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What became of the likely lads

In the New Year scramble for the successful, the decorated who have demonstrated their prowess on the major stages often command considerable attention and sizeable prices. There was, however, one experienced international, a former Champions League semi-finalist who, though notionally near his prime, was available on a free transfer and almost joined St Mirren.

Ian Harte is still only 31. Yet, eight years after a largely youthful Leeds United team threatened to upset the established order and win the Champions League, he is largely unwanted. Released by two clubs - Sunderland and Blackpool - within a few months, Harte's regression mirrors his former club's. Leeds' decline has been chronicled repeatedly. Though their finances should be rather healthier, many of the players have endured a similarly depressing few years.

Some gravitated to Europe's biggest clubs - Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Roma, Inter Milan and Galatasaray. Others have looked lower down the Premier League, to Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Manchester City, Everton, Blackburn and Fulham.

Yet only one of the Champions League semi-finalists is an unqualified success now. Olivier Dacourt has twice won the Scudetto with Inter Milan, but Rio Ferdinand is alone in allying personal advancement with silverware. A figure of precocious composure at Elland Road, he now has a claim to be the world's finest centre-back (although, given Nemanja Vidic's superlative form, it can also be argued he is not the best defender at Old Trafford). Scroll back to 2001, however, and this appeared a generation of players poised for greatness.

Then, however, perceptions were different. Peter Ridsdale, the man who authorised David O'Leary's spending, talked about "living the dream". Today it appears more of a hallucination that a side with Harte, Eirik Bakke (Brann Bergen), Danny Mills (who has not figured for Manchester City since 2006), Alan Smith (without a Premier League goal since 2005), Dominic Matteo (yet to play for Stoke in the league this season) and Lee Bowyer (on loan at Birmingham after being perhaps West Ham's eighth-choice midfielder) could progress so far and overcome Milan and Barcelona.

In the subsequent time, the retirements of Nigel Martyn and David Batty were anticipated and that of Gary Kelly tarnished by an ungrateful club who did not even grant the only player since the Revie era to play 500 games a valedictory appearance. More, however, was anticipated of their younger colleagues. Injuries can be cited with Smith, Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Bakke, Matteo, Mills and Jonathan Woodgate all affected. Seth Johnson, the white elephant Ridsdale bequeathed Leeds, is yet to turn 30 but does not have a club and has not played a senior game for 21 months.

Yet misfortune does not explain everything. O'Leary's was largely a British team, but only Ferdinand commands a place in Fabio Capello's plans. The players named in the 18 for the Champions League semi-final against Valencia (the cup-tied Robbie Keane was ineligible) are yet to score a Premier League goal this season. They only mustered 14 in the last campaign (Viduka 7, Bowyer 4, Ferdinand 2 and Woodgate 1).

Indeed, the more attack-minded members of the side represent the major disappointments. Viduka has been sporadically brilliant since, but while Kewell is ostensibly the more successful of the two Australians, Liverpool won the Champions League in spite of him. The target man, in particular, has had his moments, but consistency has eluded both since leaving Leeds. Then there are the men who provided the scowling, snarling persona of a side who unsettled opponents. Bowyer and Smith married abrasiveness with excellence eight years ago. They retain their habit of collecting cards, but a potency in front of goal has deserted both.

Once they irritated opponents with more than just their prickliness. They contributed a combined 33 goals in 2000-01, the season that proved the pinnacle of O'Leary's Leeds. Achievement at an early age invariably prompts expectations of further accomplishments. They were heady days when the seductiveness of spending was matched by the sense that anything appeared possible. Leeds have never recovered from the excesses of the Ridsdale era. Neither have many of their players.

With the team disbanded, marching on separately has proved an unhappy process. While Ferdinand and Woodgate, in particular, have the class to appear assured in any side, too few of their team-mates seem as adaptable.

It wasn't enough to prevent Leeds' financial problems, but managers have spent millions in the hope that recruiting players would lead to them recreating their form at Elland Road. In hindsight, it is apparent many peaked early, but also that a much-maligned manager extracted more from his charges than anyone else. O'Leary devised a high-energy pressing game that disturbed technically superior opponents. Imbued with energy and possessing a sense of momentum, his side were fearless newcomers to the Champions League.

Now some are more accustomed to the Championship. Flaws - such as Harte's lack of pace and Bowyer's limited passing range - have become apparent. Failings are commonplace. Smith, Viduka and Mills can rank as some of the best paid spectators at Premier League games. So, until recently, did Bowyer and Kewell. They were very fine players, but for a comparatively brief period in time, in a certain context and in a unique team. The rise and fall of Leeds United was swift, dramatic and chastening. The same description can be applied to the careers of many of their players.


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