Leeds United turned back the clock this weekend
Rewind 10 years to May 2001. Manchester United had just won their English third league title in a row. It was the first time a single manager — Sir Alex Ferguson — managed the feat. Arsenal came in second, pipping Liverpool to the spot on the last day of the season. But the Merseysiders shed few tears, winning a treble of trophies — UEFA Cup, FA & League Cups — and earning a third-place finish that would put them in the Champions League, their first foray into top-tier European football since the Hillsborough disaster.
The top of the table was awash in a sea of red. But just below them were the other colours of the Union Jack: Leeds United white and Ipswich Town blue. Both teams were riding high. Both teams would find their success short-lived.
Fast forward 10 years to the present day. Leeds and Ipswich have spent much of the last decade in the lower leagues, unable to replicate the success of 2000-2001. Now both teams must go through Arsenal to have any chance of cup glory this season.
Back in 2001, both clubs were riding high. Ipswich had only been promoted the previous season and were widely picked to go down again. But they stayed in the top six for much of the campaign, finishing fifth and earning George Burley the Manager of the Year award. They also picked up a place in the UEFA Cup, the trophy they had won 20 years earlier.
George Burley: Manager of the Year 2001
But that success turned out to be a blip. After their fifth place finish, the Tractor Boys spent much of the next season at the foot of the table and were relegated, entering administration in the process. They’ve remained in the First Division/Championship ever since. Ipswich came close to coming back up, securing play-off spots in 2004 and 2005, but lost both times to West Ham. Since then, they’ve have simply floundered. The hiring of former Ipswich great Jim Magilton, and then Man U giant Roy Keane, did nothing for either the club’s results… or for the idea of using unqualified players as managers.
For Leeds, the heights were even loftier. Although they slipped from the previous season’s third-place finish, they made up for it in 2001 by going all the way to the Champions League semi-finals. A 3-0 defeat to Valencia prevented them from facing their opponents in the 1975 final, Bayern Munich.
That Leeds side featured several young players who would make names for themselves at other clubs: Robbie Keane, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Lee Bowyer, Paul Robinson, Alan Smith, Dominic Matteo, Rio Ferdinand.
Leeds: Too good to go down…
But like Icarus flying to close to the sun, the Yorkshire side was burned by pride. Buoyed by Leeds’ domestic and European success, Chairman Peter Risdale borrowed heavily to secure new players. That proved to be short-sighted: their fourth-place league finish meant they had to settle for the UEFA league. Leeds lost much-need television revenue and they began their descent.
The team was forced to sell star players to fund debts, killing morale at the club. Leeds were relegated in 2004, and then dropped again to League One in 2007. After two playoff losses in a row, the Whites finally got promoted to the Championship last season with a second-place finish.
One club has rebounded, one has not. The difference between the two was evident this weekend. Ipswich sacked Keane on Friday, just two days before the East Anglians were to face Chelsea in the FA Cup. Owner Marcus Evans was unhappy with Ipswich being in 19th place, but his timing was awful. The champions and cup holders humiliated Evans’ team, 7-0.
Meanwhile, Leeds — who sit in fifth — almost earned a famous win at the Emirates, if not for a Theo Walcott dive in the dying minutes. United must now fancy their chances with the replay being held in the intimidating environs of Elland Road. If they win, a West Yorkshire derby awaits at home against Huddersfield Town.
Ipswich still have a chance at redemption. New gaffer Paul Jewell will lead them out against the Gooners today at home, in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. Ipswich are 7-1-6 at Portman Road. But after five trophy-less seasons, Arsene Wenger is hungry for silverware and isn’t likely to let up on the Tractor Boys.
Ten years ago, both Leeds United and Ipswich Town were riding high. Now, after a decade of being left red-faced, both clubs are hoping for a blue-ribbon day against a formidable opponent, lest they are forced to wave the white flag of surrender.