IT was the draw no-one wanted.
Just five months after the brutal murders of two Leeds United supporters on the streets of Istanbul, the Yorkshire club had been handed a return ticket to the city where Europe ends and Asia begins.
Thankfully, Besiktas and not Galatasaray – United’s opponents on that fatal night the previous April – lay in wait for David O’Leary’s men.
But, even so, the security implications were clear from the moment the two clubs had been drawn together in the Champions League first group stage along with Barcelona and AC Milan.
Peter Ridsdale and his Turkish counterpart, Serdar Bilgili, made it clear within minutes of the draw that both clubs got on very well. It was also agreed that 500 supporters from each club would be allowed to travel to their side’s away leg, Galatasaray supporters having been banned from the UEFA Cup semi-final second leg at Elland Road for fear of reprisals over the tragic deaths of Kevin Speight and Christopher Loftus in Istanbul.
The caveat was that those fans had to travel on an official trip that involved flying in on the afternoon of the game and out immediately afterwards.
In the end, lack of interest led to Besiktas cancelling their supporters’ trip. The prospect of a four-hour flight each way to watch just 90 minutes of football in Yorkshire was just not enticing enough, with good cause as it turned out as the Turkish club were thrashed 6-0 at Elland Road.
The return at Besiktas’ Inonu Stadium – once described by Pele as “one of the most beautiful in the world” – was the next stop-off on Leeds’ European tour. Which is how, 15 years ago yesterday, 138 hardy souls from Yorkshire found themselves experiencing one of the most bizarre away days in the club’s history.
Clearly, security had to be tight for the trip to Istanbul due to emotions still running very, very high on both sides.
The travelling supporters from England would, the Turkish authorities made clear, have to be kept as far away as possible from the locals. And the best way to do that was to transport the United fans from the airport to the match via a boat trip down the Bosphorus to the Inonu Stadium, which stood 200 or so yards from the river.
It was a novel solution, though the sting in the tail for those heading to Turkey came a couple of days before departure when it was announced the trip would be alcohol-free.
Now, bearing in mind that drink is invariably a big feature of Euro awaydays for English football fans, the news went down far from well back in Leeds. The response of the more resourceful among the travelling party was to smuggle small bottles of spirits on to the plane, while others went even further by injecting a bag of oranges with vodka – which, in the pre-9/11 days, could be taken on board with no problems.
It ensured those fans unable to go a full day without a pre-match drink or three would not go dry, as did the unexpected discovery once on board of 10 or so wine bottles left over from a recent party.
Quicker than anyone could say ‘But we haven’t got a corkscrew…’ the bottles were open and being passed around, which explains why the watching camera crews – one of which was in a helicopter – were treated to an extended version of Rod Stewart’s hit ‘Sailing’.
A banner emblazoned with ‘LUFSea’ was also draped over the side of the boat for the benefit of those either watching on television or from the banks of the river. I was one of the latter, having arrived in Turkey the previous night as part of the official media party. Our welcome had been an unnerving one.
“Hello I am Ercam and a senior policeman in Istanbul,” said the man whose sharp suit rather contrasted with the gun on his hip. “Welcome to the city and I hope you have an enjoyable stay.
“But, if you must leave your hotel over the next three days, you must tell me and I will ensure you are given an armed escort, no matter what the time of day or night. I am here to ensure your comfort and safety.”
Behind Ercam stood a line of uniformed officers, also armed, watching our every move with deadpan expressions. This was serious and in stark contrast to how the press trip had begun at Leeds-Bradford Airport, as esteemed radio journalist Ian Dennis – now of BBC Radio Five Live but then a commentator for BBC Radio Leeds – was the victim of a wind-up by then club press officer, Dick Wright.
Dick, who sadly passed away in 2013, hatched a plan with a couple of West Yorkshire Police spotters that involved Ian being pulled aside at passport control and told his name was on a list of recognised hooligans. And that he would not be allowed to travel.
The ploy worked brilliantly, Ian’s face being a picture of panic at the prospect of Radio Leeds having no coverage in Istanbul. That was, however, until Ian turned round to see his friend doubled up with laughter.
That amusing episode seemed a world away as we later travelled by coach, under a police escort that involved both cars and motorbikes stopping rush-hour traffic, from the airport to the hotel.
Our escort to the stadium on the night of the match was, if anything, even heavier.
“That, though, didn’t stop the coach coming under attack from missiles several times during the 20-minute journey.
As we edged through the streets – and by now with everyone on board well away from the windows – the same six words would be sung over and over again.
‘Leeds United, F*** you, F*** you…..’
On and on it went, growing louder the closer we got to the stadium.
Finally – and after one last flurry of bangs on the window as stones and bottles bounced off the reinforced glass – we arrived at our destination, where two lines of police were waiting to usher us inside.
There were still two or so hours to kick-off but the place was packed. And bouncing, as the home fans worked themselves up into a frenzy at the prospect of avenging that Elland Road hammering of three weeks earlier.
The noise and hostility levels were cranked up even further when the small party of Leeds fans finally arrived, having been forced to make the final 200-yard journey from quayside to stadium on four coaches that were surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of police.
Those interlopers from Yorkshire did their best, but any chants of support for O’Leary and his players were quickly drowned out.
Despite that, Leeds claimed a creditable goalless draw from a truly dire game to ensure that one of the more unusual away games in United’s history ended with those hardy travellers able to enjoy a celebratory beer on the return flight home.
Nine glorious months worth remembering
IN TIME, Leeds United’s run to the Champions League semi-finals would become a stick to beat the club with as the finances imploded and a tumble down the divisions gathered pace.
But, for the nine glorious months that were the
2000-01 season, supporters were able to savour what felt like a truly golden age for a club who had first blazed a trail across Europe during the Don Revie era.
The travelling odyssey began in Munich, as a patched-up side eked out a 1-0 win that was enough to see off 1860 3-1 on aggregate in the qualifying round.
Then came a chastening 4-0 defeat in the Nou Camp to a rampant Barcelona but, after that, there was no stopping Leeds.
Dominic Matteo’s goal in the San Siro was enough to book a place in the second group stage, where David O’Leary’s side again upset the odds to join Real Madrid in going through at the expense of Sven Goran Eriksson’s Lazio and Anderlecht.
A nervy 3-2 aggregate triumph over Deportivo la Coruna then put United through to the last four and fuel hopes of a first appearance in the final since 1975. Valencia, however, had other ideas as Leeds were swept aside 3-0 in the second leg at the Mestalla.