It was May 2nd 2004, Leeds United visited the Reebok for a premiership match that would decide whether or not the “Mighty Whites” of Elland Road would survive in the top flight or be relegated less than three years after being Champion's League semi-finalists. I was there on that warm late spring day and I can still remember how shocked I was by both the result and what I saw from a team that on paper should have been sweeping us aside easily. Even though we started the day in eighth place in the league and Leeds were a full ten places below us I honestly felt a point for us would be a good result. I expected Leeds to come out with all guns blazing, that their big star names and mix of committed young talent would all be playing with the pride and passion that has embodied Leeds United for as long as I can remember.
However despite taking an early and well deserved lead after twenty five minutes the wheels fell off the Leeds United train once and for all, starting with Mark Viduka getting himself sent off eight minutes after scoring the opener with two yellow cards in less than three minutes.
The second half was a massacre, Bolton Wanderers scored four unanswered goals and frankly it could have been ten as (with a few notable exceptions that I named in Part Two) the away side simply seemed to give up and roll over. When the game ended at four one and we were up to seventh I looked around at my fellow Trotters in something akin to disbelief. We were of cours delighted with the result that gave us a very real shot at Europe but we were still stunned both by how easy that second half had been and how little fight the majority of the Leeds players had shown.
Final Thoughts And Reflections
I have seen us play Leeds many times in my near forty years of following Bolton and I have sometimes felt awe, fury, anger and occasionally downright humble watching the Yorkshire men playing with a pride, passion and sometimes skill that is only matched by their vociferous, often annoying and in the past justifiably disliked fans (I refer in particular to the hooligan element Leeds Utd became synonymous with in the seventies and eighties, today their fans may be very loud, brash and annoying but they are generally quite a civilised bunch before and after the match and they tend to sit in their seats rather than throw them) but this was the first time I ever felt pity. I felt pity for three players in particular, Alan Smith, Lucas Radebe and Ian Harte. I felt pity for Eddie Gray, a man who I thought had been handed a terrible mess and had manfully tried to salvage something from it despite far too many of the men he led being unworthy to wear the shirt despite their big name status and salaries. Mostly though I pitied the Leeds United fans. They had sung all day and continued to do so even as they wept with disappointment and despair that was all too familiar to any Trotter over the age of thirty. However not all their players had failed them and in my opinion neither had their manager.
I can still remember and always will the sight of Alan Smith and Lucas Radebe going over to their followers with tears in their eyes as they thanked their fans for the mighty effort they'd put into supporting their team. Harte followed and eventually so did the rest of the Leeds players while Eddie Gray, a man I personally thought was decent and had deserved better than to be left to hold the can for David O'Leary's and Peter Ridsdale's failures was left shaking his head as he became the unfortunate man at the helm of a relegated team. He too applauded the Leeds fans and as he left the field I saw Big Sam put a hand on his shoulder as if to offer some fraternal support to his brother manager who was left facing an uncertain future, one shared by the club he had served so well and so valiantly but hadn't been given the reward his efforts had deserved by players who should have done better and who were likely already thinking about calling their agents to secure another big money deal somewhere else when frankly they didn't deserve to play in the conference. As I left the Reebok I found myself close to a Leeds United fan of about forty who was consoling his weeping son and telling him it would be alright, that Leeds would come straight back up but when I met his eyes for a moment I could see he both knew better and was beginning to realise just how costly that relegation was going to be. I found myself remembering my own fears from eighty five and eighty six when our club teetered on the brink of oblivion and I quietly hoped for the sake of the man and his weeping child that Leeds wouldn't disappear into the abyss.
Of course we all know what was to follow, both for us and for Leeds United but it seems like only yesterday that I set off to the Reebok on a warm spring Sunday more in hope than expectation only to witness the beginning of one of the most shocking downward spirals football has ever witnessed. It's almost a decade later and Leeds United are still feeling the aftershocks of that fateful day when they not only lost a match but let their final chance at redemption slip through their fingers with barely a whimper from most of the men on the field.
To this day I remain slightly conflicted about that match; I was delighted with our performance and the result but I feel sorry for the fans and for the men who gave their all for that cause only to be let down badly by men who didn't deserve to wear a Leeds United shirt. I feel sorry for any football fan that has to sit and watch what happened over the next couple of years at Leeds United and later Portsmouth. I am praying that we don't suffer the same way they did but I'd be lying if I didn't feel we should view the 2nd of May 2004 as a cautionary tale of what can happen to even the mightiest of football clubs when they lose sight of reality in pursuit of a dream and throw money they don't have away based on assumptions of future success that fails to happen.