Football: Leeds' class struggle

David O'Leary knows he needs more quality to compete. By Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online
IT WAS European night in Leeds on Tuesday and Eric Cantona was in action. Unfortunately for Leeds United, the one-time king of the Elland Road Kop was strutting his stuff far enough from their maddeningly frustrated crowd - posing as the Duc de Foix in Elizabeth, top of the bill at the Warner Village cinema complex in Kirkstall Road. It was nevertheless an apposite reminder of those historic times when Leeds last ruled the football land. The championship-winning team that Howard Wilkinson built started to fall apart the night they were knocked out of the European Cup by Rangers. Cantona scored a late consolation in front of the Kop in that 2-1 defeat. It was his last home game for Leeds.

The ground Leeds United have lost in the six years since that big European night was glaringly evident on Tuesday. For all the "oohs" and "aahs" when Lee Sharpe and Lee Bowyer ventured within scoring range, they were not remotely in the same class as Roma. When the public-address system finished serenading the discerning Elland Road audience with operatic arias, it was the Romans who provided the culture. They may have achieved their Uefa Cup second-round conquest by the narrowest of margins, courtesy of Marco Delvecchio's first-leg goal in the Stadio Olimpico, but even when reduced to 10 men for the second half they made their hosts dance to the tune of their precisely orchestrated play.

When they struck an off-key note - Aldair stabbing an attempted right- wing pass out of play in the 63rd minute - it stood out as worthy of note. Leeds, by contrast, could hardly string together a pair of accurate passes. One wondered what the Leeds players of yore would have made of it: the pass masters who mauled Manchester United 5-1 in February 1972, when Eddie Gray nutmegged George Best, and then famously tormented Southampton with a keep-ball exhibition and a 7-0 scoreline in their next match. Gray, of course, was on the touchline on Tuesday night, as assistant to David O'Leary in the new managerial regime at Elland Road. In the dressing room afterwards he might have drawn attention to pages 54 and 55 in the latest edition of Leeds Leeds Leeds. The "Eddie Gray Skill School" feature just happens to be devoted to passing.

Also to be found in the club magazine, somewhat cheekily, is a "George Graham toilet bowl sticker", with an accompanying invitation to "enjoy intimate moments exposing George to your fat backside" . On Tuesday night it was the shortcomings of the team Graham left behind that were exposed. As Leeds, after a flattering flurry in the opening quarter- of-an-hour, laboured to contain let alone break down their opponents, it was an equally difficult struggle to nominate natural selections for a team capable of mounting a serious title challenge. Beyond Nigel Martyn, there were no obvious choices, though Lucas Radebe and Bruno Ribeiro were notably absent from a team including five players aged 21 or under. O'Leary has inherited a team short not just of experience but of quality too. In their last five home matches, they have scored just one goal - and that was a deflected Harry Kewell shot against Bradford.

It is not difficult to understand why Graham - his eyes on the glint of trophies as well as the bright lights of London - chose to depart and why O'Leary sought transfer-spending guarantees before agreeing to replace him. Asked after Tuesday's game whether he had made an offer for the pounds 10m- rated Delvecchio, Leeds' manager of two weeks replied: "I think our team cost about pounds 13m all-in but if Roma wanted to leave behind players like him I wouldn't complain."

Roma's coach, Zdenek Zeman, could afford the luxury of keeping Cafu on the bench for 86 minutes on Tuesday. O'Leary can afford to spend some pounds 12m on new recruits but has been struggling to attract players on the domestic - let alone international - front, having failed to persuade Dion Dublin to move to Elland Road and to meet Barnsley's asking price for Ashley Ward. He has also been attempting to lure David Batty, though apparently not Cantona and the other nine members of the championship- winning class of '92.

"I'm just looking to strengthen the team all round," O'Leary said. "If you want to do well in competitions you need a big, quality squad and that's what we need. We haven't got the money of the Arsenals or the Chelseas but if I can add to what we've got here already we'll be a good little side."

There was a time when Leeds were a good big side but these days they have reason to be grateful for such small mercies as the home game they face this afternoon. The opposition comes from a city of seven hills - from Sheffield, not Rome.