Mark Viduka arrived at Leeds United from Celtic in exchange for £6 million as David O’Leary continued the spending spree that would eventually bring ruin to the club. In the summer of 2000 though, such things were just the whisperings of people labelled as doom-mongers, as is often the case when someone seeing a looming crisis on the horizon. At the time the Elland Road club looked like a team on the way to regaining a pre-eminent position in English football
It seemed that the striker’s arrival was the vital missing piece in a Leeds front line that already had Michael Bridges and Viduka’s Aussie compatriot, Harry Kewell in place. Things don’t always work out that way though, and injuries to the pair assigned to form the spearhead with the new arrival curtailed such plans. Much of his first season with the club, therefore, saw him partnered with Alan Smith and latterly Robbie Keane.
To Viduka’s credit though, and with no little assistance from Smith and Keane, Viduka hit the floor running and plundered 22 goals across all competitions, including 17 in 34 league appearances, precisely nailing the oft-quoted required strike rate of a goal every other game. Viduka’s striking rate was anything but average though. He netted all four of Leeds goals in a thrilling 4-3 win over Liverpool at Elland Road. For any unconvinced Yorkshiremen, Viduka claimed unadulterated acclaim after that performance. Leeds United would climb to a fourth-place finish at the end of the season, and Leeds profligate ways saw a new five-year deal signed and sealed before the Aussie striker’s second season was underway.
Profligate as it may have been in some pundits’ eyes, Viduka dived into proving himself worthy of the deal and although his goals total slipped somewhat in the 2001-02 season, netting only 16 across all competitions, the strike rate only diminished slightly. The difference may have been attributed to the club’s progress, or lack of it, in European competition compared to the previous season. In the 2000-01 campaign, Leeds reached the semi-finals on a wave of verve and vigour, helped in no small measure by Viduka’s goals and leadership at the point of the attack across 16 games. Twelve months later, he would play in only seven games in the competition, although still scoring an admirable four times.
That downturn in European fortune was matched by a tumble in the domestic league. In 2001-02, a fifth-place finish was reasonable enough, although it meant a UEFA Cup entry rather than the golden ticket to the Champions League, but things were hardly happy at the club. In June, O’Leary was sacked following the publication of his book “Leeds United on Trial”, which gave his account of the turmoil at the club, over the assault allegations involving Lee Bowyer and Johnathan Woodgate. Having laid out more than £100 million on players without a single trophy in return would hardly have helped the manager’s case though. For Viduka to carry on notching the goals in such a difficult environment clearly speaks volumes for his character. Terry Venables was appointed for the new season.
Early on, Robbie Keane was sold to Spurs, and things were clearly heading in the wrong direction at Leeds. The financial birds had come home to roost. In December, Jonathan Woodgate was sent to Newcastle in return a very necessary £9 million, despite Venables receiving assurances that players would not need to be sold. It would matter little. Three months later, with the club floundering in 16th position in the league and some £120 million in debt, Venables was sacked, with Peter Reid given the unenviable task of keeping the club in the top tier. One major asset that Reid had though was Mark Viduka.
In such a disturbing time for the club, he again returned 22 goals across all competitions, including an invaluable – and incredible, given the circumstances – 20 goals in 33 league matches. A stunning return in a struggling team. A prime example was on 4 May, when Leeds travelled to champions, Arsenal. The Gunners, locked in a battle with Manchester United at the top of the table were expected to roll over the struggling Yorkshire team, but in a virtuoso performance, Viduka ran the famed Arsenal back line ragged with his pace and power and notched the winning goal in a 2-3 victory that both guaranteed Leeds safety for another term, and sent the title to Old Trafford.
Although it was an achievement of sorts, the rescue act did little but bail out water from a fatally holed and sinking ship. Harry Kewell had also joined the exodus and Reid’s short tenure was ended in November with the 2003-04 season just a few months old. Old club favourite Eddie Gray was brought into to see if he could conjure any magic from the squad that was now both disillusioned and a pale shadow of the one that toured Europe with such aplomb a few short seasons ago. Viduka would top score for the club again, but his tally, now denuded to just 11 league goals was hardly going to be enough.
Viduka’s goals sealed wins for Leeds in March and April, but there were too many holes letting in water, and not enough fingers to plug with. In May, the club’s fate was sealed. A win was required from a visit to the Reebok Stadium, and hope sprung eternal as Viduka put the visitors ahead with a penalty. It was fleeting, but ultimately doomed reach for salvation. Bolton rallied and eventually won 4-1. A frustrated Viduka was dismissed after receiving two yellow cards. He would never appear for Leeds again. The club was relegated and Viduka’s Sale to Middlesbrough in the summer brought another tranche of much-needed money into the club.
At such times, it’s difficult to decide on reflection whether a player’s time with a club was successful or not. In his four seasons at Elland road, Mark Viduka experienced the highs of a Champions League semi-final and the contrasting low of being sent-off in his last game for the club as it tumbled out of the Premier League. Through that twisting and tumultuous fall though, the one consistent thing in Leeds favour was Mark Viduka’s goals and the spirit he brought to his play. For that, if for no other reason, it’s difficult not to consider the Aussie a true Elland Road hero.