They may be a Championship team these days, but it was only 2001 that Leeds United reached the Champions League semi-finals. Michael Duberry remembers the night he tamed Andriy Shevchenko and AC Milan…
With each passing year, the Champions League seems to be becoming more and more predictable.
When the major underdog story concerns Monaco, a team bankrolled to the tune of €140million in one transfer window in 2013, you know something is up.
It wasn’t that way at the start of the century, however. While the super-rich were there, their wealth was not enough to stand in the way of smaller clubs coming close to European glory. Over the course of 2000-01 to 2005-06, 11 different teams made the final of the continent’s top club competition, and that’s before you get onto the range of teams to reach the semi-finals.
Leeds United weren’t exactly small spenders around the turn of the century – the well-trodden story about Seth Johnson’s wage negotiations might be apocryphal, but David O’Leary’s side prepared for their 2000-01 Champions League campaign by splashing out nearly £20million in pre-season moves for Olivier Dacourt, Dominic Matteo and Mark Viduka.
However, as they went about their business in Europe, an injury crisis meant O’Leary was left with some matchday squads including names who were far from first-choice selections.
One of those, Michael Duberry, went into the season expecting to act as a back-up to captain Lucas Radebe and breakthrough academy product Jonathan Woodgate. However, injuries to the pair left the former Chelsea centre-back starting for the Yorkshire club in two European outings which were very memorable for different reasons.
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Having beaten 1860 Munich to reach the group stages, Leeds’ reward was a group containing AC Milan, Barcelona and Beşiktaş: a daunting prospect for their first season in the Champions League since the competition’s inaugural season under its new name in 1992-93.
And they were right to fear the worst: Duberry (stepping in for Woodgate) and Radebe were no match for a Rivaldo-inspired Barcelona, with a late injury to the South African making a 4-0 defeat even worse.
“We are really running out of players,” O’Leary admitted after a game in which his two substitutes – Tony Hackworth and Danny Hay – were both making their debuts.
With the following week’s game at home to Milan coming too soon for Radebe, expectations were low. But, as Duberry explains, the Elland Road crowd and the perfect conditions for a depleted side made for one of the most unlikely of famous European nights.
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“They’ve got Bierhoff and Shevchenko on fire, and we’ve just come back from the Nou Camp after being beaten 4-0 on our European debut so everyone’s thinking we’re going to get pumped in this game,” Duberry says.
“We had a lot of injuries, so it was me and Danny Mills as the two centre-halves, and there was a bit of a groan from Elland Road when the teams were announced.”
If that centre-back pairing wasn’t enough of a red flag, the overall strength of the squad ought to have been, with Viduka’s Olympic Games duties meaning a teenage Alan Smith and 23-year-old Michael Bridges started as the front two.
Hackworth and Hay were among the subs once more, while the other subs included Jacob Burns, a young Australian with one senior club game under his belt, and Gareth Evans, with two sub appearances.
There was one other factor, though, and it’s one which Duberry maintains made a huge bit of difference both psychologically and in real terms.
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“It was a Tuesday night, Elland Road, Yorkshire, rainy, they’re thinking, ‘Ugh, what’s this?’ and we’re thinking ‘Yes!’” recalls the defender.
“As a kid you used to love playing in the rain, slide tackles, getting up with your kit half-drenched – this time you haven’t got your mum saying, ‘Get in!’”
Sure enough, that Milan side – with Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta at centre-back along with that formidable front two – couldn’t find a way past Duberry and Mills, let alone goalkeeper Nigel Martyn.
The hosts still needed to score, though, and the miserable conditions played a part there too. Lee Bowyer’s optimistic long-range strike ought not to have bothered most goalkeepers, and certainly not Brazil international Dida, but the wet ball slipped through his grasp for what proved to be the only goal of the game.
“Lee Bowyer scoring the winner late on – as a stadium, Elland Road on a night game…with 34,000 Yorkshire people shouting, the noise is unbelievable,” Duberry says.
“It’s still one of my best games to date – over 500 games and that one stands out every time as one of the top games.”
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For a team like Leeds and a player like Duberry, the attention brought by Champions League football could well have caused them to freeze. Instead, it galvanised them.
Speaking at the PokerStars Festival Dublin, Duberry says the spectacle and surroundings ahead of Elland Road’s first ever group stage game in the competition will stay with him forever.
“The Champions League, going out to that music was just unbelievable, so that was one of my highlights,” he says with a smile on his face.
“I always remember as well, a little thing for myself – I was in the tunnel, when I’m standing in the tunnel I’m always focused, and then Paolo Maldini, who was my idol, turned round to me and shook my hand. So I was like, ‘No worries, Paolo.'”
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Leeds would go on to achieve the unthinkable that season, remaining unbeaten in their remaining group games – including some backs-to-the-wall defending at the San Siro and at home to Barcelona – before stunning Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico to escape the second group stage and then beating La Liga champions Deportivo La Coruña 3-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals.
Duberry didn’t feature that night – £18million arrival Rio Ferdinand partnered Matteo over both legs against Depor and both legs of the semi-final loss to Valencia. In fact, the Milan game would be his last in Europe, but he’ll always have those memories.
“That was my stand-out game,” he says.
“AC Milan, rich in history, a great club. Hopefully Leeds have many a night like that, and getting back to the Premier League and being in that company would be great for the club.”
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