Monthly Archives: December 2021

26 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-six 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-fuelled 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 fry-up breakfast too, as it threatened to make an untimely and spectacular 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. To this day, there has never been another Christmas Eve Premier League fixture, this was the first and only – so as far as those occasions go, Leeds United have a perfect 100% record, with Devon’s Finest lagging some way behind on 0%.

I can’t at this distance remember the journey home, nor even how very 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, of course, Them, from There.)

Marching On Together

Frank Lampard for Leeds, Replacing Bielsa? April 1st Already?? – by Rob Atkinson

A less than likely story…

The silly season is a year-round event these days, so it seems. That doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, with so much competition for online news hits that writers and editors have taken to publishing any old rubbishy speculation as news, feasibility apparently no longer featuring as a desirable attribute for some of these desperate punts.

Still, there should be a limit. One spectacularly dim Leeds-centric web source has seen a bookmaker’s price for Marcelo Bielsa’s successor in the hot seat at Elland Road, and has got all excited, publishing an extended burble that is as far removed from reality as it’s possible to get. “Lampard favourite to succeed Bielsa” screams their headline, totally forgetting that, with no prospect of the Argentinian being sacked or electing to leave, all candidates to succeed him will be equally and extremely unlikely. In short, it’s like betting on candidates for UK President when the Monarchy falls – the opposite of printing money.

The intoxicated over-excitement of leeds-live.co.uk (for that is their name) does not end there. In another article, they feature the musings of ex-Villa mediocrity turned pisspoor pundit Gobby Agbonlahor, who has been getting his jockstrap in a knot over the vociferous support given to United during the terminal phase of Saturday’s home defeat to Arsenal. Poor Gobby is indignantly upset by this defiant, phenomenal support, he admits he just doesn’t understand it, bless him and seems to resent the Leeds fans for their passion and commitment. I suppose a career spent struggling at a usually apathetic Villa Park would make manifestations of fabulous support seem a bit strange, but Agbonlahor should perhaps chill a bit and reflect on the fact that the atmosphere in football hotbeds can differ radically from that of more insipid midlands locations. Still, if hard-of-thinking outlets like leeds-live are going to give Gobby’s thoughts publicity they don’t merit, then maybe you can’t blame him for basking in some undeserved reflected glory. But it’s an unedifying spectacle to see such dross passed off as news, or even as anything approaching an informed opinion.

I blame the outlets, personally. Bookies are always compiling speculative odds lists, for better or worse, it’s just what they do and sometimes good for a laugh. And Gobby is always spouting bovine ordure – that’s what he does. The sensible thing to do would be to move on, having indulged in a wry smile and maybe a slight roll of the eyeballs. There’s no need to go spreading this crap about, as if it might ever mean anything in the real world.

When you hit these depths of profound stupidity, though, there’s often a perverse determination among the clueless perpetrators to keep on digging and see just how deeply daft they can get. So what can we expect next week? How, after all, do you top “Lampard for Leeds”? Old purple nose S’ralex himself would be a likelier shout than Fwank, who would be driven screaming clear round Leeds ring road pursued by a baying mob, and tracked by Orta’s famous binoculars, should he ever dare to pitch up in LS11. It’s honestly hard to imagine a less likely candidate – hang on, though. Could the next story be “Gobby for Next Leeds Boss”? If you’ve ever struggled through a leeds-live.co.uk “scoop”, you probably shouldn’t put it past them…

Marching On Together

Good Times for Leeds United’s Many Fake Fans and Social Media Trolls – by Rob Atkinson

Leeds United – Team and Genuine fans indivisible

Rarely if ever has the distinction between Leeds United’s genuine, fanatical supporters and their increasing number of bogus, social media trolling fake followers been more starkly apparent than in the past season and a half, since the club’s elevation to the Premier League. The Arsenal game was a case in point. At 4-1 down, with a team still shell-shocked by the Etihad mauling and ravaged by injuries, suspensions and everybody’s pet virus, the genuine lads and lasses in the stands sang their hearts out in support of the shirts, proving once again that they are, beyond doubt, the best fans around.

Meanwhile, in cyberspace, the slings and arrows of outrageous negativity were flying around wholesale, thrown from their positions of safe anonymity by a legion of so-called Leeds supporters with an agenda that is strictly anti-United, anti-Bielsa and as destructive as possible to the morale and confidence of a group of young men who cannot hit back, and who are, in some cases, moved to delete their social media presences in order to avoid the persistent riptide of effluent, rancid hatred and abuse. It really is that obvious and that disgusting – surely any real LUFC fan will join in a growing clamour for these cowards-in-hiding to grow up, belt up, leave the club to the genuine fans, and slither off back to the gutter from which they should never have emerged.

Harsh words, some will say – those self-righteous paragons in the various ostensibly pro-Leeds groups on Facebook and the like, who – when taken up on their carping, targeted abuse aimed at scapegoated players – will piteously whimper that they have a right to their opinions, a right to second-guess a coach of world standing like Bielsa, an inalienable right to demand that Radrizzani dig deeper into his pockets – despite Financial Fair Play, and regardless of the fact that the club is now better-run than at any time this side of the Millennium. This parody of “support” makes me feel literally sick, especially when you hear that genuine support, from the best fans anywhere, rolling down onto the Elland Road pitch, or from the away grounds we dominate on our annual tour of England’s footballing strongholds. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but the online resistance tends to get shouted down, because these fakes are determined, blinkered and utterly inimical to the success of the club they’ve targeted.

The sad fact is, these opportunistic cowards and inadequates will continue to make hay for as long as the sun shines, in the hope that they might influence the dimmer fringes of United’s genuine support. And, right now, the sun shines brightly for these creatures, as injuries and other unavoidable circumstances combine to harm the Whites’ chances of maintaining the progress of the last three years. Abetted by an eagerly Leeds-hating media, the fakes haven’t had it this good for many a moon, and they will be fervently hoping that the lean times continues in LS11. For them, Leeds United’s hard times are one grand, sweet song, with their biggest fear being an upswing for our heroes, with prospects of relegation fading. This would be the stuff of nightmares for your average Leeds-hating troll who does his damage under a false flag of yellow, white and blue.

Things will get better, of that I’m sure. The club is in good hands, the squad is in the best possible hands. The fakes and the trolls know this, and it burns their guts. So transparently gleeful are they in bad times for Leeds, that they betray themselves at every turn. Many reading this will recognise themselves, and will react defensively with abuse and expostulations of innocence, all of which will serve only to mark them out as guilty for the benefit those whose love of Leeds United runs deep within their veins.

The trolls and the fakes are out there, busily hating away and having a fine old time of it. But we know them, and we know what they’re all about. When the good times return – and make no mistake, this club remains on a steep upward trajectory – their weasel words can be rammed back down their malicious throats. It’s a pleasure I for one have promised myself, and I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Marching On Together