I’d reached the top of the English game after eight years in management. I’d guided Leeds United to the 27/28 Premier League title and the FA Cup as well. The odds of winning the league had been 50-1. It was fair to say this was by far my best achievement of my career so far. However, with the glory came a price. You may recall that I’d pondered over the nature of success – a manager is judged by the here and now, not by past glories. Success is transitory. The pressure would go up a notch in line with expectations. The club and the fans would be hungry to feast upon more trophies.
To win more trophies, the obvious assumption would be in spending money to bolster the squad. However, despite a reasonable budget to look forward to, Leeds did not have the financial might to compete with the biggest teams, so instead I’d be looking at my youth setup to see who could be promoted. I had to also say that I was mildly disappointed with the team – I set a target of Champions League qualification (hardly unreasonable, considering we’d just won the Premier League!), and the squad felt this was far too ambitious. Weird huh?
I found another source of delight in that void between seasons – Aldershot, my first club, won the League Two playoffs to return to League One. Good on ’em!
The only way for my ‘not spend any money’ policy to change would be if I were to sell some players for big sums, but even then there was no promise of big spending – the club had previously been quite stingy with the percentage of transfer money made available. That said, I was tempted by Adam Williams – formerly of Crystal Palace and sold to Spurs as part of a ‘revenge for the team being rubbish’ plot at the end of my time there. I’d only be able to afford him if I sold some other players, and I wasn’t sure if the investment would truly be worth it.
For that reason, I restrained from going after ex-Leeds star Santos. He’d quit the club to get Champions League football. Well, now he could have it at Leeds, but did I really need him?
Anyway, in the build-up to the 28/29 season I granted the team an extra week of rest, as a thank you for their efforts and to respect how many were involved in the European Championships. I would then take the squad on a trip to exotic Singapore for pre-season training. I awaited the return of several loaned out players and I decided to go for it and placed a bid for Williams. I also asked my scouts to take a good look at the England Under 19 and Under 21 squads.
Tottenham were being awkward over Williams. The money had to be right, but their demands were extravagant in my view. In the end Spurs accepted a bid and then it was up to Williams to accept a contract offer. Whilst he pondered one, it was time for the first friendly, against Turf City of Singapore. A 15-0 win didn’t tell me much but it gave the players a chance to get back into the groove. Next was a game against Kembangan United. Between these two friendlies Williams decided to join Leeds, much to be absolute delight, for I knew how good he was. I also made a move to sign (on loan) another Spurs player, a young forward by the name of Butters.
Williams scored four on his friendly debut against Kembangan, in a 13-0 win that was once again more about getting the players fit and firing. I expected a sterner test against Lille, who had knocked us out of the Europa League II last season. They’d beaten us at Elland Road no less, the venue of the friendly.
As this friendly neared, Leeds offered me a new contract. Up until now I’d been earning £50,000 a week (if only there was a way to turn FM money into real money?!). Now they were offering £94,000 a week, so they were prepared to nearly double my money. My contract was due to expire at the end of the season, so, given that I’d delivered Champions League football, a league title and the FA Cup, it was understandable they wanted to keep me. I pressed for £100,000 a week but the board wouldn’t budge, so I accepted their initial offer and on we went with my Leeds career.
A brilliant performance against Lille brought about a convincing 5-1 win that whilst not a true reflection of where Leeds stood against the best teams, it was certainly closer than the previous two friendlies. Next was a testimonial game away to Brighton – they were honouring Ben White, one of their long-serving defensive players. A bit of tactical experimentation didn’t pay off in a 3-2 loss, but Brighton were brutal, injuring two of my players. I was not impressed.
From there it was a trip to France, to the luxurious town of Monaco (which technically isn’t France, but their football club plays in the French league). A 4-0 win for our final friendly was quite satisfying – next was the Community Shield, against Manchester United.
The traditional curtain raiser for the new season could have been seen as an extension of the pre-season campaign, but I suspected the fans would never tolerate such an approach. Against Man Utd the expectations would be to go for it, so I would. We took a two goal lead but ended up drawing and losing on penalties. Still, the draw wasn’t a complete disaster, for in the league that would of course be a point – and in the league, things would go down differently. William scored on his competitive debut and the team looked quietly good.
To begin the Premier League campaign Leeds took the trip to the south coast to play Brighton, who had recently beaten us in the White Testimonial. A few days before the match my first-choice ‘keeper Livakovic was injured in training and ruled out for at least three weeks. Not good.
Step forward 17 year-old Samuel Azeez. The Burnley-born ‘keeper had been touted as the next Gordon Banks – so he was expected to achieve great things. To thrust him into first-team action at this stage was not ideal but I didn’t see another option – I hastily put in a bid for another goalkeeper but without much hope of success. My bid failed.
This is often how opportunities are born in football – injuries or suspensions create a chance for young stars to rise. With the goalkeeping role you don’t tend to take chances, but a chance would have to be taken and Azeez was regarded as having bags of potential. He demonstrated some of that potential in a first-half (and especially an opening half-hour) where he was called upon to make a number of saves, including a penalty after the first few minutes! Talk about a trial by fire…
We won 2-1, Williams and Almada giving us the win, though the winner came very late. It was quite an even game and we’d need to improve against better teams, though I felt confident that we would.
From the south coast to the familiar sights and sounds of Yorkshire. Leeds welcomed Newcastle United to Elland Road. For this occasion Ramon, who’d been away on international duty, returned to Leeds. I figured him and Williams could make a formidable pairing up front. Ramon scored his 50th goal for the club in a 1-0 win where we should have scored a lot more, but the points are always more important than the performance. From there it was a trip back down south, to newly-promoted Reading, to the west of London. Despite a stale first-half and despite falling behind very early in the second-half, Leeds rallied to a 4-1 win with Ramon and Williams both scoring a brace.
Now for something special – the first Champions League Group Stage draw of my managerial career! Who would Leeds United face off against?
Italian side Napoli, French team Lyon and Belgian outfit Club Brugge awaited Leeds in Group H. We’d avoided the Group of Death (of which Group A, featuring PSG, Real Madrid and Juventus was one, and Bayern Munich, holders Arsenal – yes, Arsenal – and AC Milan bundled in Group C was the other), but the Champions League would not reward complacency. Before any of that, there was Premier League action ahead of the international break – a trip to Fulham.
Fulham, like Reading earlier, had made a poor start to the season. Would Leeds pile on the early misery? I took the decision to withdraw Azeez from Under-19 England duty, I was not going to risk an injury whilst Livakovic was still recovering from his own injury. I had the luxury of being able to name an unchanged line-up from the team that won so convincingly at Reading, a rare occasion indeed!
We ended up two goals behind at half-time, and I told the team they needed to play with some more desire in the second-half. They owed the fans at least that much. They responded, with Ramon getting a hat-trick and Williams scoring in the 96th minute in a resounding comeback. The 4-2 win kept us on course.
The bonkers thing is, I’d been about to sub Ramon off when he scored. Good thing I didn’t eh?
For the visit of West Brom Livakovic was fit and ready, and a little bit of squad rotation would allow players a breather. Talles Magno, Ramon and Mazinho all came into the game as newly-minted Brazilian internationals, but Ramon was rested (our first Champions League engagement being very soon). Talles Magno scored, as did Diez, as did Nico and as did Williams, in a very good 4-0 win, aided in part by West Brom losing a man to a red card for a wild two-footed lunge.
Now for the first dinner at Europe’s top table. The last time Leeds had competed in the Champions League had been all the way back in the 2000/01 season. To open proceedings for this campaign, Leeds would host Belgian side Club Brugge.
What can I say? This was as complete a performance from the lads as I’d seen. Williams got himself a hat-trick, Ramon scored twice and Talles Magno, on as a sub when Diez got hurt, scored twice as well in a rampant 7-0 victory. Muchanga didn’t score but his efforts on the left-wing were exemplary, a truly masterful performance in providing three assists.
In the wake of a triumphant return to the Champions League, Leeds had to return to the bread and butter stuff and quickly. We were hosting Liverpool, so we had to be at our best. The Reds might have fluffed their lines last season, but they retained the core of a brilliant team and they would give us a challenge.
For much of the match it seemed that the challenge wouldn’t materialise. We were three goals to the good at half-time and Williams doubled his personal tally right after the break. Perhaps the problem lay in tired legs, for Liverpool got back into the game and it finished 4-3, but ultimately three points and the 100% to the season were what mattered. Still, a few words on the very mixed performance had to be had.
Time for a change of pace. The Carabao Cup was up next and this meant a generous rotation of the squad, bringing forward young stars and players on the periphery of the first team. We ended up going two-nil down early at home to Aston Villa, rallied to level the score, then lost on penalties. It wasn’t to be, but at least I’d preserved the key players for our next league fixture – a trip to Spurs.
A Hauge brace and a goal from Erwin saw us ease past Tottenham in a 3-0 away win that always feels quite satisfying. The downside was losing Williams to a twisted ankle for a few weeks. Still, we’d won all seven of our league games, not a bad start to the season at all.
A few days later Leeds welcomed Italian side Napoli to Elland Road. I regarded Napoli as our toughest opponents in the group stages of the Champions League, and they proved it by taking the lead midway through the first-half, however by half-time we’d turned things around quite nicely, Talles Magno, Diez and Harwood-Bellis scoring to give us a 3-1 advantage, with Ramon scoring late on to give us a good 4-1 win.
Another home game followed, this time in the Premier League, against Manchester City. As always, I anticipated a challenging match. In the end, it turned out to be quite the opposite. Much like last season’s clash, Leeds saw little of the ball but we were far more ruthless with it. A 4-1 win (Ramon scoring all four goals) despite 39% possession was a cutting demonstration of counter-attacking football. Leeds had now won all eight Premier League fixtures and both Champions League fixtures.
After the accursed international pause, Leeds hit the road to visit Leicester, who were struggling somewhat after a few strong years. I always hate games against teams near the bottom of the table and I loathe games after the internationals, so this had the potential to be a double-whammy, but in the end a routine 2-0 win thanks to Ramon and Mazinho (who scored his first ever Leeds goal) meant we’d now won nine in a row.
Back to the Champions League now, for a trip to France and Lyon. Lyon were seven-time winners of Ligue 1, and funnily enough, they’d won all their titles in one go. However it had been a while since they’d won the French title and they’d never gone beyond the Semi-Final stage of the Champions League. In game terms, they’d been runners-up in the Europa League in 2026, and French Cup winners in 2025. Still, it would be unwise to underestimate any opponent in the Champions League, especially away from home.
Nonetheless, owing to some jaded players (Ramon and Stergiou), I felt I had to give a few players a rest and grant other players a chance in Europe. It was risky starting youngsters like Wes Neale, but the promising defender acquitted himself reasonably enough, and a 2-0 win (though given the number of squandered chances I began to doubt the outcome) meant we’d won our opening three games in the group stage. I was also pleased to see Brewster score on the biggest club stage, though I had to confess that privately, I was considering selling him to ease the wage bill.
Back in the Premier League Leeds took the short trip to Burnley, who were having a good early phase of the season. We created so many chances but the normally proficient Ramon and Talles Magno just could not score, and despite Nico putting us ahead in the second-half, Burnley snatched a draw. It seemed that we maybe missed Williams and his goal-scoring ways.
There’d be no hand-wringing over a draw. Leeds had a week to prepare for the arrival of West Ham. Williams was back, so I rated our chances quite highly. Talles Magno returned the right wing and Muchanga returned to the left wing. I felt confident. A Ramon brace, plus a goal from Williams and a penalty from Hauge gave us a comfortable 4-0 win, and then it was time to host Lyon in the Champions League.
A 3-0 win saw Sykes score his first ever goal for Leeds, Muchanga tap in from close range and Harwood-Bellis nod home from a freekick. The result meant that with two games to spare, Leeds were heading into the knockout stages!
Struggling Norwich were the next visitors to Elland Road. I gave Brewster another start, alongside his former Crystal Palace colleague Williams. I also gave a start to talented youngster Kenny Martin, who had the potential to be a good, solid midfielder. Wes Neale also returned to first-team action, so along with Sykes, I had three youth team players starting for me. Unfortunately my approach backfired, not least of all because Neale got sent off and conceded a penalty in the process. We went into the break a goal down and managed to draw, but it was a poor performance and points were needlessly dropped. I had to bear some of the blame for resting players when perhaps I shouldn’t have.
The next international pause gave us time to take stock ahead of a trip to Southampton. Talles Magno, Muchanga and Williams proved instrumental in a 4-2 win, though I felt we could have played better.
A short voyage across the English Channel to Belgium was next to face Club Brugge. Our previous encounter had ended 7-0 in our favour, but we were the visitors. I decided to field a young team again, to give others a rest and give my budding youthful stars a chance in on the biggest stage. They did not disappoint. Brewster opened the scoring and Gibbons scored twice in an easy, stress-free 3-0 win.
A 1-0 away win followed against Aston Villa, thanks to Mazinho, and then it was on to a tough game. Chelsea were coming to Elland Road and they’d been struggling somewhat, but that meant nothing in a clash like this – Chelsea and Leeds have an historic rivalry and things like form and league positions didn’t mean anything in those circumstances. In a nice moment the game would be my 100th in charge of Leeds. We marked it with a magnificent victory, a 6-1 triumph that saw Muchanga net a deft header, Ramon score twice and Williams grab a brilliant hat-trick.
Would our next visitors, also from London, provide a sterner test? Arsenal were third in the league and doing quite well. They were also the reigning champions of Europe. Naturally, they would possess real quality. I felt a 2-2 draw was probably fair – we went behind, equalised on the stroke of half-time, went ahead and then midway through the second half they levelled. As I said, fair.
Time for the final group stage encounter in the Champions League and a trip to Napoli. Having already secured qualification to the next round, the only remaining question was whether or not we’d top the group. Despite losing 4-1 we topped the group on goal difference, which was good enough for me. I hoped the resting of key names would serve us in good stead for the trip to Everton.
A 3-1 win on Merseyside (Ramon with two goals, Muchanga with the other) kept us moving in the right direction. Then it was on to the main event: a mouth-watering trip to Old Trafford to face second-placed Manchester United.
The recurring theme of my encounters with Man Utd – as Leeds manager at least – were for the games to be pulsating matches that ended in draws. This time it ended – with our first league defeat of the season. A 3-2 loss ended up being meted out, and I couldn’t complain. We were outplayed, and for the first time in the Premier League we tasted the bitter fruit of a loss.
There were only a few days between the United game and our next league appearance, at home to Bournemouth. We needed to rally, to shake out the disappointment of losing to our major rivals and get back into the grove. It took a considerable length of time, but eventually Ramon and Gibbons gave us the result we wanted.
We had arrived at the end of the first half of the 28/29 season. We were second in the league, only one point behind leaders Man Utd. We’d won our Champions League group convincingly.