1997-98 had got off to a stuttering start as a raft of new signings settled into the club. The first two games had been encouraging; a draw at home to an Arsenal side which would eventually win a deserved Title, and a comfortable success away to Sheffield Wednesday. But three defeats followed to Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Aston Villa, and in none of those games did Leeds United manage so much as a goal. George was not a happy man.
As the teams walked out before a 21956 crowd and live Sky cameras at Ewood Park, we wondered if this was going to be another hapless, goalless performance which would see the season drifting towards under-achievement again – or would Leeds bounce back and rekindle our faith? In a roller-coaster of a game, an archetypal game of two halves, that question was answered emphatically.
I always enjoy watching football at Ewood Park, whether live from the stands, or even on TV. Something about the ground appeals; there’s a faintly Hovis-advert atmosphere outside, an air of cobblestones and tripe. Inside, the changes wrought by Jack Walker’s legacy were apparent to those of us who remembered clashes here before rickety old stands in the 80’s. There’s a spacious feeling to the stadium compared to the cramped impression you get at some grounds. On the telly too, the aspect is pleasing, whether it’s because of a good high camera position or some other trick of the environment, there seems to be lots of room; you can see the pattern of play and appreciate what the teams are up to.
In this game, both teams seemed to be up to the old game of OK, let’s abandon all pretence of a tactical battle here, let’s just score more bloody goals than the other lot and get the points – or at least that was the script until half-time, when two harassed managers got to grips with their too-generous defences and raised the drawbridge. But, oh – that first half.
Leeds were off to an absolute flyer, two goals to the good after a mere six minutes and apparently well and truly over their barren run in front of goal. After only three minutes had elapsed, Gunnar Halle played a great diagonal ball from wide right just inside the Blackburn half, finding Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink on the left wing. Jimmy controlled and crossed in the same movement, so it seemed, standing the ball up at the far post where young Harry Kewell directed a firm header towards goal and Rod Wallace was there to scramble the ball over the line.
Usually, an early goal away from home was the cue for nail-biting among the Leeds fans as our heroes sat back and invited the home team to attack, inevitably conceding when they might have gone on to build a clear advantage. But on this occasion, Leeds did strike again, before Blackburn had even come to terms with being one behind. A corner on the right from Gary Kelly dropped around the penalty spot where Robert Molenaar, in acres of space, met the ball as sweetly as you could wish and directed a firm side-foot volley into the net past a startled Tim Flowers. 2-0 after six minutes, and everything was coming up roses.
However, this was Leeds – and just when you think things are going well, they remind you that’s not how it’s supposed to be. Two minutes further into the game, and the lethal Kevin Gallacher won the ball thirty yards out, glanced up and delivered a thunderous shot into the far corner with Nigel Martyn helpless. Now we looked at each other and grimaced, because a 2-0 lead reduced to 2-1 is a dangerous situation for our beloved club; suddenly you can smell the fear and you suspect that there will be tears before bedtime. Referees tend to be the villains of the piece when we do let leads slip, and Mr Dunn of Bristol hardly covered himself with glory by awarding Blackburn a penalty in what was still only the 16th minute. Martin Dahlin tried to turn Molenaar in the area, there was a “coming together” which ended up with the Swede on the floor and the Dutchman looking innocently bewildered as the ref almost spat out his whistle in his eagerness to blow for a penalty. It was a soft decision of the type we have seen many times over the years – the kind of penalty Man U get loads of and concede none of. THAT kind of penalty. Even Alan Parry seemed surprised. Chris Sutton unceremoniously blasted the ball down the middle and we were level again at 2-2, right back where we started. Despair. Would we now go on to capitulate? Blackburn had been riding high in the league under new manager Woy Hodgson (whatever happened to him?) and they now seemed set to continue their good form by finishing us off.
Happily, it was not to be. Instead of sulking at perceived injustice, Leeds rolled up their sleeves and set about restoring an advantage. A delicious turn in midfield – sort of Cruyff and Dalglish combined – saw the quicksilver Kewell sprinting clear towards the Rovers penalty box where he slipped the ball to Wallace on the left corner of the area. Little Rod controlled the ball and then set off on a jinky dribble across the eighteen yard line, holding off opponents, looking for that fraction of space. As soon as he found it, he wrapped his right foot around the ball and sent it hurtling into the top right hand corner of Flowers’ goal for a sensational and finely-crafted goal. Cue pandemonium in the Leeds end as they watched the Leeds players celebrate in front of the disconsolate home fans. Then, another miracle – what seemed a far clearer call for a Blackburn penalty was ignored by the ref, who may just have been feeling slightly uncomfortable about his earlier award, and so compounded the impression of incompetence by evening things up. It looked blatant and Halle looked guilty, but were we complaining?
And then more joy, as Leeds restored a two goal cushion. Fine play on the left between Wallace and Hasselbaink saw Jimmy showing pace and determination as he surged into the penalty area, then checked back to roll a tempting pass into the path of the onrushing David Hopkin. Hopkin snapped up the chance eagerly, one touch to control and then a slide-rule finish just inside the far post. 4-2 for the Whites. SIX goals by the 23rd minute, and FOUR of them for us. What a great away day – where would it end?
In fact, the end was already in sight. There was still time before the interval for the ref, bless him, to ignore another decent penalty shout for Blackburn as Molenaar appeared to barge into Dahlin in the box. Three penalty decisions, and most probably Mr Dunn got all three wrong, but for once Leeds were on the positive side of the equation. And then, as if to prove our team don’t like us to have it too easy, we managed to get pegged back to 4-3 just after the half-hour, Dahlin turning past a challenge inside the Leeds penalty area and finishing with a smart angled shot. A crazy 33 minutes had seen seven goals, and by half-time just about everyone in the stadium was breathless with the nuttiness of it all.
The second half was an inevitable case of “after the Lord Mayor’s Show” – both teams had clearly been told in no uncertain terms to sort out the defensive shambles, and the game settled back into a battle of give-and-take – still highly competitive, and even quite entertaining, but no match for that riotous first period. No further goals were scored, and Leeds had emerged with a highly creditable victory, to leave George purring about his dearly-valued “comeraderie” which – if it truly is a hybrid of comedy and camaraderie – seemed to fit the bill precisely. It was a victory that set Leeds off towards a decent season ending in European qualification, when defeat might so easily have started us worrying about the other end of the table.
George meanwhile was doubtless unamused at the tendency to let goals in when leading comfortably – a sin perpetrated twice in this match – but he was committed to a more attacking approach this year than last, and we would reap the benefits in other glorious goal-fests as the months went by. 1997-98 is a season I remember fondly for that, a time when the future looked bright under George and you wondered if he could build at Leeds what he had so successfully at Arsenal. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, but there are some very happy memories, and this fun in the sun day at Blackburn is one of the best.
Next: Memory Match No. 8: Sheffield Utd 2, Leeds United 3. On the 21st anniversary of our League Championship triumph, a look back to the crazy, gale and Gayle-affected match at Beautiful Downtown Bramall Lane which paved the way for Sgt Wilko’s Barmy Army to call themselves the best in the land.