With the 1997 FA Youth Cup-winning finally emerging into the first-team, Leeds United went marching on together under new manager David O'Leary.
Looking back through the annals of Leeds United’s chequered history can be an arduous and at times gruesome experience. It is not hard to pick out the more celebrated moments; the eras of tangible success and legends made, separated as they are into three quite distinct periods. What is more difficult is for someone of my age to identify a specific point where a Leeds fan’s natural ‘glass half-empty’ tendency gives way to a reticent declaration that “we were good”.
Preceded by decades of wilful under-achievement, it would be easy to look at the Revie era for this honour, but I was too young to appreciate it. I cut my teeth in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s when football was a dirty word and a dearth of optimism meant you clung to anything vaguely resembling positivity. Therefore, false dawns were frequent. Wilkinson’s promotion and subsequent title win in the early 1990’s is widely recognised as the golden era of my generation of Leeds fans, and so it undoubtedly was; for the fans. But at that time Wilkinson was denounced by the media for his style of football and his team’s achievements were never recognised for what they were, our title win was besmirched by the media belief that Manchester United gifted it to us. It made the title win sweeter for the fans, but as a team, despite the magical ingredients, Leeds got no recognition, they were never externally considered ‘good’.
So after a fallow period of transitional meandering we arrived at the O’Leary era. Immediately what springs to mind is great away wins at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, leading the Premiership at the turn of the Millennium, Champions League, top-table dining with Barcelona and AC Milan, away wins at Lazio and Anderlecht, stuffing Deportivo in the quarter final, and so it goes on. But by this time the cracks had started to appear in the O’Leary/Ridsdale ‘dream’. The Bowyer/Woodgate scandal had knocked the wheels off the coasting juggernaut of exuberant fulfilment. Huge sums of non-existent cash had been spent stuffing an already over-laden squad of temperamental mercenaries with yet more over-paid exponents of self-interest. Our league performance in that infamous season was unbearably erratic and veiled over the startling reality that the bread and butter would eventually fail to feed the sharks; leading to a long and painful demise.
What came immediately before that was an era of unblemished growth and ambition; 18 months of sparkling football with honesty and integrity, not sullied by greed, desperation and the darkest yield of modern day football. I prefer to consider this short era as ‘when we were good’.
After George Graham had used protracted tedium to arrest the unrelenting slide that Wilkinson’s era had become, David O’Leary was handed the reins upon Graham’s slithering defection to Spurs in October 1998.
O’Leary and Ridsdale seemed to go on a positive PR joy-ride bringing David Batty back to Leeds and throwing talented youngsters into the fray in an apparent public dig at Graham’s reluctance to do anything more than talk about the promising array of kids that had won the FA Youth Cup in 1997.
This wasn’t Liverpool or Arsenal they were creaming over, this was Leeds United, my Leeds United.
After years of treading water and watching a procession of under-achievers donning the white shirt suddenly we were watching exhilarating attacking football and every week a new youngster was coming off the bench to make it even better. This all cumulated for me, on January 16th 1999 in a home game against Middlesbrough.
Of all the games that took place around this time, it may seem an inconsequential moment to pick as the very definition of ‘when we were good’. We won the game 2-0 with first half goals from Alan Smith and Lee Bowyer, but it was one of those days when everything seemed right in the world. We could have won five or 6-0 such was our superiority, but it was more the performance, and the statement we made, than the scoreline that truly defined the game as an epoch-making moment.
Against Middlesbrough’s old soldiers of Gary Pallister, Paul Gascoigne, Robbie Mustoe and Brian Deane Leeds had the vigour and freshness of Harte, Kewell, Smith and McPhail. In an age when the Premiership had become overrun with cheap, foreign imports, Leeds seemed hell-bent on becoming the antidote to the decline of the home grown player. With the injured Woodgate and keeper Paul Robinson to add to the team, there was a youthful vitality that shone in the style of attacking play on show.
I vividly recall the highlights on Match of the Day that night (at a time when they only featured two games in any depth) and Alan Hansen eulogising over Bowyer’s super-human energy, Kewell’s carefree majesty, Smith’s Cruyff-turn and shot that shaved the post. This wasn’t Liverpool or Arsenal they were creaming over, this was Leeds United, my Leeds United. This wasn’t Burns, McCluskey or Beesley. It was a positive spin on the club that had not been heard in the national media since…..well….ever.
In the Guardian, Harry Pearson wrote of the game “…On Saturday at Elland Road Bryan Robson's Middlesbrough were rapidly transformed from a team packed with wise heads to one full of ageing legs by a swift, neat and versatile Leeds.
Such was the snap and pace of David O'Leary's young team that the Teessiders seemed dizzy right from the kick-off. Up front Leeds switched positions with frequency and purpose; in midfield they were first to every ball. Lee Bowyer was particularly impressive, snuffing out the threat of Paul Gascoigne one second, linking up with attack the next.”
There was possibly a grudging respect in that the ‘new Leeds’ were something other clubs wanted to be.
Of Alan Smith the Observer’s John Wardle wrote “…Alan Smith - a common name, an uncommon talent - demonstrated why he represents the future of English football, rather than the fading genius of Paul Gascoigne.”
Leeds had pace everywhere in the team and attacking options of breathtaking depth with Hasselbaink as the spearhead. We had, in Harry Kewell, a player of such incredible potential that we felt just too lucky to have him. He and other youngsters on display looked as near as we had come in nearly 40 years to the beginnings of the Revie era, when homegrown talent was the only way forward and that era had a team of players all coming together at the same time to dominate the English game.
Much was made of Gascoigne’s substitution after 60 minutes after Bowyer had swept the floor with him, and everything pointed towards a changing of the guard in English football. O’Leary somewhat foolishly suggested that Leeds were now ‘everyone’s second team’, and while that is ludicrous to suggest in a sport stained in long and bitter memories, there was possibly a grudging respect in that the ‘new Leeds’ were something other clubs wanted to be.
I remember football magazine ’90 Minutes’ at the end of that season dissecting the Leeds and Manchester United first elevens man-for-man and analyzing who was better. They put Leeds ahead.
The possibilities seemed endless, and Leeds fans of my generation had never had it so good in terms of not just the feel good factor, but the actual quality of what we were watching.
What happened over the next five years is not worth raking over, it will forever tarnish my memories of that team and many of the personalities within it, and will forever beg the question….’what if?’ But just for a few months; before the arrests, the PLC extravagance, the ill-advised books, the in-fighting, the calamitous mis-management at all levels and the subsequent meltdown, just for a few months we were almost there. We were popular, we were fresh, we were a yardstick for other clubs to strive for, we were pure and attractive, maybe we weren’t ‘Leeds’…….but we were good.
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