The Greatest LUFC comeback ever?

Matthew Lewis

James Mack looks back at a bygone Leeds v Derby game from 1997.

Saturday 8th November 1997 – Leeds United v Derby County, a pulsating and exhilarating game and arguably the greatest comeback in the Whites history. Leeds came into the match on the back of some impressive results against Newcastle & Spurs and were in confident mood to do battle against a team who were a place above them in the league (6th) and with an advantage that was held by goal difference only. George Graham, now 14 months into his reign presided over a very different United to the one he steered to safety the year before. A 7 goal thriller earlier in the season against Blackburn must surely have given him a massive spike in blood pressure on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. In his programme notes, Graham gave the warning that despite the excitement his team were generating, things were not ‘100% right’. He informed the faithful that he had been on his travels that week visiting two countries in Europe in the hope of strengthening a squad that was ‘making encouraging strides forward’. George took the time to mention the club’s youth policy; a policy that we now know produced many a shining light for the first team. A policy that he quite rightly took no credit for. As a footnote to all this he typically played things down by reminding us that we are far from being an outstanding team yet’. The programme itself (weighing in at a respectable 50 pages and at a price of £2) was typically filled with a hefty fifteen page Christmas catalogue. The programme showed that United were in full commercial hyper drive, resulting from the Caspian takeover of the club the year before. Ads in the programme included one that encouraged parents to leave their kids at Middleton Leisure Centre on match-days for a fee that was slightly less than the price they had paid for a match-ticket, all I can say to that is, poor kids! The match itself came at a time when I and a group of friends had the novel idea of wandering around Yorkshire on a Saturday afternoon attending obscure lower-league games at places such as Scarborough and York etc. As enjoyable as those outings were, on this afternoon however, we decided to pay our £17.50 and spend our afternoon down at Elland Road with two unusual companions; a pair of Man United fans no less! After the events of this extraordinary afternoon almost two converts into the true white army. We settled down to watch Derby start the match in blistering form, a performance that enabled them to race them into a 3-0 lead at the Kop end. All the talk beforehand of the Derby threat concerned the gangly, skilful Puerto Rican Paolo Wanchope but it was his equally devastating strike partner Dean Sturridge who scored twice to do the damage. From our vantage point in the North-East upper we heard the loud bang of a firework ignited within the stadium and the sight of a pitch-invader being ejected, I imagine the vast majority of the 33,000 crowd probably felt envious of the fella and certainly contemplated following him out of the exits. By half-time however, Leeds had woken up and had reduced the deficit to one goal, through a lucky deflected goal credited to Bruno Ribeiro and a spectacular volley from Harry Kewell. Kewell was of course in arrogant form, more pleased with his goal than actually retrieving the ball to enable a quick-restart. The second-half saw Leeds completely dominate in their frantic search for an equaliser, a goal that did not materialise until 8 minutes from time via the penalty spot, typically despatched by the lethal Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. The dying minutes of the match shredded the nerves; Hasselbaink probed the Derby defence once more on the right-hand side. A clever cut-back found the storming Lee Bowyer who slammed the ball past the helpless Mart Poom to cue mania in the stands and cap off an unbelievable comeback with moments to spare. I looked across to see our Man United supporting companions, they were going absolutely crazy. To the casual observer it would seem that they were die-hard Leeds fans. Their manic behaviour is to this day still denied by the pair! Leeds & Derby spent the rest of the season vying with each other for a European spot. Later in the season the two clubs met at Pride Park. Derby were one place above Leeds at the time of the televised match on goal difference, in a clinical display however, Leeds walloped their rivals 5-0, destroying the goal difference advantage to set themselves up to claim a UEFA Cup place in front of the Rams. A place that was duly claimed in May 1998. You will doubtless have your own opinion about the greatest comeback ever, I doubt anyone could disagree however that this match is undoubtedly one of the most exciting to grace Elland Road.

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