TWENTY-FIVE years ago tonight, European Cup football was back at Elland Road for the first time since the days of Bremner, Giles et, al but the size of crowd barely reflected such a momentous occasion.
Just 20,457 fans made their way through the turnstiles for the visit of Stuttgart in a first-round second-leg European Cup tie that seemed heavily weighted in favour of the Bundesliga champions.
Stuttgart’s 3-0 lead perhaps explains why United’s crowd was almost 7,500 under what was already a reduced capacity due to the building work that was well under way on the new East Stand.
Those who stayed away, however, missed a quite extraordinary evening as Howard Wilkinson’s men went so close to pulling off one of the greatest comebacks in the competition’s illustrious history. And even then, after those stirring efforts under the Elland Road floodlights had failed to bring the desired reward, one last dramatic twist in the tale still lay ahead.
Wilkinson made clear his intentions in the second leg by selecting attacking midfielder Scott Sellars at right-back and handing the home side a licence to attack like never before.
The first hint of the drama that was to come arrived on 20 minutes as Gary Speed volleyed in a knock-down from Eric Cantona.
United continued to lay siege to the Germans’ goal only for Andreas Buck, during a rare Stuttgart breakaway, to level matters on the night with a drilled shot that restored the visitors’ first-leg advantage. Any hopes of Leeds progressing seemed to be over.
Then, though, Gary McAllister fired in a penalty to send the hosts in ahead at the break. It meant when Cantona added a third midway through the second half, the great escape was well and truly on.
Fans who had been at United’s previous European Cup tie, a semi-final win over Barcelona in 1975, suggested the noise generated during the final quarter was, louder than what Johan Cruyff, compatriot Johann Neeskens and their Barca team-mates had been faced with all those years before when 50,393 had packed into Elland Road.
Lee Chapman’s close-range header ten minutes from time cranked those noise levels up further and panic-stricken Stuttgart sent on Adrian Knup and Jovo Simakic to shore up a creaking backline.
The ploy worked, just, as the Germans held out to go through on away goals.
Or so it seemed, as the following day Stuttgart were revealed to have broken UEFA’s rules by fielding four foreign players as opposed to the allowed three, the late arrival of Swiss international Knup from the bench proving to be their undoing.
United demanded Stuttgart’s expulsion, but UEFA had other ideas, instead declaring the second leg void and awarding the English club a 3-0 victory.
This meant the tie had finished level at 3-3, and a replay was arranged to decide who would progress.
Barcelona’s Nou Camp was selected as the venue for the October 9 clash in which Carl Shutt, on the eve of his 31st birthday, ensured justice was done by netting the winner in a 2-1 triumph that sent Wilkinson’s side through to meet Rangers in what was quickly billed ‘The Battle of Britain’.