Both Huddersfield Town and Millwall have recently enjoyed league victories over the Mighty Leeds United – classic David and Goliath tales of tiny, grubby backwoods clubs enjoying their moment in the limelight as they contrive to overcome a world-famous footballing superpower. The fallout was similar in both cases – joy unconfined, celebration and jubilation in excelsis, dancing and cavorting in the cobbled streets and who knows what other forms of primitive festivity. It’s anticipated that there will be a sharp spike in the birthrate for both of these isolated communities nine months hence – though sadly the limited gene pool means it’s unlikely we’ll see any such augmentation of the average IQ figure.
All of this is quite understandable, given the chip on the collective shoulders of each respective band of David fans, where this particular Goliath is concerned. It’s probably more acute in Huddersfield, whose fans have had to live their lives in the long shadow of Big Brother from Elland Road on the one side, and of the Pennines on the other, their only protection from the barbaric hordes of Lancashire. But Millwall nurse their own grudge against Leeds, who they feel somehow outshine their own carefully-nurtured reputation for mob-handed naughtiness. This is a misconception – the old Leeds wild boy tendency are mostly harmless elderly chaps these days, venting their spleen – if at all – from a computer keyboard. Millwall fans seem convinced however that something nasty awaits them in LS11 – at any rate, they rarely bring more than a few dozen along to our annual meetings at Elland Road these days, and they spend their time sitting quietly in a safe area of the ground, shuffling their feet and hoping not to be noticed.
But whatever motivates these quaint if rustic people to nurse such savage hatred in their bosoms – and really, who could ever tell what goes on inside those misshapen heads? – there is certainly a galvanising effect on the teams they support. Those guys can be relied upon to play well above their usual form and give even superior Leeds sides a terrible time. The motivational aspect is undeniable and, sadly, it costs an unwary United points that should be there for the taking. This happens time and time again – every time a Leeds fixture is in the offing, the drums start to beat, the blood stirs and an atavistic glitter is to be seen in the eyes of otherwise placid and useless players. We Leeds fans refer to it ruefully as “Cup Final Syndrome” – much to the annoyance of the unwashed hordes in opposition camps. The Huddersfield and Millwall lot would have you believe that Leeds is “just another game”. But this is demonstrably not so.
Quite apart from the annoying regularity with which these dingy little clubs raise their performance levels against Leeds, another noticeable factor is the slump in performance immediately afterwards. It’s as if the players, egged on by their desperate fans, have given every last drop of blood, sweat and tears and then gone on to draw on hidden reserves to complete the job, leaving them shattered and drained. What inevitably happens next time out is that a team of pale wraiths take the field, wave and smile wanly at the applause due to them for beating Leeds, and then capitulate to whoever they are playing, simply too knackered from post Cup Final Syndrome to offer any resistance. Don’t take my word for it. Check out the facts.
Since Millwall beat Leeds 2-0 on 28 September, they have played six games. The first two after Leeds were away at Birmingham where they lost 0-4 and then away to Bournemouth, who tonked them 5-2. Three draws followed and then the most recent defeat was at Bolton by 3-1. They’ve mustered 3 points out of the 18 available, registered not one further win and generally looked like exhausted relegation fodder. Huddersfield have hardly fared better. They’ve played only two games since beating Leeds, losing them both – away to Wigan by 2-1 and at home to Birmingham (1-3). It’s especially notable that both teams have been easily beaten by a Birmingham side made to look like Sunday morning park footballers as Leeds murdered them 4-0. Funny old game, isn’t it?
The truth of the matter is that this “Cup Final Syndrome” is a real factor, one that can distort results and affect the whole season. As I’ve previously written, Leeds suffer more than most from the phenomenon – not that this is any reason for sympathy. It’s something Leeds have to sort out and overcome, if they are to achieve anything in the foreseeable future. It’s just the loud and indignant denials you get – from the clubs who experience Cup Final Syndrome – that amaze me. They’re prepared to swear blind that there’s no such factor at play, and yet the figures speak for themselves.
The managers of those clubs concerned might see things in a different light; they might argue that if their team can reach such heights and expend such effort when they play Leeds, then they could and should do it all the time. But that’s the point – they can’t. They almost literally do give that hackneyed 110% against Leeds. It is their cup final. They try and they try – and they come off the field, maybe victorious, but shattered and run down, their batteries as flat as the top of Wayne Rooney’s head. They’ve nothing left to give, with predictable consequences next time out as they get royally stuffed. It’s all there, in those results.
Maybe the Millwall and Huddersfield fans would rather have a more consistent level of performance – and in that case, maybe they’d tolerate a less superhuman level of effort against the arch-enemy Leeds United. But do you know, I somehow doubt it? I have this sneaking suspicion that they’d rather continue to settle, grumpily maybe, but settle nonetheless, for mediocrity and runs of defeats for most of the season – just as long as they can have those wins against Mighty Leeds. That, for them, is what it’s all about. It’s not as if they’re going to go up anyway – so they need those Cup Final victories, they’re a validation of sorts. It’s a defining characteristic of the type of club they are, with the type of fans they have.
So, you small-time, small club, small-minded envious pariahs – next time you hear Leeds United fans singing to you about “your Cup Final”, and feel moved to utter an offended bleat of protest – just bite your lips, and pause a second or two. Think on. You might just realise that what we’re singing to you is almost literally true.