BY Tom Victor
One-Season Wonders is a MatchPint series looking at those players who delivered a single, standout season in the Premier League, how they got there, what happened and why it was never replicated again.
In the 20 years since Michael Owen burst onto the scene to help lead England to a World Cup performance which promised plenty but fell apart in familiar fashion, we have been treated to a series of false dawns when it comes to the next great England striker.
Dean Ashton’s international career ended almost as soon as it started with a training ground injury never really going away until he was forced to retire in his mid-twenties, while Matt Jansen was never the same after a motorcycle accident on the eve of the 2002 World Cup.
Even Owen petered out, with injuries limiting his contribution beyond that tournament, but at least he had his chance in the senior side. Michael Bridges, despite a stunning breakthrough season at the age of 21, didn’t even get that.
Back in the late 1990s, in the last throes of Football League games on terrestrial TV (save for a brief and limited BBC return in 2009), Sunderland were a semi-regular fixture at the top of the second-tier.
Two league titles and a heart-breaking play-off defeat to Charlton Athletic were interspersed with an underwhelming season in the Premier League, and the high-scoring squads of 1997/98 and 1998/99 were an obvious choice for TV schedulers.
Super Kevin Phillips might have been the main man in front of goal, ultimately continuing his form in the top flight, but another man was catching the eye of the scouts. 20-year-old Bridges scored a dozen goals as the Black Cats won promotion in 1999 and was promptly snapped up by Leeds, but any idea of the Yorkshire club easing Bridges into the first team became a pipe dream when they lost Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to Atlético Madrid barely a week later.
Darren Huckerby arrived that same summer after scoring 23 Premier League goals in two seasons for Coventry City, but his struggles in front of goal at Elland Road couldn’t have been in starker contrast to his new teammate.
There might have been reason to doubt Bridges’ ability to settle in immediately, given his unremarkable end to life on Wearside: he had failed to score after the turn of the year, and his last start for the Black Cats had come on Boxing Day. Yet any reservations were soon put to bed when – just a week after his 21st birthday and in only his second Leeds start – he scored all three goals in a 3-0 win at Southampton.
The first goal in that game showed the kind of class and nonchalance few would expect of a youngster yet to open his Premier League account – it almost makes more sense if you imagine Leeds decided to retro-fit an origin story after watching Bridges score for fun, such was its perfection.
It’s the finish of an ex-pro-turned coach recognising the mediocrity of his students and deciding to frustratedly show everyone else how it’s done.
“I was hundreds of miles from that game, but it represents one of my happiest moments as a Leeds fan, and probably as a human being,” recalls Daniel ‘Moscowhite' Chapman, Leeds fan and co-editor of The Square Ball fanzine.
“It coincided with the solar eclipse, on the edge of a new millennium, so the mood was already cosmic and optimistic. I went with some friends to Newquay for the eclipse. I remember finding a newspaper at the campsite in the morning, and sitting in a deckchair in the sunshine reading about Bridges' hat-trick the night before, looking at the photos of our young players in the wonderful new Lazio-style away kit, and on the back page was the news that we were signing Darren Huckerby, one of the most exciting strikers in the country.
“I can still feel it now; it was one of those rare moments when everything about Leeds United felt good. And at that point I hadn't even seen how good Bridges first goal had been, brilliant control of a bouncing ball and a perfectly placed volley. Those ten minutes of sunshine remain a life highlight.”
In a Leeds side full of young talent – Harry Kewell had broken through two seasons prior and Lee Bowyer arrived from Charlton in 1996 as the most expensive British teenager to date – Bridges was staking a claim to outdo those whose youth and ability had given the Yorkshire club a vibrancy unlike any other side in the Premier League.
Chapman, like many other Leeds fans at the time, saw players like Bridges and Academy players like Kewell and Jonathan Woodgate as a continuation of the youthful and successful Leeds sides of the past under Don Revie and Eddie Gray.
“We had an outstanding crop of youngsters coming from the Academy and were going out and signing the best young players available to play with them, for sensible fees,” Chapman adds.
“I think fans were prepared to be patient, because the idea of having the best young players in the country developing at Elland Road was a genuinely exciting sign that good times might be just a couple of seasons away.”
In the end, though, they didn’t even need to be that patient as 1999/2000 saw a squad that reeked of Clearsil and Wella Shockwaves gel reach unforseen heights.
Bridges’ 19 league goals helped Leeds to a third-place finish and a spot in the Champions League play-offs, with eight players aged 23 or under starting half of the club’s Premier League games that season, and it even included another volley just as good as the one at The Dell
In a fairer world, Bridges would have been the key man in Leeds’ famous run to the Champions League’s final four the following season. Instead, however, his contribution wouldn’t go far beyond the famous group-stage victory over AC Milan.
An injury against BeÅŸiktaÅŸ in October would bring an end not just to his evening but to his season, and it eventually proved severe enough to keep him out of action for almost two full years.
An assist for Alan Smith’s winner against Metalurg Zaporizha on his return gave fans hope he would be able to pick up where he left off, but the exciting young forward had understandably lost something in that spell on the sidelines.
The opening goal in a 1-1 draw with Everton in May 2000 would end up being his last in a white shirt, and while one-time peer Kewell was starting the 2005 Champions League final for Liverpool, Bridges was preparing to look for a new club after an unsuccessful return to Sunderland one year prior.
“We didn't see enough of him after the injuries to judge, but looking at his subsequent career, I think it took him a long time to adjust to what he could and couldn't do,” says Chapman, who still recalls calling Bridges ‘Michael Bergkamp’ in a nod to his vision and creativity.
“He had to become a different player, and there wasn't time for him to do that at Leeds. While he was injured the second time the club well and truly fell apart, and Bridges was both a big risk if he got injured again and still in demand at other clubs, so it was inevitable that he would be moved on.”
Bridges would rediscover some goalscoring form later in his career, first for Carlisle United and then in Australia, but there was always a sense there could – and perhaps should – have been more to celebrate.
A welcome double-figure season at Brunton Park in 2005/06 helped bring the League Two title to Carlisle, yet there remained a sense that a man scoring 19 in the Premier League at 21 could have been doing the same at his theoretical peak were it not for that injury in Turkey.
His own decline would ultimately serve to mirror that of Leeds, with even that resurgent season in Cumbria coinciding with the closest his former club have come to a Premier League return. There’s a sense that a full-fit Bridges might have prompted a butterfly effect by propelling them into a second-straight Champions League season, thus preventing the club’s collapse which followed their failure to do so.
Chapman still reflects now on how the striker’s presence might have prevented some of the reckless mismanagement for which the club and its then-owner Peter Ridsdale are still remembered – notably the big-money signings of Robbie Keane and Robbie Fowler in 2001.
“Bridges was 22 when he got injured; had he stayed fit and kept improving, we might never have needed to go near Keane and Fowler,” he notes.
Then again, by this time, O'Leary and Ridsdale were losing sight of what was good about that team anyway.
“The joy of the team in 1999/00 was this core group of young players who were getting better and better and playing for each other. Viduka and Dacourt added vital quality and really Leeds were complete at that point. But Ferdinand, Keane, Fowler and Johnson followed, and felt like signings to satisfy egos in the chairman and managers' offices rather than to fill actual needs on the pitch.”
Bridges might go down as a one-season wonder, but it’s not down to any lack of ability. And who knows what England might have achieved with him in their ranks had he continued along the trajectory of his early career.
All images - PA.