Five Stars: Leeds United's best players in the 21st century
Choosing the best five Leeds United players from eleven years that have seen the club fall from the starry heights of the Champions League into a broken pile of remains at Yeovil Town, where supporters traded nostalgic stories of European adventures, is understandably tough. David Wilkinson from The Scratching Shed gives it a go anyway…
In fact, tough doesn’t do the task justice. It’s the mother of all understatements. The problem you have is that you’re not only comparing European class players with ones that wouldn’t have made our reserve team a decade ago, but you also have to factor in the failures these European players made. Peter Ridsdale’s extravagant spending was certainly the primary cause of our fall, but some poor signings made by David O’Leary and the players’ failure on the pitch played their part too. Gambling on a Champions League spot was dumb, but should we have expected anything less given the amount of money we invested?
What you’re left with is three separate eras that for any other club would be decades apart. You have the “living the dream era” and subsequent self-destruction, the “picking up the pieces” era as a couple of poor managers helped prolong our next relegation and then you have the “what on earth are we doing in League One?” era and the rejuvenated Leeds that followed.
The temptation is to try and cover all three of these eras and present a balanced argument for why certain players have benefited Leeds United during them all. However, I found it difficult to include anyone from the “picking up the pieces” era because the team achieved nothing and eventually fell apart to make way for our current era of stars, who are quickly mounting a Premier League challenge. My reasoning was that the current crop of players are much worthy of inclusion than those from the previous era simply because of the progress made.
Just 22 years old, Jonny Howson already captains Leeds United and has made more appearances for the club than any other player currently on the payroll. Born locally, Jonny joined Leeds United as a youth player back in 1997 (aged 9) and hasn’t looked back since. A firm fans’ favourite due to his roots, Jonny is also a player that the Elland Road faithful expect more from than anybody else. His support of the club has made him the supporters’ representative on the pitch and increased the pressure on the youngster to perform.
For the most part, Jonny has delivered exactly what the fans expect of him. His commitment and work-rate cannot be questioned and his tendency to pop up with important goals at crucial moments of big games makes him easy to love. He scored the two goals in the 2-0 win over Carlisle United in 2008 to book Leeds a place in the play-off final at Wembley and also scored the equaliser against Bristol Rovers last season as Leeds won promotion from League One.
This is likely to be the choice that other Leeds fans find most controversial, but Kelly’s career spanned an incredible 15 years at Elland Road, making him the first player since the Don Revie era to accumulate more than 500 appearances for the club. Aside from a couple of spells out with injury, Kelly was a regular in the Leeds United team throughout his stay, playing both right-back and on the right side of midfield. When he finally retired in 2007, Kelly brought down the curtain on a professional career that had seen him remain loyal to the Whites throughout its entirety. Not only did he feature prominently in Leeds’ European adventures, but Kelly also made his debut in the 1992 title-winning season under Howard Wilkinson.
History perhaps distorts the fondness Leeds fans once had for Kelly, mainly because the fallout of relegation saw him accused of holding the club to ransom. But for me, Gary Kelly was one the club’s greatest ever servants and the stories of his practical jokes are something I remember as fondly as I do his excellent performances in crucial games. An always reliable right-back that the club have never managed to replace.
Retiring in 2005 after more than a decade with the club, the man Nelson Mandela describes as his hero is not only the greatest Leeds United player of the 21st century, but the only player in this list I hold in the same regard as those that played under Don Revie.
Turning down approaches from both Milan and Manchester United, Radebe was keen to repay the opportunity Leeds United had given him and remained loyal to the Whites for the rest of his career. The fans loved him too, not only for the exceptional talent he possessed, but for the fearless, never-say-die attitude he showed on the pitch.
It’s hard to do a player of Radebe’s class justice in a few short paragraphs, but throughout all the years I’ve supported Leeds United, I can honestly say that I have never been prouder to call a player our own than I was Lucas Radebe. The man is an inspiration to us all, and will always have a place in the hearts of Leeds United fans everywhere. Legend is a term often overused, but in this case it’s no overstatement.
Another inclusion that could potentially cause controversy, but it’s hard to ignore the sheer amount of goals Jermaine Beckford contributed during his three years with the club. Loved and hated in equal measure, there were few supporters void of opinion when it came to Beckford, but his goals against Manchester United in the FA Cup and Bristol Rovers on the final day of the 2009/10 season are ones that few Leeds United fans will ever forget.
As influential a man as you could name in Leeds’ promotion last season and someone I, for one, will be eternally grateful for. It was disappointing to see him leave in the way he did and hard to swallow for a club like Leeds United that aren’t used to losing their best players, but whether he was motivated by greed or simply the chance to play at the highest level, I hold no resentment towards him and wish him the very best of luck.
Through gritted teeth, my final selection takes into consideration the work ethic and skill of a player I have a particular distaste for and can’t help holding partly responsible for the collapse of our great club.
Ignoring the stupidity of himself and Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer was an excellent player for Leeds United and one of the greatest midfielders I’ve ever seen at Elland Road. He was the battling workhorse of a team that invaded the Premier League’s top four and almost conquered Europe.
Bowyer’s antics off the pitch will always leave a black cloud over his Leeds United legacy, but he was a true box-to-box midfielder who was equally comfortable defending as he was surging forward and assisting the attack. The driving force of a generation and, however much I dislike him, unquestionably worthy of inclusion.