For many football fans, the words George, Graham and dour go together like fish, chips and vinegar. Yet I look back very fondly on Stroller George’s too-brief reign at Elland Road, not least for the reason that it did a lot to put right the problems surrounding the latter part of the Howard Wilkinson era. Wilko’s dismissal in the early part of the previous campaign had brought a dapper Mr. Graham through the West Stand doors with a promise to steady the ship and to “sort things out at the back.”
What followed was an exercise in football austerity, tight in defence, almost completely impotent up front, yet surviving quite comfortably despite the paucity of attacking product. He even managed a 1-0 Cup win at his first love Arsenal’s Highbury fortress, but for the rest of the season it was very meagre fare indeed. “We’ll score again, don’t know where, don’t know when” was the fans’ refrain as the league programme died of boredom. But if we thought it would be more of the same next time around – and quite frankly, we did – we were to be happily surprised.
Season 1997-98 saw a turnaround in the composition of the first-team squad, Carlton Palmer and Brian Deane departing, one south, one north, both relatively unlamented. The in-comings included David Hopkin, who would provide a traditionally ginger influence in midfield; Bruno Ribeiro, a tin-type of a mid-sixties era John Giles; Alf-Inge Haaland, who became a cult hero for his abuse of Royston Keane, and is still fondly remembered for it today; and the exotically-named, unexpectedly lethal Jerrel Floyd Hasselbaink.
All in all they seemed to promise much in terms of increased effectiveness of the side as a unit, and it was the two lesser-known signings from the Portuguese League who made the most initial impact. Hasselbaink in particular got off to a flyer, scoring against Arsenal at home on his debut, and displaying a turn of pace and a rocket shot that inspired cautious optimism even among the cynical Leeds fans, who had starved for such thrills the previous year. By the time the Derby game came around the self-branded “Jimmy” was not quite a first team fixture but whenever he was involved, there was that air of threat about him. And so it would prove on this day.
Leeds had in fact produced a couple of decent home wins on their last two Elland Road outings, beating Man U 1-0 and cruising to a 4-1 win against Newcastle, both in front of near-40000 crowds. Derby was a slightly less attractive prospect, but there were still 33572 in the ground as the teams came out that November afternoon. Derby, to be honest, were not expected to prove too much of a problem. Most teams have their “rabbit side” – opposition who always seemed quite straightforward to deal with – and Derby had been this type of easy meat for Leeds for some little time now, a situation sadly reversed these days. So the atmosphere was one of anticipation if not exactly complacency; there was this definite air of expectation that the recent home success would continue.
It was with bemusement turning to anger and outrage then, that Leeds fans beheld the scene which had unfolded by the 33rd minute. Without ever looking massively inferior on the field, United had contrived to trail 0-3, uncharacteristic goalkeeping howlers from Nigel Martyn gifting Derby striker Dean Sturridge the chances to score twice, and then the concession of a stonewall penalty which was gleefully converted by Aljosa Asanovic – all at the fanatical Gelderd End of the ground. As the penalty hit the back of the net, and the Derby players celebrated, there was a loud explosion from the Kop as someone let off an extremely noisy “banger” firework which had somehow survived Bonfire Night three days before. At the time, this concussive detonation seemed the only response a speechless home support could muster, but the crowd noise and vehemence of encouragement were to reach more positive levels before the break.
It was the kind of situation that required a determined fight back immediately; failing that, Derby could well have gone on to assume complete control and finish up winning with embarrassing ease. Embarrassing for us, anyway – at this point the away fans were enjoying life and looking forward to more goals. Leeds got the message loud and clear; the Kop roared support as they pressed forward, and the belief seemed to be there that there was still plenty of time to retrieve something from this disastrous situation.
The first dent was made in Derby’s lead only four minutes after their third goal, Ribeiro gathering possession around thirty yards out and hammering a left foot shot into the penalty area. It was a powerful effort, but probably destined to be harmless – until Rodney Wallace got the merest of touches to it, diverting the ball past Mart Poom in the Derby goal. 1-3 now and better was to come by half-time.
Young Harry Kewell was being hailed as the latest Wunderkind around this time; he’d been the quicksilver inspiration of the previous year’s FA Youth Cup-winning team, and was precociously, extravagantly gifted as he had already demonstrated at first team level. This was obviously some years before he disgraced himself, first by holding the club to ransom over his transfer to Liverpool and then – infinitely worse – by signing for that scumbag Turkish outfit Galatasaray. His contribution to this match, however, was embellished by a clinical finish to draw Leeds to within one goal of Derby before the interval. The ball came over from the right to find Kewell in space beyond the far post but at such an acute angle that there was hardly any of the goal to aim at. No matter; Kewell met the ball as sweetly as I’ve ever seen anyone connect with a left-foot volley, the ball flying with tremendous pace and power past a startled Poom and into the far corner of the net. We were back to 2-3, and it was so nearly all square right at the end of the half when a snap shot from Haaland was just scrambled off the line. The situation at half-time was bizarre; the away team was leading but it was the home team feeling upbeat and with the momentum behind them as the game restarted.
Leeds were attacking the Kop now, and the second half swiftly set itself into a pattern of relentless pressure on the away defence, the addition of half-time substitute Lee Bowyer adding extra energy to the midfield thrusts forward. Derby defended well, desperately at times, yet effectively – and managed somehow to weather a 30 minute storm to bring themselves within sight of holding out for an unlikely victory. But then it was time for Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to enter the fray.
With 15 minutes to go, it was a timely substitution by George Graham, who took Hopkin off, and moved Kewell to play behind a front two of Hasselbaink and Wallace. Suddenly Derby had different problems to deal with, and it was to prove, finally, just too much for them. With under ten minutes to go, defender Christian Dailly, challenged in the air by David Wetherall, was pressured into a blatant handball, and the whistle sounded for the second penalty of the afternoon. Hasselbaink immediately stepped up to the plate, leaving no one in any doubt that he was up to the job of equalising from the spot. I remember hardly daring to look from my vantage point on the Kop, but Jimmy was coolness personified as he placed the ball before calmly walking up and rolling it with precision into the right hand corner as Poom started to go the other way. 3-3, and to be frank, I’d have settled for that with grateful thanks when we were three behind, but now team and crowd were after Derby’s blood in harness, and both could scent victory.
In the greatest traditions of the very best comeback wins, the decisive moment was saved until time was all but up. It was to be a combination of the two substitutes that finally undid Derby, Hasselbaink getting hold of the ball on the right and, going rapidly through the gears, scorching past a helpless defender into the box before pulling the ball back from the dead ball line. Jimmy could not have picked a better pass, the ball arriving just at the edge of the penalty area, where the onrushing Bowyer met it beautifully first-time with his left foot, sending his shot hurtling past the Derby ‘keeper high into the left-hand side of the net for a sensational winner. It was the cue for the Leeds fans behind the goal on the Kop, and indeed all around the stadium, to go deliriously potty as the players celebrated in an ecstatic knot just below them, and the lonely figure of Mart Poom, surely the man with the biggest lower lip in football, gazed skywards in bewilderment that such a seemingly impregnable lead could have yielded only defeat.
My last memory of this game is of the anthemic Chumbawamba hit “Tubthumping” blasting over the PA system, and the jubilant fans almost bouncing towards the exits, hands clapping above their heads and the raucous refrain “We get knocked down, but we get up again, you’re never gonna keep us down” being sung over and over as the stadium slowly emptied. There can’t be many feelings to compare with victory snatched from the jaws of such a poor start and the despair that accompanies going three behind at home. The buzz of this one took a long time to fade into what is still a pleasurable glow, and it’s a memory I cherish whenever I hear that anarchic Tubthumping sound. After the match, Jimmy was interviewed for the TV highlights, and demonstrated his mastery of English as he tried to sum up a surreal afternoon, commenting sagely: “The ball is round, and sometimes it goes in unexpected ways.” Indeed.
Leeds went on to rub salt into the Derby County wounds, easily winning the reverse fixture at their inaptly-named Pride Park, 5-0. And in the aftermath of this 4-3 comeback, there were two further victories from a losing position, beating West Ham 3-1 after trailing 1-0, and then in the pouring rain at Barnsley, running out 3-2 winners from two down. For a short while, Leeds United were the Comeback Kings, and it was probably the real purple patch of George Graham’s time at Elland Road, which was to end amid controversy early the following season. But it is for games like this that I fondly remember George and, despite some of the successes of the David O’Leary years, I still wish he’d stayed longer and seen the job through.
Stroller – thanks for the memories.