Leeds United, perennial party-poopers, did it again at Watford in a crazy game that sometimes bore more resemblance to an episode of Emergency Ward 10 than the blood-and-thunder Championship clash it was. Still smarting from a bizarre 1-6 defeat at Elland Road in the reverse fixture, Leeds were in no mood to stand idly by and watch their hosts stroll to the three points which – as it turned out – would have seen them gain automatic promotion. The Whites worked hard from the start, despite the early loss of injured Steve Morison, closing down space, snapping into tackles and pressing their opponents well up the field, denying them opportunities to create.
Sky co-commentator and one-time Man U flop Garry Birtles marred the viewing experience with his frequent inane interjections – his verdict on substitute Dominic Poleon’s part in the unfortunate injury to Jonathan Bond, Watford’s late replacement ‘keeper, being particularly obtuse. “He knew what he was doing alright,” spluttered the werewolf-faced ex Forest goal-hanger – apparently crediting our Dom with the skill to push a Watford defender in the back whilst running at full tilt and at precisely the correct angle to cause deliberate damage to the unlucky ‘keeper. But Birtles never was the sharpest tool in the box, and Sky would serve us all better if they provided a menu option to mute him.
Bond, only playing because of a warm-up injury to Manuel Almunia, seemed seriously hurt, but to suggest any deliberate intent to that effect was ridiculous and unjustified. After a lengthy break for treatment, the stricken ‘keeper was carried off to be replaced by a 19 year old rookie, Jack Bonham, for whom this would indeed be a baptism of fire. Shortly after entering the field Bonham was involved in a mix-up with one of his defenders as the ball headed into his penalty area. Poleon benefited from a fortuitous bounce to be able to sprint clear and tuck the ball home from an acute angle close in. Before the end of an extended first half – 16 minutes stoppage time – Watford were level with a finely constructed goal. Almen Abdi pounced on a lay-off at the edge of the Leeds area and curled a fine shot well out of Paddy Kenny’s reach into the top corner.
At this stage in the bigger picture, things were pretty much how they’d started – Hull City as Watford’s rivals for the remaining automatic promotion place were also level in their match at home to Cardiff. But then we heard Cardiff were ahead, meaning that Watford could go up with a draw. The situation would continue to change right to the end. As the delayed second half started at Vicarage Road, Hull had turned their own game around, leading 2-1. Watford now had to win whilst hoping Cardiff could draw level, and the urgency of their game was notched up accordingly. Troy Deeney, stupidly booked in the first period for kicking the ball away, now sailed into an ill-judged challenge on Michael Brown and was rightly booked again and dismissed. The expression of Gianfranco Zola’s face showed that he would possibly not be defending his striker’s actions.
The onus remained on Watford to win, just in case Hull let things slip at the KC Stadium. With ten against eleven, they pressed as hard as they could, drawing a couple of excellent saves from Paddy Kenny in the Leeds goal – and then the news came in, first that Hull had missed a penalty chance to secure their match at 3-1, next that Cardiff had gone straight down the other end and scored a penalty of their own to finish at 2-2. Now Watford were one goal from promotion, and their efforts became positively frantic as time ran out – time they only had because of the delays for injuries before half time. The Watford momentum built, waves of attack from the ten men were repulsed by a determined Leeds; something had to give. And, in time-honoured fashion, when it did give the result was a sucker punch to leave the Hornets stung and reeling. Ross McCormack seized on a clearance to advance on the young ‘keeper who was in no-man’s land off his line. McCormack tried a chip that looked just not quite good enough – but the debutant goalie could get only fingertips to the ball, which dropped over his head and behind him into an empty net. Tragedy for the young lad, sweet revenge for Leeds as they held on for three points to salve the wounds of their Elland Road battering and frustration for Zola’s fine Watford side who will now have to take their chances in the play-off lottery.
Leeds had successfully pooped another party, just as they had with Neil Warnock’s QPR two years previously – though Rangers had gone up anyway, despite that 2-1 away success for the Whites. There is some satisfaction in drenching the celebrations of others, but the onus is now on Brian McDermott and the club owners to plot a more positive outcome to next season – because whatever the buzz of Schadenfreude, the Leeds fans will not settle indefinitely for spoiling other folks’ parties. It’s high time we had one of our own.