2020 was the year that Leeds United finally managed to end their 16-year stay in the EFL, winning promotion back to the Premier League under Marcelo Bielsa.
Leeds had rarely come close to getting back to the big time since relegation in 2004, apart from one season when they reached the play-off final in 2005/06 – presenting them with an opportunity to bounce back almost as quickly as they’d fallen from the summit of English football.
“The loss in the final was much more devastating than with Preston,” Eddie Lewis exclusively told Football League World.
Leeds’ American ace completed an unwanted double back in 2006, losing his second successive play-off final having lost 12 months earlier with Preston North End.
“I truly believed we were a better squad, we were ready, we were the team that should have gone up,” Lewis reflects.
The 2006 play-off final was a one-sided affair, with Watford blitzing Leeds 3-0. Kevin Blackwell’s side were hardly at the races and failed to build on the momentum they’d built in beating Preston in the semi-finals.
Leeds’ double-header with North End was an EFL classic in its own right. Not quite the topsy-turvy tie Leeds and Derby County played out in 2019, but equally entertaining with its own needle.
That was the case for Lewis in particular, having lost the play-off final to West Ham the previous year with Preston, before making the move to Elland Road to link up with Leeds.
“The semi-final was a must-win for so many reasons,” Lewis explained.
“It was against my former club, I’d lost in the final the year before and I was desperate to get back and win to get to the Premier League, but I certainly wasn’t going to lose to the club that I’d left.
“The pressure and anxiety around it was enormous, but at the same time it was great to come up big when it mattered.”
Preston struck on 48 minutes through David Nugent to take a first-leg lead, before Lewis stepped up late in the second-half to haul Leeds level with a precise free-kick.
“I remember all of it, I remember knowing that I could score it and that I needed to score it – it was the right moment,” the 47-year-old recalled.
“I knew what they were doing with Graham Alexander going back (onto the line) because he knew where I wanted to shoot, but by him going back, it froze the goalkeeper to stay on the far side, so it helped me. I knew if I made it above him, it’d be in.
“I still see it very well and I still enjoy it.”
A 1-1 draw left the tie still looking a great prospect heading back to Deepdale, with Billy Davies fuelling the fire.
The North End boss claimed it was ‘job done’ for his side.
Those comments will make Preston fans wince given what came after, whilst Leeds fans can look back and smirk at the motivation their side needed to move within 90 minutes of a Premier League return.
“It was the worst thing that he could have said,” Lewis admitted. “As soon as he said it, that was almost it. There was so much motivation from our perspective, we were going to murder Preston – and we did.”
Rob Hulse and Fraizer Richardson scored within the space of five second-half minute to put Leeds into a 3-1 aggregate lead. Stephen Crainey and Richard Cresswell would receive late red cards, but Blackwell’s side held on for a memorable win.
“From the first minute, there was only one team and we never looked back,” Lewis enthused. “He’d drove his own nail into the coffin.”
Without Crainey and Cresswell, with a defensive set-up to match, Leeds stumbled at the final hurdle in 2006. With hindsight, it was the club falling at their first hurdle to get back to the Premier League.
12 months later Leeds were relegated into League One and had to wait until 2019/20 to eventually end their top-flight exodus.
Lewis left Elland Road in 2007, but has kept a watchful eye on the club’s fortunes since. It’s clear, though, just how gutting it was for him not to help the Whites avoid a further 14 years of pain in the EFL.
“That is one that still hurts me to this day.”