SHERIDAN DICTATES: LEEDS UNITED NOSTALGIA

MICHAEL BRIDGES

During his time at Sunderland, the Black Cats faithful coined a phrase, ‘Michael Bridges, cool as fridges’. For those of us lucky enough to have witnessed the 1999/00 season at Leeds United when, at times, Bridges made the game look incredibly easy, the phrase was more than appropriate.

Michael Bridges grew up dreaming of becoming a professional footballer and he openly admits that despite living in the North East he supported Tottenham Hotspur; his idols were Chris Waddle and the enigmatic Paul Gascoigne.

In fact, prior to joining Leeds United, the young centre forward was all set for a move to the capital city and White Hart Lane:

“I had talks with Spurs and George Graham was very keen to sign me. A fee was agreed between them and Sunderland but talks stalled when Alan Sugar told me, ‘I don’t know who you are, I’ve never heard of you. I’m paying £5.5 million for you but you’re not getting the terms that you’re asking for.’

“I was travelling back north and received a call from Peter Ridsdale asking me to call in at Thorp Arch as Leeds United wanted to sign me. The deal was soon done.”

It was made clear to Bridges that Leeds initially saw him as cover for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink but when the Dutchman left for Atletico Madrid, the new signing was thrown in at the deep end and thrust into the spotlight:

“David O’Leary told me that although he was trying to get Darren Huckerby from Coventry City, I had to learn quickly. He gave me my debut in what turned out to be a very low key affair against Derby County on the opening day. I failed to get a shot on target although I was desperate to make an impression.”

Four days later, O’Leary got his man when Huckerby joined the club but that evening Bridges stole the headlines as in only his second appearance, he smashed a glorious hat-trick in an eye catching 3-0 win away at Southampton.

The three goals were very different. The first followed a free kick which was lofted into the Saints penalty area and when the ball was knocked down, Bridges, on the edge of the box, teed it up before lobbing the keeper with an exquisite chip.

His second came on 51 minutes when he found himself unmarked in the area to sweep home a Danny Mills cross and the evening was rounded off with a header from a corner:

“I was delighted to score the first goal which took a huge weight off my mind but to go on and score three was unbelievable and I even had a fourth goal ruled out late in the game.

"It was an amazing feeling and the first time I'd walked away with the match ball. My confidence was sky high.”

After an inconsistent start to the season, Leeds kicked into gear with a win at White Hart Lane which was the first of six successive league wins before a thrilling 4-4 draw at Goodison Park.

Bridges bagged six goals in those seven games and the bitterness over the departure of Hasselbaink was quickly being forgotten:

“We were flying and felt unstoppable. We went top of the league with a late win at Derby County and a couple of weeks later we won 2-0 at Stamford Bridge with two Stephen McPhail goals and the celebrations on the journey home that night were amazing, before a lock in at The Peacock across from Elland Road.

“Another great memory was scoring on my return to Sunderland. We beat them 2-1 and I managed to score our second goal which proved to the decider after Jason Wilcox had given us the lead.”

Leeds finished the season in third place and qualified for the following seasons Champions League. It was just reward for the incredible highs and lows that the club had suffered during a traumatic season:

“We were all left devastated after the horrific events in Istanbul, that game should never have been played and for a few weeks we were not mentally right after the tragedy. 

"The way that FIFA and UEFA acted was disgraceful. Results did not matter as football became insignificant.”

The summer of 2000 saw another striker arrive at Elland Road in the shape of Mark Viduka but Bridges was determined to carry on his breathtaking form and he started the new season up front with the big Australian.

Again, Leeds’ start to the season was inconsistent and although Bridges had failed to find the net, he was performing well enough to retain his place in the side before a cruel injury all but ended his Leeds United career:

“I suffered the injury in the Champions League against Besiktas and was told that I would never play again and I should accept the insurance cheque from the PFA.

“The Leeds physio, Dave Hancock, told me that he’d get me fit and I’d be a fool to take the compensation payment. I trusted Dave but it was a very dark period in my life.

“I became a fan and was with the lads at all the home games. I was restricted going to the away matches as I could not travel too far due to my injury but it was brilliant to see them progress in the Champions League although I was obviously gutted I was not out there with them.”

Halfway through his rehab, Michael admits he lost his way and he was a permanent fixture in the physiotherapist’s room for 14 months, which meant he missed the whole of the 2001/02 season:

“I eventually worked my way back to fitness and after a handful of reserve games I was back in the first team squad and starting to enjoy my football.”

Unfortunately for Bridges another setback was just around the corner:

“I snapped my Achilles tendon against Malaga in the UEFA Cup and that was sickening. I was very low and feeling sorry for myself. I lost my pace following that injury and was never the same player again.”

That night, the 12th of December 2002, was the last time that Michael Bridges pulled on a Leeds shirt and he would end the following season on loan at Newcastle United:

“Leeds were in trouble financially, heading for meltdown and that was headline news. Eddie Gray told me that I had to go as the club had hit the end of the road. I had six months left on my contract and I knew I would not be getting another one.

“The club was a strange place to be with players leaving left right and centre in cut price deals. When I departed, I took some stick from some Leeds fans who maybe did not understand the facts of the matter and the situation I was in. I loved it at Leeds United, I was desperate to stay and repay the clubs faith but circumstances dictated otherwise.”

Michael’s career took him on many travels as he played for Bolton, Sunderland (for a second spell), Bristol City, Carlisle United (for whom he scored at Elland Road), Hull City, Australia and then back to Carlisle on loan. 

Then, after a single appearance for the MK Dons, Bridges returned to Australia where he retired at the end of the 2013/14 season.

Thank you to Michael Bridges for his time and giving me the opportunity to write this article. 

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