Leeds United sat proudly atop the Premier League table when they travelled to Ninian Park in early January of 2002. West Ham United had been comfortably dispatched in front of a capacity crowd a few days before and the club was forging confidently ahead. Or so it appeared from the outside.
David O’Leary, considered one of the brightest managerial prospects in British football, was leading his spirited young side’s title challenge, less than a year after reaching the Champions League semi finals. Leeds were on the rise and seemingly nothing could stop them. There was little indication anything was wrong with the club, let alone that it would all unravel at such disorienting speed.
That trip to south Wales to play Cardiff City in the third round of the FA Cup was the beginning of the end for Peter Ridsdale’s intoxicating – and ill-advised – dream. The Leeds United owner had spent lavishly to create a thrilling team capable of competing for honours, but he’d gambled the club’s future on getting it right. With such a high-stakes strategy, even as results were going well on the pitch, disaster was looming off it.
Over the course of his first four-and-a-half years as chairman, Ridsdale had sanctioned signings worth more than £100 million. By present day standards the figure seems almost quaint, but this was serious money to be throwing around. The wage bill soared and the only way these spiralling costs could be met was by consistently qualifying for the Champions League, year after year.
Leeds had done it once but then fallen short the season after. They couldn’t afford to miss out again, although few were aware of quite how precarious the club’s situation was. By the time they realised, it was already too late.
Although the Premier League was understandably the priority, O’Leary still took the FA Cup seriously. He treated third-tier Cardiff with respect, picking the same starting eleven that had rolled over West Ham to climb into top spot. It was a combination of homegrown talent and expensive arrivals. Ian Harte, Gary Kelly, Alan Smith and Jonathan Woodgate had come through the academy while Rio Ferdinand, Mark Viduka and Robbie Fowler were major investments.
Cardiff’s rather less illustrious side shouldn’t have stood a chance. A young Danny Gabbidon and Robert Earnshaw had shown promise in their fledgling careers but, aside from a hostile crowd and difficult playing surface, there should have been little to worry the visitors.
Leeds went ahead after just 12 minutes as Gary Kelly intercepted a misplaced pass and fed Viduka, who fired in from the edge of the box. It was a brutal demonstration of the quality at their disposal. Viduka and Fowler were in particularly ruthless form, having scored 11 goals between them since Fowler’s arrival from Liverpool for £11 million at the end of November.
But Cardiff responded quickly and were soon level. After a well-worked passing move, Andy Legg was bundled over 25 yards from goal. Captain Graham Kavanagh stepped up and swung the ball through the parting Leeds wall and beyond the reach of Nigel Martyn to reignite the crowd.
In a febrile atmosphere, there had been delays from the outset as objects were thrown onto the pitch. Tensions were heightened even further on the cusp of half time as Alan Smith was sent off after striking Legg with a stray elbow. David O’Leary remonstrated furiously with the fourth official to no avail. Leeds were losing their composure. Suddenly the momentum was building behind Cardiff.
Down to ten men, and starting to feel the pressure, Leeds were forced onto the back foot in the second half. In a rare foray into the Cardiff area, Viduka had a good chance to win the game. The Australian striker latched onto Woodgate’s long ball over the top but Scott Young made an excellent recovery tackle before he could get his shot away.
Meanwhile, Sam Hammam, the eccentric and controversial Cardiff owner, embarked on a walk around the perimeter of the pitch to whip up the home supporters. Referee Andy D’Urso was struck by a coin not long after, requiring treatment from the Leeds physio as things threatened to get out of hand.
The winner arrived in the 87th minute after a sustained aerial bombardment. Cardiff forced a succession of corners and Young eventually thumped a loose ball in from close range as a huge roar erupted from the stands.
When the final whistle went supporters spilled onto the pitch to celebrate a massive upset, but the initially joyous scenes soon took on a different complexion when the Cardiff fans went to taunt Leeds’ travelling contingent. More missiles were thrown and the police had to intervene. Several arrests were made as the shine was taken off a special result.
This unexpected and emotionally draining loss seemed to destabilise Leeds and throw a promising season off course. They failed to win any of their next seven league games, incurring damaging losses to Newcastle United, Liverpool and Chelsea along the way, and were bundled out of the UEFA Cup at the fourth-round stage by PSV Eindhoven.
After a 0-0 draw with Everton at the start of March, Leeds had fallen to fifth in the table, 13 points off the summit and with a mountain to climb just to make it into the top four. Their form improved in the final weeks, but it wasn’t enough to reach the Champions League and the huge revenue boost that entailed.
That failure exposed vast structural issues with the way the club was being run and a summer of inadvertent turmoil ensued. David O’Leary was sacked, to be replaced by Terry Venables, and Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Keane were sold as Ridsdale’s project fell apart. Lee Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate and Robbie Fowler followed them out the door midway through a season of struggle.
Even the £52 million they managed to recoup through the sale of key players wasn’t anywhere near enough to cover the club’s mounting losses. A rapid decline ensued as yet more assets were sold and replaced with cheaper alternatives of variable quality. Leeds narrowly stayed up before being relegated in 2004 as the full extent of their financial despair became apparent.
It didn’t end there either. Administration, points deductions and another relegation followed as the club was cast into a period of deep and long-lasting unrest. There were far bigger issues at play than the loss of an FA Cup tie at Cardiff, but that troubled afternoon was where Leeds’ demise began.