Wesley Boyle looks back on Leeds United glory days with FA Youth Cup win alongside Kewell, Woodgate and Robinson
When Paul Hart stood before the Leeds United youth team and outlined his expectations for the 1996/97 season it was all very straight forward – go and win the double.
Despite their tender years – the squad contained schoolboy Gareth Evans and first year apprentices Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate and Kevin Dixon – Hart described them as the best in the country.
“As soon as you joined the club and saw the boys in training you were like ‘flip,’” said Wes Boyle, who played right midfield or just behind the strikers for Hart’s side.
“When you played with them every Saturday, you saw how creative everyone was..
“We used to play the first team in a Friday and boys would stand out.”
The squad Hart hammered into shape in pre-season at Roundhay Park - “there was loads of running, boys were absolutely busted” - had already won the Northern Intermediate League Championship when they travelled to Crystal Palace for the second leg of the FA Youth Cup final.
“The manager always said it was the best competition you can win at that level,” said Boyle.
“It was the one everyone wanted to win, it meant a lot.
“We set out to win the League and Youth Cup.”
Leeds had only won the FA Youth Cup once, four years prior, when a Hart team beat Manchester United’s class of 92.
The 1996/97 squad got to the final the hard way.
They needed a replay to beat Sheffield Wednesday, overcame Crewe Alexandra, Manchester City, QPR and, after a quarter-final replay, Tranmere.
Boyle scored at Hillsborough and at Maine Road.
“I remember scoring the fourth goal against Wednesday, probably one of my best, I ran from the half-way line straight into the box and scored,” he said.
“Andy Wright came on as a sub and got sent off. They were always tough games against Sheffield Wednesday but the second game we just blew them away.
“At Maine Road I scored a goal from the edge of the box, a first time strike.
“The pitch was massive and City had a very good side, it was a great win for us.”
QPR were beaten handily enough but Tranmere’s physicality and the state of their pitch tested Hart’s youngsters.
“We used to have loads of the ball against the other teams, dominate possession,” said Boyle.
“The manager was worried we’d get kicked off the pitch, we were determined not to let that happen.
“We drew 0-0 then won 1-0 away, got the job done.
“It was really bad pitch at Prenton Park, it was difficult to get the ball down and play our passing game, there wasn’t much grass on it.
“They got stuck into us but we battled well, showed we could do both sides.”
In the semi-final Luton took the lead – a novel experience for Leeds – before Lee Matthews and Tony Hackworth restored normality.
Back at Elland Road, Leeds were dominant, created chances and won 1-0.
“I scored near the end, broke into the box and struck the ball home and that was us into the final,” said Boyle.
The Youth Cup run had created a buzz around the club and among fans, but the side were accustomed to being well supported.
“We got plenty of fans to our games anyway in the league,” said Boyle.
“They came to the away games, all over the country. For the Youth Cup there was a big turnout for all the games.
“The whole club wanted us to go and win it.
“Some of the first team players would call into the hotel when we were having our pre-match meal. Derek Lilley called in once to wish us good luck.
“Senior players came to the games to watch us, there was plenty of support from within the club.”
Leeds were confident they could overcome final opponents Palace to complete their mission.
“We had a great team, we were just winning every game from the start of the season,” he said.
“It was such a good crop of players. If we got injuries there were people coming in. We played a great passing game out from the back, just total football. It was really enjoyable to play in. Everyone was good on the ball. We all knew what we could do.”
The biggest crowd the youngsters had played in front of, 6,649 - including Boyle’s parents - were at Elland Road to watch them take a 2-1 lead in the first leg of the final.
“I scored after four minutes to put us 1-0 up, it was brilliant,” he said.
“Harry Kewell played left back most of the games, he used to go on these mad solo runs, he just went up the wing and slipped it through to me to score.
“Palace were a tough side, very physical. We were well in control, went 2-0 up and then in the second half they got a goal, Paul Robinson spilled it out and one of their players tapped it in, it was their first shot on goal. They put us under a wee bit of pressure then, McPhail got sent off and then Robbo pulled off a great save at the end.
“It was a great game.”
Hart kept his players relaxed before the second leg, reminding them to battle hard for 20 minutes then let their ability show.
“We couldn’t wait to get started,” said Boyle.
“We were very confident, we knew we were a better team going into the second leg.
“The fans were staying at the hotel, waiting for us in the lobby before we left for the game, it was great to see them all with their flags.
“The coaches of all the other age groups were there, wishing us all the best.
“We had great support.”
The game failed to sparkle as an occasion and never matched the entertainment of the first leg, but all’s well that ends well.
“It wasn’t the best of games, just a battle.
“There wasn’t much football played, Palace got close to us, always someone on you but Matthews got the goal.
“We were deserved winners.
“I remember at the end celebrating with the fans, doing a victory lap with flags. Everyone was buzzing. It was a great end to the season.”
The second leg of the final took place 23 years ago.
While the scale of their achievement makes it unlikely that Boyle would ever fail to remember the details, Leeds fans - even in his native Northern Ireland - ensure that he will never forget.
“Everyone still talks about it, people always share photos about it every year.
“Leeds supporters here in Northern Ireland will stop you now and again and say ‘what a team that was.’
“It’s great, it’s mad because it’s so long ago.
“It just shows, and it’s still only the second time the club have won it, how prestigious it is.”