The postponement of football around the globe has left a huge window to reflect and remember fonder times, which has been the case for former Leeds United left-back Ian Harte.
Leeds had nurtured the talent of Harte through their famed academy, moulding his game and helping him on the way to a successful career domestically, in Europe and on the international stage. The Irishman was part of a Leeds squad that took the Premier League and Europe by storm around the Millennium, and at a time when Marcelo Bielsa is looking to get the Whites back to the promised land, those memories of ‘O’Leary’s babies’ bring a sense of pride; the last time this historic club battled with the elite.
Of course, this is nearly 20 years ago now, with the two decades since seeing Leeds United fall down into League One before rising again under Simon Grayson. Now, Bielsa is looking to oversee the final step. Leeds are top of the Championship and have nine games (whenever they might take place) to secure Premier League football.
As the football world comes to terms with no live coverage until at least the end of April, Football League World exclusively caught up with Ian Harte, with the 42-year-old amongst those desperate to see Leeds relive the memorable European nights he was right in the thick of.
“It’s a massive club with a massive fanbase – a global fanbase and I’m sure that all of the teams in the Premier League would love to see Leeds back,” Harte told FLW, “we’re all praying and hoping that they can get promoted this year – we’ve spent too long outside of the top division, so I really hope we can do it.
“As a Leeds fan we all hope that one day we’ll be back playing against all of the big clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid again.”
The El Clasico duo are just two of the European giants that Harte and Leeds went up against between 1999 and 2001, with David O’Leary leading his ‘babies’ to a UEFA Cup semi-final and the last four of the Champions League. A major European final – for the first time since the real glory days – evaded Leeds, but memories to last a lifetime were made by Harte and his teammates.
Harte was the left-back of O’Leary’s side, but had a wicked dead-ball delivery and was regularly influencing things in the final third. That was the case on one memorable Champions League night at Elland Road as Leeds beat Deportivo La Coruna 3-0 in the quarter-final first-leg; one foot in the semi-final with the help of Harte’s lethal left peg.
Just 27 minutes in, Harte stood over a free-kick. It was the type of distance he liked and a moment he had played out in his head the night before: “We got a free-kick on the edge of the box and the night before I’d gone to bed and I’d kind of visualised that if I got a free-kick I’d put it down and absolutely leather it.
“Sure enough that’s what happened and it stayed under the right side of the crossbar and in to the back of the goal.”
That goal had got Leeds off to a flyer and they put the reigning La Liga Champions to the sword in the second-half; Harte crossed for Alan Smith to head O’Leary’s side into a two-goal lead, before Rio Ferdinand met the Irishman’s deflected corner to give the scoreline an emphatic look.
Two assists that you can tell Harte reflects on regularly: “The other two goals that we got that evening were ones that I set up with crosses.
“I crossed one in for Smithy and then a corner that was flicked on by one of the Deportivo defenders found Rio, who headed in at the far post.
“That was one of my best nights ever.”
A magical night at Elland Road 💫
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) April 4, 2019
O’Leary’s babies were littered with talent and should’ve gone on to achieve more than they did. A trophy was never lifted, but players like Ferdinand would go on and win numerous titles with Manchester United as financial implications strangled Leeds.
Yet, it wasn’t the former England captain that Harte rated highest from that group of players. That was the Australian duo of Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka.
Kewell had progressed through Leeds’ academy like Harte, and from the left-wing had terrorised the best of defenders both domestically and on the European adventures.
Viduka was different, he had been signed ahead of the 2000/01 season from Celtic, with the powerful forward an almost instant hit on the Elland Road terrace; four goals against Liverpool in a remarkable 4-3 win and efforts in Europe against the likes of Besiktas, Lazio, Anderlecht and Real Madrid.
“They were absolutely unplayable on their day,” Harte admitted.
“Viduka – we played Liverpool and won 4-3 and he scored four goals.
“Harry – I used to just give Harry the ball. I used to try and go around the outside to overlap but I couldn’t catch up with him so I used to just let him get on with it!
“They were both very talented.”
Football has evolved since Leeds took Europe by storm at the turn of the Millennium, but there’s no doubt that the bulk of O’Leary’s side would’ve thrived under Bielsa’s coaching umbrella.
What about Harte, then? Would the Irish international have been able to adapt as Bielsa’s left-back?
“I would like to say yes but I think that the way the manager wants his players to play is with energy,” Harte conceded.
“But as well as energy you need calmness as well so I wouldn’t have a clue – the only one who can answer that would be the manager!
“I’d love to have our XI from when we were in our prime playing against the Bielsa style that is the current squad now.
“I’d love to see how that’d go, it’d be fascinating.”
The way Harte talks about the current crop and how it’d be intriguing to see them go up against O’Leary’s side tells you just how good Bielsa’s side is; after all, this is a Championship side being compared to a group of players who reached back-to-back European semi-finals.
Yet, a lot like Harte and his teammates, they are the nearly men of the Championship. Automatic promotion slipped through their fingers in the final four games of Bielsa’s first season at Elland Road, before Leeds crashed out of the play-offs in dramatic fashion at the hands of Derby County and Frank Lampard.
Leeds and Bielsa were back for more in the summer and now, as we tear our hair out during this forced postponement, just nine games separate the famous Yorkshire club from the Premier League.
Harte has gone full circle since his playing career ended and is now back at Elland Road as a fan – he was even due to feature amongst a host of Leeds legends against Bayern Munich at the end of this month, but that fixture is amongst those on hold as the threat of coronavirus grows.
That featured fixture against Bayern pales into insignificance in comparison to the current season, which Leeds will be desperate to finish as they aim to end their Premier League exile. Like many, Harte has his views on what this global shutdown means for the footballing world: “A lot of people are saying ‘finish the season now’ but you can’t because if you look at the Championship you look at who are the teams in the play-offs and it’s looking at them and deciding which is the team to go up?
“But some say we should just cancel the season and go again next season, which would means that there would be legal cases everywhere if it happens.
“It’s a freak what’s going on and hopefully it’ll disappear as quickly as it’s come.”
When the football season resumes is anyone’s guess. It’ll be April at the earliest, but Leeds may have to wait that bit longer to see if they can seal a Premier League return. For Harte, though, he’s seen enough of Bielsa’s side to know how good they are and he is backing them to right the wrongs of last season when it all kicks off again.
“They’ve been through a sticky patch and they’re through it now,” Harte said, “they’re doing very, very well.
“I think that if they can beat Fulham at home – okay there’s plenty of games left to go, but they’ve got the momentum and hopefully this is their year.”
Promotion would bring Premier League football back to Elland Road for the first time since the 2003/04 campaign, which was Harte’s last at Leeds. Since then, it has been quite the journey, but the club are on the cusp of returning.
‘Bielsa’s machines’ might not get close to achieving what O’Leary’s babies did, but there’s no doubt promotion would deliver equal pride to this one-club city.
Check out more of Phil Spencer’s exclusive interview with Ian Harte over at footballleagueworld.co.uk