For football fans the summer is always a time for optimism. You’re awaiting the first game of the season, a few new players have arrived and you’ve got a couple of pre-season friendlies under your belt. The signs point to it being your year this year. Unfortunately as a Leeds fan we have been brought back down to earth with a massive bump.
Player sales, lack of signings, a mad Italian man doing his best to upset absolutely everyone are just a few of the things that have prematurely ruined the summer for us. This year, however, there has been an increase in positivity from both the fans and the club itself. This got me thinking about previous years, about the ins and outs, managerial changes, ownership structures, everything.
It was a summer of change at Elland Road in 2002. David O’Leary had been sacked after failing to take the club back in to the Champions League and Terry Venables had been brought in. Leeds’ financial situation was still to be fully revealed to the public so it came as a shock when the club sold record signing Rio Ferdinand to that lot from Salford. Still, Venables inherited a strong squad and it was believed by many that Champions League qualification would be attainable.
It was a relatively quiet summer for Leeds with only two players coming in. Nick Barmby arrived from Liverpool for a modest £2.75m, he had worked with Venables previously with Tottenham and England. After an injury-plagued tenure with Liverpool, Barmby was deemed surplus to requirements so was brought in to bolster Leeds’ depth on the wing.
Paul Okon was another who had spent part of his career playing under Venables, this time with Middlesbrough and Australia. It was first thought that Okon would serve as a back-up, adding some experience to what O’Leary had often referred to as a young team. Little did Leeds fans know what was going on behind the scenes.
Leeds brought in defender Teddy Lucic on loan from AIK Solna on August 31st, but that news was to quickly be pushed to the side as Robbie Keane was sold to Tottenham for £7m. Having first arrived at Leeds on loan from Inter Milan, Keane’s move was made permanent the previous summer. The real concern of this was that Keane had been in and around the first team and his transfer came at a loss of £5m.
It became clear shortly after this the true extent of the club’s financial position. Club Chairman Peter Ridsdale had been quoted as saying there was no need to sell players but Leeds had lost two international players and replaced them with cheap alternatives. Ferdinand was seen as one of the best defenders in the world, and whilst £30m was a world record fee for a defender, it still worried fans that a player of such quality was not only being sold, but being sold to the enemy.
Barmby’s Leeds career got off to a promising start with a debut goal in a win against Manchester City. Interestingly in this game Robbie Keane would also score his final goal for the club before his move South. The new recruits made very little impact however with Barmby scoring just three more times that campaign. Okon, preferred to fan-favourite Olivier Dacourt, was often berated and was clearly not good enough for a mid-table Premier League side, let alone a side seeking Champions League qualification and a possible title push. In fact, Paul Okon should be grateful for Matt Grimes as he has pushed him a further spot away from the title of worst Leeds midfielder.
Things went from bad to worse as the season progressed with Venables falling out with a number of players. Lee Bowyer, who just two years before had been problematic for defenders in the Champions League and was arguably the best English midfielder for a time, had now become a problem for Leeds themselves and was sold for a paltry £300,000 in January.
Around this time, Ridsdale had said that the Crown Jewels were not for sale. Leeds fans saw those jewels to be the likes of Smith, Woodgate, Robinson, the clubs homegrown talent. This statement became farcical when Woodgate had been sold to Newcastle for £9m at the end of January. Venables had been taking Leeds further from Champions League qualification that’s for sure, but the decisions being made around him certainly didn’t help.
In the end, Venables was sacked in March 2003 with the club being drawn ever closer to the relegation zone. Peter Reid was brought in and able to guide the club to safety after a 3-2 win over Arsenal, their final defeat before going a season unbeaten.
After finishing fourth the previous season, fans had hoped for a push to regain their Champions League status so that we could once again live the dream. In reality, this was the beginning of the nightmare.