news world

Best Premier League performances: No 45, Mark Viduka for Leeds v Liverpool

To celebrate 30 years of the Premier LeagueThe Athletic is paying tribute to the 50 greatest individual performances in its history, as voted for by our writers. You can read Oliver Kay’s introduction to our Golden Games series (and the selection rules) here — as well as the full list of all the articles as they unfold.

Picking 50 from 309,949 options is an impossible task. You might not agree with their choices, you won’t agree with the order. They didn’t. It’s not intended as a definitive list. It’s a bit of fun, but hopefully a bit of fun you’ll enjoy between now and August.

“I really didn’t think I played that well.”

Admittedly, in a series celebrating the greatest 50 individual performances in Premier League history, it’s not an ideal start. If even the player himself doesn’t think he was much good, then what is he doing here?

In this instance, the player is Mark Viduka and the performance was the time he scored four goals for Leeds United against Liverpool in November 2000, leading his team to a 4-3 win in one of the Premier League’s more thrilling games. Just those bare facts are probably enough to suggest the player in question had a pretty decent game, but Viduka’s opinion that he wasn’t that great is one he’s stuck to.

“I don’t think so,” he told Sky Sports after the final whistle. “I’ve performed better in games but just didn’t score this many goals. I don’t think I had an exceptionally good game, anyway.”

He’s repeated the point a few times since, too. A layman might think that scoring four goals might be enough to leave a striker satisfied with their day of work. But, as it turns out, Viduka was after something more.

“As a forward, you have a job description,” he tells The Athletic. “You need to hold up play, dribbling, creating chances and everything else. Scoring is one of your jobs — probably the most important, yes, but what I was referring to was I didn’t think I was dominant as I ought to have been doing all the other things.

“I had four opportunities to score and took them, which is very rare in football. Sometimes you have four chances and only score one, or none. But all the other aspects: holding up, linking play — there have been other games where I did those better.

“Football is the only thing in my life that I’m a perfectionist about. Obviously you’re happy to score, but I’ll ask you a question: would you be happier if you had an unbelievable game, dribbled past three players and set up an unbelievable goal, or if the ball comes across and hits you on the arse and goes in. What would make you more fulfilled?”

Well, when he puts it like that… it does present an interesting question though: what does “playing well” actually mean? Does it mean successfully executing various basic skills of the game? Does it mean contributing generally to the team in a broad way? Does it mean carrying out a game plan well? Or does it mean doing the thing that ultimately we’re all here for — scoring goals, and doing it loads of times?

The answer, like so many things in football, is subjective. And there is more to life than goals. But would anyone really care if Viduka sparked up a tab, cracked open a few cans and sat on a beanbag in the centre circle for 85 minutes, as long as he spent the remaining five minutes scoring four goals? It’s only been done 33 other times in the Premier League, after all. (Five players have also scored five goals in one game).

Viduka cares, clearly. He cites a Champions League game against Lazio a couple of weeks later, in which he didn’t score at all, as a performance that satisfies him more. “I set up Smithy (Alan Smith) with a back heel in that game,” he says about the game’s only goal. “I find that sort of thing fulfilling.

“Obviously I would have liked to have scored that day as well, but from the start, I felt confident, I felt good — I was playing against Alessandro Nesta and Fernando Couto, and they were struggling against me. I was taking advantage, dribbling, setting up chances. That was one game that stayed in my mind where I could basically do what I wanted on the pitch.”

Having started the conversation with a degree of incredulity that he was dissatisfied with seeing the net ripple once, twice, three, four times, I’m just about convinced.

But I am left thinking: who, other than Viduka, is going to remember a couple of iffy lay-offs or the odd bit of poor control? People — especially the people that were in the ground at the time — are going to remember those four goals, and this 6ft 3in Australian displaying the sort of poise and delicacy you don’t quite expect from a man of his dimensions. They’re also going to remember how it felt to be at Elland Road that day, how they experienced that incredible atmosphere. That’s what matters, at least to the rest of us.

“I have to admit the finishes were good,” Viduka says.

Viduka had joined Leeds from Celtic that summer but things didn’t get off to a storming start. He negotiated a clause in his contract that stipulated he would be allowed to play in the Sydney Olympics, meaning he played five games before disappearing for most of September. It wasn’t exactly a roaring success: Australia lost all three of their group games, to Italy, Nigeria and Honduras, and Viduka didn’t score.

But he was clearly inspired by the experience, scoring five goals in his first three games after returning, having not managed any in the five before his departure. The Olympic jaunt had probably just served as a deluxe fitness camp: his move from Celtic had been protracted, so he barely had a pre-season and went into those early Leeds games significantly undercooked. “There’s no doubt the Olympics got him fit,” said Leeds manager David O’Leary at the time. “He went and cleared his head.”

It wasn’t just the lack of goals in those early weeks that hadn’t created a great first impression. “Some people had this perception of Mark as a lazy player,” team-mate Dominic Matteo tells The Athletic, “someone who didn’t always put it in. I hated that. It was a load of bollocks. He looked after himself as well as anyone in that Leeds team and I never saw (laziness) in him.

“His skill and technique were sensational. I’d compare him to Robbie Fowler when I think of players I played with, absolutely top level. Because of his physique, it was easy to look at him as this big No 9 who didn’t get around much.”

Leeds came into this game in a slightly ropey shape. Their treatment room was bursting at the seams, with Lucas Radebe, Michael Bridges, Harry Kewell, Stephen McPhail, Jason Wilcox, Danny Mills, Michael Duberry, David Batty, Darren Huckerby and Nigel Martyn all injured.

Their squad was so depleted that they could only name four of the permitted five substitutes. They hadn’t won any of their previous five games, and although one of those was a draw with Barcelona in the Champions League, a few days earlier they had been knocked out of the League Cup by second-tier Tranmere Rovers.

Viduka wasn’t in the greatest of nick either. “It was one of the first early kick-offs (the game, live on Sky, started at 11.30am), so we were staying in the Malmaison hotel in the centre of Leeds.

“We lived in a village near Wetherby, and we had a Rottweiler called Tyra. Because it was Guy Fawkes weekend, people were setting off fireworks and the dog was getting a bit nervous and started barking. My missus was by herself so she was a bit scared, and she rang me a few times during the night while I was trying to get some sleep.

“The second time she woke me up, I said, ‘If I have a shocker tomorrow, you’re in trouble’. But the opposite happened, so I should have thanked her.”

Things got worse when the football started. Sami Hyypia took advantage of some relaxed marking to give Liverpool the lead in the second minute, then Christian Ziege scored a similar goal after 17 minutes to make it 2-0. “Defensively, it wasn’t a good day for us,” says Matteo. Just to add a further kick in the pants, Jonathan Woodgate was forced off with a thigh strain.

“It was a game where we were staring down the barrel,” says Viduka. “We were 2-0 down against a really good team, then Woody got taken off.”

Enter Viduka. After 24 minutes, Ziege dithered over a clearance, Smith closed him down and got enough on the block to direct the ball into Viduka’s path. He controlled superbly, then delicately dinked over the advancing Sander Westerveld.

Viduka mentioned luck earlier, but there wasn’t much luck about what he did in this one. Sure, the way the ball fell to him for the first had an element of fortune, but there was nothing lucky about the way he took the finishes. These were precision strikes, the work of an expert marksman, “one of those days” when everything goes right.

“I remember thinking that I was one of the people Mark’s goals had dug out of trouble,” says Matteo. “But as it went on, I just found myself just standing back and watching him. That doesn’t happen very often. It was like, ‘Fucking hell, what’s happening here?’. You know you’re in the middle of something unusual.”

Liverpool were still the better side with the better chances but thanks to Viduka, Leeds were still in it. And he drew them level just after the break: Gary Kelly drove down the right and whipped over a terrific cross to the near post, where Viduka had smartly positioned himself in the space between the two centre-backs.

There was about one square yard of space in the goal that he could have put the ball in, and he managed it, a perfectly placed header that, watching it back now, had similarities to the first of Karim Benzema’s perfect headers against Chelsea in the Champions League last season.

“Gary Kelly did a huge thing there,” says Viduka. “Out of nowhere, he gave me a perfect cross. As a forward you go front or back post: the cross was perfect. The position I was in, I was past the post, so I had to glance it in. If you glance it, it could go straight into the keeper’s arms, but this one went in. It was my day, in terms of finishing anyway.”

Parity lasted for about 15 minutes, then Vladimir Smicer restored Liverpool’s lead, but we’re not here to talk about him. Over to Martin Tyler, on commentary duty that day, to take you through what happened in the 73rd minute.

“(Olivier) Dacourt threading it through to Mark Viduka. Still Viduka. Still! Brilliant! Simply brilliant! An awesome hat-trick from the Australian. Mark Viduka is a star at Elland Road!”

This was the goal that Viduka, in an interview with the Daily Mail last year, said he “overcomplicated”. He cut in as if to shoot with his left foot, then swivelled onto his right, completed a 360-degree spin around Patrik Berger before slotting his finish low into the bottom corner. Berger had been so flummoxed trying to stop his opponent that his knee had buckled, he was taken off on a stretcher and spent the next five months out.

Viduka applauds and encourages the fans as they chant his name. At this stage, Elland Road is pulsing in the way that only happens when a team is on a roll, and the crowd thinks that a goal will surely come if only they shout just a little bit louder. It’s when they stop being 35,000 individuals and become one single, long scream, desperately imploring their team to score.

They only needed to implore Viduka, though. Two minutes later, another through ball from Dacourt put Viduka in on goal, he miscontrolled the firm pass but that touch shifted it into the perfect position for him to clip the ball over the sprawling Westerveld. It was a brilliant finish, similar to the first goal, but to poop the party very slightly, Viduka was a clear half-a-yard offside. “Yeah, I’d be off celebrating today and it would be called back, wouldn’t it?” Viduka told the Mail.

“There are certain players where physically you can’t cope with them,” Jamie Carragher, one of the Liverpool players given the thankless task of marking Viduka that day, said years later. “You were never going get in front of him. You were never going to knock him off the ball.”

“If we’d played on for another half hour, he’d probably have scored another three,” says Matteo. “Everything was going in. It’s easy to say now but there and then, you probably knew that 20-odd years later, people would still talk about it. You don’t forget finishing like that.

“I think he felt a bit bad about what he’d done to their defence, chopping them up and tearing them to bits. You almost feel sorry for them in the end.”

“V is for victory! V is for Viduka!” bellowed Tyler at the final whistle. This was the moment Viduka arrived in the Premier League, when he truly won over the Leeds fans. He would go on to score another 62 times for them before leaving in 2004, after which he helped Middlesbrough to the UEFA Cup final before finishing his career at Newcastle.

But despite all of that, the game that most will remember him for was this slice of lunchtime brilliance. Imagine if he’d actually played well.

(Design: Sam Richardson for The Athletic/Photos: Getty Images)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button