From glory to oblivion: Matteo is fearing the worst

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The Independent Football

As the man said, it's déjà vu all over again. A year ago last Friday we were gathered together at Leeds United's training ground near Wetherby racecourse as the club captain, Dominic Matteo, tried to explain how they could possibly be in danger of relegation and how serious the consequences would be of defeat that Sunday afternoon. Twelve months on, all that has changed is that the predicament is even worse.

On the previous occasion, galvanised by Mark Viduka's run of goals, Leeds went on to pull off their best result of the season in winning 3-2 at Arsenal, and hauled themselves to safety. "Never again," a good few Yorkshire folk must have breathed, which now seems the height of optimism. For here is Matteo again, still as patient and courteous as ever, but even more frustrated and well aware that anything other than victory at Bolton today will condemn the club to relegation, with horrendous financial implications.

Suffering that fate on 2 May or at home to Charlton on Saturday - 8 May - would be grimly appropriate, for those were the exact dates on which, three short years ago, Leeds played Valencia in the Champions' League semi-finals. Matteo had joined that summer, convinced that moving across the Pennines from Liverpool was a step up; now the club are facing a step down from which they might never recover. "It doesn't seem like three years, to be honest," he admits, shaking his head like a man who has aged twice as much in that debilitating period, beginning it 90 minutes from a European Cup final and now standing 90 minutes from the Nationwide League.

"To be honest" is a phrase that peppers his conversation. In analysing the season's frankly poor performances, he acknowledges the difficulties of living in a financial madhouse, without making them the sole reason for a second successive relegation campaign: "The League table doesn't lie and we've only got ourselves to blame for where we are. We've not been good enough and not consistent enough. I think it came from last season as well. The disappointing thing for me is some of the players we've lost. Woody [Jonathan Woodgate], who's been playing fantastic for Newcastle, Olivier Dacourt, playing very well for Roma, Robbie Keane, who scored against us for Spurs...

"We had such a good squad together and it's been really disappointing to see it break up. Nothing surprises me any more, to be honest, so much has gone off, but people keep saying we are using all the off-field stuff as an excuse, and I don't think that's true. We've still got as good players as some of the teams above us, but maybe they're more organised or have got more desire."

Desire could not be said to be lacking in Matteo, 30 last week, who according to some reports had to be restrained from putting his point across physically to one or two team-mates at half-time in last weekend's critical 2-1 home defeat by Portsmouth. Brought up in a hard school on Merseyside, he rather rues the decline of the good old-fashioned bawling out that many modernists feel has no effect on millionaire footballers: "When I first started, if you weren't playing well, you'd get a good bollocking. It's not a bad thing if things are not going right. If someone has a go at me, I've got to take it in the right way. Maybe we should do more of it."

It clearly grates that Leeds should have lost seven home games at a ground that he first came to know as an intimidated visiting player. "To be honest, the disappointing thing for me was that teams were coming to Elland Road expecting to win and not getting a hard game. When I was a Liverpool player, it was always a hard place to come to, and I just felt we were becoming an easy touch. We've just lost too many home games this year.

"Two years ago I wouldn't expect any team to come to Elland Road and get an easy game. We were a hard team to play against, nobody liked playing against us and we had the right work ethic. Everyone worked for each other. For some reason we became an easy touch and it's not nice that, for me, it's so disappointing."

"There comes a stage when we have to start winning games," Matteo had said in an interview with The Independent at the start of November. The next two were lost 4-1 (to Arsenal) and 6-1 (at Ports-mouth), with "work ethic" not conspicuous, which led to the sacking of Peter Reid, whereupon today's opponents, Bol-ton, strolled to a 2-0 victory, showing Reid's successor, Eddie Gray, how daunting a task he faced. Leeds have remained in the bottom three of the table ever since.

Injuries have been a factor, as they are with most teams, and Matteo, normally used in the back four, has played more recently in a highly defensive central midfield alongside Lucas Radebe. It is not the ideal creative partnership, though it entails "getting the ball and giving it to more talented players" like Viduka, who returns today after an avoidable suspension, and Alan Smith.

"When those two are playing together I can always see them scoring," says Matteo, who must know nevertheless that neither is likely to be scoring many more goals in the white of Leeds. What he hopes the club can avoid is a further dismantling of the squad so severe that in the event of relegation, an immediate return would be unlikely: "If the worst did happen, I'd hate to see the club get rid of everyone and not bring players in and have a go at getting straight back up. I hope to God we'd stay in the Premiership, but if we don't I'd hope a few of us would stick together and try to get back up. We've just got to work our socks off for the last three games."

The skipper will. But, to be honest, his club are in desperate trouble.