Dominic Matteo: I still feel responsible for Leeds United’s relegation
Whether you’re a player, fan or opponent, Leeds United can get under your skin like few other clubs.
Eddie Gray joined Leeds as a 16-year-old Celtic fan in 1965 but has devoted the vast majority of his life since to serving the Peacocks in whatever capacity possible.
Lucas Radebe was born and raised in Soweto, South Africa, but will forever be an honorary Yorkshireman.
Even after leaving Leeds, Jermaine Beckford just couldn’t bring himself to score against his former club whenever he returned to Elland Road and would instead infuriate his current employers by dishing out Leeds salutes.
Like plenty of players before and since, Dominic Matteo arrived at Leeds due to a combination of chance and circumstance rather than a burning desire to wear the white shirt. By the time he had to leave, he had to be pushed out of the door against his will.
Matteo had just signed a five-year contract at Liverpool in the summer of 2000 and was preparing to spend the rest of his career at his boyhood club when a transfer to David O’Leary’s Leeds materialised.
Speaking on our new 2000s podcast, The Broken Metatarsal, Matteo says: “I didn’t want to leave Liverpool, that’s the truth. I had five years left on my contract. Me and Houllier didn’t get on.”
“It’s very hard to compare with Liverpool. I’d come through the ranks, so you’re brought up a certain way – The Liverpool Way. I’ve never really changed from that. Wherever I went that was always going to be in me.
“I’d played against Leeds and we thought they were quite cocky when we talked about them in the Liverpool dressing room, which they were. They had a lot of young lads, they liked to put themselves about the field. They had a good mix of youth and experience, which I liked.
“Being honest, did I think it would be a step up? Probably not.”
It didn’t take long before Matteo started to realise leaving Liverpool could be a blessing in disguise. The aforementioned Gray became a “father-like figure” to the defender, teaching him about the club’s history and advising him to absorb the atmosphere of the city and fans.
“I found the Leeds fans so approachable,” he says. “There was always a connection with me and the Leeds fans pretty instantly.”
Once he started training with O’Leary’s squad, Matteo only grew in confidence.
“I got to Leeds and the quality of training was good. It was a great standard. There were a lot more better players than what you’d think. Unless you’re at a club you don’t see day-to-day training.
“There were a couple of players that impressed me in training straight away. Lee Bowyer I straight away thought, ‘He’s a player.’ I’d played against him for a couple of seasons and thought I handled him quite well. But then you see people in a different light when you’re day in, day out with them.”
Matteo witnessed firsthand the rise and fall of that Leeds team, making his debut in a Champions League victory over AC Milan at Elland Road, writing his name in folklore by scoring in the San Siro, but also captaining the side to their subsequent relegation just three years later.
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The 45-year-old speaks at length about the glory days on The Broken Metatarsal – including why Mark Viduka had his mind on lasagna at the San Siro – but what’s particularly striking is the emotion with which he talks about his Leeds exit.
After beginning the interview talking with reverence about his boyhood club Liverpool, Matteo ends it sounding as pained as the most passionate of Leeds supporters about how he left Elland Road.
“I still think about that [relegation] most days,” he says. “There’s not a week goes by when I don’t think about that relegation – not a chance. From where we were to where we to, I still have nightmares about it.
“I still feel partly responsible. I’m big enough to admit that. I was captaining the side at the time. There was a lot of other things off the field, there was a lot of things on the field, but at the end of the day I always say I don’t care who the manager is, what the off-field problems are, it’s the players – they’re the ones that cross the line.
“Yes, the structure was all over the place. Yes, training was rubbish at times. But we still had good enough players not to be in that position. It’s difficult to say, but it just felt like the wheels were coming off. For me personally, as players we could have done a bit more, me included.
“Everyone could have done a bit more. It’s easy to say that now, but I do believe that. I worked my b*llocks off week in, week out. But training was crap and I wasn’t good enough not to train well and then go play in a game. I had to train well every day leading up to a game for my performance to be right, and that period wasn’t right.
“For whatever reason, too many managers, I don’t know, it was awful. I didn’t even know who to speak to at times about the off-field/on-field problems. It was horrible; sad, sad days.
After Leeds were relegated to the Championship in 2004, Matteo stayed in the Premier League with Blackburn Rovers, but he insists he did not want to leave the club.
“Even after the relegation I wanted to stay. I don’t think I was on as big money as some of the players that stayed. I wasn’t on incredible money, but I’ll tell you what, there were people certainly on more money than me that they kept.
“I was really surprised they didn’t keep me. I wanted to stay and they said to me, ‘We can get rid of you because teams will take you.’ That was the thing why other players stayed: because other clubs didn’t want them.
“I tried to stay, they wouldn’t have it, and I had to leave. I just wanted to get that out there that I did try to stay, because I felt responsible. Maybe if I had stayed things might have been different, I don’t know.
“I’ve always had a feeling about that, that game against Watford in the play-off final (when Leeds were beaten 3-0 in 2006 – they were relegated to League One the following season), I’m not sure if things might have been slightly different if I’d been around.
“I was at that game in the crowd feeling like I should have been out there. Towards the latter stages of my Leeds career I was a voice and I just feel like maybe they got rid of me a couple of seasons too early.”
But Matteo ends on a defiant note. Leeds got under his skin as a player, and the club remains under his skin as a fan today.
“All I can say for Leeds United now is we’re going back in the right direction, which I love. Once they’re back in the Premier League I’ll be able to breathe again.”
Listen to the full episode of The Broken Metatarsal with Matteo and Britain’s Got Talent Finalist Micky P Kerr below.