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.