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Leeds United 1998–2002: Underrated Teams From Premier League History

It’s difficult to assess the legacy of the Leeds United team that reached as high as a Champions League semi-final appearance, without recognising the enormously negative impact it eventually had on the club.

Gross mismanagement at all levels allowed a club that was consistently finishing near the top of the football summit to tumble nearly the whole way down.

In fact, it was as a direct result of this on-field success that the off-field management saw an opportunity to capitalise financially.

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Instead, the taking out of over £100 million in loans, effectively as a bet on the club’s continued success, brought Leeds United to near-bankruptcy and led to the dire situation they faced for the following decade, with relegations, player selloffs and points deductions.

The situation is so notable that it even coined a phrase — “doing a Leeds” — to describe similarly detrimental financial management of football clubs.

And yet, as hard as it may be, we ought to do our best to separate this legacy from the footballing one, because the Leeds United team of this era was sublime.

The Team

The first thing that comes to mind when describing this Leeds side, is the word “youth”.

The core philosophy of manager David O’Leary was to promote players from within Leeds’ own academy system, or buy in young prospects from elsewhere.

Regular starters in the 1998/1999 season included — Ian Harte (20), Jonathan Woodgate (18), Lee Bowyer (21), Alan Smith (17), Bruno Ribeiro (22), Stephen McPhail (18) and Harry Kewell (19).

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That’s quite an astounding number of first-team players who would have still qualified for the Under-23 team.

By the 00/01 season, a team beating AC Milan and reaching the Champions League semi-final, still included an embarrassment of youthful riches.

Alan Smith (19), Robbie Keane (19), Woodgate (20), Paul Robinson (20), Rio Ferdinand (21), Kewell (21), Michael Bridges (21), Eirik Bakke (22), Harte (22), Danny Mills (23), Bowyer (23), all made up the bulk of the first-team squad.

Even the elder statesman of the group were barely beyond their mid-twenties. Olivier Dacourt, Michael Duberry and Mark Viduka were only 25, 24 and 24 respectively.

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To put it simply, this was a side that valued youth above all else.

That emphasis shone through in how the team played. Verve and energy, and creative confidence were its hallmarks. They were afraid of no-one, they could beat anyone.

The parallels between this Leeds and the current Tottenham team are all too apparent.

The Star Player

The nature of this side makes it difficult to pick a single star player.

On his day Mark Viduka was the best striker in the league, bullying and torturing defences, with a shot so powerful it made the earth shake.

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He scored 17 goals in each of the 00/01 and 01/02 seasons.

Rio Ferdinand was developing into the player that convinced Man United to pay an (at the time) club record and world record fee for a defender; a player who would go on to dominate the Premier League for the next 12 years, and be widely considered one of the best Centre-Backs England has ever produced.

Harry Kewell’s pace, vision and spectacular goals were a mainstay of this era.

The Australian winger’s reputation was left somewhat tarnished by an injury hit spell at Liverpool, and then a move to Galatasary (a team understandably greatly disliked by Leeds fans), but his time at Leeds was nothing short of phenomenal.

Singling out a player for their performance or play then, is tough. But picking a player whose impact extended far beyond the reaches of the pitch, and whose name is still sung to this day by the Leeds United crowd, is much easier.

Lucas “The Chief” Radebe was a supremely talented footballer. A midfielder who converted to central defence, he had a swagger to his play, but a solid and robust edge.

He was made club captain for the 98/99 season, after having captained the South Africa national team in that summer’s World Cup. By the time Leeds were rubbing shoulders with the continental elite, Radebe had become their most consistent defender.

In the final group game of the 00/01 Champions League match at the San Siro against AC Milan, despite having beaten them at home, Leeds’ qualification to the next round hung in the balance.

Radebe took charge, and produced a man-of-the-match display, organising his troops into a solid unit, with the result a well-deserved 1–1 draw, and the securing of qualification.

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In many ways that was the peak of Radebe’s Leeds career. An injury in the next round against Real Madrid, after what had been a commanding display from the captain, lead to a range of long-term problems that would eventually blight the end of his career.

But through it all, Radebe stayed true to Leeds, and Leeds to Radebe, with the South African remaining even as they slid into the Championship.

His testimonial match was played in front of 40,000 fans, over 10,000 more than the average home match attendance for that season.

Alongside his footballing career, and after, Radebe’s charitable work has been abundant, and having built himself up from humble, even dangerous, beginnings in Soweto, he became a Leeds and South Africa icon.

When Nelson Mandela has called you his “hero”, you know you’ve had a profound and unique impact. For that alone, he was the star of this side.

The Manager

It’s one of the curious cases in English football, for a young, dynamic manager to take a young, dynamic side to consecutive 4th, 3rd, 4th and 5th placed finishes, and then never come close to repeating the feat.

David O’Leary should get credit for crafting this Leeds side into a formidable force on the pitch, particularly with his focus on youth, and yet it’s hard not to wonder, with the evidence since, whether it was simply a fluke.

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Let’s also not forget, regardless of the way he managed to get the team to play, he still outlaid nearly £100million on player transfers over those four seasons, with no trophies, or even a cup final appearance, as a reward.

And so judging O’Leary’s managerial capabilities and contribution to the relative success of the side is difficult.

The natural talent of the attacking players is as much, if not more, of a factor in the way the team played.

What O’Leary did bring to the table however, was a defensive nous from his accomplished playing career.

From 1998–2002, Leeds conceded 153 goals in the league, or almost exactly a goal a game. Only Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea conceded fewer in this period.

This defensive resilience stood them in good stead for European competition too. Of the 16 games Leeds played in the 00/01 Champions League campaign proper (we’re talking about the days of two group stages, hence the sheer number of games), they conceded one or fewer goals in 10 of them.

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Admittedly a couple of heavy defeats did occur, but only at that hands of some European power houses of the time, Barcelona and Valencia.

It was this solidity that allowed the attacking talent to play with abandon, knowing they had they cover they needed.

The Moments

It really can’t be anything other than the Champions League campaign mentioned already.

On a run to the semi-finals, they took in wins against AC Milan, Lazio, Anderlecht, Besiktas and Deportivo La Coruna, and well-fought draws with Barcelona and Valencia.

For a first ever Champions League campaign, it really couldn’t get much better.

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Lee Bowyer’s long-range drive in the win over Milan was the moment everything clicked into gear.

Having been roundly thrashed by Barcelona in their previous match, it appeared Leeds’ first Champions League foray would be over before it really began.

And then in the second fixture of the first group stage, Bowyer gave them hope. A keeper of Dida’s quality should have kept it out easily, but it didn’t matter. Leeds had their first Champions League goal, then first Champions League win and they kicked on from there.

For Leeds fans, that season was the last great one, everything after couldn’t live up to those heights.

It says much about the sheer grandeur of this season, that for many Leeds fans, it would outstrip even title winning seasons of the past.

Leeds may one day soon return to the top league, but it will be a long time before anything ever comes close to that campaign for excitement, big European nights and pure, unbridled footballing joy.

Written by Jackson Rawlings.


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