All was not well with Ken Bates’ Chelsea, or with his status in football. With him as chair, the Wembley Stadium project was beset with delays and cost overruns, and it was time for a change. He didn’t go quietly: “Even Jesus only had one Pontius Pilate,” he wrote in his resignation letter, “I had a whole team of them.”
Now the FA board had voted 9-2 that they had no confidence in him as a member, and a ballot of Premier League clubs was expected to confirm his removal. He could at least count on those two votes of support: one from Dave Richards, chairman of the Premier League, the other from Peter Ridsdale, chairman of Leeds United.
Bates was chairman of Chelsea and he couldn’t find much peace there. With four games left to get into Europe, midfielder Gus Poyet was warning that manager Claudio Ranieri’s job could be on the line if Chelsea didn’t make it. Key to making it, in Poyet’s view, was for Ranieri to stop tinkering with line-ups and put him back in the team. Gianfranco Zola wasn’t happy either, and Poyet was pleading with him to stay, while Marcel Desailly was complaining that the training ground was “nasty” and “disgusting”.
Striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, top scorer with nineteen goals, was frustrated that only a couple of players around him had double figures, that Dennis Wise was one of the leading scorers with two. Hasselbaink said he wasn’t having much luck with the clubs he chose to play for — the season before, Atletico Madrid had been relegated with him as top scorer. “I came to Chelsea to win the league,” he said.
Not, he emphasised, not for the money, despite was being said about him in Leeds. The club’s official magazine was making headlines in the lead up to Hasselbaink’s return to Elland Road, for what the Daily Mail called a ‘shock attack’ by editor James Brown. He had no truck with Hasselbaink’s moaning about luck. ‘If you look at the figures on the cheque and not on the football pitch, you get cash blind,’ he wrote. ‘It’s nothing to do with luck, it’s to do with karma and greed. He had tried to leave Leeds for the lure of the Chelsea lira the year before, but we refused to let him go to another English club. So does he really think we should have mercy for the mercenary?’
Hasselbaink made a convenient pantomime baddie: Leeds were cheered onto the pitch by 39,000 fans, then as soon as Jimmy was seen, the boos began. But there were nagging doubts about history repeating with United’s current number nine.
“The truth is that he should have gone to Italy four years ago,” said Marko Naletilic, described as Mark Viduka’s ‘latest’ agent. “Now he is much too expensive,” he added, and that was affecting his chances of a move to the continent.
The potential fee, and United’s reluctance to sell, were not deterring Real Madrid, or Jupp Heynckes, who was considering becoming Barcelona coach in the summer, where if he couldn’t buy Viduka, he said, he’d buy Harry Kewell.
But the fixture list gave a clue that this was about something other than a greedy striker and his agent. Coming up in midweek at Elland Road was the first leg of United’s Champions League semi-final with Valencia, and journalists from Madrid newspaper La Marca were already in town, printing up a Madrid shirt with ‘Viduka 9’ on the back and trying to get him to pose with it at the training ground. Sensing a scheme to destabilise Leeds ahead of the game, Viduka apologised to David O’Leary and denied Marko Naletilic’s claims. “He is not representing me in any way,” he said. “I don’t know anything about Real Madrid and I want to make it clear I am happy at Leeds. I want to stay at the club and win trophies.”
The best way to settle things was, as always, on the pitch, but there wasn’t much credit to be found out there. Fans were given few opportunities to wave bank notes at ‘Piggybank’ because, between Rio Ferdinand and Dominic Matteo’s marking, it needed better players than Sam Dalla Bonna, Dennis Wise or Jody Morris to find him or Gianfranco Zola, who floated off the striker and away from the action. Most of the action consisted of low level malevolence as Chelsea sought to maintain a record of six hours without conceding an away goal.
Morris should have seen red instead of yellow for an elbow on Olivier Dacourt, and if not then, for a two-footed tackle that followed on David Batty. Batty, measuring how much licence referee Steve Dunn was allowing, flew through a few late tackles of own, enjoying pushing the ref and his old mate Hasselbaink, who sat staring in outraged disbelief while Batty strolled away after dumping him on the ground.
In the last ten minutes Hasselbaink was booked, sparking general arguments after hitting Dacourt with an elbow in front of the dugouts. Wise told David O’Leary to calm down. Batty found a plastic carrier bag on the pitch and threw it in Wise’s face. Wise caught it and started following Batty, trying to throw it back, but was blocked by other players coming between them. In keeping with the game, it was all more silly than vicious.
There was some football, including Nigel Martyn’s acrobatic save, his fingertips pushing the ball over after Ian Harte almost finished Graeme Le Saux’s low cross into his own net. Finding most of the play distasteful, Zola popped up to hit Martyn’s post with a curling shot near the end. The pressure was all from Leeds, Viduka and Alan Smith too strong for Desailly and John Terry, Lee Bowyer arriving in the box to hit good chances narrowly wide. Leeds wanted two penalties, in the first half against Terry for pulling Viduka’s shirt at a corner, in the second half when Desailly fell on the ball and blocked it with his hand.
They had to wait for two late substitutes to make the difference. With the ball being headed around, Eirik Bakke, on for Bowyer, flicked it through to Robbie Keane, on for Smith. Keane’s loan from Inter Milan had just been made permanent for £12m, but the fee wasn’t for his one-on-one finishing; trying to lift the ball over Carlo Cudicini, he smashed it off his head. The bounce was good to Keane, though, and the empty net was an easier route to his cartwheeling gun show in the south-east corner.
Now Viduka could do something. All the talk about big money moves to Spain or Italy had taken place after four goalless games; he’d been rested for a fifth, at West Ham, and was on the fringes of this one. With two minutes left, Harte’s high pass forward confused Terry and gave Viduka his chance. Seeing the big striker running through, Desailly crumbled, falling under his feet as he pursued the bouncing ball; catching it, Viduka struck with power, adding a sweet swerve away from Cudicini and into the top corner. Celebrating Leeds players piled on top of him; the crowd asked who the fuck was Hasselbaink?
“Not a great game,” said David O’Leary, although he didn’t expect them at this stage of the season. What mattered most was getting the points, and these three guaranteed qualification for the UEFA Cup, removing the need for qualification by other means.
“The Leeds plc entered us in the Intertoto Cup,” O’Leary said, a low status summer tournament that offered a backdoor to Europe, “and I wasn’t happy. I didn’t agree with it, especially the part about not being asked. But now it’s nice to put [playing in] June to bed. I told the players the best thing about today’s result is that they won’t have to face me in June — and I don’t have to face them.”
The UEFA Cup was the most Chelsea could hope for, but even that might not be enough. Ken Bates’ announcement of a £2.3m six-month loss was more like an admission. They were likely to lose £5m for the year, despite making £18m from selling Chris Sutton and Tore Andre Flo. Redeveloping Stamford Bridge had cost £150m — Bates now conceded it could have been done for less — and a £75m loan towards it was costing £7m a year in interest payments, more than the business could pay. £45m of debt was due to be repaid within twelve months, and analysts were wondering where that was going to come from. “The business model is fundamentally flawed,” said one. “While the club itself is fine, other companies” — the hotel, the apartments, the nightclubs, the restaurants — “take money out of it.” After £150m of building work by Bates, a club that had been valued at £239m was now worth just £62m.
Leeds United’s thoughts were on a brighter future. Valencia overcoming Arsenal and Manchester United’s defeat by Bayern Munich meant Leeds were the last English team in the Champions League, and on Sunday the club’s groundsman, Norman Southernwood, was off up to a field near Leeds Bradford Airport with some paint and a message to greet Valencia’s plane. ‘The only United in Europe. Welcome to Leeds.’ ◉(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)