The 2017/18 season celebrates 25 years of the Premier League. To mark the occasion we’ll be taking a look at some of the more off-kilter moments from each season. As the 90s made way for the 00s, a local businessman was rolling the dice in the hope of bringing glory to his boyhood club. The 2000/01 season marked the beginning of the end for Leeds United.
The dawning of the Premier League era in 1992 overshadowed the remarkable rise of Leeds United in the decade that preceded it. After suffering relegation to the old Division Two in the 81/82 season, it took eight seasons before top level football returned to Elland Road. A fourth placed finish in their first season back was then followed by their extraordinary title win in the 91/92 season. Combining the hunger of youth offered by the likes of David Batty and Gary Speed with wily experience in Gordon Strachan and Lee Chapman, along with a cameo from Eric Cantona, Leeds only lost four games all season and pipped Manchester United to the title. They were expected to be among the challengers for the first ever Premier League trophy, however their poor defensive record left them in a relegation scrap, eventually finishing two points clear of the bottom three. Howard Wilkinson stuck with his policy of relying on a core of youth products and Leeds recorded back to back fifth placed finishes, before a disappointing placing in 1996 led to the Sheffield-born manager being shown the door. George Graham was brought in, in a bid to tighten a leaky defence and in two seasons produced league finishes of 11th and 5th.
By the start of the 98/99 season there had been a change of ownership at Elland Road. Local businessman Peter Ridsdale had taken over from Bill Fortherby and saw the potential of this Leeds United side to become a force in Europe. The Premier League was now granted three places in the Champions League, and Ridsdale was confident that his spending power could propel the Yorkshire side to the top end of the table. One of his first assignments was to replace the outgoing George Graham, who sensationally joined Tottenham Hotspur, with David O’Leary. The former Arsenal centre-back had worked as Graham’s assistant and bought in with the Leeds philosophy wholesale. Young, hungry players were the key to success. In his first season, blooding youngsters including Alan Smith, Lee Bowyer and Stephen McPhail, O’Leary took Leeds to fourth. The following season, after laying out £28m on a mixture of young English talent, experienced Premier League players and continental flair, Leeds reached the promised land by finishing 3rd. But the spending didn’t stop there. Ahead of the 2000/01 season Peter Ridsdale sanctioned the £11m purchase of Celtic striker Mark Viduka to partner Michael Bridges up front, and Liverpool utility man Dominic Matteo. Progression in the Champions League was important, but becoming regular qualifiers for the competition was vital.
By the standards set in the previous two seasons, Leeds suffered a poor start. It took Viduka until the end of September to record his first Premier League goals, a brace in a topsy-turvy win over Tottenham, and any notion that the defence had been shorn up was dispelled by defeats to Manchester City, Ipswich Town and a 3-0 hammering at Manchester United which left them in mid-table after thirteen games. Saturday 18th November 2000 was a watershed day for Leeds United. West Ham travelled to Yorkshire and came away with all three points, with central defender Rio Ferdinand proving the difference and ensuring a clean sheet for the Hammers. By the time Leeds took to the pitch against Arsenal a week later, Ferdinand had been signed for an eye-watering £18m – at the time a British transfer record. Questions were asked as to how Leeds were able to afford such inflated fees, given that the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal shied away from similar big-money moves. It later transpired that loans worth tens of millions of pounds had been secured by Ridsdale based on the premise that Leeds would be a regular in the Champions League and could repay the loans using revenue from televised matches and prize money. Indeed, the team had managed to slalom its way through the first group stage of the competition despite being handed a tough draw with AC Milan, Barcelona and Besiktas. The acquisition of Ferdinand could only aid their cause in reaching the latter stages.
Ironically Leeds would only keep two clean sheets in Ferdinand’s first nine Premier League games, but a win at Villa Park on the 24th January was the beginning of an incredible run that saw the side go unbeaten through to the start of May. The club rose from 12th in the table to 3rd, winning nine and drawing three of their twelve fixtures. Qualification for the following season’s Champions League was in sight, though O’Leary had his eyes on winning the tropy this time round. Finishing in second behind Real Madrid in the second group stage saw Leeds drawn against Deportivo La Coruna in the quarter-finals. The Spanish champions went into the tie as favourites, but were blown away in the first leg at Elland Road with goals from Ian Harte, Alan Smith and the £18m man securing a 3-0 to take to the Spanish coast. The Lilywhites suffered a scare in the second leg as Diego Tristan reduced the deficit to one in the 73rd minute, but Leeds escaped with a 3-2 aggregate victory to set up a semi-final with Valencia. Heading into May, O’Leary’s side were fighting on two fronts. With games against already relegated Bradford City and mid-table Leicester City, both at home, to round off the season, the only thing that stood between Leeds and a Champions League place was a trip to Highbury. That was until the chasing Liverpool won their game in hand and drew level with Leeds – the Reds superior goal difference meant that a victory against Arsenal was vital.
Sitting in second and with the fight for the Premier League title long over, Arsenal needed five points from their final three games to guarantee a Champions League spot the following season, but Arsene Wenger wasn’t interested in taking things lightly against Leeds. Goals from Freddie Ljungberg and Sylvain Wiltord gave the Gunners a two-goal lead, though this was halved almost immediately by Ian Harte. Leeds desperately pushed for a vital equaliser, but it never arrived. News that Liverpool had soundly beaten Newcastle at Anfield meant that Leeds were left needing snookers. Their best bet of qualification would be to win the whole thing. The defeat at Arsenal came slap bang in the middle of their double-header against Valencia. A 0-0 home draw in the first leg wasn’t the ideal result, but O’Leary backed his side to grab an away goal and make Valencia work for a place in the final. By the time Gaizka Mendieta had wheeled away celebrating 52nd minute goal at the Mestella, Leeds’ Champions League dream was over. They were outplayed by Valencia in a 3-0 defeat, and their European adventure ended at the semi-final.
Slightly better news emerged from Anfield, where Liverpool had drawn 2-2 with Chelsea. A win over Bradford would narrow the gap to one point going into the final day of the season, and Leeds duly obliged, smashing six past their feckless neighbours, with six different names appearing on the scoresheet. They’d still need to do the business against Leicester and hope that Charlton Athletic, who had enjoyed an excellent return to the Premier League, could do them a favour at The Valley against Liverpool. O’Leary’s men did their part, with Ian Harte and an Alan Smith brace securing a 3-1 win. Unfortunately for Leeds, four second half goals secured Liverpool’s place in the Champions League. The Yorkshire side would have to make do with a UEFA Cup place.
The following season Ridsdale doubled down, spending £40m to bring Robbie Keane, Robbie Fowler and Seth Johnson to the club. An additional qualifying spot for the Champions League was afforded to the Premier League, so Leeds knew that matching 00/01’s finish would be enough to get them back at Europe’s top table. They finished fifth, pipped by Newcastle. The reality of Ridsdale’s gamble became clear, and David O’Leary was the first to pay, being sacked for failing to finish in the top four despite spending over £100m to assemble his squad. Terry Venables replaced O’Leary, but quickly found his star players being sold behind his back. Ferdinand left for Manchester United for another British transfer record fee, Robbie Fowler lasted one season before being sold at a loss to Manchester City, Robbie Keane was sold onto Tottenham for £5m less than Leeds paid Inter Milan, Jonathan Woodgate left for Newcastle, and Lee Bowyer was sold for a paltry £100,000. Unsurprisingly, Leeds struggled and finished in 15th. They were relegated the following season, with Harry Kewell, Nigel Martyn, Paul Robinson, Alan Smith and James Milner all leaving the club in a bid to balance the books. By this time Ridsdale had left the club, leaving debts of £79m behind him. By 2008, the last champions of the First Division were in League Two and in administration.
Manchester United completed a trio of Premier League wins, topping Arsenal by ten points despite losing their final three fixtures. Their wins encompassing the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st were fitting for a side that had dominated the Premier League since its inception. The war with Arsenal, their newest rivals in English football, appeared to have been won, but it was their old enemy Leeds United that will look back on the 2000/01 season wondering what might have been.