Troyes were only formed in 1986, but even before appointing Paddy Kisnorbo as manager in 2022, they’d found time for history with Leeds United. Drawn together in the second round of the 2001/02 UEFA Cup, Troyes manager Alain Perrin described the fixture as “David contre Goliath”, writing in his programme notes, “Leeds are like Everest, and conquering them would be a remarkable exploit.”
David O’Leary was warning his players against complacency. Troyes qualified for the tournament after beating Newcastle in one of three finals of a long lost competition I now dream of Leeds being able to compete in, the Intertoto Cup. In the second leg at St James’ Park, Troyes embarrassed the hosts by taking a 4-1 lead. Gary Speed scored to help Newcastle come back to earn a 4-4 draw, but Troyes still qualified on away goals.
Leeds went into the first leg at Elland Road off the back of a 1-1 draw with Liverpool at Anfield, and were top of the Premier League. Two days before the visit of the Ligue 1 side, Leeds agreed to pay Derby £7m for Seth Johnson, introducing their new midfielder to the crowd at half-time so he could sign a contract filled with numbers that only made sense to chairman Peter Ridsdale.
Reinforcements in midfield seemed like a sensible idea. Lee Bowyer was standing trial for a second time alongside Jonathan Woodgate following the assault of student Sarfraz Najeib in Leeds city centre. But against Troyes, Bowyer showed Johnson he wasn’t going to step aside, travelling back from Hull Crown Court to score twice. Mark Viduka also got two, and Leeds were 4-1 up when the visitors’ Mehdi Meniri was sent off early in the second half for elbowing Viduka in the face. Leeds relaxed, to O’Leary’s frustration, and the ten players of Troyes gave themselves hope for the second leg when former France international Patrice Loko scored his second of the night.
“The moment they went down to ten men we stopped playing. That is what disappointed me. They were the better side with ten men,” said O’Leary. He added: “Troyes will be delighted, because this tie should have been finished. We stopped playing. I just think we’re a bit immature and when you’re growing up, you do daft things.”
Leeds maintained their unbeaten start to the league campaign by drawing with Chelsea and Scum before travelling to France for the return leg. Rio Ferdinand was ruled out with a hamstring injury, staying at home with the preoccupied Bowyer and Woodgate. Lucas Radebe was also injured, meaning Michael Duberry made his first start for over a year since rupturing his achilles. Duberry had been in court to stand as a prosecution witness against his two teammates the previous week. In an unfortunate turn of phrase, he said he hoped to “do myself justice” against Troyes.
Playing in the all-white Nike kit from the previous season’s Champions League run, but without a Strongbow logo due to French laws banning the advertising of alcohol, Duberry had a funny way of proving himself. A mix-up with Nigel Martyn sent Duberry falling over his own feet and hurriedly clearing the ball for a corner. Troyes played it to the edge of the box, where Gharib Amzine thumped a swerving shot into the net.
Viduka equalised from close range shortly afterwards, David Batty coolly chipping a cross onto the striker’s head. But Leeds were learning how Newcastle had felt at St James’ Park. David Hamed shot from a free-kick closer to the halfway line than the goal, finding the bottom corner courtesy of a deflection off Dom Matteo. When Jerome Rothen, who played in the Champions League final with Monaco three years later, ran unmarked into the box to score his side’s third of the night, Troyes were heading through on away goals. They kept pushing for a fourth, and first-leg goalscorer Loko should have got it, only to shank a one-on-one over the bar. “My heart was in my mouth there,” O’Leary said afterwards.
With thirteen minutes left, Batty drove forward and slipped Viduka in on goal. Viduka’s shot was blocked, arcing into the air and onto the head of Robbie Keane, who nodded the ball into the empty net, enough to put Leeds through 6-5 on aggregate. Moments before scoring, Keane hadn’t realised Leeds were about to be eliminated, saying to Eirik Bakke, “Do we need another one?” Good job he asked.
Perrin declared Leeds “lucky”. O’Leary spoke of his relief, hoping for an easier tie in the next round. He soon had bigger problems. Leeds won just two of their next six league games, slipping from title challengers to 4th. Failing to qualify for the Champions League cost O’Leary his job at the end of the season.
United didn’t know it at the time, but amid players in court and overpaid signings like Seth Johnson, they were on the way down to ‘Doing a Leeds’ getting its own Wikipedia page. Peter Ridsdale was seen in the stands while Leeds were behind in Troyes, looking like he was counting the cost of future revenue if they were knocked out. He was still living the dream at full-time, but perhaps he should have paid more attention to the words George Caulkin wrote in The Times, after the first leg at Elland Road:
‘This was soaring, disdainful football; Troyes, a team of genuine merit, were swatted aside, then twice permitted to crawl their way back… A deep gulp of air and a little patience would serve Leeds well. They are in too much of a hurry.’ ⬢