For many of our supporters the Leeds team of the early 2000s is the best they’ve seen – and *through gritted teeth* is possibly the best they ever will see. Mark Viduka was the star of that team and it’s been a decade since he decided to hang up his boots and a further five since he left Yorkshire to soften the financial blow that came with our crushing relegation. Here we pay tribute to the man who gave us so much to shout about during his time at Elland Road.
Viduka had scored goals everywhere he had been before David O’Leary signed the Australian for £6m but United had just finished third in the Premier League to secure a Champions League qualifying spot and it remained to be seen whether he could cut it at that level, after all his goals had come at an inferior standard of football in Oz, Croatia and Scotland. Viduka played the full 180 minutes in our 3-1 aggregate win over 1860 Munich and scored one and set up another during the 6-0 home thrashing of Besitkas on match day three – he missed the first two due to international duty. Throughout the European campaign, which saw us fall at the semi-final stage to eventual runners up Valencia, Viduka netted a total of four goals and assisted the same number, which makes him the leading Australian scorer in Champions League history.
Viduka’s inaugural season went pretty well on the league front as well as he was top scorer for the club with 17 goals, which helped his team to a fourth place finish. It was expected that Viduka and fellow Australian Harry Kewell would combine with Michael Bridges to form a deadly offensive trio but, sadly, the physios spent more time with the latter two and Viduka instead hit it off with Alan Smith. The first time they both appeared on the score sheet together was on 30th September in a 4-3 victory over Tottenham where the pair grabbed a brace each and just six weeks later the Elland Road faithful were treated to the highlight of the league campaign, this time an enthralling 4-3 defeat of Liverpool who had taken a two goal lead. Viduka scored all four in a performance that showed every single one of his attributes and, on reflection, it was probably the best display of his entire career – let alone for us. Leeds were staring defeat in the face after ex-skipper Gary McAllister pulled the strings early on for the Reds but Viduka had different ideas; the first of his goals was a clever dink after Smith charged down a Christian Ziege clearance whilst the second was a thumping header after a pinpoint cross from the marauding Gary Kelly.
Viduka completed his first hat-trick for Leeds when he received the ball from Oliver Dacourt with his back to goal before showing great strength and control to twist and turn away from two Liverpool defenders and, after buying himself half a yard, he unleashed a smart finish across goal and in off the post. The home crowd was buzzing and just two minutes later the roof came off when Viduka bagged the best of his four; he showed an instinctive touch to capitalise on a miscued shot from Dacourt and delicately chipped the ball over the rapidly advancing Sander Westerveld to secure maximum points.
After a great season for both the player and team, things were looking good and it seemed silverware wasn’t too far away but the next 12 months saw the beginning of an ugly slide. Money was afforded to O’Leary and the early part of the season saw huge levels of optimism around the city; Viduka was scoring goals and Leeds were well and truly in the title race – and then the wheels began to wobble. A poor run of form saw United finish outside of the Champions League places in fifth and failure to qualify for Europe’s elite club competition meant the club were in financial trouble. O’Leary was sacked. The wheels had come off.
If a fifth place finish and UEFA Cup football was deemed unacceptable then the 2002/03 season was a rude awakening to everyone involved with Leeds as the team finished a lowly 15th. During that campaign, Viduka was one of a small handful who emerged with any credit as he thrived on the pressure of scoring goals in a struggling team. He netted 20 league goals, which was his best return for the club, and his contribution prevented us being relegated with the crowning moment being ‘that’ goal versus Arsenal in the penultimate match of the season. Viduka ran onto a ball over the top, took it on his chest, Cruyff turned inside his marker before firing a left footed finish into the top corner. Leeds were safe and, arguably, it’s the only time a Leeds goal has been celebrated by Man United fans as it handed them the Premiership crown.
Unfortunately, all Viduka had done was delay the inevitable. The club had debts that were growing with each passing day, players were being sold – including Viduka’s fellow countryman Kewell – and things weren’t going well on the pitch with Leeds eventually dropping out of the Premier League after finishing second from bottom. After relegation, it was inevitable that Viduka would leave and Middlesbrough were the lucky recipients.
Viduka was a star for our team; he top scored in every season at the club but he was much more than just a fox in the box. Viduka was a physical presence who could hold the ball up exceptionally well with a great touch and hold up play, he was a force in the air and could score with both feet – be it a tap in or a thunderbolt – and his composure in front of goal was second to none.
We might not have a stand named after you like the Melbourne Knights do but, Mark Viduka, you’ll always be a legend in Leeds. Thanks for the memories.
The Many Memories of Mark Viduka
The Many Memories of Mark Viduka