Leeds 1 -2 Rangers (2 – 4 on aggregate) 4 November, 1992
Elland Road fell silent save for the cries of jubilation from the Rangers bench and the handful of away fans who had sneaked into the ground. Two minutes into the most-anticipated game of the season and the contest was all but over.
Mark Hateley raised his arms triumphantly aloft. Howard Wilkinson scribbled angry words into his notebook. John Lukic stared disconsolately at the turf. Eric Cantona held his hands on his hips and the Leeds players to a man puffed their cheeks in dismay.
England’s best, a nation’s pride resting on their shoulders, were being hammered by their northern foes.
How had it come to this?
This was the first season the European Cup would experiment with a group format. In the days before the bastardisation of the term “champions”, the tournament was the preserve of title winners only. Those without silver polish need not apply.
32 teams would be whittled down via two knockout rounds. The remaining eight teams would then split into groups of four and the winners of each group would progress to the final of European football’s grand prize.
The draw had set up a potential mouth-watering second round clash between Scottish champions Rangers and England’s representatives Leeds United, providing both secured safe passage through the opening frame.
Rangers fulfilled their obligation, disposing comfortably of Danish side Lyngby. However, Leeds had self-destructed in Deutschland, losing 3-0 in Stuttgart and exiting on away goals. Dreams of a “Battle of Britain” were shattered.
Until they were rescued by two unlikely heroes.
The first was Jovo Simanic, a Yugoslavian defender whose brief appearance in the 4-1 defeat at Elland Road violated the three-foreigner rules of the competition. After Leeds’ objection was upheld, a third fixture was hastily arranged in a neutral venue, Barcelona’s Camp Nou.
On that night, journeyman striker Carl Shutt was the saviour, coming off the subs bench to net a late winner. Justice had been served. Now the jousting for the best team in Britain could officially begin.
The media hype for the contest far exceeded the expectations. Popular consensus was that the Auld Enemy would provide plucky opposition, but England’s champions should dispose of them easily. It’s hard to justify that level of complacency. Listening to the pundits - Manchester United midfielder Bryan Robson picked Leeds to stick ‘four or five’ past them – you’d have thought Walter Smith was fielding The Krankies at centre half.
In fact, Rangers had assembled a very tidy side. Amongst the more notable arrivals was Mark Hateley, the well-travelled target man who had plied his trade at both AC Milan and Monaco in recent years after bursting onto the scene at Coventry. Blessed with a good touch, supreme aerial ability and the sort of mullet-suntan combination that European climates cultivate so expertly, Hateley had fast become a hero at Ibrox.
He’d formed the classic little-and-large partnership with Ally McCoist, helping the Gers to successive titles at the start of the decade. McCoist was the goalhanger’s goalhanger. Never knowingly more than 18 yards from goal, he was the predator of the penalty box. Though he would later become a fixture on Question of Sport, to many English fans Ally McCoist was a face in a Panini sticker album and a name they saw every week on the BBC Vidiprinter. A goal machine of the highest order, he found the perfect foil in Hateley. The duo tormented Leeds in the first leg at a rabid Ibrox Park, as the hosts secured a 2-1 win.
Still that didn’t deter the critics. Leeds had an off-night, punctuated by a disastrous performance from John Lukic. And the atmosphere, heightened by the fact that no away fans were allowed to travel due to security fears, had been a huge advantage for the Scots. Things would be different in Leeds, they said.
Buoyed by their first-leg performance, Rangers travelled south on this midwinter night with the swagger of a migrating bird who’d packed two bottles of sun lotion. Their confidence was well-founded. With barely two minutes on the clock, the tie was dead and buried.
There seemed little danger as Andy Goram pumped the ball downfield. Ian Durrant flicked the ball towards the corner of the box where Hateley was lurking. Without breaking stride Hateley cannoned the ball on the half-volley into the top corner from the unlikeliest of angles.
Seldom has Brian Moore been found wanting for superlatives. But even ITV’s legendary commentator struggled to articulate the audacity of the strike. Hateley had taken the ball over his shoulder and then volleyed it in mid-air. Big men weren’t supposed to do this.
It’s hard to accurately describe John Lukic’s goalkeeping technique at this point. Caught totally unawares, he rolls backwards into the net, getting his feet caught clumsily in the webbing – like Spiderman after three pints of Tennent’s Super.
To their credit, shell-shocked Leeds immediately rallied. The game was fast and frenetic. British football at its energy-sapping best, with plenty of huff and puff, interspersed with occasional moments of quality.
One such interlude came from the mercurial Eric Cantona who, displaying the most impressive chest control since Samantha Fox bought a new bikini, turned his marker and hit a stinging volley which Goram parried for a corner. From the set-piece Stuart McCall cleared a Chris Whyte header off the line and moments later Cantona forced another fine save from the Rangers custodian.
Rangers were on the ropes. Richard Gough, who’d used every body part to block Leeds’ path to goal, was bleeding profusely and the half-time whistle brought some relief for the visitors.
The second half saw Leeds continue to pour forward. As they pressed on, gaps of O.J Simpson-esque proportions started to appear in their defence. And on 58 minutes, Rangers hit the killer blow. Hateley, his wild mane flowing behind him like a stallion in full flight, galloped down the left and produced an inch-perfect cross for a diving McCoist to score the crucial second goal.
Incredibly, it was McCoist’s 29th goal of the season, and we were only just into November. Even today those are the sort of numbers that might make Lionel Messi splutter into his Irn Bru.
Cantona hit a late consolation, and there was still time for more magnificent work from Goram to deny Rod Wallace and Gary Speed. The Scottish keeper would later be diagnosed with mild schizophrenia, spawning the famous “Two Andy Gorams” chant. For Leeds United, one was enough. He had been superb.
Leeds’ season unravelled after their exit. Their title defence a shambles, they dropped like a stone to finish 17th in the inaugural Premier League campaign. Cantona’s goal versus
Rangers was his last meaningful contribution in a white shirt as Wilkinson fobbed him off to fierce rivals Manchester United. Not since JFK decided he wanted a bit of extra sunshine has a decision backfired so miserably.
As for Rangers, their dynamic duo of Hateley and McCoist powered them to another league title and they came within a whisker of reaching the European Cup Final. Despite being undefeated the entire competition, they would lose out on top spot in the group to eventual winners Marseille, whose victory would later be tainted by Bernard Tapie’s penchant for bribery.
So the European conquest did not bring home the trophy. Yet 25 years on, the Battle of Britain remains one of the most memorable sporting contests on domestic soil.