On April 30, 2000, something finally changed. Bradford City grabbed a big 3-0 win against Wimbledon, and moved up from 18th and out of the Premier League relegation zone, swapping places with Egil Olsen’s side. For the Dons, that was the end for Olsen. The Norwegian, who led his home country to the World Cup last 16 some two years earlier, stepped down on May 1, and Terry Burton took charge for the final two games of the season.
Bradford’s win took them a point ahead of Wimbledon, and Paul Jewell’s side got out of the relegation zone for the first time since January. But the pendulum would swing back Wimbledon’s way, as Bradford lost a week after against Leicester, with the Dons grabbing a point at Aston Villa, thanks to a John Hartson header. ‘Super Hartson hands Dons lifeline’, the BBC reported afterwards, and on the looks of it, it was probably all they needed. The final day of the season would see Bradford host Liverpool, so surely this point was going to be enough. Wimbledon’s final game was at home to Southampton
Liverpool, as they headed to Valley Parade on May 10, were in fourth place, one point behind third, then the final Champions League spot. The Reds were just behind Leeds United, who headed to West Ham. Liverpool’s form towards the end of the season wasn’t the best; they won five on the bounce, between mid-March and mid-April, but those were their only wins in a 12-game run.
However, Leeds weren’t pulling up any trees either. David O’Leary’s team started the season well, and when they hosted rivals Manchester United early in the new century, they had the chance to go level on points with the league leaders. But a 1-0 defeat at Elland Road, thanks to an Andy Cole goal and Leeds hitting the woodwork three times, birthed a mini-collapse, and, like Liverpool, their next dozen games yielded just five wins.
Part of that 12-game spell was a goalless at home to Everton on Week 37, which meant that they were just a point ahead of Liverpool as they made for Upton Park on the final day. The top end of the table saw Leeds with 68 points and Liverpool with 67, while the opposite end had Bradford and Wimbledon tied on 33 points, the latter ahead by a significant goal difference.
Wimbledon had been promoted to the top-flight in 1986 with Dave Bassett as manager, garnered a reputation for their long ball game, and by 1988, under Bobby Gould, won the FA Cup – although they couldn’t participate in the Cup Winners Cup afterwards due to the European ban on English clubs. Towards the end of the 20th century, the Dons started to slide, the 1997-98 (finishing 15th) and 1998-99 (16th) seasons involved serious slumps. By the end of the latter season, Joe Kinnear stepped down as manager due to ill health. Olsen took charge afterwards, but the club’s fortunes on the pitch only got worse, a torrid season that involved a spell of eight successive defeats eventually led to the exit of the Norwegian.
Bradford, meanwhile, had spent most of their time in the lower divisions. When Jewell took over the side in 1998, they were fighting to stay up in the second division, and promotion in 1999 meant the Bantams were heading for the top flight for the first time in 77 years. The top-flight was never going to be easy for the side labelled Dad’s Army, and they spent three months wedged in 18th place. A Peter Beagrie brace helped the side to a 3-0 win over Wimbledon at the end of April to climb out of the bottom three, but the defeat at Leicester, by an identical scoreline, sent them back. It left them with a big ask against Champions League-chasing Liverpool.
So came the final day. Four teams, three games, and two spots, one highly coveted and the other hugely dreaded. Bradford were meant to be up against it against Liverpool, but in 12th minute, David Wetherall – ironically a former Leeds player – headed the Bantams in front. By half-time, the only goal among those three games was Wetherall’s; as it stood Bradford were safe, Leeds had a Champions League spot, and Wimbledon were going down. Wimbledon fans were uneasy with their team deadlocked at Southampton, and then things went from bad to worse for Terry Burton’s side, as 15 minutes after the break, Saints teenage left-back Wayne Bridge thundered in a free-kick off the bar. Now, Wimbledon – missing Michael Hughes and Kenny Cunningham – had to score twice, or hope Liverpool did them a favour. A goal wasn’t forthcoming from either away side in both games, and while the Leeds game at West Ham was petering out into a goalless draw, Marian Pahars bagged a second for Southampton.
Wimbledon were down, 14 years on from being promoted, finally a slump they couldn’t get out of. ‘This has been a terribly disappointing day for our supporters but it is our responsibility – myself and the players – to start rebuilding and to bring this club back up’, said Burton afterwards. There were contrasting emotions for Bradford and their fans at Valley Parade; Dad’s Army would be having another year in the Premier League. Jewell’s team would – in hindsight – had stayed up even with a goalless draw, which meant Wetherall’s goal didn’t change much in a binary sense. It didn’t stop the former Leeds man from being ecstatic, though. ‘That’s something I will remember for the rest of my life’. But it also meant that a few years later, Wetherall would be told how he managed to ‘ruin four clubs with that goal’.
Saying he ‘ruined’ four teams might be a bit much, as Liverpool, despite missing out on Europe’s top club competition and the financial benefits, had a memorable season the following year, with a cup treble. The Reds, under Gerard Houllier, saw off Birmingham in the League Cup final, came from behind to beat Arsenal in Cardiff in the FA Cup, and also had golden goal success in a memorable UEFA Cup final against Alaves. The other three teams, however, took bad turns after the events of May 10, 2000.
First was Wimbledon, whose fortunes were expected to be far from great once relegation was confirmed. The Dons had to relocate to Milton Keynes to stave off financial trouble, as then chairman Charles Koppel put it. It was a move that angered some section of the fans, who were granted permission on May 2002 to create another club, AFC Wimbledon. Wimbledon itself was still Wimbledon until the club entered administration in 2003, and then suffered another relegation, before becoming MK Dons.
While MK Dons were in League One, AFC Wimbledon worked their way up from non-league and found themselves in the Football League by 2011. The two teams – who inevitably became rivals – have met on three separate occasions in the domestic cups, but played each other as league opponents for the first time in 2016, with both sides in League One. League One has been the farthest AFC Wimbledon have climbed in the English ladder, while MK Dons have gone one better, to the Championship, but have hardly set the league alight.
Bradford, meanwhile, back in 2000, were in a party mood. Nothing makes you feel more alive than a brush with death and after survival in 2000, Bradford went on a – by their standards and the standards of that time – spending spree. Benito Carbone was the standout name, who came in on vast wages, and never quite played up to standard. Money was also spent on Stan Collymore, who scored just one goal that season.
Jewell resigned before the 2000-01 season, and his assistant Chris Hutchings became No. 1. But it didn’t quite go according to plan; one win in three months meant Hutchings was sacked in November. Stuart McCall took charge as player-manager, but stepped down after two games, citing the job as being too circumstantially difficult. So, Jim Jeffries was appointed as permanent manager, but he couldn’t prevent relegation, as Bradford finished rock bottom.
In 2000-01, Leeds began their Champions League journey. UEFA Cup semi-finalists the previous season, they matched that run in the top continental competition, playing with the likes of Lazio, Barcelona, and Deportivo La Coruña, before falling to Valencia in the last four. In the league, though, they couldn’t secure Champions League football for another season. A bad start had them in 12th place by mid-season, and while a 13-game unbeaten run – which included wins over Liverpool and Chelsea, and a draw against Manchester United – had them in third place with three games to go, defeat to Arsenal saw them drop to fourth.
They won their final two league games – including a 6-1 win against Bradford – but finished a point behind Liverpool, a complete role reversal from the last year. This was a setback because Leeds had taken huge loans to get into the Champions League again, and spent over £48 million in the transfer market on the likes of Olivier Dacourt, Rio Ferdinand, Mark Viduka, and Robbie Keane.
By 2001-02, they had to go again, in a season when Champions League spots in England were now given to four teams. This time they had a great start, and were top by January. However, a seven-game winless run (including a 4-0 defeat to Liverpool at Elland Road) saw them drop to fifth, and they wouldn’t quite pick themselves, finishing five points behind fourth-placed Newcastle.
At the end of 2001-02 season, Bradford meanwhile, had been placed in administration. A further administration – in 2003-04 – saw them get relegated to League One. By the end of the 2006-07 season, the Bantams would be heading down to League Two, and astonishingly, they would only be one division below Leeds.
For Leeds, after 2001-02 season, the debts were starting to pile up, and players had to be let go. Ferdinand was sold to Manchester United, a move that didn’t just make him the subject of Leeds fans’ ire, but also led to the exit of O’Leary in June. Former England boss Terry Venables became manager, but despite being top after six games – including a win over Ferdinand’s Manchester United – Leeds were heading for a grim season. Performances dropped, and increased debt meant the likes of Lee Bowyer, Robbie Fowler, and Jonathan Woodgate had to sold, leading to a frustrated Venables quitting. Peter Reid took charge and Leeds finished 15th. Soon after the season ended, Harry Kewell was sold to Liverpool for just £7 million.
Unfortunately for them, the debt levels weren’t quite subsiding, by 2003-04, Leeds were over £100 million in debt. A bad start – eight points from 12 games – saw Reid get sacked, to be replaced first by Eddie Gray, then Kevin Blackwell as Leeds horrifically slid towards the second division. Three years later, they’d be relegated yet again, dropping down to League One. The financial situation was still dire; the stadium and training ground had been sold, Dennis Wise was manager, and administration and points deduction saw them finish bottom of the Championship.
In the space of six years, Leeds had gone from beating Deportivo in the Champions League to playing with Doncaster Rovers. Managerial spells included the likes of John Carver and Gary McAllister, before stability and promotion to the Championship came with the arrival of Simon Grayson midway through the 2008-09 campaign. Promotion was achieved to the second tier in 2010, but for several seasons Leeds have struggled to get back to the Premier League. They had seventh-place finishes, managerial chaos under Massimo Cellino, and then play-off heartache at Elland Road to Derby County in 2019 under Marcelo Bielsa. They’ finally made it back to the promised land at the end of the 2019/2020 campaign.
Bradford, meanwhile, have had some memorable days, beating Arsenal on their way to League Cup final in 2012-12, pulling off a comeback at Chelsea in the FA Cup in 2015, but are a long way from making it back to the top flight. Currently they are heading the other way, as last season ended with them dropping out of League One.