Cometh the hour, cometh the Beast. As Leeds United vaulted out of the doldrums with a display of all-round excellence against Birmingham City today, it was action-man skipper Rudy Austin who was their drive and inspiration. You can pick any cliché you like to describe the excellence of Austin’s bionic performance. He gave 110%. He covered every blade of grass. He was a powerhouse in midfield, a last-ditch impassable obstacle in defence – he even found time to score the goal that provided United with a precious breathing space they’ve enjoyed all too rarely in recent times.
All that said, this was no one-man show. From back to front, from top to bottom, Leeds were bang up for it today and would have beaten far better teams than Birmingham City, who were simply blown away by the hunger, commitment and endeavour of the Whites’ frankly voracious performance. From the kick off, United set a tempo far too punishing for the hapless away team, and the Blues had to withstand ferocious pressure in a first fifteen minutes of siege football. That they emerged without conceding from that opening quarter-hour was mainly about some casual finishing, but Blues had defended grimly and must have been hoping for some respite if the storm would just blow itself out. Then City keeper Darren Randolph came out to make a neat interception but tried to be that bit too clever and had the ball nicked off him by the ubiquitous Austin. A first time pass to Ross McCormack who looked up and, seeing an empty goal 25 yards away, calmly propelled the ball into it.
Leeds had earned that breakthrough and they now set about consolidating it. Birmingham had to redouble their defensive efforts as well as trying to make the odd foray upfield, but by and large they were swimming against a flood tide as white shirts poured forward and Leeds players won most first and second balls all over the park. The inevitable second came after the half-hour. McCormack found time and space wide left, and advanced on the defence before putting a quality ball into the City box where Austin, at the end of a lung-bursting 70 yard run forward, was found in splendid isolation on the edge of the six yard box to plant a neat header past the helpless Randolph. The first half’s coup de grâce was administered by the towering Matt Smith who had headed a diagonal pass into the path of McCormack. The striker’s shot from a narrow angle was saved, but Smith was on hand to identify the space at the near post and neatly wrong-foot Randolph to finish efficiently.
A 3-0 half-time lead was beyond the wildest dreams of the long-suffering Leeds faithful, who must have spent the interval torn between celebrating, pinching themselves and praying for a continuation of what had been a masterful performance from United, even allowing for the frailties of the opposition. City came out with the intention of playing for pride and perhaps at least winning the second half. The introduction of recent Leeds nemesis Nikola Zigic might have caused a few collies to wobble and Birmingham did show a greater presence in the game in the second half, pushing United back and causing the odd flurry in defence, one goal-line clearance from Tom Lees being particularly memorable with Paddy Kenny beaten by a lob. But Leeds’ nerve held, their confidence remained high and they defended adequately when they had to while managing to attack dangerously at every opportunity.
The hard work and persistence of Austin with the subtler promptings of young Alex Mowatt, allied to Smith’s aerial presence and McCormack’s intelligent space-seeking runs, always promised a fourth goal to set the seal on a highly encouraging afternoon. That fourth goal, when it came, was a thing of beautiful simplicity. Smith was the scorer on 74 minutes, having had an emphatic finish ruled out for a narrow offside decision two minutes earlier. Now though, Mowatt received possession on the left in a tight enough situation to deny him the chance to do anything but feed in a first-time cross. This he did, and the quality of the ball to the far post was such that Smith’s second goal of the afternoon was served up to him cooked to perfection on a silver plate with all the trimmings. It was a sumptuous cross and Smith snapped up the chance gratefully, powering an unstoppable header into the net at the Kop End.
This was a performance of verve and style from United, the shape and make-up of the team proving just right for the task of dispatching a Birmingham side who are capable of much, but who were simply not allowed to perform on the day and were, in the end, sent packing, well beaten and thoroughly demoralised. City manager Clark bemoaned the crass defending that contributed to at least two of the four goals, but in truth he will be relieved that his team escaped a far more savage beating. In the first half particularly it had been men against boys and it’s no exaggeration to say that United could have run out winners by seven goals or even more. As match-days go, it was the kind of occasion Leeds fans have been denied for far too long. This was a banquet of a performance after too long on starvation rations, and every man played his part to the full, though nobody could deny the marvellous Austin his man of the match accolade.
All credit to Brian McDermott and his players who have evidently made good use of the fortnight’s international break to get a few things thrashed out. The desire and hunger of this display was wonderful to see and it sets a standard that McDermott will wish to see as a default level of performance from now on. Whether the squad is strong enough for the long haul is severely open to doubt and there are still wrongs to be righted there. But United’s big win has shown that, on their day and with their main men available, they are capable of handing out no end of a hiding. More of the same next week against Huddersfield would do very nicely indeed.