Galatasaray tragedy will stay with Leeds United and Eirik Bakke forever

SPEAK to Eirik Bakke about his breakthrough season in English football with Leeds United in 1999-2000 and his sense of pride, optimism and happiness is quickly detectable.

Intimidating: Eirik Bakke takes to the field amidst heavy security against Galatasaray. Pictures: Mark Bickerdike

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Then, talk inescapably turns to the appalling events in Istanbul of two decades ago.

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By contrast, Bakke’s tone becomes sombre and there is introspection – just as there was when he recently watched a review of that season at home in Norway.

Tearful: Lee Bowyer applauds the Leeds fans after the match against Galatassaray.

Ultimately, the midfielder’s maiden campaign in Yorkshire will always be tinged with sorrow and regret following those terrible and shocking events in Taksim Square on April 5, 2000.

The deaths of Kevin Speight and Chris Loftus on the night before Leeds played their Uefa Cup semi-final first leg with Galatasaray – 20 years ago yesterday – represent one of the darkest and most painful episodes in the history of the club.

For the players caught up amid the maelstrom, it was a fraught time as they were forced to play a match at Galatasaray’s Ali Sami Yen Stadium when their minds plainly were not on football.

Leeds, unsurprisingly, lost and could not claw back the 2-0 deficit in the second instalment at Elland Road – a night which saw Bakke score twice in a 2-2 draw. There was no personal satisfaction.

Well done: Leeds United fans applaud their team after the match against Galatasaray.

Bakke told The Yorkshire Post: “I watched that 1999-2000 season (review) in my house – it was my first season at Leeds and I watched everything through with the Galatasaray game at the end.

“It was horrendous and very sad. Especially when the day after it (happened), we played and it was so hostile.

“Especially with all the young players there, it was something that will stick in your mind for the rest of your life.

“It will also stick with the Leeds supporters for the rest of their lives.

The 20th anniversary of the deaths of Leeds fans Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight, who died in Istanbul 2020, at Elland Road, Leeds. (Picture: Simon Hulme)

“After such a good season for myself and the team, this was a very low point, especially for the families and everything.

“When you look back, it was one of the lows in my Leeds career.

“I scored two goals in the return game. But we were only playing for the two boys at the time and I remember when we were talking about it before the match.

“We said we would give everything we could to make it a good result for the two boys.

“We couldn’t make it as they scored early, but we tried the best we could. It was too much for a young group.”

Memories of a dreadful few days by the Bosphorus will stay with Bakke forever, just as they will for his young team-mates, staff members and all those Leeds supporters who flew over to Turkey.

Leeds arrived in expectation; a time when they harboured genuine hopes of lifting their first European trophy in almost 30 years since 1971.

They left in despair and desolation.

“We had beaten Roma, who were a better team than Galatasaray and they beat Arsenal in the final. Everything looked like we were going to do it,” Bakke continued.

“I think with the hunger we had there, we would have done it.

“If things had been all right, I think we would have run over that team over the two games. In the form we were in, we could have beaten any team in Europe.

“But with everything that happened, we weren’t in the (first Galatasaray) game because of our heads.”

It was a bewildering time for Leeds’ young squad. The precursor to experiencing a sickening atmosphere at the Ali Sami Yen Stadium where Galatasaray fans made throat-slitting gestures and home players did not even wear black armbands following the events of the previous night, arrived on the journey to the ground.

Leeds’ team coach was pelted with missiles on the way to the stadium and the intimidation continued when they arrived. Then there was a football match to play.

Bakke said: “I just remember the day before and on the night when we were called in for a meeting. We were told about the two supporters, but that the match was going to play on, even though there were discussions that it was going to be called off.

“I remember before the game, it took us one-and-a-half hours to get to the stadium and it was a crazy atmosphere out there – from the hotel to the ground.

“For the Leeds supporters, it was not about football any more. But in the stadium, people were just dancing and it was not a pleasant memory, but that is the way it is.

“I remember there was the Arsenal game in our first match at home after; our minds were not on it and we lost 4-0.”

It was a time when the impetus of a vibrant season of renaissance was taken away from Leeds through no fault of their own.

Events on the final day of the season ensured that David O’Leary’s young braves were to clinch Champions League qualification – with a bit of help from West Yorkshire neighbours Bradford City after they beat Leeds’s rivals Liverpool – but it was a season which is ultimately remembered for Istanbul.

“We were running all over teams and in such great form that year. We didn’t mind who we were playing, but just felt we could beat anyone,” recalls Bakke.

“We were such a hungry group. It was a great, hungry side and reminds me a little bit of the team Leeds have now in the way they want to play with their pressuring and attacking. It didn’t matter who we were playing.

“It was a young team with a very small squad, but the start of a good few years for the club.

“We had a great season, but all we remember was that match.”

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