As Leeds United’s season came to a brighter than expected end, with a battling draw against play-off hopefuls Derby, events lower down the table in the tawdry scrap of the relegation dogfight may well have already had an effect on the Whites’ prospects for next time around.
Leeds did undeniably well in what was a dead rubber against Derby. After going behind early and suffering a couple of further scares, United pressed their higher-placed opponents hard for the bulk of the remaining time in the game and the season; they had a couple of penalty claims turned down, Ross McCormack was slightly unfortunate to see a vicious free-kick punched out by County keeper Grant – and Michael Brown put in an all-action, give-me-another-year’s-contract performance that included a Cruyff turn which had you thinking suspiciously about the origins of those mushrooms you had for breakfast.
The equaliser, when it came after 50 minutes, was another high point in the productive season of Matt Smith, one of the few real bright spots of a blighted campaign. Leeds could well have won the game, but the level of performance was encouraging in itself. It is likely, though, to be a case of “too little, too late” for many of the squad, as plans will already be afoot for a hiring and firing summer as Cellino’s Italian Job gets under way.
Next season, when it comes, will see a marked reduction in one of those irritating factors which have impeded Leeds United’s progress far too often and for far too long. I refer of course to “Cup Final Syndrome”, whereby a number of smaller clubs try their little hearts out when facing the Whites – and often end up thrashing us. It’s a phenomenon particularly noticeable in local derbies yet, thanks to the ineptitude of our fellow Yorkshire clubs, not only have we ended up as top dogs in the county yet again, but we have also contrived to see the back of two of those annoying and inconvenient pests in the shape of Barnsley and Doncaster Rovers.
Barnsley bit the dust last week with a 1-3 defeat at Middlesbrough – helped along the way, I like to think, by the rare dropped points (five of them) in their games against Leeds, points they would normally have nicked in previous seasons. So, we did our bit to see off the Tykes and, even though Donny won at Elland Road recently, our 3-0 win at their council ice-rink early in the season has helped to dispatch them. Which is nice.
Doncaster’s relegation was, if anything, a lot funnier than even Barnsley’s, coming as it did right at the death of the season when they were on the very brink of being safe. They were happily settling for a narrow defeat at Champions Leicester in the secure knowledge that Birmingham were two down at Bolton and surely doomed.
But then Lady Luck did one of those graceful pirouettes for which she is rightly notorious, and Brum battled back – scoring through Zigic and then laying siege to the Wanderers goal. Three minutes into stoppage time, and they pulled that last rabbit out of the hat to equalise and achieve an unlikely late escape, simultaneously sealing Donny’s fate – much to the horror of the Rovers fans and much to the amusement of anyone in Leeds colours who harbours unpleasant memories of Wembley, that day when the concourse was lop-sided with United fans, but when the minnows perversely triumphed.
There are a few reasons for hoping that next season will be better for Leeds – prominent among them of course being our understanding that we are no longer operating on Skid Row, having moved across town to Easy Street. Whether that works out, and to what extent we might now be competing at the plusher end of the transfer market, remains to be seen. But the lessening of the intensity of competition in local derby terms can do nothing but good, as Leeds have generally speaking made really hard work of these matches, to the detriment of the overall league picture.
Even though we have ended up on top of the Yorkshire standings, our results against Huddersfield and the Wendies have left much to be desired this season as in many before. At least there will be a little less of this unseemly parochial skirmishing next season – even given that we will have Cardiff City to add to the unsavoury attractions of Millwall.
And so, another season ends, bleak and disappointing from a Leeds United perspective, but with distinct compensations elsewhere in the form of the enjoyable suffering of others. As I write, Man U have just slipped to their umpteenth home defeat this season – even under the peerless guidance of Sir Ryan Giggs – and Cardiff’s brief flirtation with the top flight is over. There may well be a bonus in the form of relegation for Norwich Bleedin’ City later this weekend.
Wolves and Fulham will be with us next season – always attractive fixtures – and the games against Cardiff and Norwich should be spicy, too. We must hope that the Leeds squad can be reshaped and re-motivated, to such a pitch that we will be truly competitive next time around. Allowing for all the distractions and side issues, we weren’t that far short this time – but it all went wrong when events off the field took over. Next season should be slightly more peaceful – or is that hopelessly naive? And, if all else fails – well, we might still have Old Man Browneh, weaving his elderly magic and pulling off Cruyff turns aplenty to bedazzle the opposition.
It certainly is a funny old game.