Matteo digs in for long haul in Leeds' fight for survival

Scottish captain determined to turn fortunes round on the pitch and restore supporters' faith in financially crippled Elland Road club
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The Independent Football

As i sign in at Thorpe Arch, Leeds United's impressive training complex, the security guard hands over a pass and tells me to keep it in a pocket - there is no plastic wallet to attach it to my jacket with. "Cutbacks," he says.

I move into the country house which used to be home to the academy, but is to be put up for sale. More cutbacks. The academy has now moved into purpose-built accommodation, but the stately pile would be retained were it not for Leeds' Himalayan debt mountain. As the City heard this week, the whites are still in the red to the tune of nearly £80m having reported an annual loss of almost £50m. This despite the departures of Rio, the Robbies, Woody, Bow, Harry, Olly, Nige and others.

To those players left behind, the empty pegs in the dressing-room, and the raft of players signed on loan, are the visible signs of the crisis which has engulfed English football's Icarus club. The cutbacks have not, however, forced the team on to the streets.

"A rumour went round Leeds that we were staying at the Holiday Inn Express," Dominic Matteo, the club captain, said. "No disrespect to them, but no. We are still staying at the same standard of hotel. We are still staying overnight for morning kick-offs, and for away games, and we aren't stopping at the chippie - though I think some of the lads would prefer that."

Matteo is an eloquent defender of his club but he cannot avoid the fact that, although Leeds have tried to insulate the players from the fiscal meltdown, results have suffered. This is his third season at Elland Road. The first led to a Champions' League semi-final. The second became a fight against relegation. The third finds the team in the bottom three.

"It brings back a few bad memories," he said. "Like last season when we were battling to stay up. It's not nice being in the bottom three. It's not nice being in the bottom half. Only the players can change that when we go on the pitch. It's not for want of trying.

"There is more pressure at the bottom. At the end of last season I don't think anyone slept before the Arsenal game [which Leeds won to stay up]. Everyone had won on the Saturday - West Ham had even beaten Chelsea. We had to play on the Sunday. It was scary.

"When you are winning games at the top of the table everyone wants the ball, everyone is buzzing. It's different at the bottom, when you are getting beat at home. The fans might be on your back a bit, you're a couple of goals down, suddenly there doesn't seem to be much space out there."

The recent uncertainty about the position of Peter Reid has added to that pressure, said Matteo, who spoke out in support of the manager. "I don't think that was right, especially at this stage of the season," he said. "Results haven't gone our way but the team is playing better."

The fixture list, showing a sadistic bent, has pitted Leeds against Manchester United, twice, and Liverpool, in the past three matches before now sending Arsenal to Elland Road. Last year the scoreline was 1-4. It flattered Leeds. "It was the best performance I've ever played against," Matteo said. "The pace and ability they have, we couldn't get near them."

A thigh injury means Matteo is unlikely to have to face Thierry Henry this afternoon, which, were it not for his club's parlous position, might have been a relief to the defender.

Not so long ago, it would have been a top-of-the-table clash but, said Matteo, "Well, that's the way it is I suppose. We are where we are and have got to try and get out of it. We can take some heart from our performances, we've just not got the end result".

It is, admits the Scots-born, Merseyside-bred Matteo, "far away" from that Champions' League run. Having joined Leeds in August 2000, Matteo was pitched straight into the European campaign. He played every match, even scoring in the draw with Milan which took Leeds into the second stage.

"No one expected us to do well," he said. "We were underdogs all the way through and it suited us. I look back and it was great. I'll never forget scoring in Milan. It was a great year to be in Leeds. The place was buzzing. But we're a long way from that now. We fancied ourselves against anyone, but how many of those players are still here? If you lose a lot of players like that, it is difficult."

Eleven internationals have left the club since Matteo signed, including the bulk of that European team. In their place are more talented youngsters, and a lot of loan signings.

The task of integrating these players, mainly non-English speakers, into the husk of David O'Leary's team has not been helped by the series of off-field incidents which have marred Leeds' recent history.

"The way things are here, we can't really get together and have a night out," Matteo said. "It's probably what we need; to go out for a meal and get together. But if we do that it seems to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. There is only one team in the city so everyone knows you. If you go out as a team you are going to be noticed. I don't think we are as bad as we are made out, but we'll have to wait until it's calmed down."

In the meantime, Reid will be relying on the likes of Matteo to keep Leeds afloat. "Players like him are a big influence," Reid said. "He can also play in a number of positions, which is a Godsend for me." Bearing in mind Matteo's injury and the knee problems which forced his captain to retire from the Scottish national team, Reid added: "He, and others like him, have just got to keep fit."

Relegation would probably result in Leeds going into administration. For Matteo, who wants to finish his career at the club, it is a grim prospect. "It's obviously not good to be that much in debt. Players may have to be sold to balance the books but I hope not, we are just getting the team shape together.

"You think when you are selling a lot of players for a lot of money that the debt will be cleared. That's what I'd assume but obviously it hasn't. Fans have said to me, 'We've got £40m back in, how can we still be £80m in debt?' To a punter on the street it doesn't make sense.

"I'd be lying if I said the players didn't talk about the situation, but in the main we have a chat then get on with things. We have a good team spirit and that's kept us going. We know that as players and have to take responsibility. We're playing better, but we can't keep saying that. There does come a stage when we have to start winning games."