Football Features

What happened next? Every key player who left Leeds Utd immediately after their 2004 relegation

By Ben Green

Published: 19:00, 28 May 2023

By the turn of the century Leeds United were top-four residents, European regulars and a real force in English football. Just four years later, though, they would exit the Premier League in dramatic fashion and fall down the food chain.

A third-place finish in 1999/2000 under David O’Leary heralded the start of a promising new millennium at Elland Road, one where the Yorkshire club would consistently tussle for English supremacy alongside bitter adversaries Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, et al.

Such was the success with O’Leary at the helm that the Whites reached the Champions League semi-final in 2001, but after a string of bad financial decisions off the pitch and inconsistent performances on it, Leeds spiralled out of control and the White Rose of York lost its place among the Premier League’s most iconic emblems.

So rapid was Leeds’ sudden fall from grace and subsequent relegation in 2003/04 that “Doing a Leeds” has since entered the football vernacular (and even has its own Wikipedia entry).

As we saw the season before quality is now always tantamount to success (West Ham anyone?), but many felt the 2003/04 Leeds team were simply too good to go down. Several of their players agreed, and in the subsequent summer transfer window left to pursue glittering careers elsewhere. Here are the accounts of what happened to those players.

1. Alan Smith

  • Joined: Manchester United
  • Fee: £7m
  • Was it a success? No

Alan Smith’s controversial switch to Roses rivals Man Utd was a classic case of hero to villain. The homegrown superstar was Leeds to the core and even publicly declared he would never join the Red Devils, such was the deep-seated affection he shared with his boyhood club. But, just two years after that regretful soundbite, Smith relocated to Old Trafford to a chorus jeers in West Yorkshire households, metaphorical pitchforks en masse and a new moniker: Judas.

The path between Leeds and Man Utd was well-trodden prior to Smith’s departure; the names Eric Cantona and Rio Ferdinand remain taboo in some quarters of the city. But, to lose a local icon? Well, that just added huge amounts of salt to an already gaping wound following relegation.

Unfortunately, financial devastation meant Leeds had no option but to sell their prized asset simply to survive. Football’s romanticism dictates that Smith would have stayed at Leeds and rejected overtures from one of football’s biggest clubs, but reality was is no mood to cater to the purists. Leeds needed the cash.

The versatile attacker shed a tear on the final home match of the season, which confirmed Leeds’ condemnation to the old Division One. But there would be no fairy tale resurgence the following season. An opportunity to play for Man Utd under the auspices of Sir Alex Ferguson was a once in a lifetime chance in 2004, one Smith felt he could not miss out on.

His maiden campaign was marred, at times, by injury problems — which became the story of his tenure — culminating in a missed opportunity to play Arsenal in the FA Cup final, while the growing stature of Wayne Rooney and form of Ruud van Nistelrooy meant he was reduced to a fleeting role come the end of the campaign.

As such, Ferguson revealed his intention to mould Smith in the image of Roy Keane, with aspirations that he would one day succeed his midfield talisman. “Roy sees characteristics in Alan that he saw in himself as a young player, which could help Alan develop into a very good player in that position,” Ferguson said at the time.

However, a devastating injury at Anfield in 2006 ruined his Old Trafford career and there would be no Keane 2.0. He was sidelined for seven months following a broken leg and dislocated ankle and never returned to his former glory. The foundations were in place for a successful career at Man Utd, but injuries scuppered that potential.

James Milner

  • Joined: Newcastle United
  • Fee: £5m
  • Was it a success? Yes

In October 2002, the world was introduced to Wayne Rooney when the precocious 16-year-old netted that famous curling effort against Arsenal to become the youngest ever Premier League goalscorer. Just two months later, James Milner would break that record by five days after he opened his account against Sunderland.

From there, the diehard Leeds fan was destined for a lead role in the division and he quickly cemented his status as a first-team regular, exhibiting the kind of workmanlike qualities, maturity and technical brilliance that embodies Jurgen Klopp’s well-calibrated Liverpool side now.

He was Leeds’ lynchpin then and carries a similar aura on Merseyside now. Despite his youthfulness at Elland Road, Milner established a reputation for his maturity (no surprises there), leading to plenty of plaudits from covetous eyes, with then Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri leading the eulogies with this ringing endorsement, after Milner left Marcel Desailly on his backside and netted in a 2-0 win in December 2002.

The Italian remarked: “He plays like a 30-year-old. Everything he did was fantastic. He’s very clever, on the right and left, and he timed his passes perfectly. His future is very bright.

“He plays like a 30-year-old.” Never has a more accurate description rang true for Milner throughout his career. This is, after all, a player who bases his game off an insatiable work ethic, a relentlessness and a willingness to leave nothing behind. No wonder he had plenty of suitors when Leeds were relegated.

Tottenham were frontrunners for his signature, but Milner rejected a move to the capital as he didn’t want to relocate that far from home, so a transfer to Newcastle transpired, despite Milner’s reluctance to leave and having just signed a five-year contract 12 months prior.

The former England international has gone on to enjoy a stellar career and still plays a prominent role for Liverpool, with the stalwart all but guaranteed to lift the Premier League title this season.

Mark Viduka

  • Joined: Middlesbrough
  • Fee: £4.5m
  • Was it a success? Yes

Far from the conventional route to Premier League football, the Melbourne marksman’s path from Australia to Elland Road via Dinamo Zagreb and Celtic was exceptionally fruitful. But he truly emerged as one of the game’s most prolific No. 9s in West Yorkshire.

In his debut season, Viduka amassed an impressive 22-goal haul, including four in Europe en route to the Champions League semi-final, and four in a famous 4-3 win over Liverpool. He flourished alongside compatriot Harry Kewell, Robbie Keane and Alan Smith.

In his ensuing two seasons at Elland Road, the clinical Aussie scored 16 and 22 goals respectively, including 20 in the 2002/03 Premier League season. Unfortunately Viduka couldn’t replicate that feat the following campaign, and the Whites slipped through the trap door.

A move to Middlesbrough swiftly followed but an injury-hit first season under Steve McClaren meant Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was the main attraction at the Riverside. It would be the 2005/06 season, though, where Viduka would truly announce himself.

Spearheading the attack, Middlesbrough reached the UEFA Cup final in 2006, with Viduka responsible for six goals in nine games en route to the Philips Stadion, home of PSV in Eindhoven, in Netherlands. They would lose to Sevilla in the showpiece event, but the memory of that extraordinary campaign still runs deep.

The towering forward could have been mistaken for a rugby prop masquerading as a footballer, but his elegant touch and eye for goalscoring made him far more than a throwback No. 9. Heck, Luka Modric is his cousin after all, owing to his Croatian heritage, so he was never going to be traditional centre-forward.

Paul Robinson

  • Joined: Tottenham
  • Fee: £1.5m
  • Was it a success? Yes

Another academy graduate, and another victim of the fire-sale. Robinson was Leeds’ undisputed No. 1 and an England international by the time relegation materialised, but he too would be on the move. Spurs missed out on signing Milner, but they managed to get their hands on the competent ‘keeper.

Leeds’ Player of the Year for 2002/03 shone during his maiden season at White Hart Lane, with Martin Joe guiding the club to a respectable ninth. But, it would be his second season in north London where Robinson left an invaluable footnote on his career, scoring the second goal of is professional career.

The former England shot-stopper had previously netted a header against Swindon Town in the dying embers of a League Cup encounter, but against Watford, Robinson entered an exclusive club of only five goalkeepers to score in the Premier League, with this free-kick clearance catching Ben Foster completely unawares…

Rogerio Ceni, eat your heart out! Robinson would stagnate slightly at Spurs and ultimately left for Blackburn in 2008, where he re-established his reputation as a formidable stopper, which culminated in clinching the club’s Player of the Season award in 2011.

Scott Carson

  • Joined: Liverpool
  • Fee: £750k
  • Was it a success? No

The current Manchester City goalkeeper was another to hail from the club’s esteemed ranks having initially garnered a promising reputation as a rugby league player at youth level. With Robinson blocking the path to first-team football, Carson was restricted to a peripheral role at Elland Road.

Relegation might have ignited Carson’s career at Leeds, but the acquisition of Neil Sullivan from Chelsea that summer kept the England international on the fringes of action and he subsequently left for Liverpool midway through the 2004/05 campaign.

With Carson’s contract set to expire that summer, Leeds were hopeful he would sign a new deal in December 2004, but instead he opted to join Rafael Benitez at Anfield, though he was never likely to usurp ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ hero Jerzy Dudek.

The arrival of Pepe Reina saw Carson endure multiple loan spells away from Anfield, before he signed permanently for West Brom in 2008. He has since gone on to represent Bursaspor, Wigan, Derby and now Man City, whom he joined in 2021.

Ian Harte 

  • Joined: Levante
  • Fee: Undisclosed
  • Was it a success? Yes

It was at one point reported that Ian Harte was the subject of intense interest from Barcelona, with then Leeds boss Terry Venables, who managed Barca in the 80s, open to letting the deadball specialist leave Elland Road, as the club were financially struggling at the time.

The report suggests Harte was seen was the set-piece successor to Rivaldo, who had just left for AC Milan, but a deal failed to materialise and the versatile left-back remained on the books at Leeds, before eventually sealing a move to La Liga in 2004, only this time, under the guise of newly-promoted Levante.

The Irishman got off to the perfect start in Spain, netting the Frogs’ first La Liga goal for 41 years on the opening game of the 2004/05 season — of corse it was a free-kick. At one point Levante were up to fifth in the league, but ultimately suffered relegation on the final day.

It was a bit heater skelter for Harte, who helped guide the club to promotion at the first time of asking the following campaign, but an injury-ravaged La Liga return spelled the end of his time in Valencia, and he promptly returned to England, where he helped Reading to Premier League promotion in 2011.

Danny Mills

  • Joined: Man City
  • Fee: Free transfer
  • Was it a success? No

Long gone are the days when Man City would venture to snap up freebies from recently relegated sides. But, in 2004 Stuart Pearce made Mills a part of the Etihad furniture after Leeds’ drop. He firmly held his own in the City XI, but following the appointment of Kevin Keegan the 19-time England international fell down the pecking order and was eventually supplanted by the meteoric emergence of Micah Richards. Mills went on to don the shirts of Hull, Derby and Charlton in various loan spells before retiring in 2009.

Nick Barmby

  • Joined: Hull City
  • Fee: Free transfer
  • Was it a success? Yes

As a 21-year-old, the legendary Pele supposedly predicted Barmby would be up there with Zinedine Zidane, Paolo Maldini and Ronaldo. But, by the time he turned 30, which should have been the peak years of his career, the former Spurs and Liverpool man was plying his trade in League One with hometown club Hull.

Not quite the world-class status Pele bestowed upon him as an emerging talent. Indeed, the 23-capped England international never made a World Cup appearance, and his spell at Elland Road has gone down as an unmitigated disaster, with the mercurial playmaker making very little impact during his two years at the club.

When relegation arose in 2004, Barmby was released by the club and he promptly returned home, joining Hull City, whom he helped guide to Premier League promotion in 2008, having achieved a similar feat three years prior in the third tier.

Stephen McPhail

  • Joined: Barnsley
  • Fee: Free transfer
  • Was it a success? Yes

Once heralded “the new Liam Brady” by former Arsenal manager George Graham, it’s safe to say this academy gem never quite followed in the illustrious footsteps of his compatriot. McPhail looked destined for a bright career in West Yorkshire, but the departure of O’Leary and the subsequent merry-go-round of managers, not to mention various injury problems, stifled his progression at the club and he left for Barnsley in 2004.

He galvanised the Tykes to League One promotion during his debut season and signed for Cardiff in 2006. It was in the Welsh capital where McPhail truly shone brightest, reaching two domestic finals, including skippering his side in the FA Cup final defeat to Portsmouth in 2008, and collecting a runners-up medal in the 2012 League Cup final loss to Liverpool.

Dominic Matteo

  • Joined: Blackburn
  • Fee: Free transfer
  • Was it a success? No

Born in Scotland to a father with Italian heritage, Matteo grew up in a household that idolised legendary defender Cesare Maldini (father of Paolo), so he was always destined to grace the turf. Matteo emerged at Liverpool during the 90s and racked up an impressive 34 appearances in 1999/2000. He was expected to fully break into the side the following campaign but was instead sold to Leeds.

The Dumfries-born defender-cum-midfielder made just shy of 150 appearances for Leeds across a four-year spell, which culminated in receiving the captain’s armband in 2002 following the sale of Ferdinand and this unforgettable goal at the San Siro against AC Milan…

He left for Blackburn following relegation but made just 39 appearances for the club in three years and then joined Stoke in 2007, where he finished his playing career.

Andy Keogh

  • Joined: Scunthorpe
  • Fee: £50k
  • Was it a success? Yes

Just one of the many academy alumni at Leeds, Keogh also emerged from the club’s illustrious ranks before leaving midway through the 2004/05 season. The promising striker made just the single appearance for the Whites before securing a permanent deal with Scunthorpe, where he thrived alongside strike partner Billy Sharp and secured promotion to the Championship in 2007.

This encouraged Wolves to splurge on acquiring his services, and he helped the club reach the ‘Promised Land’ of the Premier League in 2009, though he never really established a prominent role under Mick McCarthy and left for Millwall in 2012.

Other departures

  • Craig Hignett (released)
  • Steve Guppy (released)
  • Danny Cadamarteri (Sheff Utd for £50k)
  • Jason Wilcox (Leicester City for free)
  • Danny Milosevic (Celtic for free)
  • Michael Bridges (released)
  • David Batty (retired)
  • Serge Branco (released)