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Thursday, 8 July 2010

Promotion: The Leeds United Way! - 2009/10 Season Review (Part Two)


New readers of The ‘Dirty Leeds’ Blog can find Part One HERE

After a positive start to the new season, expectations were astronomically high. Dreams of a first league title in 18 years were only reinforced as Leeds welcomed Tranmere Rovers to Elland Road. John Barnes had taken over from Ronnie Moore in the close season after ‘Rovers narrowly missed out on a Play-off berth in May, by a single goal.

Rovers’ players had already voiced concern about John Barnes’ ‘total football’ approach to League One. Claiming that you can’t mould 3rd teir players into playing International standard football and that they should work to their strengths. Two defeats in the opening three games suggested a validity to their claims. It was amid such turmoil that the Mighty Whites were looking for their 4th straight victory…

UNITED 3 (Johnson 14, Beckford 35, Becchio 86), TRANMERE 0

United: Higgs, Crowe, Marques, Kisnorbo, Hughes, Snodgrass (Robinson 80), Howson, Doyle (Kilkenny 80), Johnson, Beckford (Grella 84), Becchio. Subs: Ankergren, Prutton, Michalik, Showunmi.

Tranmere: Daniels, Logan, Gunning (Taylor 40), Goodison, Cresswell, Shuker (Fraughan 81), Welsh, McLaren, Mahon, Thomas-Moore, Curran (Ricketts 46). Subs: Collister, Edds, Gornell, Barnett.

Referee: E Ilderton      Booked: Goodison (Tranmere)         Att: 21,692

The match itself, was a mixture of Leeds announcing their title credentials and Tranmere displaying all the hallmarks of a team in disarray. The Whites started at a tempo that The Wirral outfit just couldn't cope with. Becchio and Beckford were denied by goalkeeper and upright respectively inside the opening moments, as Leeds underlined their intent. When on 14 minutes Bradley Johnson gave Leeds the lead, slamming the ball home from a tight angle after Becchio’s header had been saved, many expected Leeds to cruise to victory and equal a club record of 13 straight home league victories.

 leeds_tranmereLeeds continued to dictate every aspect of the game and should have been further ahead before Ian Goodison’s headed back pass was seized upon by Beckford, who steered it goalwards via the foot of a post.

The home team continued to dominate and only an inspired performance from Rovers’ number one Luke Daniels kept the score respectable. John Barnes conceded afterwards that Leeds could have had 6 or 7 claiming “We didn’t get what we deserved, they (Leeds) could have had more than 3”

The game was made secure with 4 minutes remaining when Becchio headed home after a Bradley Johnson freekick came back off the bar.

A fourth league win had kept Leeds in touch with Charlton at the top of League One, as the two teams moved clear of Colchester who dropped their first points of the season. The league table had a very unfamiliar look to it, with The Whites leading the way…

After the break-neck speed of the opening weeks of the season, the whites had a welcome relief from the ‘favourites’ tag as they welcomed Championship side Watford to Elland Road for a Carling Cup second round encounter.

UNITED 2 (Snodgrass 38, 98), WATFORD 1 (Sordell 86)

United: Higgs, Crowe, Marques, Kisnorbo, Hughes, Snodgrass (Becchio 116), Howson, Doyle, Johnson, Beckford (Showunmi 79), Grella (KIlkenny 82). Subs: Ankergren, Prutton, Michalik, Robinson.

Watford: Lee, Mariappa, Hodson, Doyley, Williamson, Cowie, Eustace, Jenkins (Lansbury 64), Cleverley, Hoskins (Sordell 72), Graham (Henderson 46). Subs: Loach, Severin, Harley, Bryan.

Referee: A Hall       Booked: Doyle, Snodgrass (United), Eustace, Mariappa (Watford)          Att: 14,681

Despite the alleged ‘gap in class’ between England’s second and third tiers of football. I’m sure, like me,  many Leeds fans felt that Leeds had every chance of progressing in what promised to be a very tight affair. Leeds had comfortably despatched of Crystal Palace at the same stage the previous season and in Watford, were facing a team struggling to get their season off the ground.

Grayson used the opportunity to rest Luciano Becchio, but reaffirmed his desire to win as many games as possible by selecting a ‘first 11’ thereafter, as The Whites went in search of a 6th straight win.

An entertaining opening to the match saw Leeds match their higher ranked opponents ‘stride for stride’ with Snodgrass, Johnson and Howson in particular looking more than capable against the  Championship outfit.  The first moment of class came from Robert Snodgrass on 38 minutes, breaking into the right side of the penalty area and curling a low shot past the goalkeeper. 1-0 Leeds! It was just rewards for United who had taken the game to the side that cruelly extinguished their Play-off dream, four years previous in Cardiff.

The second half continued where the first left off, end-to-end with United’s backline called into action on a regular basis. Grella, Johnson and Beckford all went close at the other end but it looked as if Leeds would squeeze through, thanks to Snodgrass’ first half strike. However, with four minutes to go, Leeds failed to clear in the South Stand goal area and were punished by substitute  Marvin Sordell, firing home on the turn from close range. Taking the tie into extra time. It was harsh on the home team and was the first goal Leeds had conceded from open play this season.

As the majority of the 14,861 in attendance retrieved their phones to inform their loved ones of the impending extra 30 minutes, many would have expected the usual Leeds United story, dominate a game, look good value for a victory only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As it transpired, Robert Snodgrass bagged his second 8 minutes into the added period, applying a composed finish to substitute Enoch Showunmi’s knock down. Despite some desperate moments at the other end in the dying minutes, Leeds were safely into the third round draw.

Leaving Elland Road that evening, I remember thinking that maybe promotion was a real possibility, instead of the usual ‘bridge too far’ that has become synonymous with Leeds United for longer than I can remember. The Whites had a maximum return from all their games so far and without getting through the gears, had managed to snatch wins from games that perhaps they didn’t warrant all three points –  Sky Sports presenters would be falling over themselves for the ‘Sign of a good team’ cliché.

Not one to get over excited, I was more than aware that our next game was away at Colchester… a prime opportunity for that Leeds United bubble to be burst. Despite ‘The U’s’ moving from the terrible Layer Road and into a new ‘flatpack’ stadium bought from IKEA, it was still potentially a difficult game against a team who had won all but one of their opening games. It was just the type of encounter that Leeds had a habit of losing…

COLCHESTER 1 (Lisbie 57 pen), UNITED 2 (Johnson 47, Beckford 65)

Colchester: Williams, Maybury, Okuonghae, Baldwin, Tierney, Vincent (Perkins 75), Fox (Wordsworth 84), Izzet, Hackney, Vernon (Platt 67), Lisbie. Subs: Cousins, Thomas, Holt, Lockwood.

United: Higgs, Crowe, Marques (Michalik 87), Kisnorbo, Hughes, Snodgrass (Prutton 80), Doyle, Howson, Johnson, Beckford (Showunmi 90), Becchio. Subs: Ankergren, Kilkenny, Grella, Robinson.

Referee: D Phillip    Booked: Maybury, Izzet, Vincent, Hackney, Tierney (Colchester), Johnson, Beckford (United)

Att: 8810

As my beloved Leeds United were far away from home and my wife was becoming increasingly excited about her baby shower, I decided to put my enforced exile from our home to good use and make the 200 yard journey to Spotland, to watch a potentially ferocious local derby between Rochdale and Bury. Having acquired tickets to the Directors Suite via a friend within the club, I sat back in my padded seat, iPhone in hand, listening to the various musings of  Adam Pope and Andy Richie on BBC Radio Leeds. Despite the ‘alternative’ commentary, at least I’d know if Leeds were winning or not.

The game at The Western Community Homes Stadium (tut!) was a bizarre one, well at least it appeared that way to me. I’m guessing that listening to a football match via partial commentary whilst watching another one live is probably not the best way to keep track of both games. As it turned out Jermaine Beckford had the ball in the net twice in the first 15 minutes, both of which were ruled out for offside, a fact that the Radio Leeds reporter failed to acknowledge on the latter occasion.

So as Leeds lead 1-0 (at least in a small corner of Spotland anyway)  it was becoming apparent that Beckford was having a very busy afternoon, going close on several more occasions and leeds_colchesterworking his way into the referee’s notebook. At half time, I had the luxury of an over-heated function room with Gillette Soccer Saturday on screens at each end, my mood was that of confusion and disappointment as Jeff Stelling confirmed that it was indeed goal-less in Suffolk. The mid-match fare of pie,chips and gravy improved my outlook on the day somewhat.

Lured by the more reliable media at BSKYB, I remained in the stuffy function room/Directors suite for the first few minutes of the second half. As if the pie wasn’t good enough, Leeds really had taken the lead this time, Bradley Johnson had broken the deadlock with a powerful header from a Robert Snodgrass freekick, his third goal in as many games! As is so often the case, I now felt sick. It would be easy to blame the pie, but it really was ok. No, Leeds now had something to lose and a seventh straight win was within our grasp… this wasn’t the usual Leeds United way, something had to go wrong…

Predictably, it did go wrong. Shortly before the hour, Rui Marques took it upon himself to reinforce his status as serial liability by dragging back Clive Platt in the area, the incident actually started some way outside the box but Rui had hold of him for so long he could have been confused as a mugger. Platt nursed the nail marks in his side before converting the penalty himself and levelling the match. Leeds were in a situation that was more than familiar.

In seasons past, Leeds would have buckled under the pressure of an excited crowd and a team with a renewed optimism. However, this new Leeds United seemed to have a little more composure about them and a very composed finish from Jermaine Beckford 8 minutes later restored United’s lead. A mistake from Leeds old-boy Alan Maybury left Beckford with a simple task of beating Williams from six yards.

The Whites successfully negotiated the final half hour or so to record a 7th straight win, equalling the achievements of Denis Wise’s team 2 years previous. This time however Leeds were sitting pretty in pole position rather than propping the league up on ‘zero’.

Incidentally, Rochdale won 3-0.

Prior to the victory at Colchester Leeds had landed a plum tie at home to Liverpool in the Carling Cup. Excellent news! Sky chose the fixture for their coverage and arranged the game for Tuesday 22nd September, a date that was contentious for myself, as it was just 48 hours before I was due to become a Father for the first time. What to do…?

As August came to a close, as did the transfer window. Simon Grayson identified Leigh Bromby of Sheffield United as his only acquisition although Davide Somma, who had been on trial at Thorp Arch was offered a permanent deal with the club. Alan Sheehan and Tom Lees left on loan deals for Swindon Town and Accrington Stanley respectively. 

As The Whites geared up for a potentially record-breaking home match with struggling Stockport County the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy draw handed Leeds yet another game against Darlington, this time at Elland Road. Ken Bates took a public swipe at Premiership clubs who lure youngsters from lower league academies, instead of investing in their own youth development, labelling them ‘Baby-farmers’. The outbust followed a high-profile deal in which Manchester City signed two 14 year olds from Thorp Arch and Everton stole Luke Garbutt. Such incidents really underline how far Leeds have fallen and feel like a dagger to the chest of any fan… the idea of anybody leaving Leeds for Everton or Manchester City just a decade ago was laughable.

LEEDS UNITED 2 (Grella 8, Michalik 37), STOCKPORT COUNTY 0

United: Higgs, Crowe, Michalik, Bromby (Robinson 64), Hughes, Snodgrass, Howson, Doyle (Kilkenny 42), Johnson, Grella (Showunmi 72), Becchio. Subs: Ankergren, Prutton, Kandol, Huntington.

Stockport: Fon Williams, Mullins (Griffin 78), Rose, Bridcutt, Vincent, Tansey, Baker, Poole, Pilkington (Johnson 59), Havern, Bignall (Thompson 85). Subs: Rigby, Turnbull, Halls, Rowe.

Referee: D McDermid

Booked: Doyle (United), Rose, Mullins (Stockport)

Att: 22,870

As the lads stood on the verge of starting the season with a record-breaking 8th successive victory, some bad omens hung around Elland Road… As Denis Wise’s men occupied the same position 3 years previous, prior to an away game at Gillingham, hopes were high of Leeds overcoming the 15 point penalty and securing automatic promotion against all odds. That day, United were reduced to 9 men as referee Danny McDermid dismissed both Jermaine Beckford and Tresor Kandol as Leeds succumbed to an injury time equaliser to shatter their 100 percent start. Denis Wise described the official’s performance as “The worst he had ever seen”.

As fate would have it, Mr McDermid was charged with keeping control of proceedings against Stockport, his first Leeds United fixture since the infamous day at Priestfield. Further distress for Leeds fans was the  absence of Patrick Kisnorbo and Rui Marques due to international commitments and Jermaine Beckford with a hamstring injury. Simon Grayson drafted in Lubomir Michalik, new signing Leigh Bromby and Mike Grella to deputise.

Despite all of the upheaval, only the most pessimistic of Whites fans could envisage anything other than another 3 points against a side destined for a relegation battle. The Whites duly obliged and were in front after 7 minutes, Mike Grella curled a low effort beyond the goalkeeper after good work by Bradley Johnson. The American’s first goal for the club was the only shot on target in a rather uninspiring opening 25 minutes.

The game did liven up as a spectacle after the half hour as Stockport showed glimpses of breaking out of their rigid 4-5-1 formation and Shane Higgs was called into a couple of saves. However, their new found sense of adventure was swiftly punished when Michalik poked a Snodgrass free kick home following a contentious challenge by Bromby on goalkeeper Fon Williams. The debutant appeared to impede the Stockport stopper in an aerial challenge but the goal stood, much to the despair of County boss Gary Ablett who was dismissed for his protests by McDermid.

With the game all but won, the second half was punctuated only with a penalty miss from Robert Snodgrass, the Scotsman’s seeing his spot-kick saved following a foul on Luciano Becchio. Far from being a costly mistake, Leeds eased to another record; a fourteenth successive home league victory.

Despite a maximum return from the opening six league games, Leeds were not quite in top spot. Newly relegated Charlton had matched United stride-for-stride, scoring three more goals in the process. Surely, after two failed attempts to escape League One, Leeds were finally set to leave the lower leagues behind – 18 points from 18 would suggest so…

Part 3 details the much anticipated cup tie with Liverpool and the unique way in which I watched the lads give Rafa’s over-paid chumps a huge scare!


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