If, almost two decades ago, you told a Leeds United fan their team was competing in the Championship, they’d probably have thought they’d misheard you. Back then, the club, thanks to a combination of ambition and youthful promise, had cracked England’s top four and were regular contenders for Champions League football.
Threatening the dominance of Manchester United and Arsenal, they came close to something spectacular on the continent. In 2000, they reached the UEFA Cup semi-finals. The following year, they reached the same stage of Europe’s elite club competition.
The dream eventually came to an end with a 3-0 defeat away to Valencia in the Champions League last four. And it would get sourer by the year in the aftermath, as financial mismanagement led Leeds to multiple relegations.
While Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United take on some of the world’s finest teams on Tuesday and Wednesday nights these days, the Yorkshire club linger in England’s second tier.
Here, as a reminder of just how mighty Leeds once were, Football Whispers takes a trip down memory lane and reminisces about their five greatest performances in the Champions League, or, as it used to be known, the European Cup.
LEEDS 2-1 BARCELONA (1974/75)
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Leeds were one of the finest teams not only in England, but in Europe. Don Revie was the mastermind behind much of the success, but he wasn’t in charge as the Yorkshire side reached the European Cup final in 1975.
By that point, Brian Clough had come and gone and Jimmy Armfield was the club’s manager. Many of the old guard remained on the pitch though – Billy Bremner was still captain and surrounded by the likes of Eddie Gray, John Giles, Paul Reaney, Allan Clarke and Paul Madeley.
To get to that season’s European Cup final, Leeds had to pass an extremely tough test in the semi-finals, where they came up against a Barcelona side featuring the iconic Johan Cruyff and his Dutch team-mate Neeskens, as well as Carles Rexach.
Victory was essentially sealed in the first leg, at Elland Road, in front of a crowd of just over 50,000. Bremner’s opener was cancelled out by a Juan Manuel Asensi free kick and Leeds wasted several opportunities, but Clarke – known as ‘Sniffer’ for his poaching instincts – was on hand to fire home the winner from close range on 78 minutes.
STUTTGART 1-2 LEEDS (1992/93)
One of Leeds’ greatest European games was also one of their strangest. A 3-0 defeat away to Stuttgart in the first leg of their opening round affair seemed to have spelled the end for the reigning English champions’ hopes of further progress, but they played with hope in the second leg.
They won 4-1 at Elland Road thanks to goals from Gary Speed, Gary McAllister, Eric Cantona and Lee Chapman, but the away goals conceded looked to have brought their European Cup journey to a premature end. But, due to the Germans’ fielding an ineligible fourth foreign player, they were given a second chance.
On neutral territory in Barcelona’s Camp Nou, they made the most of the opportunity. Gordon Strachan fired Leeds into the lead, but Stuttgart equalised six minutes later. Then, Carl Shutt, on as a substitute, scored one minute after his introduction and secure his side’s place in the next round, where they would take on Scottish champions Rangers in a match titled ‘The Battle of Britain’.
MILAN 1-1 LEEDS (2000/01)
Leeds travelled to the San Siro on 8 November, 2000 in the knowledge that anything other than defeat would seal their place in the second group stage. Having been comfortably defeated by Barcelona in their opener, a draw against the Catalan side at Elland Road, along with home wins over AC Milan and Besiktas, meant progression was well within reach for David O’Leary’s side.
However, 26 minutes in the situation looked bleak. A penalty was awarded to the Italian giants after Gary Kelly handled in the box. Ominously, Andriy Shevchenko stepped up. But, despite sending Paul Robinson the wrong way, the finisher’s strike hit the outside of the left post and rolled to safety.
Leeds made the most of their luck in that instance when, in last minute of the first half, Dominic Matteo headed home from a corner kick to give them the lead. The goal afforded the centre-back cult hero status, and ultimately ensured the team’s qualification for the next round.
LAZIO 0-1 LEEDS (2000/01)
Having made it through a first round group that contained two of Europe’s traditional behemoths in Barcelona and Milan, Leeds were rewarded with an arguably even tougher second round draw.
They were placed alongside reigning continental kings Real Madrid, big-spending Lazio and Anderlecht, who had beaten Manchester United.
Once again, they made an innocuous start, losing 2-0 at home to the Spanish side through goals from Fernando Hierro and Raúl.
On the back of that, they once again made their way to Italy for a defining encounter.
But that Leeds side were unafraid regardless of the opposition, and they attacked at the Stadio Olimpico against a Lazio side that included Alessandro Nesta, Pavel Nedved, Juan Sebastian Verón, Diego Simeone and Hernan Crespo.
They got what they were looking for in the 80th minute.
In a brilliantly constructed forward raid, Alan Smith, one of the team’s home-grown heroes, exchanged a rapid-fire one-two with Mark Viduka – his first touch pass round the corner was followed up by a typically nonchalant back-heel from the Australian – before finding the net to seal three huge vital points.
LEEDS 3-0 DEPORTIVO LA CORUÑA (2000/01)
Leeds built on their win over Lazio, earning six points from six against Anderlecht and drawing with the Roman side at Elland Road to make the 2000/01 Champions League quarter finals. There they faced Deportivo La Coruña.
The Galician outfit had won their first – and, to this day, only – La Liga the season before and had helped to knock out the likes of Juventus and Milan on their way to the last eight. However, they were no match for O’Leary’s side in the first leg of their clash.
Set piece specialist Ian Harte opened the scoring on 26 minutes with a lashed left-footed free-kick, prompting wild celebrations from the home crowd. The Irishman then helped his team triple that lead, crossing for Smith and Rio Ferdinand to head home in the second half.
Deportivo fought back in the second leg at the Riazor, but the 3-0 deficit Leeds had accrued two weeks’ previously was enough to send them into a semi-final meeting with Valencia.