Birthday Boy Strachan’s Crucial Rocket for Leeds United Against Leicester – by Rob Atkinson


"Have you ever seen a better goal?  Have you ever seen one better timed??" John Helm, YTV

“Have you ever seen a better goal? Have you ever seen one better timed??” John Helm, YTV

On the occasion of Gordon Strachan’s 59th birthday – and by the way, many happy returns, Sir – I thought I’d look back to what was possibly his defining moment as the man who did more than just about anyone to reinvent Leeds as a post-Revie force in English football.

It had been a long time coming since Don’s Glory Boys dispersed to pastures new and a Golden Era faded into the dim haze of memory. We had been eight years in the second division doldrums and had almost forgotten what it was like to be a top team. But – finally! – it looked as though the nightmare was ending as Sergeant Wilko and Captain Strachan were set to lead United back to the Promised Land at long last. A home fixture against Leicester City was the penultimate hurdle to overcome, and expectations were soaring at Elland Road.

Twelve days before the Leicester game, United had appeared to strike a decisive blow, battering closest rivals Sheffield United 4-0 at Elland Road. But any hope that promotion could be clinched early was dashed over the next two fixtures, a draw at Brighton where the lead was squandered to sacrifice two points, and then a home defeat to a relegation-threatened Barnsley who even then had the ability to put one over on us with an inferior team. So the nerves were jangling for this home date with the Foxes.

Leicester breezed into town with no pressure on them at all as they bobbed about serenely in mid-table, but Leeds just had to win. A victory could possibly clinch promotion; anything else and we would be relying on others to give us that final leg-up – not an attractive prospect. The atmosphere at Elland Road that day was something to behold as 32597 packed the stands and terraces, the Kop a seething mass of bodies, a solid wall of sound. If the weight of support counted for anything, then it seemed Leicester might just as well turn around and go home – but to their eternal credit they fought the good fight and played their part in a memorable afternoon.

It all started well. Leeds pressed hard – this had been their preferred approach all season long. No opponent was allowed the luxury of untroubled possession as Leeds snapped at ankles and harried the enemy, hungry for the ball and well able to use it productively. At their best, United had proved a match for any team in the Division; as ever though it was the off days that had let us down. On this particular occasion, attacking the Kop End in the first half, the forward momentum seemed irresistible. Before long, the overlapping Mel Sterland fastened on to a ball at the right corner of the penalty area and fired low and hard into the net to open the scoring. The overwhelming relief was as evident as the unconfined joy around the packed stadium; surely now United would go on to consolidate their advantage and seal the promotion we’d wanted for so long.

Frustratingly, it was not to be. Despite further pressure, Leeds failed to make another breakthrough before half-time and Leicester – relaxed and pressure-free – were looking more and more ominously like potential party-poopers. These fears solidified in the second half as the away side pressed an increasingly nervous Leeds back, and eventually – inevitably – they drew level. The blow when it came was struck by a rumoured transfer target for Leeds, promising young Scot Gary McAllister. He proved that he packed some punch by belting a fine strike past veteran Mervyn Day to shock the Kop rigid and momentarily silence Elland Road.

Worse was so nearly to follow as McAllister almost did it again, another superb shot coming within an ace of giving Leicester the lead, something which would doubtless have produced the unedifying spectacle of grown men crying in their thousands. It may well be that McAllister sealed his move to Leeds with this performance and those two efforts, but I could have seen him far enough from LS11 that day. Leeds were rocking, looking at each other, scratching heads and clenching fists in the time-honoured “come on, let’s bloody sort this out” gesture. Slowly, by sheer force of will, the lads in White regained the initiative and it looked at least as though the danger of further damage was receding. The football was still nerve-shredding stuff, all urgency and little fluency, a desperate battle to eke out the extra two points that would make promotion so much more likely.

Time was ebbing away fast now, as Leeds hurled themselves time and again into the defensive barrier of red Leicester away shirts. Panic was setting in, the biggest enemy of constructive football. It was looking like a draw, which would not be enough. Then, a throw halfway inside the Leicester half in front of the West Stand, under the eyes of a bleakly worried Wilko. Sterland gathered himself and hurled a massively long throw deep into the away penalty area, only for it to be headed out from around the near post. McAllister attempted to complete the clearance with an overhead effort to get rid, but the ball hit Gordon Strachan to bounce back into the box. And there was Gary Speed to lay that ball back instantly to the still-lurking Strachan who simply lashed it, left-footed, into the net. The ball had gone in like a bullet; Strachan – too tired to control it and try to work a yard of space to dink one of those cute little far-post crosses as he might normally – settled instead for catching the ball right on the sweet spot and it arrowed home to a positive explosion of noise from all around Elland Road – the sudden release of what had been unbearable tension produced a massive roar to buffet the ear drums of innocent bystanders miles away.

It was one of those occasions when several things seem to happen at once. The crowd behind the goal at the South Stand end seemed to boil with passion and relief, a maelstrom of delighted celebration which was echoed across the whole stadium. Strachan himself ran to the byline, face contorted, weary limbs pumping in triumphant exultation as he took the plaudits of the faithful. A lone copper is visible on the TV footage between Strach and the cavorting hordes, a grin on his face as he moves to quell any ambitious pitch-invaders. In the commentary box, John Helm unwittingly propelled himself into immortality, not for the last time that afternoon. “Have you ever seen a better goal?” he demanded. “And have you ever seen one better timed?” It was a good question, and right then, right there, I doubt you’d have found a Leeds fan to answer “yes” to either part of it. The rest was a blur; Leeds held out, and we had won – and seemingly gained promotion. Rumours were flying around that Newcastle had failed to win, sending us up. But John Helm was at it again, more iconic words: “Is that confirmed…?” When the confirmation arrived, it was of a late Toon win; we still had it all to do at Bournemouth the following week. But Strachan’s late cracker had kept us in a race that we were ultimately destined to win.

My final memory of that day is of walking down off the Kop and onto the pitch as the masses there were starting to disperse. We crossed the hallowed turf from goal-line to goal-line, eventually exiting the ground into Elland Road at the south-west corner, where the big screen now stands. I can still remember the heady scent of stud-holed mud and trodden turf, my head was still buzzing as I walked over the spot where wee Gordon had made that perfect half-volley contact to send us all into delirium. It had been an atmosphere the like of which I have rarely seen before or since, only the mayhem at Bramall Lane when Gayle scored that own-goal title-clincher coming anywhere near, or maybe that ankle-busting semi-riot of a celebration when Dave Batty broke his long goal drought against Man City in 1991.

For the sheer relief of it however – the absolute nerve-shredding, tension-breaking release of it – this was definitely THE one. Without Strachan’s sublime strike, we could well have missed out on automatic promotion, and we all know only too well that there’s a law against us succeeding in the play-offs. Gordon’s Golden Goal had kept the dream alive and made possible all that followed up to the League Championship triumph two years later. Make no mistake – it was THAT important.

Thanks, wee man, for the brilliant memories. Have a brilliant birthday.

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48 responses to “Birthday Boy Strachan’s Crucial Rocket for Leeds United Against Leicester – by Rob Atkinson

  1. Pingback: A Merry Leeds Utd Christmas And a Double Birthday Bonus – by Rob Atkinson | Life, Leeds United, The Universe & Everything

  2. The only time I ever felt physically sick before a game was prior to the Blades game and this one. If I had to watch Strachans goal on repeat for 24 hours solid i wouldn’t get bored. My final memory of that day is being stood on one of the walls where you exit the Kop and 2 mates making their way from the South Stand, having spotted me amongst the throng from down on the pitch, to have our own ‘lets go fucking mental moment’!. Having been a season ticket holder right through the 80s Strachans goal stands above any moment I have witnessed at ER (Bristol Rovers May 2010 a close second). Goose bumps, again

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  3. I’m old enough to remember watching Leeds in the early 70’s as a kid , but strachan I saw with true clarity in my late 20’s , what a player , what a captain, only one thing missing from this post rob , a YouTube link to the goal !!!

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  4. FANTASTIC memories Rob, I was in that boiling south stand, the ball seemed to fly right at me and my heart nearly burst with the emotion of it all.
    Never to be forgotten. How we could do with another wee man, a catalyst to spark a promotion push , you never know !!!
    MOT

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  5. It is quite funny now to hear fans whinging when we are linked with a player over the age of 30. What would they said about the signing of Strachan had football websites and the social media been about back then. Not only was he 32 but he was also coming from those from across the Pennines. I must admit, when he signed I wasn’t a huge fan but Strachan epitomised what we as Leeds fans demand from a player. He worked his socks off for the club and the promotion season, he dragged us along all season and he led by example. To then go on and lead us to the last ever First Division title at the ripe old age of 35 (for those that whinge when we sign 30+ year-olds, yes he was 35 and again he was instrumental in everything we did that season. Quite sad that he never seems to get the recognition I think he deserves. One of the best signings in the clubs history at a snip at £300,000 and the fact we stole him from under the noses of those from Swillsborough.

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  6. I remember that period too. At the opponents from the off, just like you say. And being Irish it’s reminiscent of Jack Charlton’s “Put ’em Under Pressure” mantra. Which makes perfect sense because Wilkinson was Charlton’s # 2 at Sheffield Wednesday.
    http://www.owlspics.co.uk/jack-charlton-and-howard-wilkinson/print/8428157.html

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  7. Going back to his goal against Leicester. I stood in the South Stand for every home game that season bar one (Middlesbrough first game). I used to stand right in the middle behind the goal just above the level of the crossbar. I had the perfect view as Strachan hit that shot. The fact I was up to my elbow in plaster did not stop me getting over the fence at full time to join everyone on the pitch. Glad we didn’t go up that day, it made the weekend in Bournemouth even better.

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  8. Probably the best atmosphere at any ground I have ever been to. The loudest crowd ever I have ever experienced at Elland Road, the Leicester goalie Steve Hodge said it was the loudest support he had ever heard in his whole career.
    Great memories……..

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  9. What a day that was. I was in the south stand to the right of the back of the goal. The Leicester supporters were in the lowfields paddock and at half time they started emptying out onto the pitchside track. It turned out that a load of Leeds fans were in there too,not to cause trouble just because it was the only way to see the match. It was all good natured anyway as Leicester had nothing to play for. I still try to spot myself to this day when Strach hits the back of the net and the crowd surges down. I’ve spotted my ex girlfriend but never me. I ended up on the pitch that day too,we were like sardines in there. I remember thinking to myself that i’m going to gouge out a handful of turf as its the last game. Could i heck get my fingers in the turf it was so perfectly laid and tightly packed. A great end to one hell of a season. Happy birthday Strach and well done Sgt Wilko for bringing him in for a “bargain” 300k.

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    • Damn right it was a bargain. I think in Strachan and also Giles for £33k in 1963 was it? We must have had the two bargains of the last century, both from those sad gits in red.

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      • They got their own back though ,by selling us that sack of shit lee sharpe for over 4m. One of Wilkos last and daftest signings.

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      • It did seem a desperation signing, though we got Bowyer and Martyn around the same time – so Wilko didn’t completely lose it.

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  10. Steve Trebert

    Living in Guernsey I envy the fact that you can pop along and watch Leeds every week. I have been to Elland Road 3 times, taking in 5 matches. My mother originally coming from Leeds. The Tonque Road area, Wortley I think hence my attachment to the whites.

    My first visit must have been on the late 1960’s 7 or 8 and I was unfortunate not to see a match but did catch sight of the Leeds players. The pitch at the time was covered in straw bales. To protect the grass from frost I believe.

    My two other trip’s were during the Wilkinson days and I was fortunate to see 5 home matches with one being a classic Leeds 4 Liverpool 5 and remember coming away from the match feeling that we had been cheated from getting a result. Gordon Strachan was brilliant and always seemed to give his all for the team. How we could do with someone like him again.

    I always read your articles and find them really interesting. Always a good story to tell.

    Keep them coming. One thing for sure Leeds is never a dull club for one thing or the other

    Best Wishes Steve Trebert

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    • Cheers Steve – we probably take it for granted just being able to nip along to ER. Then again, there’s been many times stood or sat there suffering that I wished I lived on Guernsey and didn’t have the option! MOT regardless.

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  11. On the day that Wilko signed Strachan, I foolishly thought, what has he signed another right winger for?
    Leeds already had Vince Hilaire in that position and he had only been at Leeds for only a few months, but Wilko obviously could see Strachan as a great inspirational leader and also a manager on the pitch, which he absolutely was.
    I was in the Kop for that famous Leicester game at Elland Road, which was one of the most tense games that I have ever been to and yes it was Martin Hodge who said that the Leeds fans on that day, were the loudest crowd that he had ever played in front of.
    Every Leeds fan that watched Strachan play for Leeds, will always be extremely grateful for what he helped Leeds achieve in those magical three seasons from 1989 to 1992, but it was also a brilliant master-stroke by Wilko for signing Strachan in the first place.

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  12. Rob , I’ve woke up optimistic , what the hell is going on ?!

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  13. Granulated

    A moment that MIGHT have beaten Strachs goal could have been Sheridan’s magnificent freekick against Charlton in the playoff replay at ST Andrews in 87. I was sat almost exactly behind the flight of the ball and the whole stadium went mental (Charlton didn’t have many there)..Of course the man soon to become one of our most hated players made sure I cried for the first and only time at a game.

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    • I remember it well. When we took the lead, we were having some great banter with a rather nice lady cop who was trying, smilingly, to stop us boisterously swearing. Inside a few minutes, we went from joy to numb grief, while about 14 Charlton fans celebrated at the far end. I’ve never forgiven that Wendy bastard Shirtliff.

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  14. Have you ever seen a better goal and have you ever seen one better timed. Classic commentary by john helm . What a feeling when that went in the noise and relief was unbelievable . I couldn’t get a ticket for Bournemouth due to every man and women in Leeds wanting to go but watched game in what felt that 150 degrees in the old Astoria on Roundhay Road. Another everlasting memory Rob , hugging lads I’d never met before all dancing in the middle of Roundhay Road to the puzzled looks on drivers faces . Fantastic days and being in my early 20’s then thought it’d last forever . Oh how wrong was I . Still keep going and believing , one day we’ll be back. Happy birthday Strachs . You deserve a knighthood . What a player !!! M.O.T

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    • You were lucky in the Astoria, mate – I was on a holiday hike near Goathland with a radio clapped to my ear, and when Chappy scored my hysterical jubilation frightened a horse from the roadside clear to the back of its field. It started out a chestnut and ended up quite white! But weren’t we all, that day and forever. MOT

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      • Mr orange

        I was at Bournemouth rob , and I patted Strachan on the back as they came off the players bus , oh and a short rendition of marching on together with my arm around vinnie Jones coming off the same coach , I didn’t have a ticket but just had to be there

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      • Memorable day, for all sorts of reasons!!

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  15. Too right Rob . All white all right !!! Sorry in my excitement I posted it twice. Doh !

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  16. What a legend Gordon Strachan was and still is.
    Whenever I see his fantastic goal against Leicester, it still sends chills down my spine and brings back great memories of a great team that were beginning to get promotion jitters, before Strachan’s crucial goal.
    Strach will always be Leeds best captain after Billy Bremner and he would not have been out of place in that great Revie team.
    I just hope Strachan never takes the Leeds job in the future, while Cellino is the clubs owner, because it would take the gloss off Strachan’s legendary status, if he hit a bad period as Leeds manager and he would then be left humiliated by the less than patient Cellino.
    Let’s remember Gordan Strachan as an influential legend, who played Leeds and not another coach given a ridiculous short amount of time in charge of Leeds.

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    • I was lucky enough to meet WGS at an event at Headingley on 31 October 1995 – I remember the date because that same evening, we were playing PSV Eindhoven in a UEFA Cup second leg away, having lost the home leg 3-5. We lost the away game 0-3 to record an impressive 3-8 aggregate! Anyway, at this Headingley fans’ forum thing, Strachan was asked about the manager’s job at ER, and to say the least he was confident he’d do it one day. Obviously, a lot has happened in the 20 years since – but I do feel that, in the right circumstances – he’d still love a crack at it. I think his post-match interviews would be a bit better than Redders’ too…

      But as you say, there would be that danger of souring the whole thing. The one thing any manager can be pretty certain of is the sack at some point, though – and it happened to Eddie, to Billy, to Sniffer – and they all carried on loving Leeds and being loved right back. Gordon was a United legend, one of the all-time heroes. I’d like to see him come back one day, and – let’s face it – he’d be a candidate for the top job and nothing less. But it couldn’t happen under Cellino.

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      • I totally agree with you Rob and I would also love to see Gordon as Leeds manager in the future, because he would certainly motivate the players, but sadly, some of the modern day Leeds players, might not respond too kindly, to him losing his famous fiery temper with them.

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      • He’s handled Premier League prima donnas so I’d hope he’d be ok 👍

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  17. Pingback: Birthday Boy Strachan’s Crucial Rocket for Leeds United Against Leicester – by Rob Atkinson – sportsdroid

  18. Scally Lad

    Great memories, Rob, for those of us too young to remember these great moments. Painful, though, to see them recalled against a former mediocrity like Leicester who are now riding high atop the Prem. What we wouldn’t give to trade places – would that we had any enlightened ownership and a visionary board …

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    • All credit to Leicester, they’re an object lesson in how to achieve success without becoming a corporate whore of a club. This is the path we could and should have trodden, they came from the same place as us down in the third tier.

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  19. milano whites

    Beautiful post Rob, you had me believing that we will be back and just need the passion again, then I fell back down to Earth by reverting to YEP. However, I will always believe if lads are playing for the shirt and the SS exists unabused. The thing I hate most about the idiot, can’t even call him the Mad Hatter anymore, is that he actually attacked the fans. Only Bates has ever done that and he was Chelski barrow boy scum…chancers out…Free the SS5/YRA

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  20. milano whites

    Too true mate…MOT/YRA

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