In many ways, Leeds United are a nearly team of English football, so often coming close to glory, only to be denied at the last hurdle. In this article, our focus will be how they have got on in the European Cup/Champions League (the former was founded in 1955 and changed its name to the latter in 1992). Leeds may have spent much of the 21st century outside the top flight of English football, even slumping into the third tier for three seasons, but they have also reached the final of the European Cup in their time too.
Have Leeds United Ever Won the Champions League?
Considering Leeds changed their colours to the now-familiar white to mimic Real Madrid (14 UEFA Champions Leagues and counting), and their fans love to chant “We are the champions, champions of Europe”, it may come as a surprise to many, and perhaps even to some of the topless, shirt-twirling Leeds fans, that no, United have never won Europe’s top competition, in either of its guises.
Champions League Finals
The closest that the Peacocks have ever come to landing the UEFA Champions League (UCL)/European Cup was their sole appearance in a final in 1975. They have won a European trophy and made other finals, and they have also captured several domestic trophies, but as of now, their song about being the champions of Europe may be popular, but remains factually inaccurate.
Stage of Elimination
Leeds United competed in the European Cup a couple of times during their golden era under popular (at least with Leeds fans) boss Don Revie, in the 1960s and 1970s. They were also European regulars in the 1990s and into the new century but again, only actually appeared in the UCL, as it was by then known, a further two times in this period.
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Note that the information is correct ahead of the 2022/23 season. The percentages are based on European Cups/UEFA Champions Leagues that Leeds qualified for.
Leeds United Best Performances
The West Yorkshire side’s best performance in the European Cup came in their solitary appearance in the final. They are currently one of 20 sides to have appeared in a final but not won the competition, along with other English teams Man City, Spurs and Arsenal. Spare a thought for fans of Atletico Madrid, whose side have lost all three of the finals in which they have appeared (with two of those losses coming to city rivals Real to boot!).
Back to Leeds, and back to 1975, when Leeds (managed by Jimmy Armfield following Revie’s unwelcome decision to take the England job) lost out to Bayern Munich. The game was hugely controversial, and the fact that Leeds dominated but were undone by a number of very dubious refereeing decisions goes a long way to explaining their fans’ chant about being the champions of Europe.
Revie had felt that the England job could not be refused, and the pull of that was greater than taking what he was starting to believe was an ageing squad to have one last crack at winning the European Cup. The players and Armfield largely proved Revie wrong, as they made light work of FC Zurich, Hungarian side Ujpest, Anderlecht and Barcelona to make the final, becoming only the second English side to do so.
Their opponents were the favourites for the Paris final and indeed this would prove the second of three consecutive European Cup victories for the Bavarians. Skippered by Franz Beckenbauer, with the brilliant Gerd Muller as their main striker, Bayern were a serious proposition. And yet Leeds were undeniably the better side.
In the first half French referee Michel Kitabdjian turned away two very solid penalty appeals from Leeds. The second was certainly a penalty, Beckenbauer tripping Allan Clarke. Refereeing officials classed his performance in the final as very poor but he was not investigated. In the 62nd minute Leeds also had a goal ruled out for offside. You can see Leeds player Peter Lorimer discussing the decision, and see the goal, here – it certainly looks a very harsh decision to us.
Leeds United’s fury worsened when Bayern took the lead in the 71st minute, adding a second in the 81st. The Bayern keeper also made a fine save from Billy Bremner and in the end it all proved a bit too much for Leeds fans, who promptly rioted. The less said about that the better.
Two Semi Finals
Leeds have also made the semi final on two occasions, narrowly missing out on the chance for revenge against Bayern when they lost to Valencia in 2001, when the Germans would go on to win. The Leeds of that era was a young, exciting team who had a swashbuckling style that excited neutrals. They had beaten Deportivo La Coruna 3-2 in the quarters and finished second to Real Madrid in the second group phase. In the initial group stage they qualified alongside AC Milan, pushing Barcelona down into third and Leeds fans revelled in their fine run and frequent trips to Spain.
This team that had finished fifth, fourth, third, fourth and fifth in the Premier League, before “chasing the dream”, as then-chairman Peter Ridsdale put it, cost them so dearly, resulting in relegation and docked points. However, many years earlier a far more traditional and cheaply assembled Leeds had also reached the semis. In the 1969/70 season, under the legendary Revie, Leeds would be beaten in the last four by eventual runners-up, Celtic.
In one of the most one-sided ties in the history of the competition, they beat Norwegian side Lyn 16-0 in the first round, winning 10-0 at home! The goals continued to flow in the second round as they beat Hungarians Ferencvaros 3-0 both home and away. Two more wins and two more clean sheets followed in the quarters as Standard Liege were vanquished 1-0 in both games before a fine Celtic side, European champions three seasons earlier, defeated them 3-1 on aggregate. Leeds’ Mick Jones was the competition’s top scorer that year, bagging eight in total.
Leeds United Worst Upsets
Hardly a huge upset or a terrible performance but Leeds’ other experience of this competition came in the 1992/93 season when they were knocked out. This was the first year of the Premier League and the first season in which this competition was known as the Champions League. The West Yorkshire side had qualified as winners of the last ever First Division and their first round tie against Stuttgart was a topsy-turvy, controversial affair.
Howard Wilkinson’s side lost the first leg 3-0, winning 4-1 in the return, meaning they were eliminated on away goals. However, it was subsequently discovered that the Germans had fielded ineligible players in the second game, there being a maximum of three foreign players allowed in those quaint old times. Leeds were retroactively awarded the second game 3-0 and a play-off, at a neutral venue, was ordered. Leeds won 2-1 at the Nou Camp to progress.
Their joy was short-lived, however, as a couple of weeks later they would exit the competition. Rangers were their opponents and the Scottish side prevailed in the “Battle of Britain” tie, winning both games 2-1.