So, it was FA Cup time again – a competition where we’ve actually done OK these past few years, as a bit of light relief from generally mediocre league form. This year, the Cup Magic was to be non-existent, the Cup run very short and not so sweet. Out we went, humbled by League Two Rochdale, of whom it must be said: they deserved it. 5-0 would hardly have flattered them. Leeds played like a side who felt they had only to turn up to win; the thing is, they didn’t really even turn up.
But are we downhearted? Well, yes – some of us are. But not me. I’ve grown out of disappointment at cup exits. They’ve happened every year, twice a year – sometimes more in really good seasons when we’ve qualified to be beaten by some continental team – for all of the forty-odd years that I’ve actually cared. You become immune – and that helps, especially when our league status argues that we’re never going to have a chance of winning the bloody thing anyway. Let’s worry about cups when, on form, we should beat pretty well anybody. When those days return, the cups will look a lot more likely and a lot more attractive.
Today, without a match ticket and with no live TV coverage, I gave myself over to the tender mercies of the Sky Sports “Soccer Saturday” team. It was an enlightening experience, confirming for me that, yes, we played terribly and that, yes, they still hate us. We’re still the Damned United. At one point, Jeff Stelling told us that he’d been told to stop referring to us as “the Mighty Leeds”. He didn’t say by whom – I had it narrowed down to Phil Thompson (still bitter over some ribald jibes at his Manilowesque nose from the Gelderd End back in the day) and Paul Merson who, as the token Fick Cockney, simply doesn’t know any better.
Stelling got more excited as the afternoon went on, returning frequently to Spotland for reassurances that Leeds weren’t threatening to get back into the game (we weren’t, either). His references to our glorious Cup history, for the purpose of contrasting today’s dismal display, seemed a little forced as we’ve only won it once – 42 years ago. But Jeff wanted this to be the Marquee Giant-Killing, and he bigged it up accordingly.
It’s not as if there weren’t other shocks. Villa lost at home to third division Sheffield United, much to the joy of their Cup-hating manager Paul Lambert. Donny lost to little Stevenage – and the excitement of this game was enough to bring on earache, as the reporter at the Keepmoat was one John Gwynne. He has one of those “rich north country” voices which sound like a goose farting through a foghorn, and many were the updates he loudly bawled, with scant regard for the sensitivities of the more delicate viewer.
Soccer Saturday sets its stall out to entertain as well as inform – which is presumably why they employ clowns like Merson (How’s it going Merse? Still free-nil, Jeff.) One of their comedy themes lately has been the appalling record of Hyde in the Skrill Premier League. They’ve gained only three points all season and have a goal difference of minus 51. Today, they lost 4-0 at Gateshead – one of their better results of this campaign. But on this FA Cup day, the chance was missed to mention that Hyde are record breakers themselves, having once lost 26-0 to Preston in the 1887-88 competition. Surely, they could have got a bon mot or two out of that? But no, sadly they were too ill-informed – unless I missed it in listening out for a Leeds recovery.
Back at Spotland, it was becoming ever more obvious that our beloved United were merely going through the motions and that the mighty Rochdale were having it easy. A richly-deserved second goal arrived, and we were well and truly Out – much to the malicious satisfaction of the United-Damning hacks in the Sky studio. The Leeds fans packed behind the goal at Rochdale’s ground took it all in good part. “We’re shit, and we’re sick of it,” they bellowed, displaying a keen sense of observation as well as a powerful collective ability to convey angst. Sad to report, they gave Brian McDermott a pretty frosty reception at the end of the game. It is to be hoped that the resolve of that gentleman was stiffened, rather than shattered. My money is on him; he’s a never-give-up type. He’ll have to be.
Worse things happen at sea – or, indeed, at Histon. Rochdale have done well at home this season and in Keith Hill they have a manager who’s used to slaying the Whites with a nominally inferior team – he did it all the time at Barnsley. His side played football today that put to shame the more direct approach of Leeds, but there is a lesson to be learned and it’s to be hoped the players learn it. No league points were lost today, as Brian McDermott, looking for scraps of consolation, ruefully remarked. And of course it seems likely that big changes are afoot. For all the hysterical reaction over this defeat, you’d think that people out there actually thought we might have gone on to win the Cup. Truly, that was never going to happen. So, what have we lost, after all? Only the chance to be beaten in the next round or two, possibly by someone against whom we’d simply hate to lose. What should we do, then? Why, we should draw a line under it sharpish, and move on.
This season is not going to be a season of on-field achievement – I will confidently predict that here and now. The progress made this season will be mainly off the field, as a hideously-neglected scouting network comes online, and investment makes possible the instigation of a more progressive transfer policy. Plans are afoot for Elland Road too, to brush up some of the tired old fabric of the place. It’s long overdue – and I know people will say “Get the team sorted first”. But there’s no reason why both areas can’t be addressed at the same time, if the right levels of investment are – as rumoured – shortly to be available.
The baseline requirement for this season, football-wise, is not to go down. Making the play-offs would be a massive bonus; actually going up, little short of a miracle. We’re currently just too far behind the teams that have invested properly for this level – they will likely pull away as the months go by. Going up next season, on the other hand, is a reasonable ambition; there are three transfer windows to do the necessary work. I would happily settle for that as the immediate aim – if next season is to be the Big Push, then there’s a lot of excitement in store.
Who knows? Perhaps in a year or two, we really will be “Mighty Leeds” again, and maybe Jeff Stelling will even be allowed to admit it. Won’t that be a glorious day? And as for Paul Merson – well, he can bladdy-well stick his hard-of-finking objections where the sun don’t shine, squire.