Looking back on the 2000/01 campaign and the glory of the Champions League run, it’s easy to forget just for how long Leeds struggled to translate their European form to the domestic stage. At a time when O’Leary’s ‘babies’ were confounding commentators across the breadth of the continent with their fearless, swashbuckling approach to life in club football’s premier competition, back on English soil, results were such that the team sank as low as 14th in the table shortly after the turn of the year.
When Liverpool rolled into town in early November for a televised fixture, that indifferent league form was already very much a concern. Leeds at the time found themselves in 10th position and were facing the Scousers off the back of a five-match winless run that’d culminated in an extra-time League Cup defeat at Tranmere. In contrast, the visitors were flying, sitting in third place, having accrued five wins on the bounce.
The general feeling before the game was of apprehension, rather than hope. The crippling injury list that had done so much to undermine the season so far, brought fresh selection headaches; Martyn, Radebe, Mills, Kewell, Duberry and Bridges were the biggest name casualties, forcing a reshuffle that dictated Dominic Matteo moving to centre half, but far more disturbingly, a midfield role for Jacob Burns. Such was the depth of the crisis, O’Leary elected to name only four players on the bench.
Pre-match fears were sickeningly realised inside only couple of minutes; Berger swung in a free-kick from the right hand touchline and Sami Hyypia rose unchallenged to plant the ball past Robinson, twisting the knife with knee slide celebration in front of the Kop. Leeds defensively were shambolic and with thoughts of Wednesday’s crunch Champions League tie in Milan already occupying many minds, the stage was set for a rout.
It got worse…on 17 minutes Jonathan Woodgate had to leave the pitch, – enter Danny Hay; the New Zealander’s last appearance of note was as a late sub in the 4-0 drubbing at the Nou Camp and within a minute he found himself looking on helplessly again as Christian Ziege rose above a static Ian Harte to nod home Gary McAllister’s free kick. Another humbling was on the cards.
But then out of nowhere, a lifeline. Ziege, never the most beloved of players was undermined by his own German arrogance; casually retrieving a rebound, his intended clearance back up field paid no dues to the possibility of a perma-manic Alan Smith frenziedly chasing lost causes down…the result was a toe-end from United’s 17, enough to deflect the ball penalty area bound where Viduka lurked, several yards ahead of Babbel; while everyone else reacted in surprise at the diverted path the ball had taken, Viduka merely took the ball in his stride, advanced a few yards, before effortlessly lofting the ball over the spreadeagled Westerveld. Ziege, all potted complexion and ridiculous blonde flashes looked on grimly – game on!
Liverpool remained in the ascendancy, although Leeds did also start to create chances, however, the consensus of popular opinion was more towards keeping in the game until the interval, rather than notions of leveling matters; a half-time pep talk and tactical reshuffle could then set Leeds up for the second 45 minutes. Mercifully the scoreline remained the same as David Elleray signalled an end to the half – now time to test the theory.
It took only 2 minutes of second half action to advocate that prevailing school of thought; Gary Kelly nudged the ball past Patrick Berger as he charged down the touchline then swung in one of his finest ever crosses, Viduka dropped off Hyypia and found himself in acres of space, he rose, he glanced, he sent the ball hurtling towards the top corner! The Duke flung out his arms as if to embrace the Kop to a man, then as if in acknowledgement of the futility of such a gesture, he instead showered all and sundry with kisses until a bouyant Smith mounted him, taking both parties for a tumble into the advertising hoardings.
The momentum then swung back and forth as hapless defending and profligate finishing peppered both goalmouths. When the latter shortcoming was finally addressed, it came via a Liverpool boot as Vladamir Smicer swept home Berger’s cross from 10 yards just after the hour mark. Leeds, having once been revived from a critical condition by the mercurial Aussie were suddenly looking to him again.
Then it happened, a career defining, icon creating 2 minute spell…
With 18 minutes remaining and Leeds frantically probing for a way past the Liverpool backline, Olly Dacourt produced the kind of slide rule pass for which he became famed; Viduka (who else?) took the ball in his stride, but then a bobble…an instantaneous moment of improvisation was demanded and duly delivered as he controlled the ball and spun 180 degrees, in doing so, leaving Berger and Babbel floundering…and now the finish, a low shot evading the grasp of Westerveld and somehow going through the desperate lunge of Carragher and in off the post.
Pandemonium reigned in the stands and Viduka raced toward the masses, gesturing once more as if to embrace them all before looking toward the heavens and offering blessing skyward, his expression as he struggled to stay on his feet in the midst of a mobbing, one of ecstatic disbelief. A hat-trick, a first glorious hat-trick in English football. As the players returned to the centre circle, “MARK VIDUKA!! MARK VIDUKA!!’ boomed around Elland Road, our number 9 responded by raising his arms aloft to applaud before geeing up the crowd for an all-out assault for a winner.
From that point on, for all Liverpool’s threat, for all Leeds’ injuries and despite our horrendous record of late against the Anfield outfit, the outcome of the game had an inevitability about it, this was written, the hero established, all that remained was his final deed. There was no need to wait for injury time in this case, the drama was such that a final resort to cliche didn’t feel necessary. Why hang around for nearly 20 minutes for something that could be accomplished inside a couple?
So as crowd bayed for blood, for the knockout blow, so Leeds threw themselves as their opponents, the ball pinged back and forth manically, then Bakke took the ball down, looked forward and threaded a sublime through ball to send an onrushing Aussie into the clear…only this was Jacob Burns and he just didn’t do that kinda thing, so Carragher intercepted and hooked it forward, but Leeds kept the ball active, Hyypia hooked away, then Dacourt tried another slide rule pass…a block, so he tried again, though it could’ve been a weak shot…no matter, Viduka was there, he took a truly sublime touch with his left toe, opening up his body to create himself acres space where there hadn’t been any, Westerveld raced outward to narrow the angle, but Viduka amongst the pandemonium remained the calmest man of all, almost slowing to a standstill before nonchalantly dinking the ball over the advancing keeper and once again beyond the desperate boot of Carragher!!!
In the blink of an eye, Viduka transformed from a textbook example of astonishing poise to a case study in overwhelming ecstasy; he raced over to the Kop aghast, his incredulity at what he’d achieved, written all over his face; as his team mates piled on him, it was unclear whether he’d collapsed under the weight of the players or through the emotion of it all.
The remaining quarter of an hour or so remains a hazy memory; Liverpool frantically pressing, but somehow, it never seemed possible that they’d level matters…not now! They didn’t of course and as the full-time whistle blew, all eyes returned to the Leeds’ hero who flung his arms into the air and gave out an ecstatic cry, before slouching forward, an exhausted wreck. As the Sky cameraman approached, he offered a little wave before saying “Hi mum’. Then on rushed his manager; while David O’Leary was often one to embrace his ‘babies’, the elder squad members saw a little less of the ‘touchy feely‘ stuff, but not today. The Irishman ran onto the pitch like a guy greeting his true love on a train platform, weeks, months, years even since their last rendezvous, onward he raced, arms outstretched as he neared the big Aussie, before finally, joyously embracing and warmly hugging his striker.
In a season that was dominated by European exploits, it was still a day to rival any other; it was also as good a reason as any to turn up to a wedding late. I was stood with my brother in-law that day with strict instructions to leave early for a cousin’s registry office ceremony, needless to say, after what transpired that was never going to happen. As it was, we discretely sneaked onto the back row of seats as the bride completed her walk to the front.
Thankfully, my cousin was a Leeds fan too.
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