It’s not often that you see Leeds United doing Manchester United a favour, but a wonderfully timed Mark Viduka strike against Arsenal 17 years ago sent the Premier League title to Old Trafford.
Leeds were fighting a very different battle to one they were used to, with Peter Reid at the helm and looking to guide the Whites away from a relegation that seemed unimaginable for a club that’d gone toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite in previous years under David O’Leary.
O’Leary had, of course, moved out of Elland Road at the end of the 2001/02 season, with Terry Venables replacing him. However, ‘El Tel’ failed to convince and a developing exodus of players left Leeds in a position where their Premier League status was under threat.
Heading into the final two games of the season, Leeds needed a win, with Arsenal and Aston Villa standing in their way. Reid’s side went to Arsenal and produced one of the shocks of the season, inflicting a 3-2 defeat on the Gunners, denying them the title and securing survival; the fixture against Villa was a dead rubber and Leeds won 3-1.
Their work was done at Arsenal and on the back of seeing Ian Harte rewatch ‘PL Retro’ on Sky Sports, Football League World exclusively caught up with the Irishman, who talked us through a memorable win in North London.
“It was a good performance,” Harte said.
“I think if you look at the percentages, Arsenal would’ve had around 60-odd% possession.
“Yet, we went there, Peter Reid was the manager – we’d had so many managers that season which was a bit of a nightmare – but with Viduks (Viduka) and Harry up front, Jason Wilcox in front of me, Danny Mills, Gaz Kelly, Dom Matteo having to fill in the midfield, it was kind of a makeshift team and we knew how good Arsenal were, but we knew we had to win one of those last two games.
“It was an unbelievable team Arsenal had: Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord, it was unbelievable, but we knew we had to dig deep and try and get the result.”
— Ian Harte (@ianharte23) May 4, 2020
Goals from Harry Kewell, Harte and Viduka cancelled out efforts from Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, with Leeds’ three strikes all standout individual efforts; Kewell rifled a long-range shot beyond David Seaman early on, with Harte’s deflected free-kick also beating the England No.1. Then, on 88 minutes, Viduka evaded the offside flag to race away, cut onto his left foot and curl Leeds to safety.
Harte continued: “What a strike it was from Harry, then it was my third goal I’d scored at Highbury in three seasons against David Seaman, so I was delighted with that.
“It was a great finish from Viduks as well; a great team performance against a top, top Arsenal side that were chasing the Premier League.”
As Harte admitted, Leeds fielded a makeshift line-up, but were solid, with Kewell and Viduka their Australian outlets at the top of the field.
In Leeds’ last seven games, they won four times and battled from behind to draw with Tottenham at Elland Road. Kewell scored four goals in that run of games, whilst Viduka hit 10 including a hat-trick in a 6-1 win at Charlton.
Harte chipped in with three of his own goals, with Reid helping to delay Leeds dropping out of the top-flight by a further 12 months. That was in no small part due to the form of Kewell and Viduka, who Harte was full of praise for.
“It was massively important,” Harte responded when quizzed on the form of Viduka and Kewell during the run-in.
“Viduks on his day was one of the best strikers I’ve ever played with. Harry, obviously, played a lot of his career on the left wing, so I just used to pass him the ball and let him get on with what he had to do – on his day he was unstoppable.
“He played in the little pocket at Arsenal, filling into the midfield when we didn’t have the ball.”
Leeds’ win at Arsenal was almost the last of great times from the early 2000s, with the Whites suffering relegation 12 months later and dropping out of the Premier League as financial troubles strangled them.
They haven’t returned to the Premier League since then, but are on course to do so if the current campaign can be concluded.
The Premier League has changed since Leeds dropped out and neither Arsenal nor Man United are the powers they once were. Yet, rubbing shoulders with that duo and taking on the likes of Liverpool and Man City is what Elland Road wants to see.
PL Retro only adds to that desire.