Eirik Bakke: Beating ‘arrogant’ Arsenal with Leeds; going on the p*ss pre-Milan
Sogndal, a municipality in the west of Norway, counts a handful of ardent Leeds United supporters among its modest population of around 12,000.
On the evening of July 17, they gathered at their local pub, jubilant and disbelieving following West Brom’s shock 2-1 defeat to Huddersfield. After 16 years away – 16 years of near misses, financial mismanagement and second- and third-tier football – the result confirmed Leeds were back in the Premier League.
Then the Leeds fans saw what at first they might have mistaken for an apparition brought on by the heady combination of beer and promotion-induced euphoria. In walked Eirik Bakke, the high-energy Leeds midfielder of the early 2000s, poised to join them in celebration.
“I knew they were there so I turned up,” Bakke says. “They had been waiting a long time. I think they were surprised to see me there. We had a good night.”
Bakke began and ended his playing career with Sogndal IL and now manages the club. He was just 21 when he left his hometown side to join Leeds in 1999, having been spotted the previous summer starring for a talented Norway squad that finished third at the Under-21 European Championships.
Other clubs were interested in Bakke, who grew up an Everton supporter, but manager David O’Leary’s plans for building a youthful side and making the Norwegian a key figure within it sold him on Elland Road. He was voted the club’s Young Player of the Year at the end of his first season in England, helping Leeds finish third in the league and reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup.
“That season was like an adventure,” Bakke remembers. “The team was flying in Europe, going to Russia, to Rome, to Turkey. That team should have won the league that year.
“We had a match at home against [Manchester] United. We made a mistake and suddenly Andy Cole scored and we were six points behind. We were close for a long time. The talent of that group was so big.”
Champions League scare
The following season, 2000-01, saw Leeds embark on an against-the-odds run to the last four of the Champions League, even if Bakke’s first contribution to that campaign was one he’d rather forget.
“I got sent off in the first [qualifying] game against 1860 Munich at home,” he says. “We were close to going out before it had started.”
After scraping through qualification, Leeds hit their stride. The Champions League was operating a format that year whereby progress from the first group stage led to another group round, then on to the quarter-finals.
The Yorkshire club conjured a string of magical European performances to qualify from a first group including AC Milan, Barcelona and Besiktas and a second round against Real Madrid, Lazio and Anderlecht. Deportivo La Coruna were then seen off in the last eight, before O’Leary’s young guns eventually fell to Valencia in the semis.
Arguably the most memorable fixture of the run was the trip to the San Siro, where Leeds needed a point against Milan to qualify from the first group. Four days earlier, they had beaten Liverpool 4-3 at Anfield, with Mark Viduka scoring all four.
Several players celebrated the result with an unsanctioned night on the town. Before training next to Lake Como the day before the Milan game, O’Leary confronted his misbehaving stars.
“The chairman and the manager weren’t happy with us,” Bakke says. “Especially me and Dominic [Matteo]. The manager pulled us out and said he’d heard that the boys had been out and that me and Dominic had been there.
“It put pressure on us. He said, ‘You better perform tomorrow.’ I’ve never been so afraid before a match in all my life.”
A 1-1 draw, aided by a missed Andriy Shevchenko penalty, meant Leeds were through. Matteo atoned for his indiscretion with a rare goal.
“It was a good story when we got through, but it wouldn’t have be nice if we hadn’t got a point in Milan – but then I wouldn’t tell it,” Bakke laughs.
With the likes of Harry Kewell, Rio Ferdinand, Viduka, Lee Bowyer and Alan Smith, Leeds suffered no shortage of talent. But few among them had yet experienced such a high level of football. Their youthful swagger, though, is what made them so formidable, Bakke suggests.
“The good thing about that Leeds team was that we didn’t fear anyone,” he says. “We just played our game. We were a bit lucky against Deportivo away and we didn’t take our chances against Valencia. We were close but not good enough.
“We were playing all the big teams in Europe – Barcelona, Real Madrid – and we were close to beating all of them.”
The turning point
Despite Leeds’ success on the continent and a strong finish to the Premier League season, which saw them beaten only once in their last 16 games, they were pipped to third place – the final Champions League-qualifying position at the time – by Liverpool.
Little did they know at the time, this failure to secure Champions League football would begin a downward spiral the club have only now, almost 20 years later, begun to climb out from.
Under the stewardship of chairman Peter Ridsdale, Leeds had spent big to build a side capable of challenging Manchester United and Arsenal’s Premier League supremacy, a financial gamble predicated on reaching the Champions League each year. When they lost their seat at Europe’s top table, Leeds began to plummet.
“We bought a lot of players we didn’t need,” Bakke says. “They were good players – Robbie Fowler and many other great players – but we had talented strikers from before.
“Some of the young boys should have been playing more. They were the bread and butter of Leeds, growing up in the academy and playing together. They were split up a little bit, and they brought in too many individuals.
“To play for Leeds, you had to be a group together. We couldn’t have any superstars in that team. We needed 11 fighters to fight all the time. They came in and they didn’t understand the culture that was there. I could see straight away the team spirit was gone.”
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By the end of the 2002-03 season, Leeds were more than £100million in debt and fighting to survive in the Premier League. Ridsdale had stepped down and Peter Reid had been parachuted in as manager on a rescue mission.
Safety was secured only on the penultimate weekend of the campaign, thanks to a stunning 3-2 victory over Arsenal at Highbury, a result that handed the title to rivals Manchester United.
“Peter Reid stopped the bus on the way home after we beat Charlton 6-1 in his first game and brought on two cases of beer,” Bakke says. “At that time, Peter was great with the boys. He got the spirit together. I think that’s why we beat Arsenal.
“Away against Arsenal, we always did well. We had won there before. We always had a big rivalry between ourselves and them. When they were losing, they were so arrogant. Bad losers. To beat them a few times was one of my highlights.”
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Leeds’ survival that year merely delayed the inevitable, though. A 19th-place finish in 2003-04 condemned them to the second tier.
“There were so many things going wrong in the club,” Bakke sighs. “There were new owners. When Ken Bates came in, it messed everything up.
“There were different managers coming in, and the players coming in were good lads but they were Championship players. We knew where we were going.”
Except for a short loan spell to reunite with O’Leary at Aston Villa, Bakke remained a Leeds player until returning to Norway with Brann in August 2006. Injuries had long begun to mount up, though, with just 25 of his 210 appearances for the club coming in his final three years at Elland Road.
Despite the obvious turmoil at the club, few envisaged Leeds would spend so long outside the Premier League. And fewer still could have predicted it would take the unlikely appointment of one of the world’s most influential and enigmatic managers to get them back.
“They needed some crazy guy to come in who was different,” Bakke says of Marcelo Bielsa. “It started with the Italian owners when they took over. There was something happening in the club. And they play the Leeds way – a little bit hard; they want to press and fight.
“It looked like we were never going to come back. Now he’s done it, and not by buying his way into it; he’s not spent a lot of money like other teams. Hopefully they can build on this now and stay in the league for many years to come.”
The supporters in Sogndal are hopeful Bielsa can banish the bad times for good and keep Leeds in the Premier League. Staying up this season would certainly warrant another celebration down the local pub, whether joined by a star of the club’s past glories or not.
By Ryan Baldi