In the early part of season 1997/98, Leeds United under the guidance of George Graham became known for a brief but glorious three-match spell as “The Comeback Kings”. It was a title hard-earned with victories against three fellow Premiership members after going behind – from one down against West Ham, for whom a young Frank Lampard had scored and then reprised his Dad’s 1980 semi-final jig around the corner flag at the south-east corner – and from three down at home to Derby County, a match I’ve already described elsewhere.
The third game in this sequence was away to Barnsley, destined to be one-season wonders in the Premiership, but always to be relied upon to raise their game against the hated Big Brother from up the road, Leeds United. Many was the time I had made the short journey to Oakwell during our second division spell in the eighties, only to see us perform scratchily, as if influenced by the humble surroundings, dragged down and ultimately defeated. We had the odd success there, but overall it was a dire place to visit, both for itself and for the ashen taste of defeat that often accompanied the cobbled-street and pit-stack atmosphere. This was in my mind as I contemplated the Premiership away game, in an Oakwell tarted up and much improved since the decade before. But, in truth, the match turned out to be one of my most satisfying away trips ever.
Indeed, this article nearly copped for the title “My Greatest Awayday” before I decided it wasn’t quite that good. But honestly – it was right up there with the best of them for sheer excitement and the joy of being able to throw a friend’s kindness back in his face as I crowed over a remarkable victory. Let me set the scene. A mate from the luvvie world, as we theatrical types like to call it, had won a local competition for which the prize was a ticket in the main stand to see Barnsley v Leeds. This lad – let’s call him Martin, because that’s his name – is a rabid Barnsley fan who already had a season ticket, so he had no personal use for his prize. He could have sold it, but out of the kindness of his heart, he passed it on to me. It would be too, too cynical of me to speculate that he was hoping to rub my nose in another win for his Reds over my Whites – but in the event, how he was to regret that noble gesture.
The 29th November 1997 – coming up for seventeen years ago now (how that time has flown by) was not merely a damp and dismal affair. It was not merely wet. It absolutely teemed it down, threatening to dissolve proud civic buildings of centuries standing, promising to wash Barnsley away completely and return South Yorkshire to the marsh from which it should never have emerged. It was a flood of biblical proportions, promising extinction on a scale that would have terrified Noah. It really was a bitch of a nasty day. And therein lies some of the satisfaction I derived from my spot of luck. Redeveloped though Oakwell was relative to the dark days of Football League, Division Two – it was still a fairly spartan affair when compared to a proper football stadium. The away end, especially, offered all the facilities of an open field without any of the rustic charm. It was roofless, open to the elements – and that was a mighty elemental day. If I had taken my place on that open terrace, I would surely have drowned. As it was, I had the cosily malicious pleasure of watching my Leeds-supporting comrades drown, and looking forward to regaling those that survived with the comfy tale of my own toasty, warm and dry experience. The keenly-anticipated pleasure of Schadenfreude is a dish best served cold – as I’m sure you’re always reminding yourselves.
So there I was, tucked up nice and warm in Barnsley’s version of a Main Stand, sat among the very poshest of the local yokels, thrilled to bits that I wasn’t out there in the open, dissolving away. I had my complimentary programme and my hot Bovril plus obligatory pie – all free, an experience to warm any Yorkshireman’s cockles. I was well happy.
Then the match started, and – at first – it was a depressing process of that happiness steadily waning and draining away. Leeds were playing against the tide in the first half, and struggling to make much of it, despite vastly superior personnel. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink – later to be rechristened Judas Floyd Piggybank after his money-motivated departure to pastures Spanish – had briefly lifted my hopes by striking the Barnsley woodwork on five minutes. I knew that this was a bogey ground (Leeds have a few of these) – but that early strike had given me some encouragement – soon, alas, to be brutally dashed away.
After eight minutes, Barnsley – playing with a 140 mph gale at their backs – pressed into the Leeds half and scored. One of their frankly half-decent players, Andy Liddell, had tested Nigel Martyn with a stinging shot that the Leeds keeper could only parry out. Following up, Liddell was able to make his second effort count, and Leeds were behind. At Oakwell. Again. Bloody hell.
As Barnsley warmed to their task and Leeds found it increasingly difficult to repel the home attacks while playing into the teeth of a gale, the Reds had chances to double that lead. First Liddell and then Joso Bosancic tested Martyn, but failed to beat him. Barnsley were not to be denied their second goal though, and on 28 minutes it was again a matter of our Nige in the Leeds goal being unable to do much about an initial shot in those horrible conditions. As with the first goal, the rebound was snapped up – this time by Martin Bullock – and there we were, 2-0 down and looking likely to ship more goals as our defence became ever leakier. It should be remembered that I had just witnessed two Leeds comebacks, and maybe this should have filled me with optimism – but it was poxy bloody Barnsley, it was a horrible day and I felt my luck – and the team’s – had run out. I expected no third miracle.
It was with an involuntary shout of delight then, that I saw us peg back the arrears ten minutes short of half-time. It was Hasselbaink again, blasting a fierce shot towards the Barnsley goal, only to see their keeper Lars Leese turn the ball around the post. From the resulting corner though, Alf-Inge Haaland rose to power home a header at the home fans’ “Ponte End”. Pessimistic as I had been moments before, now renewed hope gripped me. My triumphant bellow had revealed me to the Main Stand as The Enemy, and hundreds of eyes swivelled to regard me balefully – but these were posh Barnsley folk, some of whom would actually have indoor plumbing and electricity in their hovels. I was in no danger from these relatively civilised specimens. United saw out the remainder of the first half, and I sat nice and warm through the break, reading my programme, sneaking occasional glances at the Leeds hordes bobbing about in the deep end and fighting over the few available lifebelts – but mostly looking forward to seeing what United could do playing with the current.
In the event, the first thing we did in the second half was go perilously close to conceding a third goal that would probably have finished us off. Liddell, that thorn in our side, went far too close for comfort and then had a shot cleared off the line by the usually useless David Robertson. As the half wore on, it was looking more and more as though Leeds were once again going to have to slink away from Oakwell pointless. They pressed when possible, but Barnsley were defending better in the second half than we had in the first. A mere eleven minutes from time, though, a long clearance from Big Nige found nippy Rod Wallace in space on the right. Hot Rod had a run on goal, and once clear, he was nigh-on impossible to catch, even though he was having to wade rather than sprinting as normal. Rodney finished competently, and we were back from the dead at 2-2 – to my loud relief. More hostile stares from the indignant aboriginals.
The stage was now set for a dénouement – and it was Leeds United who struck the decisive blow to complete yet another fine turnaround. Wallace was involved again, his run down the right culminating in a tasty cross into the Tykes’ penalty area – and there was Derek Lilley for his one and only moment of glory in a Leeds shirt a mere five minutes after entering the fray from the bench. Fastening onto Rod’s quality wide delivery, Lilley set his sights and delivered the perfect finish to put Leeds 3-2 up, much to the delight of the thousands of drowned rats behind Lars Leese’s goal. My own joy was flavoured with an illuminating thought: how appropriate it was, I mused while cavorting around in celebration, that – on such a very wet and sodden day, with Barnsley’s quaint little ground virtually under water – it had taken a sub to settle the matter.
I didn’t see poor old Martin after the game – I was caught up in the crowd heading back to the railway station where – just to complete a Yorkshireman’s perfect day – the throng was such that I was never asked to pay my fare and got a free ride home on top of all the other freebies I’d enjoyed that day. I was contentedly counting my blessings; Leeds were in the top four, Barnsley had taken a decisive step towards their eventual relegation (helped along by another defeat to Leeds in the return at Elland Road) – and I’d had the immense pleasure of seeing all this, of being a part of it all – and all for nowt. Perfect. The rain had even thoughtfully abated during my walk back to the station. I was the only dry man on the train as the away fans sat in their puddles, soaked and steaming, but giddily happy at the events of the afternoon.
Three comeback wins on the trot – and people recall George Graham’s reign as one of austerity. It was anything but, especially in this 97/98 season, and I have a few more happy memories from that time, so I still think quite fondly of George. It was a shame he deserted us for Spurs though, the treacherous Scottish git. But that was in the future, and I had a victory to celebrate – and a rehearsal to look forward to the next day when I would be able to repay Barnsley fan Martin’s kindness by taking the mick and making of his life a complete misery.
It’s a sweet and wonderful thing to be a Leeds fan sometimes, which will be something to remind ourselves of whichever way this coming weekend’s match against the Tykes ends up going. It’s about time we had another win there, but frankly I’m not holding my breath, despite Ross McCormack’s tweeted battle-cry. But you never know – and if we did snatch the three points, that might well seal another relegation for plucky Barnsley, a “Cup Final complex” outfit we could well do without meeting next season. Fingers crossed.