The 27th of July wont be etched in any of the younger fans memories, especially for anything connected to Leeds united, but to the fans of a certain age, this day will bring back that lump in the throat. It came at a time when Leeds were flying, Champions League football was at Elland Road and the Whites were flirting with the top of the table. Stars in every position, and every other fans ‘second favourite team’.
What a team it was, Rio Ferdinand, Woodgate, Harte, Bowyer, Kewell and Mark Viduka to name a few. It seemed like nothing could stop them and they was destined to bring the good times, and the trophies back to Elland Road. It had been decades since the great team of Don Revie had furnished the club with cups and titles, and with only Howard Wilkinson and the class of 92 adding to those it felt like it was all going to change. Indeed it did, but for the wrong reasons.
Off field problems with the court cases of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate started to rear their ugly head. The trial for the assault of an Asian student finished in December 2001, and subsequently O’Leary alienated the fans and Chairman Peter Ridsdale by writing about the incident and the goings on behind the scenes in the book ‘Leeds United on trial’.
Leeds reached the semi finals of the Champions League in the 200/01 season, losing out to eventual runners-up Valencia. Their league form also dipped slightly and O’Leary’s men had to settle for the UEFA Cup, finishing fourth in the last season before the Champions League qualification spots for the Premier League expanded from the top three to the top four. There was no idea at the time, that this was a serious failure for the club, as Ridsdale had borrowed £60 million against future gate receipts, hoping for prolonged Champions League involvement in the following seasons.
By June 2002 O’Leary, and Leeds had spent over £100m on new players within four years and no reward in the way of trophies were forthcoming, and although he had never finished outside of the top five as manager, he was sacked by Ridsdale. This was the start of the decline for Leeds as we all know it. Rising debt for a gamble on Champions League football and as they say “it is all history now”. In an interview with O’Leary on the decline of Leeds United he said “I never wanted to leave Leeds. The fans are fantastic to me here. I hope they stay up because I had great times at the club.”
O’Leary remained out of work until he joined Aston Villa in June 2003. He took them from hovering around the relegation places, to a sixth place finish, one place too low for European qualification. On 19 July 2006, O’Leary’s contract as Aston Villa manager was terminated by mutual consent. Chairman Doug Ellis sold the club within a few months, and Martin O’Neill was appointed as manager.
It still remains a ‘what might have been’ for Leeds. If they had made the Champions League that season in which they narrowly missed out on, who knows where they would be now.