Premier League at 20: Leeds United - Charting the rise and fall of O’Leary’s fearless challengers

Leeds United's Rio Ferdinand celebrates his early goal against Liverpool on Friday, April 13, 2001.
Leeds United's Rio Ferdinand celebrates his early goal against Liverpool on Friday, April 13, 2001.
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Continuing our series on the 20th anniversary of the birth of the Premier League, Richard Sutcliffe meets Elland Road legend Eddie Gray, who is in a unique position to assess just how big an opportunity Leeds United missed when the dream turned sour

ONCE in a while, an exciting new force emerges that threatens to upset the established order at the very top of English football.

In recent years, Chelsea and Manchester City have filled this role on the back of Russian and Middle East millions, and delving further back, Nottingham Forest did the very same under Brian Clough to lift two European Cups and a League title.

Here in Yorkshire, Leeds United have twice threatened to recreate the glory days of Don Revie as, first, Howard Wilkinson led the club out of the Second Division and to the summit within two years before David O’Leary tried to emulate that success around the turn of the Millennium.

The all-too-brief nature of the stint at the top in 1992 – they finished two points above the relegation zone the following season – means it is the second of those two attempts to re-establish United as a genuine force that is perhaps the biggest cause for regret among supporters, not least because of the financial collapse that followed as the Yorkshire outfit slid from genuine Premier League title challengers to the bottom of League One on minus 15 points.

Eddie Gray, assistant to O’Leary after playing a major role in developing the players that formed the basis of the squad that reached the Champions League semi-finals, is perfectly placed to assess just how big an opportunity Leeds missed when the dream turned sour.

“It was huge, absolutely huge,” says the 64-year-old when speaking to the Yorkshire Post about United’s fall from grace. “Had that group been able to stay together, I strongly believe we would have been able to challenge for a lot of years.

“It was a massive missed opportunity, especially in terms of cementing Leeds United among the top teams.”

Gray’s stint as assistant to O’Leary was, without doubt, the most exciting time of the club’s 12-year stay in the Premier League as they finished fourth, third, fourth and fifth.

Runs to the semi-finals of the Champions League and UEFA Cup together and the arrivals of such as Rio Ferdinand, Mark Viduka and Robbie Fowler added to the belief that Leeds were on the verge of breaking through.

Gray recalls: “It was a very exciting time to be involved. We had a lot of talented young players, lads such as Jonathan Woodgate, Alan Smith, Paul Robinson, Stephen McPhail, Harry Kewell and Ian Harte.

“There was also Gary Kelly and lads like Matt Jones, while many of the signings we made – Michael Bridges, Danny Mills, Darren Huckerby and so on – were still reasonably young. We also had a good mix with older, experienced players such as Lucas Radebe, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Mark Viduka.

“We showed no fear, no matter where we went. In a funny way, losing 4-0 to Barcelona (in the Champions League) was an important one because it showed the players the heights they had to reach. I remember the dressing room afterwards and us telling the players, ‘If you want to be a top team, you have to play against players like this every single week’. After that, they didn’t show any fear.”

Gray’s work with, first, the youth team and then the reserves before stepping up to become O’Leary’s right-hand man meant he had a unique insight into the undoubted talent that was coming through thanks to the Academy that Wilkinson had worked so hard to set up.

He said: “There was a winning mentality among those coming through, our FA Youth Cup win of 1997 and then winning the reserve league a year later had seen to that.

“But David still deserves a lot of credit for giving those lads a chance.”

Picking out the peak under O’Leary is difficult, not least because there were so many exciting performances. Victories over Roma, Spartak Moscow, Lazio and AC Milan were important milestones in Europe, while back home victories at Anfield, Highbury and Stamford Bridge stand out.

In terms of where it all went wrong, the infamous FA Cup defeat to Cardiff in 2002 – which came when Leeds topped the Premier League – the fallout from the Woodgate-Bowyer assault trial, O’Leary’s book and the club haemorraghing money even when still riding high all contributed to the collapse.

Gray added: “We were a great team to watch and had so much energy as a squad. Viduka was the lynchpin up front with everyone else running off him.

“But then things did start to change. We tried to alter our style to a way that I thought didn’t suit the players. We were at our best when getting at teams quickly and playing with high energy. It was the same with training.

“For instance, I liked leaving two players up the pitch at corners and we stopped doing that. It changed how we approached games.”

Missing out on a Champions League place in 2002 when Leeds finished fifth proved to be the death knell for not only O’Leary, who was sacked a few weeks later, but also that squad as Ferdinand began the exodus by moving to Old Trafford in a £30m deal.

Gray added: “I was not surprised when David left but I was surprised by how it came about. He actually had a great record. Okay, the club spent a lot of money but that was not entirely down to David.

“The problem was the club could not sustain what was happening and, eventually, we just had too many players at the club.

“It teetered for a while and then went completely. I’d left when Peter Reid had arrived (in March 2003) but came back later that year and it was disappointing not to be able to keep us up.

“Having said that, I don’t think I had much chance, not with all that was going on – the wage deferrals and so on.”

Relegation in 2004 brought the sale of the few remaining big names and a slide that brought not only administration but also three years in League One. Now, with a new television deal for the Premier League worth £3bn alone just for domestic rights due to come in next year, Gray admits Leeds have to get back up there.

He said: “We need to get back soon and preferably next year, because when the new television deal comes in then the parachute payments will increase. Those who come down are able to spend more than the rest on wages and transfer fees. So, with more money coming in, that will only continue.

“I am not saying that is the right things to do. We have seen with Leeds the price that can come with not getting it right. But Premier League teams coming down in 2013 will throw a lot of money about and that will make it harder for the rest.”

The Former Player

Dominic Matteo

Defender made 115 appearances for Leeds between 2000-04

THE day that Leeds United were relegated from the Premier League is one that will stay with me forever.

We were playing at Bolton on the Sunday and results the previous day meant we had to win to have any chance of staying up. There were still two games to play after the trip to the Reebok but we’d had such an awful season that the teams above were all getting away from us.

Mark Viduka actually put us in front and I remember thinking, ‘It might just be our day here’. But then Vidukes got sent off and Bolton ran riot in the second half to win 4-1.

Hearing the final whistle was awful. I went over and hugged Alan Smith, who was in tears. I was close to him and knew what relegation meant. I just wanted to grab hold of him and say, ‘Listen, mate, you’ve run your legs off this season. You can look at yourself in the mirror’.

No-one played well that season apart from Vidukes. But if you can look yourself in the mirror and know you put everything into it, then you can live with yourself. There were a lot who, in my opinion, couldn’t.

The dressing room was total devastation. There was just silence. I never thought that I would ever be relegated and yet, here I was. I just wanted to get out of there and go home.

Then, later that night, I saw a little lad on television crying. He was a Leeds fan and was devastated. I can still see his face now. That’s when relegation really struck home.

I still hoped I could be part of Leeds United’s future, even though we had been relegated. I did say to the club I would take a wage cut but I was told I was still on too much money. So, even though I had three years left on my contract, I moved to Blackburn Rovers that summer.

The day I left, I never imagined the club would be out of the Premier League for so long.

The play-off final defeat to Watford in 2006 was the big one for the club, and in particular how they lost the game. Leeds were bullied out of it at the Millennium Stadium, then they dropped down another division and it was an awful time for the club.

More players left and the only constant from my time was that the fans stayed around. Leeds’ crowds were impressive, even after three years in League One. I know Manchester City had big crowds when they were relegated to the third tier. But they only stayed one year.

Would those fans have stuck around for two or, even, three years? I doubt it, to be honest.

But the Leeds fans have stuck around. They really deserve for their club to be back in the Premier League and I hope it can happen very, very soon.

The Fan

Andy Watts

Has followed the Elland Road club through thick and thin

It is hard to believe that eight years have passed since our relegation from the Premier League, mainly because we have been enjoying – or enduring last season – what has been an amazing ride for Leeds United.

Because of that, I wouldn’t say I have particularly missed the Premier League.

Even when clubs like Hull City and Sheffield United went up to enjoy their moment in the sun as we scrabbled around in League One, I was too busy focusing on what we did to care about their fans claiming to be the No 1 club in Yorkshire.

But visiting Old Trafford, the Emirates and White Hart Lane in the FA Cup over the past couple of years and renewing old rivalries has given me a taste and reminder of what life used to be like and it would be great to get back there soon.

Thinking back to our time in the Premier League, the pinnacle was the time under manager David O’Leary.

I don’t just mean being at the top, fighting for honours. But also qualifying for Europe every season.

Getting the chance to follow my team to all four corners of the continent is something I’ll never forget.

Nor will my bank manager, who reacted with surprise when I explained why I was wanting to re-mortgage my house – I needed the money to keep funding my trips in the Champions League run to the semi-finals.

Great times and great memories.

A return to the Premier League would be great, though being a cynical soul these days, I can not imagine it being as satisfying as in 1990 when we won promotion back to the old First Division.

Maybe the younger generation will be as excited as we all were back then, especially after getting a taste of it in the Cup competitions recently.

Even allowing for my cynicism, when we do win promotion I do believe that first year back will be something of a frenzy as we reacquaint ourselves with old ‘friends’ at Manchester United, Chelsea and so on.

But after that, things will settle down again and, no doubt, we’ll all start moaning about ‘just’ being in mid-table – forgetting all about where we have been for the previous decade. That’s the beauty of being a football fan.

Tomorrow: Middlesbrough’s Riverside revolution.