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Alan Smith (In MK Dons colours) whose sending off was a pivotal moment.  (Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images)
Alan Smith (In MK Dons colours) whose sending off was a pivotal moment. (Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images)
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The 2002 FA Cup was seen as an ideal opportunity for David O’Leary’s Leeds United babies to mature and collect the clubs first piece of silverware for 10 years. After the glorious European runs of the previous two seasons, United looked to concentrate on domestic affairs and were top of the Premiership at the start of the New Year.

With Wembley Stadium demolished and in the process of being rebuilt, the Cup Final had moved to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, and the 3rd Round draw gave Leeds the opportunity to start and finish the competition in the Welsh capital as they were handed a tie against 2nd Division Cardiff City.

The omens were good, as Leeds had won at Ninian Park on their way to winning the cup for the only time in the clubs history 40 years earlier. With Cardiff languishing in the third tier of the English league, United were expected to breeze through the tie. However Cardiff were looking to become upwardly mobile, with former Wimbledon chairman Sam Hammam having taken over the club. He had visions of Cardiff making it into the Premiership and had started to bankroll the club, splashing the cash in the transfer market to bring in players like Spencer Prior and Graham Kavanagh.

With Hammam’s history in the cup, his Wimbledon team creating the biggest upset in Final history by beating Liverpool in 1988, and the sniff of an upset in the air, the match was selected by Sky as their tie of the round, the match broadcast to the nation on Sunday 6th January 2002. To give the game a further sense of occasion Cardiff made John Charles the guest of honour, the Leeds United legend having ended his career with the Bluebirds.

Leeds lined up with the same team that had destroyed West Ham United 3-0 on New Year’s Day to go to the top of the Premiership. Rio Ferdinand and Jonathan Woodgate were at the heart of the defence with Danny Mills maintaining his place at right back. A tight midfield three of Gary Kelly, David Batty and Lee Bowyer provided the bullets for a frightening looking forward three, Robbie Fowler, Alan Smith and Mark Viduka.

A sell-out crowd of 22, 000 generated a hostile atmosphere for the League leaders to perform in. It was crucial that Leeds silenced the home crowd early on, but it was the underdogs who made all the early running. A 20 year old forward named Robert Earnshaw had been earning rave reviews for the Bluebirds, and his pace had Ian Harte at left back worried. Twice in the opening minutes the striker burst past Harte into Leeds territory. Cardiff’s game plan was based around trying to get throw ins and corners and pile bodies into the box. This was because in left back Andy Legg, they had a man with one of the longest throws in the game, turning any throw in the Leeds half into an opportunity to cause chaos.

Leeds hopes of repelling this threat were dealt a severe blow in the 8th minute when Rio Ferdinand was caught by a late challenge from Cardiff striker Gavin Gordon. The Leeds skipper stayed down, clutching his ankle. It was a bad enough injury to force him off the field, with Michael Duberry coming on to replace him and play alongside Woodgate. This in itself was a difficult situation for the players, with Duberry having recently given evidence against Woodgate in the trial at Hull Crown Court relating to the assault of Sarfraz Najieb.

The frantic opening to the game had seen Leeds unable to get on the ball and service their front men, however when they were presented an opportunity in the 12th minute they took it clinically.

Spencer Prior, the experienced former Derby centre back, played a sloppy ball in the midfield area which was pounced upon by Batty. He strode forward and with Fowler and Viduka as options in front of him he chose to slide the ball into the path of the Australian. Viduka simply took the ball in his stride, smashing it past the keeper, Neil Alexander, from the edge of the area at his near post. “My God, what a finish” Andy Gray commented on the power of the strike, measured at half time as having flashed past the keeper at 77mph.

If Leeds expected the goal to take the wind out of Cardiff’s sails, they were sadly mistaken. With the Leeds midfield three sitting in the centre of the park, Ian Harte was being given no protection from the pace of Earnshaw, picking up a yellow card on 18 minutes for a blatant tug on the forwards shorts as he scooted round him once again.

The opening 20 minutes had seen Cardiff be much the better side and they were soon rewarded with an equaliser. Alan Smith committed a foul 25 yards out on the left hand side, level with the corner of the penalty area. With the defence expecting a cross, Graham Kavanagh, who Cardiff had paid £1m for from Stoke City, surprised Nigel Martyn by curling an effort up and over the wall and into the top corner for a superb goal.

Not only was the narrow midfield causing problems defensively, it also provided no width in an attacking sense, Leeds finding it tough going to make forward progress, everything being channelled centrally and offering no outlet ball. With Cardiff pumped up and hustling and harrying all over the field, and with the constant pressure of balls being pumped into the box, United were looking as if they were on the ropes. However when they were able to get the ball down and move it around, they looked capable of causing problems themselves, Fowler firing over the bar after some neat build up play.

With the game finely poised, the balance was tilted in Cardiff’s favour two minutes before half time. A ball played into Alan Smith on the halfway line saw him tightly marked by Legg. With both players pulling at each other, Smith fended the full back off with his arm, with the Cardiff man reacting hysterically, flipping himself backwards holding his face. To the Leeds player’s astonishment, referee Andy D’Urso brandished a red card, for an elbow, the 6th dismissal of the 21 year old striker’s short career.

On the bench David O’Leary was apoplectic at the decision, berating the fourth official and screaming “cheat” at Legg, who was booked for his shirt pulling in the incident. O’Leary described the decision as “embarrassing” to Sky’s Geoff Shreeves at half time, but the actions of D’Urso made United’s task even more difficult.

Remarkably Leeds came out after the break looking more composed and proceeded to defend impeccably as Cardiff continued to enjoy the lion’s share of the play. Woodgate survived a scary moment when the ball bobbled off his shin 25 yards out from his own goal, the ball falling nicely for Willie Boland who wasted the opportunity presented to him by firing straight at Martyn.

It was a rare blip in the performance from Woodgate, a player who had lost form and confidence during his ordeal in court. Now with the affair behind him, he looked back to his best, his imperious performance a major factor in United’s defensive solidity as they saw off wave after wave of Cardiff pressure.

Leeds looked happy to sit in and hold on for a replay, although David O’Leary again showed his tactical rigidity, refusing to utilise his bench where Jason Wilcox may have provided some support for Harte on the left hand side.

Ten minutes from time, Cardiff boss Alan Cork threw on his giant striker Leo Fortune West to replace Gordon as the aerial bombardment continued. With Sam Hamamm having taken up a place behind Nigel Martyn’s goal to whip up the crowd even further, the match was reaching a crescendo. There was a danger of things going a little too far though, as the referee had to halt the game for the umpteenth time due to an item being thrown on the pitch from the crowd. There had been several bottles hurled at the Leeds players, but this time it was a coin which had been thrown, and it had struck the referee on the head.

With the game entering the final five minutes, Cardiff continued to pour forward and forced three corners in quick succession. As the third one was taken, the referee called a halt to sort out some pushing, allowing Cardiff to retake the overhit kick. This time Kavanagh’s delivery was better finding Fortune West at the back post. His header was goal bound but was blocked by Batty. Unfortunately for the Leeds man the ball ricocheted off his shins into the path of centre back Scott Young who arrived on the scene to smash the ball into the net from six yards and send the crowd into ecstasy.

There was no time for Leeds to recover, and after three minutes of stoppage time Andy D’Urso blew his whistle for the last time prompting a pitch invasion of the joyful Cardiff fans, one that was laced with a little menace as they made their way towards the Leeds fans in the corner of the ground, although there were no serious incidents. The result was the shock of the round as the “best team in the land” according to Martin Tyler were sent crashing out.

The game is seen as the beginning of the end for David O’Leary’s time as manager at Elland Road, and the start of the clubs slide into the financial turmoil which eventually engulfed the club.

It would be 2 months until Leeds won another game, their challenge for the Championship disappearing, with the slump taking United out of the Champions League spot that was their minimum requirement to balance the books. O’Leary’s reputation was tarnished by the ill-timed publication of his book Leeds United On Trial which exposed his thoughts on the whole Bowyer/Woodgate affair. At the end of the season he was sacked, and the fire sale of his babies began.

For Cardiff it has been an upward curve. Whilst they have not quite made the Premier League, and have had financial difficulties of their own, they are more favoured to be in the promotion shake up this season. They have also had the Indian sign over United since that day, unbeaten against the Whites in 10 encounters since. Whilst there have been some painful defeats in that time, it is this cup shock which has hurt the most and made Cardiff one of our most fierce rivals in recent times.

CARDIFF: Alexander; Gabbidon, Prior, Young, Legg; Bonner, Kavanagh, Boland, Earnshaw; Gordon (Fortune- West), Bryson.

LEEDS: Martyn; Mills, Woodgate, Ferdinand (Duberry), Harte; Kelly, Batty, Bowyer; Smith, Viduka, Fowler.