Monthly Archives: December 2016

Aston Villa the Acid Test for Rampant Leeds United   –   by Rob Atkinson

Fortress Villa Park

Villa Park has in the past been a productive venue for various Leeds United sides down the years, but nobody at Elland Road will expect anything other than the sternest test of United’s promotion credentials when two giants clash at the famous old stadium on Thursday evening. 

History is not exactly against Leeds in this away fixture. The past throws up some memorable results for the Whites, including a surprise 4-1 victory for a relegation-destined United against a Villa side on the cusp of becoming European Champions in 1982. Nine years later, before a live ITV audience, Wilko’s Leeds repeated that scoreline and stunned Villa Park as they made their first declaration of intent to become the Last Champions of the old-style Football League. But, encouraging though history might be for the Yorkshiremen, it could count for little this time around. 

Villa Park, a bit of a gimme for Premier League sides last season, has been more of a fortress in the less demanding arena of the Championship. The Villans yield to no-one so far this season at home; Leeds would have to be at their very best to prise three points out of this match. With Kyle Bartley something of a doubt, the defence could lack some of its usual rock-like solidity although Cooper is an able deputy. For the rest of the side, the return of Pablo Hernandez and Chris Wood looks like a timely bonus. 

To win at Aston Villa would lay down a marker for the rest of the season, as well as confirming realistic promotion ambitions that would need to be supported in the coming transfer window. But it must be said that a draw would be no small achievement either – and the fact is that Leeds will be very pleased with anything from a fixture that will see them under the most intense examination. 

Villa will be stinging yet from their 0-2 reverse at Elland Road recently, manager Steve Bruce‘s first defeat since he took up the reins of the midlands giants. Leeds, on the other hand, will be understandably buoyant after their impressive dismissal of Preston on Boxing Day. Both sides should take the field confident and expectant. 

This blog will revert to its early-season caution in predicting a hard-fought and low-scoring draw. In truth, that would look a decent result for both sides, though Leeds in particular will be uncomfortably aware of the form being displayed by the other sides in and around the top six

A draw would be nice, a win would be bloody marvellous. But defeat would be no disgrace, so the Twitterati should think before pouncing on any slip-up. Hopefully, that won’t be an issue, and Leeds can bring back at least a share of the spoils to God’s Own County

Advertisements

21 Years Ago Today: Leeds United Crush Man U on Christmas Eve – by Rob Atkinson

fergie-nightmare

1995-96 was the last full season of Sergeant Wilko’s eventful reign at Elland Road. His influence over Leeds United was crumbling amid rumours of money problems, takeovers and dressing-room discontent, a tale that would doubtless strike a chord with Messrs. Grayson, Warnock and even Evans of more recent vintage. This was a season that had started off with a flurry of Tony Yeboah thunderbolts and some impressive results and performances which appeared to promise much. Sadly though, it petered out in a shocking late-season run following a League Cup Final humiliation at Wembley, courtesy of Aston Villa. Howard Wilkinson was a dead man walking from that time on.

This Christmas Eve match against the Pride of Devon found Leeds some way short of their peak form. Worrying signs of defensive frailty and general ineptitude had been all too obvious just the previous week at Hillsborough. United had succumbed spinelessly to a 6-2 defeat at the hands of an unremarkable Sheffield Wednesday side and – all bravado aside – there wasn’t much optimism in the hearts of the faithful as this fixture against the arch-enemy loomed.

It was certainly a different Christmas Eve for me. I hadn’t exactly led a sheltered life up to that point, but this was the first time – and the last, to date – I’d ever risen the day before Christmas to bacon sandwiches at 6 am, closely followed by numerous Budweisers with the Sunday papers in a fan-friendly pub, as we waited for our “Scum Match Special” mini-bus. The queasy feeling before any match against “Them” was therefore multiplied by unaccustomed early-morning grease and alcohol, and I was feeling several shades of not-too-good as we set off for Elland Road. It was an 11:30 kick-off, live on Sky, and it promised either to make or break the whole of Christmas for us fans, as well as for our hopeful families.

scum-programmeThe situation between the Uniteds of Leeds and Devon is one of a legendary mutual animosity, even at the best of times. Let’s not mince words here, the two sets of fans hate, loathe and detest each other – and open warfare is the norm. Revisionist football pundits would have us believe that this is strictly a one-way affair, but you only have to tune into one of Sky TV’s glitzy live love-ins for a Man U match, and whoever they are playing, our Home-Counties friends are in full voice with their “We all hate Leeds scum”. Even Alex Ferguson, back then the Media Darlings’ not-altogether-likable manager, makes no bones about it; some of his more coherent sound bites feature his opinion that Elland Road “is the most intimidating arena in Europe”. He’s also stated that going to Liverpool is nowhere near as bad as going to Leeds; clearly, he’s never been for a late-night pint in Dodge City.

So, Yuletide or not, the usual poisonous atmosphere was in evidence as the two teams walked out before a 39,801 crowd that overcast morning twenty-one years ago today. Just as Leeds were smarting from their Hillsborough debacle, so Man U were struggling to emerge from a poor run, winless for a month and dispatched by Liverpool the previous week. This seasonal fixture was a chance of redemption for both sides.

By kick-off time, I was starting to feel properly ill, and in dire need of a pick-me-up. This arrived in a most unlikely form after a mere five minutes, when a Leeds corner swung over from the right. Richard Jobson rose on the edge of the area to head towards goal, where David Wetherall, lethal against Man U in the past, was challenging for a decisive touch. But that touch came instead from the upraised, red-sleeved arm of Nicky Butt – and referee Dermot Gallagher’s whistle sounded for a penalty.

Peering from the Kop at the other end of the ground, through an alcoholic fug, I could hardly believe my eyes. Leeds just didn’t get penalties against “Them”. It would happen the other way around alright, way too often, and even from three yards outside the area but this was unprecedented, since our Title-winning year anyway. Steve Bruce evidently thought it was just too much to bear, and screamed his violent protests into Gallagher’s face, having to be restrained by Gary MacAllister, who appeared to be trying to explain the rules to the furious defender. The guilty look on Butt’s face, though, spoke volumes. MacAllister placed the ball on the spot, and sent it sweetly into the top right corner to make it 1-0, giving Peter Schmeichel not even the ghost of a chance. The celebrations were raucous and deafening as the Elland Road cauldron exploded with joy – and inside my skull, the trip-hammer of a beer-fueled headache pounded away anew, utterly failing though to banish my smile of delight.

Leeds had the bit between their teeth now, and Brian Deane was suddenly clear for an instant outside the right corner of the Man U penalty area, played in by a cute pass from Carlton Palmer. Schmeichel was out swiftly to smother the chance, but Deane managed to dink the ball over him, only for it to clip the crossbar and bounce away to safety. A two-goal lead at that stage would have felt unlikely yet deserved, as Leeds United had been on the front foot right from the off. Soon, though, a lesson was to be delivered about what happens when you miss chances against this lot.

The unlikely culprit as Leeds were pegged back was Gary Speed. Receiving the ball in the left-back position, he tried to beat Butt instead of clearing long, and was robbed of possession. Butt looked up, and placed a neat pass inside to Andy Cole, whose efficient first-time finish leveled the match. Suddenly, my headache was even worse, and I was starting to wonder about the fate of my breakfast too, as it threatened to make an untimely reappearance. Time for another reviving injection of optimism as Leeds surged forward, and Speed so nearly made up for his defensive error, playing a one-two with Tomas Brolin which gave him space to put in a right-foot shot that went narrowly wide.

The game had settled down by this time, and both sides were showing enough ambition to feel that they were in with a chance of victory. Leeds though had thrown off their Sheffield blues, and attacked with verve and purpose. Now, a defensive position was coolly handled by Gary Kelly, finding the time and space to launch a long clearance forward, where Brolin headed on. The ball was loose, and surely meat and drink for Man U’s international defender Paul Parker – but he inexplicably let it bounce over his foot. Tony Yeboah pounced on it like a hound on a rat, and he was away, surging towards goal with ex-Leeds defender Denis Irwin backing off. Yeboah in this mood was usually irresistible, and sure enough none of Irwin’s careful jockeying could prevent him from finding that vital half-yard of space. The gap appeared, Schmeichel came out to block, and Yeboah clipped the ball sumptuously just out of the Danish ‘keeper’s reach, up and over to nestle in the far corner of the South Stand net.

Again, that explosion of noise and joy, again my fragile system was assailed by the rough-and-tumble of riotous celebration. 2-1 up against the team we loved to hate; the cockneys at the far end were suddenly silent and morose. “You’re not singing anymore!” we blasted at them, and indeed, little would be heard from the away fans for the rest of the game.

The second half was another tale of give and take, both sides able to cause trouble up front, but both seemingly capable of dealing with all that was thrown at them. The onus was on Man U to retrieve a losing situation, but Leeds were rarely in great trouble, and as the game entered its final quarter there was unprecedented optimism that we could close this one out, and enter Christmas on a real high. Leeds weren’t simply sitting back and absorbing pressure – and the maxim of attack being the best form of defence was to serve them well. On 73 minutes, Jobson made a foray down the left, and was fouled by Cole chasing back. The resulting free-kick was played to MacAllister in space in the middle of the park, and he swiftly moved it out to the right wing. Brolin picked up possession and slipped the ball to the overlapping Palmer, who surged into the box and then turned past Irwin to set up Brolin again on the edge of the area. The much-maligned Swede, making the contribution I best remember him for, chipped the ball sweetly first-time, standing it up just around the penalty spot, where Brian Deane’s exemplary movement had won him the space to rise and plant a firm header past a helpless Schmeichel into the net. 3-1 and finis.

After the game, and before the seasonal celebrations could begin in earnest, other traditions had to be observed. Ferguson, naturally, had to moan about the penalty. “It was a very surprising decision, given in circumstances that were beyond me.” whinged the Purple-nosed One, in evident ignorance of the deliberate handball provisions – but perhaps aiming to justify Bruce’s undignified and almost psychotic protest at the time. And the massed ranks of the Kop Choir had to regale the departing Man U fans with victory taunts as they sulked away, silent and crestfallen, headed for all points south.

I can’t remember the journey home, nor even how spectacularly ill I was when I got there, although I’m told I was the picture of ecstatic yet grossly hung-over ebullience. I just know it was my happiest Christmas Eve ever, ensuring a deliriously festive spirit for the whole holiday, much to the delight of my long-suffering wife and two-year-old daughter.

Merry Christmas, everybody! And God bless us, every one. Except Them, from There.

Snodgrass: Ultimate Statement Signing for New Era Leeds   –   by Rob Atkinson

snoddy-1

Come back, Rob. You know it makes sense.

Every now and then a new story emerges from that part of the rumour mill labelled boldly “Too Good to be True”. Some you can dismiss out of hand as slightly less likely than Elvis appearing at the Batley Frontier Club. Diego Maradona to Division Two Leeds in the 80s would be an example of this. Others – well, you can’t help wondering. Sometimes, circumstances out of the ordinary can lend credence to whispers you normally wouldn’t even dare whisper.

The circumstances right now are out of the ordinary for Leeds United. Change is afoot, right at the top of the club and, not exactly coincidentally, things are going well on the field too. With new ownership a distinct probability, any incoming regime will be looking to stamp their mark on a slowly awakening giant of a club. The approved method is to make signings that materially improve first team options and, at the same time, send out an unmistakable message that these guys mean business. They’re called “statement signings” and they say, hey – look who we’ve got on board. This club is going places. Does the name Gordon Strachan ring a bell?

The news is that Rob Snodgrass, formerly of this parish but latterly plying his trade in the colours of a fishing village on the Humber, has turned down a new contract with his current club. This has been enough to set eyebrows twitching and tongues wagging around LS11 as well as further afield. What a signing he would be, if he could be persuaded to give Elland Road another try. And what a bold statement by the club’s new powers that be. As rumours go, this one is just so sexy you want to buy it dinner and then take it home to have your wicked way with it. Unlike some rumours, you might even find you still respect it in the morning. 

Could it happen? Well, almost anything could happen in the wake of our beloved Whites being freed from ownership that has ranked highly on the lunacy scale. If new chiefs wanted to come in and say to the United support: “Here you are. It’ll all be OK now” – then this would be one way of doing it. Manager Garry Monk would probably be quite pleased as well, adding an experienced head to his young group. 

This blog feels that some sort of transfer coup next month is more likely than not. A statement of intent needs to be made and a statement signing is an excellent way of making it. Snodgrass alone would not address all of the issues facing Monk and his squad – a backup striker is needed, for a start, and other areas call for attention. But Snodgrass, who embellished Leeds before, could do so again – he could be the X-Factor in a genuine promotion push as well as putting bright lights around a new owner’s name.

If Leeds United are to have a fresh start in 2017, then the recapture of Rob Snodgrass would be the ideal way to get it off the ground. 

Potency and Penetration Issues When Leeds United Haven’t Got Wood   –   by Rob Atkinson

kyle-bartley-leeds-united_3785886

Cometh the hour, cometh the Kyle

Leeds United 1, Brentford 0

All’s well that ends well, as some Stratford bloke once said – and the throaty roar of joy mixed with heartfelt relief that lifted the roof off Elland Road in the 90th minute on Saturday was ample proof of the Bard’s ageless wisdom. Kyle Bartley‘s late, late header secured a hard-fought victory over troublesome Brentford that had looked for so long like being a frustrating stalemate, and the atmosphere at the end was worthy of far greater triumphs.

It was a victory wrought out of adversity, though – the cracks are beginning to show in a threadbare squad and the few precious days between now and a Boxing Day date at Preston are welcome indeed. Apart from Bartley’s golden last-gasp winner, one of the better bits of news after the Brentford game was that Chris Wood, much-maligned in various quarters but much-missed against the Bees, has a chance of being involved at Deepdale. The fact is, whatever his detractors might say, Wood is vital to this Leeds United team. Without him, the attack lacks something important. Wood is able to hold the ball up, securing a beachhead for any attack to be reinforced by runners from midfield. His unselfish work appears to pass a section of the support by; the welcome fact that he’s received less criticism this year is probably down to his admirable goal return. But Wood is more than just a goalscorer and, without him, Leeds offered much less in the attacking third and looked more laboured all over the park.

Manager Garry Monk looked as much relaxed as relieved after the match, and he has the air of a man whose plans are in place and who knows they will probably be carried through. The wind of change has been blowing around Elland Road for a while now, and January may well be a very exciting and productive time for the club. One priority publicly acknowledged is the acquisition of another striker – in placing so much reliance on Wood, United simply have too many eggs in one basket. Despite the efforts of Souleymane Doukara lately, and partly due to the relative ineffectiveness of Marcus Antonsson, Leeds are light up front. This will have to be addressed if the promotion challenge is to be maintained and Monk has been quite explicit in confirming his intentions.

For now, though, as the manager says, it’s about fighting for each batch of three points and doing what we can. Ahead of the Liverpool EFL Cup tie, I said I’d be happy with an honourable exit from that competition, plus between 6 and 7 points from the following three tricky-looking fixtures against Villa, Brighton and Reading. Well, we went out with richly-deserved accolades and got six out of nine points, topped up nicely by the three from Brentford, so this is a happy blog. If we can secure four points from away matches at Preston and Villa, then that happiness will grow into something more like ecstasy. And then, lo and behold, it’ll be January and – hopefully – game on.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! MOT.