The 2002-03 season was not a vintage one for Leeds United – and Harry Kewell is not the most popular ex-player at Elland Road – but on May 4, 2003, he was a hero.
Let’s go back to 2003 for a few moments, to refresh our memories of a time long since passed: Finding Nemo was released to huge acclaim; everyone you knew had just bought a Nokia 3200; R Kelly introduced us to the remix to Ignition; and Cheryl was still a Tweedy, busy being arrested in connection with a racially aggravated assault – halcyon days, well and truly.
In football, Manchester United were on their way to yet another title, Ruud Van Nistelrooy was top scorer, Thierry Henry was the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, and Jermaine Jenas was the PFA Young Player of the Year in a category that also included Craig Bellamy, Jermain Defoe, John O’Shea, Scott Parker and Wayne Rooney, all of whom are no longer young.
In one of the more forgettable Champions League finals of all-time, Milan and Juventus drew 0-0 at Old Trafford before the Rossoneri wrapped it up 2-3 on penalties.
We don’t care about any of that, though, really. What we’re concerned with is a game Arsenal played at Highbury on May 4, with a sinking – but not yet sunk – Leeds United as visitors.
The Whites were 16th going into the game, three points clear of the bottom three and still not safe from relegation, while Arsenal were second behind Manchester United, needing to win this one to reduce the gap at the top to two points going into the final two games.
Unfortunately for the Gunners, things did not go their way.
Little more than five minutes in, Jason Wilcox spots his left winger making a run forward, with Keown and Luzhny in tow.
Making the most of what is at best a hopeful punt, Harry Kewell watches the ball over his shoulder and allows it to bounce twice before putting his left foot through it from an impossible angle, spanking the ball in to far corner despite the best efforts of a flailing David Seaman, who can’t have been expecting him to take it first time.
If you watch the grainy footage closely enough, you can see that Kewell never actually takes a look at goal before he shoots, adding to the element of surprise that found Seaman unable to make the save.
Hitting the ball so hard just as the ball is about to bounce for the third time, his entire body is off the floor at the point of contact, which only adds to the aesthetic.
The celebration is at best feeble, but it’s endearing – you can almost see Kewell attempting to process what he’s just done, right around the time he gives a hi-five to a corner flag.
What’s best about this goal, though – aside from the wonderful strike and reminder that Jason Wilcox existed – is how perfect a snapshot of that time it provides us. That’s an Arsenal team playing at Highbury that includes Henry, Vieira, Cole, Pires, Gilberto and Seaman, wearing that O2 sponsored shirt that was the calling card of their last truly great side.
As the strike by Kewell hits the net, there’s a couple of audible – and faintly orgasmic – moans from one disgraced former Sky pundit Andy Gray to be heard, before the clip presumably cuts the footage off before he could exclaim “ya beauty!”, or similar.
Leeds too, sponsored by Strongbow and wearing that distinctive shade of blue and bright yellow, have their own claim on that period of footballing history.
Having sacked Terry Venables and replaced him with Peter Reid, this was one of their final acts of resistance before relegation in the following season.
What would become a famous 3-2 away win and last hurrah for the season, the victory inadvertently helped Manchester United secure the title, underlining just how badly Leeds couldn’t catch a break at that point in their existence.
Mark Viduka scored the winner that day, with Ian Harte also on the scoresheet. Henry and Bergkamp – as so often was the case – provided the resistance for Arsenal.
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This goal is a perfect representation of where English football was in 2003, allowing us to see how far it’s come since.
Stats and fancy-dan technology in football had yet to really take off; the shirts were baggy full of block colour advertising mobile phones and cider; the game was played at a traditional ground that’s now home to apartments; and Leeds fans didn’t yet hate Harry Kewell.
Kewell left for Liverpool two months later under acrimonious circumstances, allegedly earning more from the transfer than Leeds as a club.
Leeds will hope to return to the Premier League some time soon – but it may be some time longer before they replicate this sort of goal in an away win at Arsenal.
By Raj Bains
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