David O’Leary sat down with Balls.ie and Livescore as part of our Champions League Memories Series, to look back on his days as Leeds manager and his ventures in Europe as a player with Arsenal. In the first episode of the series we sat down with Neil Lennon and Chris Sutton to talk all things Celtic and Europe.
David O’Leary’s first season in charge of Leeds in the 1998-99 season was a relatively successful one. After taking over from George Graham, O’Leary lead his team to fourth place in the Premier League while bringing through a host of new talent.
The fourth place finish meant that his side qualified for the 1999-00 UEFA Cup. And while his youthful team had a memorable run which culminated in elimination in the semi-finals, the campaign was marred by tragedy.
Leeds' 1999-2000 UEFA Cup Campaign
An impressive victory over Roma in the fourth round and a win over Slavia Prague vin the quarter-finals lead them to a last four fixture against Galatasary.
However, in the lead up to first-leg in Istanbul there were violent clashed between the rival fans which ended in two Leeds fans, Kevin Speight and Christopher Loftus, being stabbed to death.
O’Leary spoke about the difficulties in preparing a young and inexperienced team for such a big game after the tragedy.
“We ran into a very good side in the semi-final and got beat. There was tragedy involved in it. But we ran into a tough Champions League team that had fallen out of the Champions League into that and they were a good side over the two legs.
“Everybody knew what had happened, you’re trying to get everybody back on thinking about a big game tonight, semi-final of a European competition and it was also a young team.
“And I knew in the team meeting that evening around 5 o’clock that they’d even heard more.
“So going into the game, in the dressing room, a young team, hostile atmosphere, that was going to be bad enough.”
And so it proved to be as Leeds suffered a 2-0 loss in an environment which O’Leary describes as more akin to a “warzone”, in a match that shouldn’t have been played but had to be played.
The home leg also proved to be a tough assignment, as “what had happened off the field dominated the game on the field.”
O’Leary was also frustrated by the fact that Champions League sides were allowed a second go at Europe glory with a place in the latter stages of the UEFA Cup, making a what he feels is a “mockery” of the tournament. And indeed the two sides who ended up in the 2000 final were two sides who had been knocked out of the Champions League.
While Leeds would go onto greater things in the 2001 Champions League, the 2000 campaign proved that there things much more important than football.