The Premier League celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer and when looking back at classic matches, Arsenal and Leeds’ thriller at Highbury during the closing stages of the 2002/03 season inevitably slips under the radar.
Indeed, we often look back on games that clinched the English crown – Arsenal at Old Trafford the season prior, or Manchester City’s spectacular last-minute win over QPR – but Leeds’ trip to north London flipped that scenario on its head. Anything but a win would essentially lose the Gunners the title, both in terms of being reigning champions and the title race with Manchester United that season, whereas the boys from Yorkshire needed an invaluable three points to stave off a shock relegation.
Indeed, as financial troubles off the field began to take hold of the club, Leeds suddenly plummeted from a Champions League final two years previous and a fifth-place finish the season before to scrapping it out at the foot of the table, eventually finishing in 15th – just five points above the relegation zone.
But at this point of Leeds’ eventual dissolution, their starting XI still contained some sublime talents, particularly in a forward line containing Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka, which gave them a chance in any given game regardless of the opposition – in fact, the Whites still beat Manchester United, Newcastle, Chelsea and the Gunners that season, all of whom eventually compiled the top four.
And whilst Leeds still carried to that big draw feel to Highbury in early May, Arsenal entered the most important game of that season following a shock draw with Bolton Wanderers without several key players, namely Patrick Vieira, Sol Campbell, Lauren and Freddie Ljungberg. Accordingly, a new centre-back partnership of Martin Keown and Oleg Luzhny was formed, with Kolo Toure lining up at right-back.
Leeds’ star duo were quick to take advantage, most particularly Kewell. Just five minutes in, a lofted pass from Jason Wilcox was caught on the chest by the Auzzie attacker as he powered between Arsenal’s unfamiliar centre-halves in the left-hand channel.
One step later and Kewell had rifled the ball on the half-volley, one of the sweetest strikes you’ll ever see in the Premier League, sending it fizzing through the air and crashing into David Seaman’s right inside netting. The Gunners goalie never stood a chance, and Leeds were unexpectedly one-nil up at Highbury.
Arsenal had plenty of attacking quality too in Denis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, one of the Premier League’s most iconic strike-forces, and hit back after half an hour. A then-incredibly young Paul Robinson could only parry Ray Parlour’s speculative effort from midfield onto the post with his fingertips, leaving Henry to head home a rebound as the ball bounced out. It wasn’t the most stylistic goal Arsenal had scored that season, but a vital one at the time nonetheless.
A few minutes later, Parlour – still searching for his first goal of the campaign – had an effort almost a carbon copy of the first cleared off the line by Michael Dubbery. And a few minutes after that, a long-ranger from Thierry Henry once again connected with the post. But as Sylvain Wiltord rose to convert the rebound in identical style, the linesman raised his flag for offside.
Arsenal would draw level once again in the second half, after an Ian Harte free kick took knicks of Ashley Cole and Gilberto Silva to trickle past Seaman – marking three seasons in a row in which the then-Ireland full-back had hit the net at Highbury. There was a little more precision to Arsenal’s second equaliser, Robert Pires and Henry combining to unleash the former in the box, where he quickly laid the ball back to Bergkamp, who stabbing it past Robinson with the outside of his boot.
That created a last half an hour in which Arsenal needed to score another to give themselves a chance of catching up with Manchester United before the end of the campaign and Leeds knew the home side were there for the taking, a consequence of the questionable defending they’d shown throughout the afternoon and the cauldron of pressure Highbury had become.
There was plenty of to-and-thro, not least including the most beautiful play of the day – Parlour stepping over a lay-off from Henry to allow Bergkamp the chance for a curler from just outside the box, which unfortunately continued to spiral instead of dropping into the top corner of the net – and Henry stepping in from the left, in typical Henry style, before once again booming a shot off the woodwork. It was later followed by a low cross travelling across the six-yard box only for no Arsenal foot to get on the end of it.
Then, at the other end, the telling moment came in the 88th minute. Captain Dominic Matteo, finding himself free in midfield for the first time of the afternoon, launched a long pass to Viduka, who was standing in yards of space in Arsenal’s half – too much space in fact; replays would show the Leeds front-man had ran back from an offside position.
Nonetheless, Viduka charged towards the penalty area from the right-hand side, beautifully stepped over the ball to place it onto his left foot and curled it past a once again helpless Seaman into the right corner.
In a jackpot or bust fixture for both sides, it was Leeds who came out on top by the skin of their teeth, preserving their Premier League status for another season and clinching their old rivals, Manchester United, the title. Yet, Arsenal fans will argue fate played them a cruel hand that day; the Gunners hit the post four times, had a goal ruled out for offside and were caught by two stunning goals on the counter-attack, alongside a free kick that took a wicked double-deflection.
However, that epitomises why this game should be remembered as a Premier League classic. From efforts cannoning off the woodwork and cleared off the line to controversial offside calls, the difference in every area of the pitch and eventually the scoreline was a matter of mere inches. On another day, this game could have panned out entirely differently.
Whilst Arsenal went on to become the Invincibles in the following season, however, Leeds could resist relegation no longer, plummeting into the second tier from which they are yet to return. But after over a decade in the wilderness, there’s no question the Whites are back on the right path under their new owner, who provided the funds to buy Elland Road earlier this week, after narrowly missing out on the playoffs last season.
And if anybody doubts why we need Leeds back in the Premier League, they only need to look back at this incredible all-or-nothing game. They’re a big club bursting with ancient rivalries, and have an incredible knack of showing up on the big occasions.