Daily Archives: 19/11/2014

Nine Years Ago Today: Leeds Storm Back to Bury Saints – by Rob Atkinson

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Leeds set about imposing their class

When the going gets tough, the tough get going – or so they say. It’s arguable that, given the frenetic nature and relentless pace of English professional football, the going is always tough. League games are fought out with bitter intent, and there are few easy results – that’s what makes the best of our game such compulsive viewing. But there’s tough and then there’s really tough. What do you do, for instance, when you’re three down with less than a quarter of the game to go, hundreds of miles from home and with an atrocious first-half performance nagging away guiltily at you? That’s when the going is really tough. If you have the necessary character, you “Keep Fighting”, reviving the spirit of the Don Revie days when that maxim was prominent on the dressing-room wall at Elland Road; when every man knew that giving up was simply not an option. And that is precisely what a Leeds United team of a much lesser vintage did, nine years ago today. Seemingly dead and buried at St Mary’s Stadium Southampton, they somehow jolted back to life, hauled themselves out from six feet under and bounced back emphatically to leave Harry Redknapp’s Saints battered and bewildered.

It can’t have been of any comfort at all to the shattered Southampton team that their erstwhile coach Simon Clifford, sacked only the week before this game, had marked his departure by labelling his former charges “unfit” – as well as prone to “letting games slip in the last five to 10 minutes”.  If they had set out to prove him right, this late capitulation to a Leeds side they seemed to have had beaten out of sight would certainly have done the trick.  Shocked Saints manager Redknapp was at a loss for a reaction immediately afterwards. “Unbelievable, I don’t know what to say. One of the worst results of my career,” he mumbled. You got the feeling he will have expressed himself rather more vividly to his defeated and deflated troops.

It had all started out so promisingly for the home side.  The first half was strictly no contest, a flood tide of red and white stripes threatening to sink Leeds’ away colours without trace.  Traditionally strong at home, Southampton boasted the likes of jet-heeled Theo Walcott in their ranks as well as tricky Latvian Marian Pahars, not to mention future Leeds manager Dennis Wise, who was subbed at half time and therefore escapes the blame for what eventually happened.  After 27 minutes, a corner from the right was headed goalwards by Svensson and there was Pahars at the far post to head past Leeds’ Neil Sullivan from point-blank range.  Then it was a pre-Arsenal vintage Theo Walcott, hurtling down the right with a breathless Matt Kilgallon left hopelessly beaten in his slipstream, cutting a neat ball back to the edge of the area where Nigel Quashie was waiting to plant a first time shot into the United net.  2-0 after 35 minutes, and Leeds were playing for half-time and trying to avoid further concessions.  Vain hope.  A cross ball from the left found Matt Oakley in space on the right of the area and he headed into the box where the ball struck Dan Harding’s upraised arms.  The penalty was just about fair and Quashie dispatched it to end the half in a manner reflecting the utter dominance of the home side.

The second period began with the travelling army of Leeds fans in boisterous and seemingly clairvoyant form.  “We’re gonna win 4-3”, they bellowed, not a man jack of them actually believing it.  Southern ale just isn’t that strong.  But at least Leeds were contriving to limit the damage now, playing for pride alone as they thought they were – they hadn’t let their heads go down.  Sullivan’s point-blank save from Brett Ormerod maintained United’s fingernail hold on the game and then, with twenty minutes to go, Leeds manager Kevin Blackwell had one of his all too few inspired moments, bringing on David Healy to push a third man into attack.  Redknapp, on the other hand, had used all his subs by half-time, though he denied suggestions that he was resting players with the game apparently won as “disrespectful”.

Whatever the motivations of the managers, the introduction of Healy worked. Only a minute later, Gary Kelly’s corner from the right found skipper Paul Butler rising majestically from left of the penalty spot to head home with great power and accuracy into the top right hand corner.  The mood of the match changed; Southampton were still playing the better football and forcing plenty of corners, but Leeds had made a mark now, and some nerves were exposed in the home ranks. After 77 minutes, a poor headed clearance found its way to Healy outside the area on the right and he fed the ball low and firmly into the six yard box where Robbie Blake was on hand to deliver a first-time finish inside the near post of Anti Niemi’s goal.  And incredibly, with six minutes to go, United were level when it was their turn to benefit from a penalty award.  This time it was Saints defender Danny Higginbotham who was guilty of handball and David Healy seized the chance to score the equaliser, blasting his spot kick into the roof of the Saints net.

The match had now turned into the classic “game of two halves”, with neutral observers looking narrowly at the St Mary’s pitch for any sign of a marked right-to-left slope.  The momentum was solidly with Leeds after their unlikely recovery, and the Saints defensive clearances began to smack of desperation and lost belief.  For Leeds, the tough had got well and truly going and they were in the mood to finish their hosts off.  The man who would administer the coup de grâce was a Man U loanee who had been anonymous for much of the game, but cometh the hour, cometh Liam Miller.  When the ball deflected into his path from a Rob Hulse cut-back, Miller swung his left boot, connected and – as if it had been pre-ordained – the ball found its way into the Southampton goal for the winner.  The United fans packed behind the goal exploded with joy and disbelieving wonder that their raucous predictions of 45 minutes earlier could have come so wonderfully true.  Any goal is enhanced by a passionate, celebrating section of support to appreciate it, and all four Leeds goals that day were scored right in front of those inspiring, fantastic supporters – four peaks of jubilation punctuating the half to form a piece of pure football theatre.

Peter Drury’s commentary in the lead-up to that decisive goal has become a minor classic: “They wouldn’t dare win it would they, Leeds, they wouldn’t dare win it….here is Rob Hulse for Leeds United – and Hulse plays it in – and Miller’s hit it! It’s staggering!  They HAVE won it!!”  Spine-tingling, gooseflesh-raising stuff if you’re Leeds – and I can certainly never tire of hearing that clip.  Thanks Peter. And thanks to the players who fought back that day eight years ago to provide one of the brighter moments in the long dark era since we dropped out of the top flight. It’s times like this that restore the faith – that remind you what it feels like when the lads knuckle down and do it for the shirts and for the fans. The essence of Leeds, encapsulated in one twenty minute spell of dreamland fantasy football, nine years ago today – pure magic.

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Referendum Result Confirmed: England Still Own Scotland – by Rob Atkinson

Sorry boys - you were OWNED

Sorry boys – you were OWNED

For your average Leeds United fanatic – or even for an iconic one such as myself – the sight of a club legend in Gordon Strachan having his nose well and truly rubbed in it can rarely be pleasant viewing. Equally, for a devotee of all things righteously White, to behold the over-rated and grossly over-hyped Mr Wayne “Shrek” Rooney filling his boots at the expense of said legend would normally be an uncomfortable not to say painful experience. But last night at Celtic Park, both circumstances came to pass – and yet it was an evening of unalloyed pleasure for any England fan who grew up to a background of Auld Enemy rivalry.

Back in the day, the England versus Scotland mini-war was an annual fixture, alternating between Hampden Park in Glasgow and Wembley, the latter drenched in Tartan every other year as the unwashed made the pilgrimage south. It was the perpetuation of the original and best International Football rivalry; the very first ever match between two countries was Scotland v England on 30 November 1872. 4,000 people saw a 0-0 draw on that occasion – the great days of this fixture were still to come.

The great days of Leeds United also lay far in the future – and in that era of Revie’s Super Leeds, the club boasted a cadre of fine Scottish international players (see picture above) who I and thousands of other United fans worshipped as footballing Gods. But once a year, when England met Scotland, they were The Enemy – and I for one wanted nothing more than to see the likes of Alan Ball, Mike Channon and Kevin Keegan stamp the Sweaties into the turf, North or South of the border. Sometimes it happened, sometimes we were disappointed. I remember regarding Gordon McQueen with a particularly baleful eye after his two goals sank England at Wembley, on a day when the Scots appropriated the crossbars as souvenirs of a memorable win.

Over the years, the two nations battled nip and tuck for historical supremacy, each having periods of dominance. In the almost 142 years since that first fixture, England have edged it. Last night’s victory by 3-1 was the Three Lions’ 47th such triumph, with Scotland trailing in at 41. This latest success must have been one of the most convincing by England, certainly in recent times. Scotland had a job done on them, big time. England’s performance was emphatic, conclusive, and the boys in blue had no answer to the white tide which engulfed them.

This tone had been set right from the first minute with Woy’s Warriors setting a pattern of dominance in the early stages they would maintain throughout. The breakthrough was half an hour coming and somewhat overdue when Oxlade-Chamberlain, somewhat lacking in delivery with the ball at his feet, found a sublime headed touch from Wilshere’s laser-accurate deep cross, finding the corner of the Scottish net. So it remained at the interval but, despite the narrowness of the margin, Scotland had been on the end of a footballing lesson.

The consensus of agreement among the half-time pundits was that the hosts could not afford to go two down if they were to salvage anything from the encounter. This, however, they proceeded to do a mere 90 seconds into the second half as England took a vice-like grip on proceedings. The origin of what proved to be a killer goal was in a crude and stupid foul from Mulgrew who cynically took out the stampeding Ox as the Arsenal youngster raced down the right. Mulgrew was a little fortunate to escape with a mere yellow, but the fallout was to prove fatal for the Tartan Army. From the free kick, the ball was half-cleared and then bobbled about in the Scottish area before sitting up for Rooney to flex his neck and direct a fine header past helpless sub goalkeeper Gordon.

True to the intense rivalry of this fixture, Scotland did appear to fight their way back into the match with a goal after good work between Robertson and Russell ended with the former squeezing the ball between Forster and his near post. England, rather than quailing and succumbing to late nerves, simply appeared to be provoked into further action. The ball was played down the right from the restart and, from a throw in, the visitors contrived a spell of consummate possession under pressure on the Scottish left flank, before Lallana was released into the area to set up a sitter for Rooney’s second of the night.

3-1 and finis. England were probably worth a goal or two more; despite the creditable battling of the Scots, they had in truth been completely outclassed and outplayed. The most jarring note of the whole night was struck by England coach Roy Hodgson in his post-match remarks, when he saw fit to apologise for any offence caused to anyone who might have had their feelings hurt by some anti-IRA chanting from the England support. Things have come to a pretty pass, surely, when a football man in the afterglow of a fine victory should seek to soothe the wounded sensibilities of those negatively affected by anti-terrorism sentiments. It was an odd end to a fine night for England. Scotland, fresh from a run in which results and performances have been positively encouraging, will have a new awareness this morning of their actual place in the scheme of things.