This feature is part of Virtuoso
Before becoming the poster club for cataclysmic financial mismanagement, Leeds United were good. Very good. Just after the turn of the millennium, David O’Leary’s band of fearless youngsters played some of the most thrilling football of the modern era. They had bravado, they had charisma and they had skill. They even had the audacity to challenge Manchester United’s hold on the Premier League crown.
The 2000/01 campaign was the high watermark as the Yorkshire club scaled dizzying heights and generated excitement not felt since Howard Wilkinson’s title-winning side of 1991/92. A decade later, O’Leary’s clan threatened to go one better and win the Champions League, bowing out in the semi-final after a spirited charge towards the continental promised land. They threatened the United-Arsenal duopoly at English football’s summit too. However, despite their insouciance in the face of Premier League powerhouses, there was a rising tide of trepidation when Liverpool came to Elland Road on 4 November 2000.
O’Leary was without 10 first-team members for the visit of Gérard Houllier’s side, including defenders Lucas Radebe, Michael Duberry and Danny Mills. With his defence depleted, the Irish coach braced himself for the coming of a Reds outfit fresh from five successive wins. What transpired was one of the most enthralling games of football in the last 20 years, a thriller which unfolded with the pace and jaw-dropping twists of a David Fincher film.
As Elland Road basked in the autumnal Yorkshire sunshine, it took just two minutes for O’Leary’s fears to be realised as Patrik Berger’s free-kick was glanced home by Reds captain Sami Hyypiä. With cracks already appearing in the back-line, Jonathan Woodgate fell victim to injury and was replaced by Danny Hay after just 15 minutes. Immediately after, the home side’s vulnerability at set-pieces was laid bare once more when Christian Ziege flicked another close-range header beyond a helpless and increasingly bemused Paul Robinson. It looked for all the world as though Leeds were in for a long afternoon.
But, ruthless though they were from a dead-ball, Liverpool were strangely profligate from open play, with Vladimír Šmicer spurning two chances before Emile Heskey’s headed effort was somehow cleared off the line. Signed for £11m that summer from Leicester City, the striker had been in scintillating form ahead of the Leeds clash, with five goals in his previous three league outings, including a superb hat-trick to put Derby to the sword.
It was his burly counterpart, however, who was in defence-destroying mood at Elland Road. With Leeds struggling to stay in touch, Mark Viduka came to the rescue, answering the home fans’ calls with one of the most emphatic and electrifying displays of forward play in Premier League history.
In the 24th minute, when Alan Smith charged down Ziege’s clearance, Viduka scented blood. After the ball fell to him in the box, the imposing Australian killed it with his first touch, created the angle with his second and delicately chipped an onrushing Sander Westerveld with his third Suddenly, the mood was lifted. Leeds would have been level at half-time had Westerveld not produced a stunning save to deny Dacourt’s long-range heat-seeker.
It mattered not. A minute after the restart, Viduka dashed to the near post and pumped captain Kelly’s cross home with his head. As the forward blew kisses to the crowd in celebration, an over-eager Smith clattered into the back of him, knocking him over the advertising hoarding. Thankfully, Viduka survived and remained able enough to decimate Liverpool some more but not without a complication or to thicken the plot. Just after the hour, Berger teed up his Czech compatriot Šmicer, who slid the ball under Robinson to regain the lead.
Viduka, though, much to Houllier’s chagrin, was far from done. Racing onto Dacourt’s incisive pass, he pirouetted around Berger and found the net via the far post. Two minutes later, he delivered a stunning coup de grâce, beating the offside trap before emulating his first, deftly lifting the ball over Westerveld and a backtracking Jamie Carragher to send Elland Road into delirium.
Viduka’s quadruple was no flash in the pan; instead, it was the captivating apogee of the striker’s purple patch. Having struck 25 times in 28 Scottish Premier League games for Celtic during the 1998/99 season, there was incontrovertible evidence of his killer instincts inside the box.
Having moved south of the border for £6m, Viduka scored five times in four games ahead of the Liverpool clash. He had even exited the Elland Road stage to a standing ovation after scoring twice against Tottenham, another see-saw 4-3 win for Leeds in which they destroyed the north Londoners with four goals in a frenetic 12-minute spell.
But nothing compared to obliterating Liverpool’s wearying defence. Strikingly, in his post-match comments, Viduka said: “Every time I had a sniff of goal I scored, but I have actually played better.” After reducing Liverpool’s back four to quivering wrecks, those remarks raised a few eyebrows, but nobody could begrudge Viduka his soaring self-confidence.
Just a few days later, Leeds travelled to San Siro to face AC Milan in a crunch Champions League match, requiring a point to advance to the second group stage. It was Dominic Matteo, however, not Viduka, who scored to send O’Leary’s men into the next act of their European odyssey. From there, they beat Lazio in Rome, dared to dream against Real Madrid in the Bernabéu and thumped Deportivo en route to the semi-final on a special night under the lights at Elland Road. There was also a 13-game unbeaten run to help clinch third place in the Premier League behind Manchester United and Arsenal.
For Viduka, though, his merciless destruction of Liverpool proved the apotheosis of his time in England. He left for Middlesbrough in 2004 and briefly forged partnerships with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Yakubu Ayegbeni, before joining Newcastle in 2007, But his time on Tyneside was ravaged by injury and he was released in 2008.
Viduka retired soon after and, while he soldiered on for eight years after eviscerating Liverpool, the Australian was never quite that supreme again. In truth, he was never the hardest-working player. His diet was poor for an elite athlete and he was, by many accounts, lazy in training. Yet, while his career fizzled out, he remains to this day one of the most naturally gifted players Australia has produced and a vintage Premier League striker. Just ask Liverpool.
By Matt Gault @MattGault11
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp