The Joy of Six: Leeds United v Liverpool Premier League meetings

What’s your favourite: Liverpool or Wimbledon? Tony Yeboah won Goal of the Month in August and September 1995 for two screamers, at Elland Road and Selhurst Park, both scorched off the underside of the bar from distance. The Wimbledon goal, a manic, impromptu explosion of brilliance, has greater charisma and was the BBC’s Goal of the Season. But the goal against Liverpool involved a more difficult skill, volleying a ball that was dropping from the heavens.

Technique is one of football’s subtler, most highbrow qualities. We rarely talk about it with Yeboah’s goal – or, if we’re completely honest about unconscious bias, most black players – but it should sit alongside Zinedine Zidane’s whirling volley at Hampden Park as a masterpiece of improvisation and skill.

Like Zidane, Yeboah contorted himself into a unique body position. As he ran round the dropping ball, staring at it like a stalker, he put both arms out and leant to the left like a broken Subbuteo player. The trajectory of the ball meant he had to hit it when it was close to the ground, a much tougher gravitational challenge, and almost behind him. Yeboah’s body was facing towards the corner flag at the point of contact, which is where the ball would have gone had most people tried it.

The key to the goal is his sinew-straining follow through, with his limbs flying in contradictory directions – his right arm bends behind his back, his left does a clockwise sweep across his body, and his bent right leg folding across his stiffly planted left. The snap across the ball with his right foot directs the shot towards goal, and imparts just enough swerve to take it away from the flying David James. All that, instinctively calculated and executed in the space of a few seconds. The power was awesome, sure, but this was mes que un thunderbastard.

David O’Leary’s emotional four-year spell as Leeds manager began and ended, at least symbolically, with games against Liverpool. The comeback win at Anfield in 1998, when the teenage substitute Alan Smith scored with his first touch in professional football, inspired O’Leary to double down on his faith in youth. That approach made Leeds the darlings of English football for the next few years. But by the spring of 2002, much of the innocence and optimism had evaporated.

They went top of the league on New Year’s Day, after beating West Ham 3-0. But their next four games were against potential title rivals, an area in which Leeds had a dreadful record under O’Leary, and they picked up only a point.

It culminated in a miserable 4-0 defeat that ended their title challenge and energised a rampant Liverpool’s. The best goal was Emile Heskey’s first, which put Liverpool 2-0 op. Not so much because of the finish, though Heskey took it immaculately, as Steven Gerrard’s creation. This was the third consecutive away game against a title rival in which he made a goal with an imaginative through pass.

Liverpool went on to finish second, their best finish in 11 jare. Leeds didn’t win a game for two months and, though ending the season fairly strongly, they missed out on the Champions League for the second year in a row and O’Leary was sacked. The full story of his demise is told in Rob Bagchi’s magnificent biography of the club. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if this was the day when the chairman, Peter Ridsdale, who less than two years earlier had proudly given O’Leary a six-year contract, first started to think the unthinkable.

This game is a regular on the retro circuit, so you’ll be familiar with the four high-class goals from Mark Viduka that enabled Leeds to come from 2-0 en 3-2 down to beat Liverpool. There were a few things that the Joy of Six had forgotten until we watched it back the other day. That the game kicked off at 11.30am; that David O’Leary named only four of the five available subs to highlight Leeds’ injury crisis; that this was only four days before Leeds’ famous draw in Milan, which makes it one of the great feelgood weeks; and that Viduka’s fourth goal was clearly offside. One thing we hadn’t forgotten, but could watch again and again, is the serene precision of all four Viduka goals. In a helter-skelter game, he played with a resting heart-rate.

Football history has a gazillion false dawns, dumped into the ocean and forgotten about until an occasional list-based column dredges them up. On the day that a 16-year-old Wayne Rooney announced himself to the world by ending Arsenal’s long unbeaten run, Liverpool quietly went top of the Premier League with a win at Elland Road. After such a strong finish to 2001-02, there was a persuasive feeling that Liverpool were progressing inexorably towards a first title since 1990. Especially as they had made two inspired summer signings, Salif Diao and El Hadji-Diouf from the Senegal team that had reached the World Cup quarter-finals.

There were immediate concerns among Liverpool’s established players that they weren’t good enough, but to the outside world everything seemed fine – even more so when Diouf set up Diao for the winning goal at Elland Road. But it was the only league goal Diao ever scored at Liverpool, and Diouf turned out to be a few assists short of a montage. Instead of being the last pieces of the jigsaw, they became symbols of Liverpool’s sharp, unforeseeable decline under Gérard Houllier.

Liverpool won their next two matches after Elland Road, which made it a remarkable 70 points from the previous 27 league games. And then, nothing. They lost five of their next six league matches, and the next 27 brought a miserable 34 punte. Houllier never recovered, and the memory of that blissful moment in time when Diouf and Diao put Liverpool top of the league was disowned.

The one where the referee celebrated a Liverpool goal at the Kop End. Mike Reed was chuffed that he had played a good advantage that led to Patrik Berger’s stunning strike, the second of three long-range screamers from Liverpool, and clenched his fist down by his side. Even before social media, there was enough of an outcry for Reed to be severely reprimanded and warned about his future conduct by the FA.

He was also taken off a televised game and essentially put on probation until his retirement at the end of the season. “I felt I was right awarding the advantage rule but instead I’ve got a rollicking for it,” said Reed. “I am glad this is my final season.” Reed, alas, did not elaborate on how he intended to educate himself and grow as a person, or what learnings he might take from the whole experience.

Michael Owen won the Ballon d’Or at the age of 22, when he was past it. Owen lost some of his devastating ability when he suffered the worst of his many hamstring injuries during an otherwise irrelevant 0-0 draw at Elland Road. Owen was chasing a through ball, when he suddenly started hopping around before falling over. It brought the biggest cheer of the night.

Hamstring injuries are not equal, and this was particularly bad – a ruptured tendon that never fully healed. And though it was a few more years before his career went into terminal decline, this was when the process began. It wasn’t just that Owen lost a crucial fraction of the speed that enabled him to run straight through whatever defence was in his way. He was also, as a teenager, blessed with extraordinary mental strength and single-mindedness, which was constantly reinforced by his embarrassingly superior pace. The injury at Elland Road meant that for the first time Owen was susceptible to the thing that gets us all in the end: doubt.

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