THE LEEDS followers heard the news as they were disembarking from their aircraft at Valencia on Monday evening. Mass exhalations ensued. The conspiracy theorists were rife with their views, the most common being that it was a political act as contemptuous and cynical as the European Parliament conspiring against Britain's fishing rights in deference to the Spaniards.
The accusation was that Uefa did not desire what they perceived as an unfashionable club to contest the final of their prestige competition. Certainly, you wonder whether the exclusion of a Figo or a Rivaldo would have been countenanced in such circumstances as the expulsion of Lee Bowyer. Leeds are confident that the verdict will be overturned on appeal; they claim that his stamp on Juan Sanchez in the previous week's Champions' League semi-final first leg was unintentional, and that the referee would have decreed it only worthy of a caution if he had observed the incident.
But that will only be an establishment of principle after a second leg that had been steeped with promise for Leeds turned into the facile victory for Valencia most Leeds aficionados probably feared. For so long their adventure had possessed all the boldness of the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, exploring new worlds. Now they were lost in space, created to a vast extent by the wiles of that virtuoso Mendieta.
After the final whistle, as outside the Mestalla stadium Valencia attempted to outdo Pamplona for anarchic commotion, there was a poignant moment as a dark-suited Bowyer shook hands with every one of his shorn team-mates as they departed for the dressing room; all except Alan Smith, who had inexcused himself a minute or so earlier. It was like the bereaved accepting condolences after a funeral. Olivier Dacourt crossed himself; David Batty, as ever, looked as though he was about to burst into tears; Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell were angry with the world, and perhaps with themselves; Rio Ferdinand trudged off, head slumped in dejection.
Blame it on Bowyer; blame it on Uefa; blame it on Sanchez's shoulder - the striking weapon for Valencia's first goal in the 3-0 triumph - if you like. Yet the reality was that the removal of the midfielder was not merely akin to the extraction of a vital organ from the body, but provided a monitor of Leeds' absence of depth to their squad. As that son of Yorkshire, Geoffrey Boycott, might have summarised it, "there weren't much of a tail". Where Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool can be relied on to introduce talent as readily as producers thrust starlets to sashay before the cameras at Cannes, O'Leary could only produce admissions of Leeds' lack of options.
Another striker is para-mount to offer variety in accent of attack, a deficiency exacerbated by the absence of the European Cup- tied Robbie Keane. Viduka and Smith were blunted by a doughty rearguard with the self-preservation instincts of a Lord Falconer. A creative midfielder, with the incendiary potential of the firecrackers that were hurled liberally around this city post- match, is also a priority.
Particularly with that multi-faceted marauder Bowyer missing, Leeds were too frequently afflicted with the dead hand of predictability. Keiron Dyer and Frank Lampard are obvious targets. One tabloid immediately turned chairman Peter Ridsdale's positive assurances into a "pounds 40m spending spree" for O'Leary.
"I couldn't say whether he'll have pounds 5m or pounds 100m, because it's an irrelevance," the chairman told me. "We don't say, `You've got X or Y to spend', but, `Which players do you think will take this squad to a higher stage?' My job is to find the resources. So far, almost without exception, we've acquired the players he's wanted."
Such has been the Irishman's acumen in his selection and development of players that he has unwittingly created a situation in which they - and he - are being coveted from near and far. …