At the beginning of 2002, “Millennium Club” Leeds United were top of the Premiership. A decade after the club won the final First Division title, David O’Leary’s “babies” looked set for glory. But an unsavoury afternoon in Cardiff triggered an Icarus-like plummet, which history seems only too keen to repeat.

 

How the scene was set in 2002

When Cardiff City drew Leeds in the FA Cup 3rd Round, it would be their 38th meeting. They’d last met in 1984 and 70% of their meetings had been pre-1960. So, it’s safe to say that they hardly enjoyed a healthy footballing rivalry.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t any rivalry in existence, though. In their heydays, their respective hooligan firms were two of the UK’s most notorious. And after decades of flexing reputational muscles, Cardiff’s Soul Crew and Leeds’ Service Crew would be reunited.

Whilst Leeds blazed to the Champions League semi-finals the season before, Cardiff were in the fourth tier. Having won promotion, they were still 53 league places below their visitors. They’d been offered the nearby Millennium Stadium as an alternative for their “marquee tie”. But eccentric chairman Sam Hammam knew that Ninian Park would be a much more suitable venue. In fact, he made sure that it was.

Word was that he’d loosened the bolts in the home end fences; ensuring a deafening racket when they were rattled. He dismissed the razzmatazz surrounding the fixture, claiming that his sights were set on back-to-back promotions. Then in the same breath, he took a swipe by claiming that Cardiff were a “bigger club” than Leeds.

Meanwhile, Leeds’ ambitious manager was equally bold. With that season’s final due to be held at the Millennium Stadium, he was quick to jump on the opportunity. “We will start and end our FA Cup run in Cardiff,” claimed O’Leary. Sadly, for him, he was bang on the money: only four months ahead of schedule.

 

The fateful FA Cup giant-killing

The tension that ensued was plain for all to see, including the TV cameras. Within a minute, the game had to be stopped so that bottles and coins could be removed from the pitch. Later, referee Andy D’Urso had to receive treatment after he was struck by a missile.

Leeds looked set to defy the script by taking the lead on 12 minutes through Mark Viduka. But an early injury to Rio Ferdinand was followed by an equaliser from Graham Kavanagh. And as the half-time oranges were being prepared, Alan Smith was shown red for an alleged elbow. Cardiff’s tails were up, and O’Leary’s men looked shaken.

To add even more drama, Ferdinand’s replacement Michael Duberry was now partnering Jonathan Woodgate in Leeds’ defence. Duberry had recently testified against Woodgate in the notorious court case, and the former friends hadn’t spoken since.

Sam Hammam made the ill-fated decision to start parading the perimeter with 13 minutes remaining. He was accompanied by his bouncer: a convicted football hooligan and former Soul Crew member. Objects continued to rain down onto the pitch, and the home crowd were whipped into a frenzy. None more-so than when Scott Young scored the winner with three minutes of normal time remaining.

 

When the wings started melting

At the final whistle, a pitch invasion saw Cardiff fans charge the away end. The Leeds fans reacted as you’d expect, with one fan claiming to have been bitten by a police dog in the melee. The unsavoury scenes made front pages as well as back, and the tie instantly gained nationwide notoriety.

Many fans saw that tie as being the turning point for Leeds’ fortunes. They missed out on Champions League qualification, despite England now having four spaces. And in June, O’Leary was sacked: just in time to promote his disastrous book ‘Leeds United On Trial’. The financial meltdown that followed saw Leeds relegated in 2004 in an unprecedented freefall. It was so extreme that subsequent capitulations were referred to as “doing a Leeds”.

 

The hangover, years later

The hangover from 2002 had manifested itself in suitably ugly fashion. Cardiff next visited Elland Road in 2005, with the two clubs now sharing a division. Their supporters were kept behind after the final whistle, but hundreds of Leeds fans were waiting to greet them. An hour of carnage would follow, but it was mainly West Yorkshire Police in the firing line. Bricks, bottles, traffic cones and fists are all seen flying on the CCTV footage.

15 fans were arrested for affray due to the CCTV footage being released to the media. It was ‘a horrific incident, and had it not been for the cool courage and discipline of the police officers it could have ended with tragic consequences,’ said the judge.

 

Play-Off Final misery in 2006

There may well have been clashes between Soul and Service when Leeds were in Cardiff for the Play-Off Final. If there were, I’m none the wiser. One place where there certainly wasn’t any fight was the playing surface. A pitiless performance from Blackwell’s men saw Watford run out 3-0 winners. Humming the Match of the Day theme as our wings started to melt, we’d plummeted into the sea before teatime.

A fair number of Leeds faithful were confident that the team would go one better the following season. Others saw the writing on the wall, although nobody could’ve predicted quite how badly it’d turn out. In August 2007, Leeds United fans were lucky to have a club at all. The club themselves were lucky to have kept their place in League One. And their fightback would commence from minus 15 points.

 

On the brink with Bielsa in 2019

Over a decade later, after turbulent years under the ownership of GFH and Massimo Cellino, Leeds United had a new set of wings. Kevin Blackwell’s former office was now occupied by none other than Marcelo Bielsa. The feathers and wax were looking stronger than ever, and the familiar threat of hubris was on the horizon. Would they finally return to their sunlit home?

After an agonising capitulation against Derby in the Play-Offs during Bielsa’s first season, the Whites certainly looked fit for business. On 14 December 2019, they were 3-0 up on 59 minutes after seven successive victories.

“This is different level stuff”, tweeted Phil Hay. “You win seven games on the spin and then find another gear to turn in a first half like that. Cardiff can’t live with it and the Championship aren’t really living with it either.”

 

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Yes, you read that right: Cardiff. Lee Tomlin pulled one back on the hour mark, before Sean Morrison added another on 82 minutes. Elland Road drew a collective sigh of relief when Morrison was then sent off four minutes later. But Robert Glatzel completed the inevitable with two minutes of normal time remaining.

 

The parting blow in 2020

Leeds have endured more than their fair share of sucker-punches over the years. But this one was arguably the least expected. A subsequent run of two wins in 12 was only forgiven by inconsistency from West Brom and the chasing pack.

Bielsa stuck to his methods and his players kept their faith. Leeds dusted themselves down and prepared to spread their wings once more. Five wins without a goal conceded produced their greatest football in decades. Top of the league and seven points clear of third, their fate was in their own hands.

Until of course, that fateful day: Friday 13 March. And where were Leeds due to play that weekend? You guessed it: Cardiff.