Today marks 19 years since Leeds United were heading to Valencia for their biggest evening in Europe since 1975, with David O’Leary’s side on the cusp of delivering a European Cup final for the first time since the days of Billy Bremner and co.
Leeds held Valencia to a goalless draw at Elland Road in the first-leg of the semi-final, with things finely poised heading back to Spain on May 8th. However, O’Leary’s side would see their memorable run ended by an impressive Valencia side, albeit with a little help from the hand of Juan Sanchez.
The previous year, Leeds had reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup and a young side embarking on the Champions League weren’t given much hope in progressing through a Group Stage including Barcelona and AC Milan. Yet, Leeds defied the odds to move into the second phase of the competition, where the likes of Real Madrid and Anderlecht were waiting.
Again, Leeds moved past elite competition and into the knockout stages, with Harte recalling the memories of a packed Elland Road when Football League World exclusively caught up with him this week.
“It was amazing for every player that was involved and the fans as well,” Harte told FLW.
“The year previous was the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup and the following year the semi-finals of the Champions League.
“To play against teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan along the way, it is every young lads’ dream come the day you retire to have achieved these things in football.
“That year was pretty special; the togetherness within the group of lads. A packed Elland Road, those midweek games were pretty special for the city.”
After seeing off Anderlecht and Lazio in the Second Group Stage, Leeds moved into the knockout rounds, where they were drawn against Deportivo La Coruna in the Quarter Final.
It was there where Harte enjoyed a standout moment of his season – and perhaps his career – with a goal and two assists to put Leeds into a 3-0 lead in the first-leg; O’Leary’s side would lose 2-0 in the return leg, but the damage had been done and the Whites were into the last four.
Valencia were waiting for them there, with Hector Cuper’s side aiming for a second Champions League final in two seasons.
Leeds hosted the Spaniards in the first-leg but nothing separated the two sides; O’Leary’s side rallied for an advantage with a promising second-half performance, but Valencia weren’t without threat and Nigel Martyn pulled off some fine saves.
All eyes were on the return leg six days later, with Leeds heading to Spain and looking to land the first blow in a tie that could go either way.
They were without Lee Bowyer who picked up a suspension following a stamp on Juan Sanchez, and their task of overcoming an impressive Valencia side was made tougher when Sanchez controversially opened the scoring inside 15 minutes.
Harte recalls: “They had some unbelievable players in their team: John Carew, Mendieta, Angulo, Canizares, but, as always, the first goal in the game normally changes the game.
“Sanchez was the one that scored and he definitely didn’t head the ball, he flicked the ball past Nigel with his hand. Okay, they were a good side, but the first goal should never have stood and all of a sudden you are chasing the game trying to get back into it, then they score another two goals.”
Sanchez struck again shortly after half-time and Gaizka Mendieta put the tie beyond doubt, Leeds lost Alan Smith to a red card late on and their European adventure was brought to an end.
Harte conceded: “It was disappointing, it was the end of the road, but it was a great achievement for a club like Leeds United.”
Valencia moved on to the final where they met Bayern Munich in Milan’s San Siro stadium; Dom Matteo had famously scored for Leeds there earlier in the campaign on another memorable European night.
Bayern won the tie 5-4 on penalties following a 1-1 draw, with Valencia missing out on Europe’s major trophy for a second season running.
How would a young Leeds side have gone on in the final, though? Could O’Leary’s side have inflicted revenge on Bayern Munich for 1975?
“You look at German sides, they are so, so good, with the experience,” Harte concluded.
“Who knows? It wasn’t to be. I know people say ‘if’ but we’ve got to face the facts, (in the semi-finals) we were beaten by the better side; the first goal changed the way the game played out, but Valencia were a top side.
“That’s the way it goes sometimes in football.”