It seemed almost impossible to believe that the Elland Road outfit were in serious trouble, that a defeat would see them relegated from the top flight just three years after being Champions League semi-finalists. They had the likes of Mark Viduka, seen by many including myself as a brilliant striker, they'd spent more money than most of us could possibly begin to dream of seeing and they still had the reputation all Leeds teams have of being fighters, men who would play for pride and the shirt and would run until they couldn't run any more. As I made my way to my seat I was expecting to see a full blood and thunder display from the men in black (Leeds away kit then) roared on by several thousand fanatical fans who still believed their team was too good to go down, especially when they were up against “little” Bolton Wanderers. Privately I thought we would lose, we were comfortably in the top half of the table and although a European place was still possible I thought Leeds would be fired up, would need and want it more and that their faithful followers would roar them on and inspire them to produce the win they so desperately needed.
Not even the most optimistic of Trotters could have foreseen what would happen over the next hour and a half. I know I certainly didn't, despite us having Youri, Jay Jay and Ivan Campo on the field. I was quietly content with what we had already achieved that season and if we got to Europe that would be wonderful but even if we didn't Sam Allardyce had masterminded another largely successful campaign and we were still going forward. How little I knew, both about how good we really were and how appallingly bad Leeds would prove to be.
It all started out much the way I expected. The Leeds fans sang their hearts out and drowned our voices in a wave of passion and defiance so great you could have been forgiven for thinking we were at Elland Road not at home. Leeds went for us from the first whistle, pushing us back and playing with a fierce determination that suggested the players knew and understood how much they owed it to the fans to not just win but produce a performance worthy of the proud shirts they wore. The first sign that anything was really wrong was when Viduka casually flicked what should have been an easy header wide from the six yard line and then shrugged as if to say “so what” while the likes of young Alan Smith held his head in his hands and groaned. As the first twenty minutes played out it began to become apparent that only half of the Leeds team really seemed to care. Their fans noticed it but they didn't shout abuse or boo, they sang even louder and tried to lift the players who weren't performing by sheer force of will.
Then in the twenty fifth minute Leeds United got the break that being honest they probably deserved just for their fan's unstinting support. Smith was running at our defence, he charged into the box and Thome made a rash challenge that brought the young winger down. Some may say it was soft but again honesty compels me to say I had no real doubt that the penalty was justly awarded. Viduka, the man on sixty grand a week and who I'd always rated buried the spot kick with ruthless efficiency and I feared it would now open the floodgates. Leeds fans clearly thought so too, their chant of “one nil” rang around the ground in clear expectation that it would soon change to “two” or even “three” before the whistle went for half time.
However the next nine minutes changed all of that. From the kick off we looked more composed, we began to pass the ball around much better and Leeds were no longer able to run at us with impunity as they had for the preceding half an hour. They quickly began to get frustrated and it was that man Viduka who lost the plot and in so doing sealed Leeds United's doom.
In the thirty first minute he got a yellow card for a challenge on Thome that might well get a red today as he clattered his studs into Emerson's thigh. Unbelievably he protested that decision and then just seconds later he chopped Ivan Campo down. I was surprised he wasn't dismissed right there but the referee contented himself with giving Mark Viduka a stern talking to, probably reminding the Australian that we were playing Association Football not Rugby. However it fell on deaf ears, Viduka was out of control and less than two minutes later he was out of the match. For reasons only apparent to himself he jumped for a header and deliberately swung a vicious elbow backwards into Bruno N'Gotty and the referee had seen enough. A second yellow card was raised, followed by the inevitable red and despite the fact that either one of his cautions could have warranted a straight dismissal by themselves Viduka argued for a few seconds but then his true self emerged. He shrugged his shoulders and actually grinned as he left the field, probably thinking he'd get another big money deal with some other suckers for the following season so who cared what happened to Leeds United anyway? I lost all respect for the man in that moment and never got it back.
The remaining ten men grimly held onto their lead for the rest of the half but there was already a feeling that some of the Leeds players were losing heart if not interest in what was supposed to be a truly vital match for them. As the first half ebbed to a close we were already beginning to pass the ball more freely and Leeds were starting to drop deeper into their own half. I sensed a growing optimism that it was only a matter of time before we were level but the referee blew his whistle and the Leeds fans sang their hearts out as their ten remaining players left the field. No one really knew that their death knell had been sounded, that the next forty five minutes would lead to a decade of terrible turmoil for the “Mighty Whites” as they called themselves that still rumbles on today.
End of part one ….