However much pedants may argue about when the third millennium started – January 1, 2000, or a year later – the season 2000-01 was the first proper 21st Century season, and it was also my annus mirabilis European campaign; having never seen my beloved Leeds play abroad up to this point, I witnessed them competing at the highest level in three true cathedrals of continental football. Incidentally, I’ve always favoured the Jan 1, 2000 date as the start of the millennium – that’s when the most spectacular fireworks kicked off, that’s when the magical sight of four numerals clicking over was seen – and most importantly that’s when Leeds United were heading the Premiership table, marking what will probably be football’s only thousand year threshold by sitting proudly at the top of the game – a position that the media had been frantically speculating might have been held by the lesser United from the wrong side of the Pennines.
More about other parts of this memorable season elsewhere, but my European experience started in a “sports bar” on Westgate in Wakefield, watching nervously on a big screen as Leeds negotiated the second leg of a tricky Champions League qualifying tie against 1860 Munich. We were ahead 2-1 from the first leg in Leeds, and such a narrow lead was never that secure. In the end though, Alan Smith scored the only goal in Munich to close out the tie 3-1 on aggregate. The subsequent draw saw United pitted against giants Barcelona and Milan as well as Turkish side Besiktas in an incredibly tough first qualifying group. I was on holiday with my wife and young daughter on a campsite in the South of France when the first game was played, in Spain. Callously abandoning my ladies to their fate, I impulsively jumped on a train from St Raphael to Barcelona, installed myself in a hotel with a swimming pool on the roof, bought a ticket from a tout, and watched from the midst of the fanatical home support – the Boixos Nois (Crazy Boys) – as Leeds, fielding a side decimated by injuries, slid to a 4-0 defeat.
If you’d told me then that we were destined for the last four, I’d have laughed long and bitterly, but I did enjoy every moment of my first European away-day in the palatial surroundings of the Camp Nou. I still have two souvenirs – a plastic seat cushion and a big St Georges flag with LUFC Oxford Whites printed on it, which a group of Barca fans had captured and were waving in triumph at the end. Stupidly, I approached them, feeling that a 0-4 defeat was humiliation enough, and demanded it back (quite politely). I was getting snarls and throat-slitting gestures, and I remember mumbling something along the lines of “Barcelona no es Galatasaray”, which they seemed to take to heart. Some of the lads’ girlfriends were regarding me pityingly, obviously wondering if I was drunk, or mad, or both – and to my relief they urged their men to show restraint. Luckily for me, the lads seemed to listen – they handed the flag over, anyway – but if they’d known that we were destined to eliminate them from the competition, I doubt they’d have been so conciliatory.
The group then ebbed and flowed – but most results after that first defeat went our way. We beat Milan at home, courtesy of Lee Bowyer‘s late winner which slithered through the Milan keeper’s grasp like a bar of soap on that soaking wet night. Interviewed afterwards, Bowyer confessed his surprise and delight in tones of pure Albert Square – he hadn’t expected his shot to count because it “weren’t in the cawner” – but United were firmly back on track. Then, we came so, so close to beating Barça at Elland Road, denied only at the very death after a world-class display from our inexperienced but brilliant young ‘keeper Paul Robinson – and we absolutely thrashed Besiktas by 6-0. When it came to the last round of group games, the equation was simple – if we could avoid defeat at the San Siro, we would be through to the next stage, whatever Barcelona did to Besiktas.
And so I found myself on an early-morning flight from Leeds Bradford Airport to Milan Malpensa, along with thousands of other Leeds fans intoxicated at the prospect of a famous evening in a truly magnificent stadium. We would arrive in Milan with plenty of time to look around the place before meeting up with coaches to the stadium, and it proved an eventful day. There had been violence the previous night, a Leeds fan had been attacked and wounded in an incident which evoked horrific memories of the awful scenes in Istanbul just a few months before. The city of Milan had been declared “dry” for the day, so it was extremely difficult to find a bar which would serve an obvious Leeds fan. I was contented enough though, just wandering around the amazing Cathedral Square where I met legend and Leeds fan Ralph Ineson, of “Harry Potter” movie fame, and also memorably “Finchy” in the BBC’s “The Office”. He was happy to have a chat and a photo, and then I ambled off to have a peek at the world famous La Scala Opera House, where my wife’s great-grandfather had been a violinist, so that was my passing nod to family history.
Finally, with the afternoon stretching before me, I bumped into an old mate from home – we both exclaimed stupidly “What are you doing here?” – and we managed to find a bar that was open, and spent a couple of hours relaxing and happily anticipating the match ahead. The bar owner was friendly – so much so that he felt able to pop out on some errand, leaving us in charge. The fearsome reputation of some Leeds fans had evidently failed to penetrate this far into the bar culture of Milano.
The match itself is so famous that I barely need to recount the action kick by kick. The Leeds fans at one end of the stadium were in fully, throaty voice for most of the proceedings, drawing incredulous glances from the attendant Carabinieri who were in full-on riot gear but friendly enough, muttering to each other about lunatic English tifosi (hooligans.) The first half was a decent contest – Milan were through already, but not disposed to give Leeds an easy ride – especially after paranoid noises emanating from Barcelona, who – nervous about their own prospects – had done their best to warn Milan off taking it easy against Leeds. So Milan pressed in front of a crowd of 52289, and their winger Serginho was causing Gary Kelly plenty of problems. In the 26th minute, a slightly soft penalty was awarded to Milan at our end of the stadium, and 6000 Leeds fans held their collective breath as Andriy Shevchenko took careful aim only to rap Robinson’s right-hand post, the ball bouncing away to safety as the masses behind our goal celebrated as if we’d actually scored. And then, miraculously, as the first half ebbed away, we did score. A Lee Bowyer corner from the right found Matteo rising majestically at the near post to meet the ball with a punchy header which soared high into the net. Cue utter pandemonium at the Leeds end as all the tension, passion and belief exploded in one almighty roar which almost lifted the hi-tec roof off the famous stadium.
The party went on throughout half-time and into the second half, drawing more bemused glances from the Italian police; there was only a brief hiatus in the 67th minute when the superb Serginho deservedly equalised, but then it was mounting fan fever again all the way to the final whistle and beyond as Leeds held out to qualify for an equally difficult second phase of the competition. The scenes after the game are at least as famous as the events of the ninety minutes; the team coming back out onto the pitch in response to the demands of the faithful who were held back in the interests of crowd safety. What followed was described by respected football commentators (plus Alan Green) as the best example of team/fan bonding they’d ever seen. Fans and players – even a certain Chairman and tropical fish fan – swapped chants and songs in a spontaneous celebration of a joyous night. The uncertain musical efforts of Lee Bowyer were greeted by a blast of friendly derision as he looked suitably embarrassed. It was a unique experience, and the Latin cops were clearly by now utterly convinced that these English people were absolutely barking mad. As football nights go, you’d have to travel a long way to find one more worthy of memory – only a trophy could have improved it, but the spectacle of the game and its aftermath is one I have seen imitated but never repeated.
Dom Matteo, the hero of the hour, was simply a likeable and committed defender before that night, clearly delighted to be Leeds; the kind of player the Kop takes to its heart. But after that night, he was elevated to demigod status, a true Leeds legend with his own song and a place on a pedestal in the United Hall of Fame. The choice last season of Dom as a Football Ambassador for the club seemed obvious – but really it was utterly inspired. This beloved ex-player and respected press commentator, dispensing common sense when all about him has been hysteria, sends out only the most positive of vibes. He is the sort of person we need to see closely associated with the club, so his involvement in any capacity was a move to be applauded. Just get Lucas “The Chief” Radebe back on board now, and we’ll be cooking with gas.
Thanks, Dom. Thanks for being a voice of sanity in the press these past few years, thanks also for coming back to reassert your love of the club. And thanks most of all for that memorable night in Milan.