Nigel Martyn has exclusively told LeedsUnited.News that playing against Galatasaray in the first leg of the UEFA Cup semi-final in 2000 – just 24 hours after the murders of two Leeds fans – is to this day, his biggest regret in football. On the 21st anniversary of Kevin Speight and Christopher Loftus’ deaths on April 5 2000, Martyn also recalls the immediate reaction of the Leeds squad – and running out of the tunnel with armed Turkish police.
The first leg of the UEFA Cup semi-final was a crucial match in the 1999-00 season for Leeds and as Peter Ridsdale put it – as per The Athletic: “a huge occasion for the club in a football sense.” However, by the time the referee blew his whistle for the game to kick-off, plenty had already happened – but not on the pitch. The night before, two Leeds fans had been stabbed as violence broke out between both sets of supporters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
Different accounts gave differing stories. Some say Leeds fans started by throwing bottles at Galatasaray supporters, while others suggest fans of The Turkish club antagonised the Leeds support with knives. Ultimately, two Leeds fans went to a match and did not come home – something that should never happen. 21 years on, and the pain does not get any easier for the families of Loftus and Speight. Christopher and Kevin died, aged just 37 and 40.
Martyn was one of the more senior members at 33, of a young Leeds side that were in Turkey, preparing to face Galatasaray in the first leg of the semi-final – a big chance to win silverware. The Whites legend emotionally recalled the match, stating he regrets ever taking to the field to play the game – and believes the decision to play the match was the wrong one, given the lack of time between the tragic incident and the kick-off.
“As I sit here now, with you, it is probably my biggest regret in football that we even played that game,” Martyn recalled, during an emotional and passionate recollection of the match with LUN. “I would rather have forfeited it. Football is probably even more now, than it was then, so important in people’s lives. But two guys got murdered. That is far more important than football.
“I remember the [Leeds] lads feeling they didn’t want to play the game, but the Chairman explained that it was important we had to play to fulfil the fixture because the club might’ve been expelled from European football for a while. The Chairman was coming from the club side as he didn’t want to get a ban or a fine. We were coming from the human side. When you’re having to play it, your focus goes towards the game. Speaking for myself, there was a huge determination to win that.”
Galatasaray, perhaps unsurprisingly given the incidents less than 24 hours earlier, won the match 2-0 – taking advantage of a somewhat subdued performance from Leeds. Arif Erdem’s excellent cross from the left flank was headed in by Hakan Sukur who had lost his marker in Jonathan Woodgate. It was 2-0 just before half-time, when Lucas Radebe allowed Brazilian striker Capone to bundle past Martyn.
Before the match, Martyn recalled the hostility from Galatasaray supporters and even the opposition players, while travelling to the game with armed Turkish police running alongside the coach for the final mile of their journey to the Ali Sami Yen Stadium. Martyn also spoke of running onto the pitch for a warm-up with Paul Robinson and goalkeeping coach Steve Sutton, in an alarming description of how violent fans were towards Leeds.
“About a mile from the stadium, we had armed guards running next to the bus – police with guns. Just running alongside the bus. The hostility was full on. Robbo, myself and Steve Sutton would go out 40 minutes before a game would start for a warm-up. We’re the first people, none of their players are out. We’re just about to go out but the police stop us in the tunnel and say ‘wait’. They get their riot shields – one would hold it above, another would hold it at 45 degrees and there was a row of that either side.
“The noise of coins, lighters and stones being thrown and hitting the shields as we ran onto the pitch was terrible, “Martyn continued. “You run out and it was boos and whistles and everything. I remember turning to Steve and saying ‘I am so desperate to beat this lot now’. For everything that had happened. Even in the game, everything went for them. Their first goal, it dropped to them and the second hits the underside of my leg. We had a couple of chances, it would have been different – Michael Bridges could’ve scored. Even their team was hostile towards us.”
The return leg saw Leeds improve their performance, drawing 2-2 on the night as an inspired Eirik Bakke scored a brace – but goals from Romanian legend Gheorghe Hagi and again, Sukur, secured a 4-2 aggregate win for the Turkish side – who went on to win the competition after a penalty-shootout win over Arsenal. Harry Kewell, who eventually joined Galatasaray – prompting widespread criticism – was sent off during the first half of the second leg.
A painful scar on Martyn’s career that is clearly still visible, the Leeds icon recalls the immediate reaction of the Leeds squad as they converged on the landing in their hotel room after hearing the news. He discusses the difference in tone from the Galatasaray players in the second leg compared to the first – laying wreaths in Yorkshire despite not wearing black armbands and having a minute’s silence in Istanbul, and that if it happened the other way around, UEFA would have punished Leeds and England much more severely.
“They come over to Leeds and they lay wreaths and they were completely different, they played the situation. They wanted to be right at us at home, they wanted to be best friends away. It was even more annoying because if you had any compassion – you would’ve shown it in the first game, but you didn’t, you were just as horrible as everyone else. Now you want to show compassion because you want an easy ride? It was disappointing that they were allowed to win it.
“If what happened in Istanbul that night, happened in Leeds – we would have been banned – probably the whole of English football. But UEFA chooses not to ban them. It was on the TV, quite late, and then everyone got knocked up and we were out on the landing – we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. It was probably into the early hours and discussing what we should be doing, it is not a situation to be preparing for a game. Having played, the feeling was just desperately wanting to win for those guys and their families – but we should’ve just come home.”
More than two decades on, it is clear to see that Martyn is still hurt by the pain the murders caused – not just for the Leeds players, but the families too. Four were convicted, and Martyn spoke about attending their funerals and how the families of Speight and Loftus were grateful for their attendance when in reality – the Leeds players who attended were just as grateful to pay their respects. Martyn respectfully, and emotionally, paid tribute to both Kevin and Christopher, on the 21st anniversary of their deaths.
“The senior sort of players went to the funerals, and they were proper fans. The families were proper fans, football families. They were grateful for you coming, but it was the wrong way around – we were there honouring them but their families are grateful we came. There are supporters and there are supporters – some fans come and watch you play pre-season games in Sweden. We would have had 500 fans from Leeds come and watch pre-season games abroad – fanatical fans. These guys were like that.”