by Liam Tunney

“Sooner or later, it is safe to assume, the congestion towards the top of the Premiership is going to clear. Newcastle will admit they risk being afflicted by altitude sickness. Chelsea are scholars one week, dunces the next. There is little doubt the numbers will be whittled down but, when the inevitable happens, Leeds United are justified in feeling they will not fall by the wayside.”

Daniel Taylor, The Guardian, 2nd January 2002

New Year’s Day, 2002.

39,320 people watched Leeds United secure a slick, efficient 3-0 victory over West Ham United.

Elland Road rocked in menacing jubilance as the sublime Mark Viduka showcased his goalscoring repertoire. A close-range volleyed finish opened the scoring after four minutes before the Australian international flung himself full-length to head home a Danny Mills cross three minutes later. It was intense. It was fearless. It was Leeds.

The South Stand purred in approval as Robbie Fowler nonchalantly strode onto a ball at the edge of the box and dinked it over a bedraggled David James. All seemed at peace in LS11, the Whites peering down from the Premier League summit at the chasing pack. My fourteen-year-old self was in dreamland.

This season Marcelo ‘El Loco’ Bielsa has rekindled the heady optimism of my early teenage years.
Like the early days of O’Leary’s Leeds, the sheer excitement of watching those white jerseys caressing the ball about, creating more opportunities than the Celtic Tiger makes me want to head for my ma’s back yard with an old Mitre and deepen the dents in the garage door while yelling “Rooooofe!” at the top of my lungs.

Back then we had the steadfast defending of Lucas Radebe, the midfield wizardry of a not-yet-treasonous Harry Kewell, the good-natured nastiness of David Batty and the exhilarating attacking wing-back play of Ian Harte.

The 2018-19 revamp has a grinning Pontus Jansson doing the needful at the back while also completing laps of the pitch when we score, Pablo Hernandez retiring beleaguered defenders with multiple nutmegs, Phillips grinning in enjoyment as he gleefully takes ball and man, while Barry Douglas gallops up the left wing with a pace at which Harte didn’t even think.

But the parallels don’t end with the personnel.

Once again top of the league on New Year’s Day and heading into the 3rd Round of the FA Cup, we have suffered defeat, albeit this time with a youthful eleven against fellow-Championship side QPR. A third loss on the bounce has caused a few cracks in the thin veneer of bravado among the more experienced heads the fanbase.

It couldn’t happen again, could it?

* * *

“Riot police had to use batons and dogs to force back hundreds of Cardiff supporters who invaded the pitch and gathered in front of the away section to taunt the Leeds fans after their giant-killing.”

Jon Brodkin, The Guardian, 7th January 2002

I’d only been gifted a mobile phone a fortnight previously and already I wanted rid of it. Phoning my friends on the landline and exchanging numbers for our new mobile phones had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I regretted every second of my adolescent enthusiasm.

The texts kept coming, the laughter, the insults, the slagging. “1oth in the Second Division? How bad do you have to be to be beaten by that?” was the polite version. The laughing emoji would have filled the remaining available characters had it been in existence.

My responses bore the venom of a Norman Hunter lunge and were full of fucks, bastards and other more colourful words, but none of that could take away the gut-wrenching feeling of evaporating hope.

In the same article as above, David O’Leary described the atmosphere as “getting to Istanbul”, a huge statement from a Leeds manager, and so toxic was the air around Ninian Park that evening that the FA threatened it with closure for the rest of the season.

Despite the very obviously in-form Viduka giving Leeds an early advantage, it was swiftly cancelled out by Graham Kavanagh, and after Alan Smith’s dismissal on the stroke of half-time, the home side seized the initiative, an 87th minute Scott Young goal sealing their passage to the 4th Round.

Any time this tie is recalled, the on-pitch action is merely a footnote in the tale. It was one of the most volatile evenings the FA Cup had witnessed in some time. As early as the opening minute, missiles rained down on Ian Harte and Danny Mills as they lined up throw-ins.

On 77 minutes, with the game simmering, Cardiff chairman Sam Hammam made his way down to watch from behind the goal Cardiff were attacking, passing the travelling Leeds support along the way, dodging missiles from an apoplectic Yorkshire following as he grinned his way down the touchline.

Referee Andy D’Urso found himself the latest victim of the Cariff missile crisis amidst the not-so friendly fire, before that late Scott Young winner lit the fuse on the flames of insanity that rose into the winter sky.

The Bluebirds’ fans rushed onto the pitch, some in celebration, others with more malignant intent, surrounding Leeds players and goading the away fans. Midfielder Lee Bowyer was struck during the melee, as riot police weighed in with dogs in tow.

Unbeknownst to me, watching in the family living room, stunned into silence by the shock of defeat and the visceral nature of the unfolding scenes, the action was to continue in the car park, Hammam provoking O’Leary with a regurgitation of his pre-match comments about the Leeds’ cup run beginning and ending in Cardiff.

The Irishman had to be held back by Peter Ridsdale, in an uncharacteristic show of restraint from the free-spending former Leeds chairman.

Amid the cacophony of noise, the bulging eyes of grown men ensconced in the feverish high of violence, the flailing limbs, something fundamental was altered in the psyche of Leeds United.

The rabbit hole into which we were soon to disappear had opened. Player sales, managerial upheaval and general mayhem sent the club spiralling ever closer to the abyss.

A mere three years later, now both in the Championship, Leeds and Cardiff played out a 1-1 draw in mid-January. In a bitter twist of fate, the plummeting club would end their fall in the third tier, where Cardiff had resided at the time of the 2002 debacle.

The great Don Revie spoke of a curse. It’s what spawned Dave Peace’s The Damned United and an ongoing cycle of misfortune and shattered hope. He even enlisted Gypsy Rose Lee to cleanse Elland Road, but the Ghost of Cup Runs Past has revisited Leeds on several occasions since.

Hereford United. Histon. Rochdale. Sutton United. Newport County. Their very mention induces a sucking of teeth and a shiver down the spine. So many promising seasons perishing on the jagged rocks of a cup upset.

Surely history is finished repeating itself? Is Bielsa finally the Messiah for which the hordes of passionate and suffering faithful have been pining?

This is perhaps the best chance we’ve ever had of making it back to the Premier League. The perfect storm of passion, man-management, tactical nous and total belief in his methods must blow us back into the top flight.

We have too often dared to dream, the frequent pain of play-off disappointment cuts deep. Too often has hope been dashed in the springing of the year.

Marcelo, we implore you, banish the Curse of the Cup and deliver us to La Tierra Prometida.