We’d wound up third at the halfway mark of the 30/31 season, trailing league leaders Manchester United by six points. Our most recent result was a 3-0 defeat at Chelsea, where we never played particularly well. We needed to recover swiftly, starting by looking to get a good result away to Everton.
Two goals from Kurz saw to it that we overcame the blue half of Merseyside in a 2-1 win, though we were created plenty of chances without scoring, which was frustrating – failing to take chances is a sure fire way to lose. With Manchester United up next in the FA Cup third round, improvements were needed. Improvements were most definitely seen, in a 4-0 win that saw us blow United away in the first half.
From the red half of Manchester to the blue half – Leeds were hosting Manchester City in the Premier League. We held a possible advantage here – City had been in Carabao Cup action on a few days earlier – my squad had a bit more of a break. Whether that played a part in what happened next I can’t be certain, but Leeds were rampant in the first half, scoring five goals (Ramon netting a hat-trick in the process). Ramon would add his fourth in the second half, in a 6-0 win that cost City boss Flick his job.
Following that rather impressive victory Leeds travelled to Aston Villa. We performed quite well once again, winning 3-1 despite some squad rotation. Wolves were up next, coming to Elland Road. We ended up drawing 2-2 despite Wolves playing much of the game with ten men. I wasn’t pleased.
Next came a double-header against Spurs – away in the Premier League and at home in the FA Cup. In the league we were once again pretty awful, losing 2-0 and never looking like we deserved anything from the game. By now it was painfully obvious that we weren’t going to catch Man Utd, who were now nine points ahead of us after 24 games.
A word on a tactics creator called Knap. They’ve created many tactics for Football Manager over the years, and I was going to try one out called Echo for the FA Cup game. I felt like I had little to lose, so why not give it a try? We won 2-1, with Williams and Muchanga scoring, though the tactic saw Ramon drop into an attacking midfielder role with Williams as the lone striker. I wasn’t sure about this. Still, for the visit of Brighton I’d give it another go.
I sold Nathan Sykes. He’d had too many average games and yet, PSG of all clubs came in for him, giving me £24 million. I wasn’t going to argue.
We drew 2-2 with Brighton and I have never been more tempted to restart a match in all my life. Brighton were dirty bastards, injuring four of my players and snatching a draw they didn’t deserve. I made it clear in the post-match press conference that they were dirty bastards. It was fair to say my early experiences with Knap’s tactic weren’t positive.
I switched back to the system that had won me two league titles and had to make some changes to the squad following the bruising Brighton game. The team travelled to Sheffield United, and we needed to start winning if we were to have any sniff of the title. Thankfully not every injury was a long-term one, so there was that.
Sheffield United were rudderless, having recently dismissed their manager, and 19th in the league. Naturally we went behind and we only managed a draw thanks to a last minute Erwin goal.
I was beginning to feel despondent. The team, usually so good, wasn’t scoring enough goals and lacked the cohesion we’d had before. There seemed to be little luck coming our way. I wasn’t going to quit, but the temptation was there.
We had an international break, so there was the chance for everyone to refocus and rest. We’d be hosting struggling Norwich after the break, and I desperately wanted a win.
We did win, 2-1, thanks to goals from Erwin, but we didn’t play nearly as well as should have against a team battling at the wrong end of the table. Next we were away to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, marking the third season running we’d encountered German champions in the knockout stages. We’d beaten the last two German sides we’d faced in the knockout stages, but Bayern Munich would be a different animal, and I didn’t feel we were playing especially well.
The game ended 4-4, though we’d been 3-1 up at one stage and phantom goals once again conspired to alter the outcome.
We’d host Liverpool next. We were better here, despite going behind early on, and goals from Mazinho, Williams, Ramon and Erwin gave us a deserved 4-1 win.
We beat Portsmouth 2-0 in the FA Cup next. It was a pretty routine win and we could have won but a lot more, but the overall performance continued the trend of improvement. Our next Premier League fixture pitted us against Fulham, away from home. Yet again we failed to finish off a struggling team and drew 2-2.
Manchester United were next, waiting for me at Old Trafford. Given our indifferent performances and inability to kill off games, I expected nothing from my players here. I was proven right, we were heavily beaten, and I once again gave serious consideration to resigning in disgust, but I’d made a commitment and I’d honour it.
If we didn’t dramatically improve we were running a risk of not even qualifying for the Champions League, which considering our recent seasons would be a huge let down, irrespective of the expectations of the board. Speaking of the Champions League, we had the second leg of our tie with Bayern Munich up next, and for this game we produced one of our best defensive performances of the season, preventing Bayern from having a shot on target, whilst Ramon scored a brace to give us a 2-0 win. The result meant we were through to the Quarter-Finals for the third straight season, and also that for three seasons running we’d knocked out the German champions.
Chelsea followed, in the FA Cup Quarter Final, away from home. Despite being 2-0 up at one stage, we lost 4-3.
Arsenal were up next, visiting Elland Road in the Premier League. They’d moved top of the league at some stage, and were currently three points of Man Utd, albeit having played a game more. My record against the Gunners was pretty poor, so I didn’t have any belief of a result here. Instead, we picked up a pleasing 2-0 victory and gave a good account of ourselves.
The team was then off to Italy, for the first leg of the Champions League Quarter Final. Our opponents were Inter Milan, a club that were a little in the shadow of AC Milan (especially in when it comes to European competition), but big in their own right. They’d last won the Champions League all the way back in 2010, under the guidance of Jose Mourinho, as part of a famous Treble of trophies. On the game, they’d been champions of Italy 20 times, most recently in 2028. We ended up drawing 1-1, which was hardly a disaster considering the abilities of the opposition.
We warmed up for the home leg with a trip to West Brom and a great performance from Almada, who scored twice in a convincing 4-1 victory. Given the tired legs in the side I had to rotate a few players, but my hope was that we’d make some magic happen and progress to the Semi Finals for the second time in three seasons. We were three goals up after just eight minutes, but in the second half Inter got two goals back, and a third would have seen them go through on away goals, but instead Nico scored a late fourth to earn us a 5-3 aggregate win and a place in the Semi Finals!
A 3-1 away win in the league against Leicester followed, despite Kaydas getting sent off. Next up were three consecutive home games, against Birmingham, Newcastle and Burnley. I began to feel that we’d fail to beat Birmingham, despite creating a host of chances, but eventually we made the breakthrough thanks to Williams. A 3-1 win was pleasing, though it could have been a much bigger result. The win did mean we’d qualified for the Champions League for a fourth straight season.
Speaking of the Champions League, our opponents for the Semi Finals were finally revealed when Monaco knocked AC Milan out on away goals. This was a bit of a surprise, but they’d gotten this far for a reason. The first leg would see Leeds travel to the principality, in-between the visits of Newcastle and Burnley to Elland Road. We were horribly beaten by Newcastle, 3-0 at home, a dreadful result and performance that cemented to me why I wanted Brewster sold.
The result ended a run of 32 home games without defeat, so it was time to do it all over again.
We lost away to Monaco, 3-2, but had the crucial benefit of a couple of away goals. I wanted a good win against Burnley to get some confidence back and give us a platform for which to face Monaco in the return leg. We gave a much better account of ourselves in a 3-0 win that included an audacious lob by Almada.
Kaydas scored in less than a minute against Monaco in the second leg, delighting the Elland Road crowd. He scored again after 32 minutes and completed his hat-trick from the penalty spot on 94 minutes. The 3-0 win meant Leeds United would look forward to their first ever Champions League Final (not their first European Cup Final, which Leeds had, um, lost, in 1967), hosted by the Puskas Arena in Hungary.
The Premier League season wasn’t quite over, though the remaining matches could have been considered dead rubber. We were assured of third place in the standings, which was hardly disastrous, though I’d hoped for a little bit more. Our penultimate game saw Leeds travel to Southampton, who were not-quite relegated. Their survival hung by a thread, so they’d probably be playing with a certain measure of desperation. Despite their needs, Leeds won 2-1, and in doing so consigned Southampton to the Championship.
We’d end the season at home to Chelsea. They were in fourth place but couldn’t catch us, so it really was a ‘nothing’ game from our perspective. Chelsea ideally needed to win if they were to book a Champions League spot, for Liverpool had a game in hand and the goal difference was razor thin.
Chelsea’s situation was eased by Liverpool getting hammered at Spurs, but nonetheless they’d want to win to make absolutely sure, and given the rivalry, beating us to do it would be even sweeter. I didn’t plan on giving them the satisfaction.
A 2-1 win meant we ended the league campaign on the right note. The title went to Manchester United, albeit on goal difference from Arsenal.
We had one final game – the biggest game in club football. The Champions League Final, at the Puskas Arena in Hungary. Our opponents for this match? Paris Saint-Germain. Within their ranks they had the fearsome Mbappe and Haaland, they had former Liverpool star Gravenberch, they had Vinicius Junior, a supremely talented midfielder, and.. um… Nathan Sykes, formerly of Leeds United.
PSG hadn’t been as successful in the European arena as they would have liked, but they certainly possessed the players and means to change that. Make no mistake – Leeds were underdogs.
I held a team meeting shortly before the game, seeking to ease player nerves and play down expectations, something that seemed to work on everyone save Brewster.
How did the final go? We took an early lead through Martin but ended up 2-1 down at the break. Ramon levelled for us and the game went to extra-time, where neither team could find a breakthrough goal. Penalties decided the final, and they decided it in favour of PSG. The season was over, and Leeds were empty-handed despite some brave efforts.
I had a few decisions to make. I needed to look at a few areas where the team could be strengthened. A closer inspection of tactics was necessary. That would have to wait for the new season.