Looked at solely in terms of league positions, I suppose that the night when mid table in Division 4 Cardiff beat struggling in Division 1 Chelsea 2-1 at Ninian Park back in October 1986 in a League Cup Third Round tie ranks as the biggest domestic cup upset the club have been involved in for the past half a century. However, I defy anyone old enough to remember both matches to really believe that this is the case when you recall what happened a decade ago today when we “entertained” Leeds United in a Third Round FA Cup tie. Actually, I rate the FA Cup win over Manchester City in 1994 above that Chelsea match as well, but, although they are a power in the land now, Man City have been the sort of side so called “minnows” loved drawing in the Cup down the years because a home tie against them represented not just a good pay day, but also a decent chance of progress into the next round.
Back in January 2002, Leeds were in the same position that Man City find themselves in now – as this table shows, Leeds were a couple of points clear at the top of the Premiership and under the Chairmanship of Peter Ridsdale were “living the dream”. Not only that, they had made it through to the latter stages of the UEFA Cup and big money purchases such as Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Fowler sent a clear signal out that Leeds were intent on emulating the achievements of the Don Revie side which year in, year out, was probably the best team in England for a ten year spell between the mid sixties and mid seventies.
If Leeds were big spenders, then so were City, by Football League standards anyway. but their expensively assembled team had struggled for consistency following their promotion from the basement in 2000/01 and in their previous match had slumped to a very disappointing 3-1 home defeat by local rivals Bristol City despite having scored first early in the second half. Given the talent in the team, City were under performing and manager Alan Cork was coming under pressure from supporters as his team failed to provide the sort of quality performances week in, week out that the size of the playing budget probably merited.
However, whatever you may think of him, Sam Hammam was someone who knew how to work the media and, virtually as soon as the draw was made, he started on a set of pronouncements which meant that the tie was hardly ever out of the headlines. It has to be said that this approach worked, to the extent that Sky TV chose the game as their Sunday afternoon match (if there is such a thing as “Primetime” on your average football weekend, then I’d say this slot represents it). I’m sure Sky chose it because they thought there was the possibility of an upset, but I can’t help thinking that they calculated that there may be some “action” of another kind as well given the reputation of both sets of supporters.
With the presenters and pundits talking up the atmosphere in the ground even before a ball was kicked, it was obvious that there were people at Sky patting themselves on the back for selecting the fixture, but once things got under way, the already red hot temperature rose by several degrees. I’ll come back to the atmosphere and consider the part the crowd played in what happened in a while, but, what I want to do now is record how well the team played that evening. In my opinion, the hullabaloo that followed has always meant that the City side never received the credit they were due for a performance which was several notches up from what they were producing in the league every week – at that time, there was a general acceptance that City sides failed to perform on the big occasion (they certainly hadn’t the previous weekend against the wurzels), but they did that day and, in doing so, I’d argue that they laid the foundations for the decade which followed where Cardiff teams generally reacted well in important games.
Right from the off, City harried Leeds out of their stride and Robert Earnshaw (playing wider than normal on the right) was soon causing Ian Harte plenty of problems, but the visitors then showed just why they were such a highly rated team as Gary Kelly picked off a Spencer Prior pass to feed Mark Viduka who rifled in a superb shot from around twenty yards beyond Neil Alexander who barely moved as the ball flew past him. On other days, perhaps a goal like this would have flattened both team and supporters, but, this time they seemed to feed off each other and it’s no exaggeration to say that City went on to dominate the rest of the first half. An injury to Rio Ferdinand caused by a “robust” Gavin Gordon challenge helped City’s cause, but I’m not sure how much difference it would have made if he had stayed on – City were not just living with their illustrious opponents, they were getting the better of them and, after Andy Legg had been fouled, captain Graham Kavanagh curled a lovely free kick around the Leeds wall and beyond Nigel Martyn to level matters after twenty one minutes.
Kavanagh, Earnshaw, Danny Gabbidon and Scott Young were amongst those showing that there was more to this City performance than just the spirit and commitment you’d normally expect from cup underdogs – there were flashes of quality as well and Leeds would have been congratulating themselves for getting to half time at 1-1 if it had not been for Alan Smith’s controversial sending off in added time as he tangled with Leggy. This week has seen complaints from QPR that Joey Barton had been red carded because of who he was rather than what he did – I think it’s fair to say that referee Andy D’Urso might have been guilty of doing the same with Smith. As often happens though, it was the side who were a player short who reacted best to the red card and, in truth, City’s performance fell away in the second half – Leeds played better with ten than they had with eleven and only a great tackle by Young on Viduka kept the teams level as the game went into it’s last quarter of an hour or so.
From this point on, City came into things a bit more – they didn’t really threaten too much, but with Leeds accepting a draw and sitting back more, a series of late corners got the crowd hoping something dramatic might happen late on. It certainly did three minutes from time when a header from sub Leo Fortune-West rebounded off David Batty to Young who scored from about six yards. Although it hardly felt like it at the time, the remaining few minutes were seen out quite comfortably – Leeds did have a free kick just outside the penalty area, but couldn’t do anything with it and a few seconds later they were out having suffered a defeat which many claim signalled the beginning of the end of the Leeds dream as financial reality set in.
All twelve City players were heroes that day and, as mentioned before, they’ve never had the recognition they deserved in my opinion, but the question of how much of a part did the crowd play in Leeds’ defeat remains – certainly, some of their players that day have said they found the atmosphere at Ninian Park very intimidating, and I believe that a few of them wilted under the pressure they were put under, but did the fear of injury play a part in that? There’s no point in denying that there were plenty of missiles being thrown on from the Bob Bank in the first half especially and the referee was struck by an object thrown from the seats at the front of the Grandstand in the second half, but, Leeds competed well after the break and I’m not sure that the missiles which were thrown on had too big an impact on how the game went.
That’s not to excuse what happened mind and the whole occasion tended to support the theory that while crowd behaviour at football in general had moved on from the bad days of the 70’s and 80’s, this wasn’t the case at Cardiff City. After the teams left the pitch, I can remember climbing the stairs to the exit of the Grandstand and then turning around to see what was happening at the Grange End where a minority of home fans were taunting and trying to get at the Leeds fans (who it should be said, were not blameless by any means either). My reaction was one of anger on seeing this because I knew that City’s superb win and achievement would be largely ignored as the media concentrated on what a few supporters got up to.
In saying that though, I was surprised at the ferocity of the onslaught of criticism the club had to face – post match pictures tended to be of the scuffles after the game or of Sam Hammam on his, soon to be banned, walk around the pitch and our then owner and us supporters had to face a week of flak and anger from the national media. Looking back now, although a lot of what was written and said was rubbish (there were some particularly daft things said about the Ayatollah!) and the fact that a pitch invasion by Manchester United fans at Villa Park a few hours after the Leeds game went ignored by the same people so eager to have a go at us left a sour taste in the mouth, it’s hard not to accept that much of it was justified.
Six days after the Leeds game, City gave a listless and disinterested looking performance in losing 2-0 at home to mid table Peterborough and I think there is every chance that this was a reaction to the media mauling the club had taken. More than that though, the atmosphere in the ground was very subdued as well (even before City fell behind) and I wonder if that was an early sign that the Leeds game had, perhaps subconsciously, altered the thinking of many supporters? What I mean by that is that, although there have been isolated incidents which have seen Dennis Wise and Mike Dean hit by missiles thrown by someone in the crowd, since then, behaviour, in home games especially, has improved out of all recognition in the past decade. I’m not kidding myself, there are still plenty of nutters around who get to games (the Bristol City fan who was attacked for no reason after the match back in August will testify to that), but if it can be claimed that Leeds United have never been the same since that day, I’d say that’s also true of our team (when you consider what has happened since then) and it could well be true of our supporters as well.
6 January 2002
Cardiff City 2 Leeds United 1
Alexander; Gabbidon, Prior, Young (1), Legg; Boland, Bonner, Kavanagh (1); Earnshaw, Gordon (Fortune-West), Brayson; Subs (not used) Weston, Maxwell, Bowen, Low
Martyn; Mills, Woodgate, Ferdinand (Duberry), Harte; Kelly, Bowyer, Batty, Smith; Viduka (1), Fowler; Subs (not used) McPhail, Wilcox, Richardson, Robinson