Following Leeds United by any means is traditionally a frustrating experience. Watching them “live and as it happens” on Sky TV can be downright infuriating, especially if, as I do, you prefer your journalism impartial and unbiased. It’s something which negatively affects the Sky experience, whichever way the game is going. When Leeds are struggling and go a goal behind, the commentators’ jubilation makes you want to fasten your hands around the offenders’ throats and squeeze tightly. When our heroes come back, taking the lead and seeing it out, the funereal sulkiness is no less annoying. But circumstances dictate that I could not make the trip to the West Country, so I must perforce grit my teeth and try to relax and enjoy the match. Fat chance.
This game at Yeovil took place at the end of a week you would think could have been played out only in the most lurid fiction, dreamed up by the over-active imagination of a hopeless fantasist on some really powerful mushrooms. Quite frankly, I’m too tired to go over those events again; suffice it to say that the bizarre weather conditions at Yeovil’s tiny and typhoon-ravaged ground seemed like the most mundane normality compared to what had gone before. Most of the first half consisted of the Leeds players striving to propel the ball anywhere near the home side’s half of the pitch, their clearances mostly ballooning into the air, performing a complicated loop-the-loop and drifting back towards the United goal. Rinse and repeat. Our neutral and unbiased commentators, Daniel Mann and Don Goodman, were getting more and more uneasy at Yeovil’s failure to capitalise on the conditions; clearly the prospect of Leeds benefiting from playing the other way in the second half was a matter of extreme concern. There was a peak of joy and a trough of deep disappointment ahead for them, before the half-time whistle blew.
First, a left-wing corner just after the half-hour. “At last, an in-swinger coming”, breathed the commentator, fired with anticipation. And then joy unconfined as the ball whipped in viciously to be met by the head of Ishmael Miller and rocket past Paddy Kenny into the Leeds net. Mann and Goodman brought out their pre-baked line about it being the first time in history that Yeovil had taken the lead against United, as renewed optimism surged through them. Kenny was less chuffed; he had spent most of the half with the look of a man who suspects a practical joke is being played upon him, regarding the ball with the utmost suspicion as its path through the air invariably took some unpredictable diversion. Now he shook his head, glumly. It was not a day for keepers or defenders, not in the teeth of this gale – but Leeds had almost weathered the storm and could feel optimistic about a wind-assisted second half with just the one goal to pull back.
Then, disaster – depending on your point of view. Mann and Goodman exulted – a penalty to Yeovil, conceded by Sam Byram’s tackle on Kevin Dawson, and a chance for the home team to establish a lead they might hope to hold against the wind in the second half. I slouched down in my seat, ready for the worst – but Miller blasted the spot-kick gloriously high, clipping the crossbar before continuing on into low Earth orbit. I allowed myself a cautious smile, but the misery in the commentary box was palpable; a great chance missed to go in two goals to the good – now there were very real fears over what the second half might bring.
Barely half a minute into that second period, those worst fears of Messrs Mann and Goodman were realised. A comical kick-out from Town keeper Marek Stech resembled a vertical banana as it soared high and reversed direction, dropping to the lethal Ross McCormack. The United striker snapped up possession, shifted the ball past a defender onto his right foot and dispatched a beautiful curling effort wide of Stech into the far corner. “Might have been a slight deflection on that,” grumbled a morose Goodman. 200 miles north, my joy was only slightly tempered by the obvious sulkiness of the Sky guys. We were level – suck it up.
As the second half progressed, the weather stayed remarkably faithful to Leeds, contrary to my pessimistic half-time feeling that the wind would probably change for the second forty-five. Leeds were thus enabled to do to their hosts as they themselves had been done by in the first half, and at one point a possession graphic showed the unimpressive figure of 0% Yeovil activity in United’s final third. Town did pose the odd threat, however – commentator Mann grabbing the chance to claim that Yeovil were dealing better with playing into the wind than Leeds had – but it was mainly one-way traffic apart from a few home forays towards the United goal, with one comical but alarming piece of juggling by Kenny being safely retrieved.
A bizarre match was decided in an inevitably bizarre fashion. Leeds won a free-kick on the right, far out from Town’s goal. With sub Matt Smith on, it was tailor-made for a high, in-swinging delivery, and Stephen Warnock duly obliged – only to see the ball evade Smith and all of the other personnel in the penalty area, including Town keeper Stech, as it described a parabolic trajectory up and then down over all of the helpless heads and arms, into the Yeovil net. Warnock triumphantly raised his arm as if he’d meant it, the Leeds players and fans cavorted with joy at the turning of the tables, and the gruesome twosome of Mann and Goodman very nearly wept.
That was pretty much it for a game of two halves but one fairly consistent gale. Jimmy Kebe, falling short of his performance of last week in a very different sort of game, could and should have scored a third, as perhaps should McCormack himself. There was still time for Mann to welcome Yeovil sub James Hayter with the story of how he did for Leeds in a Wembley play-off final, but any wishful thinking along those lines was doomed to come to nothing. Leeds could even have had more, but were wasteful, meaning that the two Yeovil fans-for-a-day on the Sky gantry could hold onto some shreds of hope right to the end. But end it did, with United victorious, Yeovil plucky but beaten, and the broadcasters misty of eye and with lips aquiver, trying to put a brave face on things.
Afterwards, Brian McDermott was invited into the Sky studio under the beady gaze of Peter Beagrie where, subjected to some fairly intense and persistent questioning, he produced another bravura performance of dignity and restraint, refusing to be drawn on his future, refusing to comment on the changes currently sweeping through the club, insisting time and again on emphasising his commitment to the team, his staff and most of all the Leeds United “army” of fans. What a guy. If that most precious managerial commodity – time – could be earned by sheer class and composure, then Brian would be in the job until the day he draws his pension. Sadly, it’s unlikely to work out that way but, in the meantime, hats off to a quality man.
So, it’s on to Brighton next Tuesday and thankfully a game out of the Sky TV glare, before Signor Cellino’s date with the Football League. Who knows what will have happened in the Leeds United soap opera by the time next weekend rolls around? That’s a break for Leeds who have no game thanks to their early FA Cup exit. But even though there’ll be no football, you somehow know that the on-going story of the Damned United will still be twisting, turning and baffling us all – and you know that Sky TV will still be sniffing around and hoping against hope that it all ends in tears for the Whites. Fingers crossed that there’s more misery ahead for Murdoch’s men.