richard Dutruel and into the back of the net, giving Leeds a huge advantage early on in the game.
This stunned the Barca side, who immediately went forward looking for an equaliser, but England Under-21 international Paul Robinson stepped up and made several important saves to keep the Spanish giants out.
Some of these stops included a spectacular reaction save to palm away Rivaldo’s close-range header midway through the first half as well as springing down to his left to push out Rivaldo’s deflected free-kick just as the Brazilian’s strike seemed bound for the back of the net.
Heading into injury time, it looked as though O’Leary’s men had pulled off an unbelievable result, but in the 93rd minute, Leeds’ hearts would be broken when Rivaldo latched on to a half clearance and returned a shot with interest, though it took a wicked deflection for the Brazilian to finally get past Robinson.
In any case, it was a courageous performance and proved that the team was more than capable of competing at the highest level of European competition.
Going into the last round of first group stage fixtures, all Leeds needed was a draw against AC Milan and they would advance into the next round, regardless of Barcelona’s result against Besiktas.
With Milan also only needing a draw to secure qualification into the next round, there were questions as to whether either side would be willing to risk going on the attack and leaving themselves vulnerable.
But this was put to bed when after 20 minutes gone, Andrii Shevchenko was given space in the box, but his shot was deflected by Lucas Radebe and looped over the crossbar. The Ukrainian smartly diverted Ian Harte’s defensive header inches wide of the mark.
Serginho also joined in on the action when he popped up on the right flank after 42 minutes to fire in a venomous shot that Paul Robinson managed to parry.
After surviving waves of Milan attacks, Leeds stole the lead completely against the run of play. Lee Bowyer’s corner from the right was met perfectly by Dominic Matteo, who sent his near-post header into the bottom corner to give David O’Leary’s side the lead on the stroke of halftime.
Milan was stunned going into halftime and they came flying out of the blocks to get an equalising goal. Serginho and Shevchenko both came close with shots within minutes of the restart.
The home side continued to pile on the pressure and it would eventually pay off as Serginho got the goal his display merited with a stunning solo strike with 68 minutes gone. As it stood, both teams would qualify, with Milan topping the group.
After they got their equaliser, Milan reduced their intensity both sides just waited for the final whistle to blow. When the referee did blow the final whistle, Leeds could celebrate getting out of the first group and into the next round of the competition, a great achievement for O’Leary and his players.
The Second Group Stage
Back then, the Champions League consisted of two group stages before moving on to the quarter-finals of the competition. In the second group stage, Leeds would be put into a group consisting of Real Madrid, Lazio and Anderlecht. Another tough group for O’Leary’s Lillywhites.
Real Madrid was up first and unlike Barcelona in the first group, Leeds would be home first. Just like with Barca however, O’Leary had a depleted squad to deal with as they took another giant of Spanish football.
Leeds battled hard to stay in the game and hold off Madrid for as long as they could. They almost took an unexpected lead when central defender Jonathan Woodgate shot against the foot of a post inside 10 minutes.
But after that, Real Madrid dominated the game and had several decent chances to take the lead in the first half, but couldn’t take any of them as the game was goalless heading into the break.
After the restart, Leeds continued to battle hard and could’ve taken an early second-half lead when Ivan Campo’s loose pass was swept into the danger zone by Lee Bowyer and Dominic Matteo saw a thumping header beaten out by Casillas.
However, Madrid began to dominate again and the pressure would eventually break Leeds when Figo’s cross from a quickly-taken corner was headed home by Hierro with the aid of a deflection in front of the unsighted Robinson.
Then just two minutes later it was 2-0, Steve McManaman made a probing run down the left and played a neat pass which was helped on by Guti into the path of Raul, who slid the ball home despite frantic appeals for offside.
Conceding two goals in two minutes deflated the Yorkshire side as they couldn’t muster a reply and lost the match 2-0.
Next up was Lazio in Rome, another difficult fixture for O’Leary and his players. However, it was the away side that had the lion’s share of chances. But none of them could be taken and it looked like the Italian side would hold out against the Leeds onslaught.
Up stepped Viduka, with a moment of brilliance to set up homeboy Smith to score the winning goal in the 80th minute and sent the Lillywhites faithful bouncing in the Italian capital.
They couldn’t add to their lead and settled for a 1-0 victory as they looked to their third group game against Anderlecht at Elland Road.
Although they could be seen as the whipping boys of the group, when the Belgian side turned up in Yorkshire, they proved to be quite a formidable opposition for O’Leary’s men.
After a fairly uneventful first half, Anderlecht took the lead thanks to a fine strike from Stoica after a delightful one-two with Bart Goor. Stunning the home crowd into silence.
A potential banana slip was on the cards and Leeds needed to find a goal soon or risk losing ground in the race to qualify out of the second group.
With 15 minutes to go, that’s exactly what they did thanks to a stunning 30-yard screamer from Harte, beating goalkeeper Zvonko Milojevic low to his left.
Then with just three minutes left plus injury time, O’Leary’s men took the lead when Bowyer latched on to a fine reverse pass from Bakke and struck from the right side of the penalty box.
Dramatic scenes at Elland Road as Leeds United turned the game around and beat the Belgian side 2-1 to clinch the all-important three points in the second group stages.
The two sides would face each other again in the reverse fixture eight days later, but on this occasion, it would be more of a dominant display from the Lillywhights.
O’Leary’s men went 3-0 up in the first half thanks to a brace from Smith and a Mark Viduka goal. Anderlecht got a goal back with just under 15 minutes to play, but Leeds then restored their three-goal deficit thanks to a Harte penalty. Completing 4-1 victory and sending them through to the Champions League quarter-finals.
With their Champions League quarter-final place secured, Leeds could afford to play more freely and without much in the way of pressure. Something which they applied in their fifth group game against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Leeds went in front after just six minutes thanks to another goal from Smith, but Madrid quickly equalised through a clear handball by Raul before then going on to take the lead themselves courtesy of an outrageous bounce that gave them their second on the stroke of halftime.
Viduka put Leeds back on terms early in the second half, but the deadly partnership of Figo and Raul combined again for the Spanish international to score the winner. in a crazy encounter in Spain, Real Madrid won 3-2.
The Yorkshire sides’ last group game was against Lazio at Elland Road, and once again it was a crazy affair for O’Leary and his players.
Former Middlesbrough striker Fabrizio Ravanelli and a penalty from Sinisa Mihajlovic twice gave Lazio a first-half advantage, but defiant Leeds responded with levellers from Bowyer and Wilcox.
Leeds were in front for the first time on the hour, when Viduka muscled his way onto the end of Ian Harte’s free kick in typical fashion to score with a well-executed downward header.
Many believed that would be the winner, but Mihajlovic swept home a brilliant free-kick from 20 yards in injury time. Nevertheless, O’Leary will once again be proud of his team.
The Quarter-Finals: Deportivo La Coruña
Spanish side Deportivo would await the Yorkshire outfit in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. The first leg of which would take place at Elland Road.
Leeds was the better team in the first half and intimidated Deportivo into making huge errors, one of which led to the first goal of the evening.
Cesar conceded a 24th-minute free-kick when he manhandled Smith to the floor. Harry Kewell caused enough havoc in the wall to create an opening for Harte to rifle home his fourth Champions League goal of the season.
After scoring the opening goal of the game, Leeds never looked back as they tore up the Yorkshire turf.
They continued to press the Spanish outfit throughout the first half and got their reward just five minutes into the second half.
Viduka hassled the ball from the Deportivo centre-half, allowing partner Smith to rattle a raking right-foot shot on goal. Molina just managed to tip the effort wide. But Leeds won the resulting corner, Dacourt feeding Kewell who hit a first-time cross right onto the head of Smith.
Deportivo did not manufacture anything resembling a goalscoring chance until the 55th minute but Dutch striker Roy Makaay presented Nigel Martyn with an easy save.
Leeds continued to dominate and finally got their third when Rio Ferdinand me Kewell’s corner with a meaty header to power home and give his side a comfortable advantage. The game ended 3-0 it seemed like a mountain to climb for Deportivo to salvage anything from the tie.
However, the second leg in Spain was anything but comfortable for O’Leary and his men.
Deportivo got an early lead when Harry Kewell was adjudged to have fouled Victor and Djalminha sent Nigel Martyn the wrong way from the penalty spot. Their relentless pursuit was evident As Deportivo launched wave after wave of attacks.
Leeds did have a good chance to score when Alan Smith took advantage of a dreadful back-pass but having rounded goalkeeper Jose Molina, he could only find the side netting. But in all honesty, Leeds had been given a first-half roasting and were extremely fortunate to go in only one goal behind at the interval.
The second half was five minutes old when Martyn somehow pushed Romero’s fierce drive onto the bar. Then, with their 13th effort on target, Makaay headed against the bar as Leeds had yet another escape.
It looked as though Leeds had dealt with the Deportivo onslaught, but with 16 minutes left to play, Deportivo got their second after A quick free-kick found Tristan unmarked in the area and the substitute beat Martyn from close range.
The travelling Leeds faithful were biting their nails as they prayed their team through the remaining stages of the game. Despite the continued Deportivo pressure, O’Leary’s men survived to win the tie 3-2 and send them through to the semi-finals of the Champions League. Queuing huge celebrations from both players and fans alike.
The Semi-Finals: Valencia
Leeds would face another Spanish team in the knockout rounds, this time it was Rafa Benitez’s Valencia in the semi-finals of the Champions League.
Unlike Deportivo However, this tie would be more of a tight and hard-fought battle. The Elland Road crowd were once again vocal in their support, but it was Valencia who would create some of the early chances.
Nigel Martyn denied Arsenal’s quarter-final conqueror John Carew with a brilliant diving save to his left from an acrobatic overhead kick after a cross from Juan Sanchez. However, Martyn was powerless when Gaizka Mendieta put a header on target after 17 minutes, but he watched with relief as it rebounded to safety off the crossbar.
Leeds finally created a chance of their own seven minutes before halftime when Harte’s free-kick was headed across the face of goal by Harry Kewell. The home side created another chance after halftime when Ferdinand had the first telling touch, but Alan Smith somehow diverted the final header wide from only two yards.
Back came Valencia, who had the final say of a high-quality first half when Ferdinand’s poor header was picked up by Sanchez, who forced another fine diving save from Martyn.
Leeds came into the second half with clear intent And it took a brilliant one-handed clawing to save off the line from Canizares to stop Dominic Matteo from scoring with another goalmouth header.
O’Leary’s side had Valencia rocking and Bowyer was agonisingly denied by the woodwork after 69 minutes. Then another chance went begging when Smith’s chip left Canizares stranded, and when Viduka failed to make contact inside the six-yard area Bowyer looked certain to score only to head against the bar with the goalkeeper out of position.
Valencia almost snatched a win deep into injury time, but Ferdinand headed off the line from substitute Vicente. It ended honours even, the right result that leaves Leeds still harbouring hopes of reaching the final.
During the second leg in Spain, Leeds settled well, despite a nervy opening five minutes, and were competing comfortably before Valencia’s controversial opener after 15 minutes gone.
Mendieta’s searching cross perfectly dissected defence and goalkeeper and Sanchez dived headlong to turn the ball home. Whether Sanchez made contact with his arm was not in question. The question of intent as he dived headlong to reach the ball may have persuaded the referee to ignore the contact.
In any case, it was a cruel twist for Leeds to deal with early in the second leg. Despite the frustrations, Leeds bounced back and created a couple of decent chances when Harry Kewell bent a shot over the crossbar and Olivier Dacourt ended a dazzling run with a fierce shot straight at Canizares.
But while Valencia was showing minor cracks, yawning holes in the Leeds defence in the opening minutes of the second half allowed the home side to clinically book their place in the final.
Precisely 100 seconds after the restart, Sanchez galloped into acres of space before unleashing a clinical left-foot drive into the bottom right-hand corner of Martyn’s net.
Six minutes later, Mendieta produced a carbon copy strike to rub salt into Leeds’ gaping wounds. Another left-foot shot, on the same spot 20 yards out from which Sanchez had struck, again gave Martyn no chance.
And just like that, the Leeds United European dream was over and in the space of just a few short years, the times of glorious nights of Champions League football at Ellen Road would be nothing more than a distant memory.
The downfall of Leeds United
Chairman Peter Ridsdale made a huge gamble with their big money spending to make the club as competitive as possible, but when Leeds failed to qualify for next season’s Champions League, it all came crashing down.
The Yorkshire side faced financial problems as they had to sell their best players, ultimately plummeting them down the table until their relegation into the second of English football in 2004.
In a now infamous statement back in 2003, Ridsdale said “Should we have spent so heavily in the past? Probably not, but we lived the dream, we enjoyed the dream”. Meaning that the short-term success was not worth the long-term loss as the club went through turmoil over the years and even relegation into the third tier in 2007
Now that Leeds United are back in the Premier League, some fans will wonder if the club could ever reach the heights of European football again, and with British sides like Rangers and West Ham United doing well in Europa League given their recent struggles it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility.