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Unlikely Cup Progress For Leeds As Warnock Papers Over The Cracks  (2013)

Birmingham City 1, Leeds United 2

It was yet another crossroads match for Leeds United and their increasingly beleaguered manager Neil Warnock.  On the face of it, a 3rd round replay at St Andrews presented the likelihood of a fate worse than an early F.A. Cup exit; in the context of a dismal recent run of form away from Elland Road, and a coldly mutinous mood among ever more disillusioned supporters, you didn’t need to listen too hard to hear the ominous sound of knives being sharpened.

Indeed, such has been the depth of Leeds’ ineptitude over the last few games, especially at Barnsley and Hull, that fans’ forums were openly airing the hope that defeat in the Cup might bring about the change in management so many now see as the best chance of salvaging something from this torturous season.  A farcically protracted takeover saga, lasting from early summer to the last shopping days before Christmas, has seemingly failed in its completion to invigorate the ailing Yorkshire giants.  The briefest of honeymoon periods has been followed by a creeping pessimism and apathy.  Mr Bates is still around; the purse strings seem to be as tightly-drawn as ever, and whispers of the imminent departure of top scorer Luciano Becchio, not to mention bright spark Sam Byram, will not go away.

Indeed, the absence of Becchio from the match-day squad at Birmingham was being spun in two poles-apart ways, depending on the point of view of the spin doctor.  Cynics put it about that the Argentinean hit man was watching future employers Wigan triumph in their replay at Bournemouth.  Warnock though waxed bullish, dismissing such rumours.  Becchio, he said, was ill at home – and anyway, his absence and the consequent need to push Ross McCormack further forward had reaped benefits in the kind of football Leeds had been able to produce in their second-half recovery from a one goal deficit.

It was certainly beyond dispute that the level of performance in coming from behind to beat the Blues was in stark contrast to the abysmal showing at Oakwell only three days earlier.  Warnock had observed after that game that Becchio “has had his head turned” by transfer talk and he was scathing in his appraisal of the performances up front.  After the Cup triumph though, the ebullient manager was quick to highlight the sweetness of results like this, when “everyone is writing you off”.

McCormack’s smartly-taken 70th minute finish from an El Hadji Diouf cut-back was his first senior goal since September 1st, cancelling out Wade Elliot’s first-half opener for the home side.  Leeds had injected some pace and purpose in the second period, and further tested the Blues’ goalkeeper before Diouf’s impudent penalty kick settled the affair with a quarter of an hour to go.  A home tie against Tottenham awaits in the 4th round, and Leeds’ habit of performing well at Elland Road against higher-ranked teams in cup competitions might promise another bouncing afternoon in LS11, and the prospect of more relief from the drudgery of the league.

Warnock though, despite his tenaciously upbeat approach to post-match interviews, must be well aware that the remaining days of the transfer window will provide a far sterner test of his own mettle, and that of the new owners GFHC, than anything Spurs might offer before a live TV audience at the end of the month.  A defeat to Tottenham would be excusable, to say the least – particularly one of the plucky, battling sort seen over the last few years, exits with honour against the likes of Spurs themselves, Liverpool and Arsenal.

A couple more hapless league capitulations, though, against a background of bargain-bin scratching about in the transfer market, and no marquee signings – and the picture will be as gloomy as ever.  The current malaise is rather too deep to be dissipated by one Cup replay win, and a lot of uncertainty remains over the direction of the club post-takeover.  Things may well be clearer in a fortnight’s time, but whether they will really be any better remains – in spite of Warnock’s commendable fight and defiance – a matter of grave doubt for the devoted but largely demoralised fans.

Ballsy Leeds Justify Wise’s Optimism (2007)

Tranmere Rovers 1, Leeds United 2

Once again, if not quite as in days of yore, Leeds United have been breaking records this summer. In the halcyon Revie era, unbeaten sequences, mammoth points totals, and unheard-of trouncings handed out to Euro-minnows such as Lynn Oslo, kept the football statisticians beavering away busily, recording new benchmarks as the Leeds Leviathan powered on. Now the records still tumble before United, but in a markedly more negative sense – they have managed to accrue a total deduction of 25 points either side of a meaningless encounter at Derby’s Pride Park, the death throes of their disastrous Championship campaign, whilst alienating the game’s authorities and a comfortable majority of their rival clubs. Plus ça change…

So the new Leeds – new company, half a new team and a new third-tier battlefield as yet untrodden in their history – finally exited a close-season of unprecedented bitterness and battering, for the most part of which their continued participation at any level was in grave doubt. Supporters had gone uninformed, players had gone unpaid, new recruits had gone unrecruited, and the dragging-out of the whole sorry situation seemed calculated to prolong the agony of anyone with the famous old club’s best interests at heart. While it seems certain that several salvoes remain to be fired from either side in the non-sporting arena, there was a palpable sense of relief during a “let’s get on with it, then” final week before the Whites trotted out at Prenton Park on Saturday. A flurry of contract signatures had ensued, and the shape of a team, some sort of team, finally emerged into the clean air of the Wirral, ready to get on with the traditional business of kicking a ball and/or their opponents.

The first half belonged as if by right to Tranmere, a team of near-missers last season, traditionally formidable at home, and seemingly capable of handling the direct bombing approach of the visitors with ease. Leeds bypassed their own midfield with reckless abandon, wasted such half chances as they contrived, and generally promised little. Tranmere, meanwhile, made prettier patterns and carved out tastier opportunities which they, too, spurned. The breakthrough from Greenacre, staunch Leeds fan and deadly Tranmere striker rolled into one, was arguably overdue on 22 minutes. For the rest of the half, United huffed and puffed their way ineffectively towards an interval break and a “little argument” with their unimpressed and euphemistic manager Wise.

Whatever of purpose was said amid the teacups and recriminations of half-time, the effect was noticeable from the restart, as Leeds at last called on the quality of Thompson in midfield. The erstwhile international showed at 33 that he can still pull the strings when given the chance, and slowly Leeds gained a grip on the contest, condemning the Tranmere forwards to much skimpier fare than in the first period, when they could and should have gorged themselves. This profligacy was duly punished from a United free kick on the left corner of the penalty area, the ball expertly bent in by Thompson’s wand of a left foot, to the far post where Heath had spun away into sufficient space to plant his header past a bemused defence. 1-1 on 55 minutes, and the away support massed behind the Rovers goal bellowed their appreciation. These long-suffering Leeds fans had waited a long time for any reason to cheer, and their volume and gusto were readily understandable.

Now though, there was some amazed belief apparent in the Yorkshire hordes, and their team was responding with something approaching the air of potential victors. On balance of play, it would have been hard to dispute the fairness of a draw, but this particular game of two halves was never about accepting just deserts. As the last minute ebbed away, a throw in on the Leeds right found new signing Andy Hughes, and his penetrating right foot cross arced towards a point low down by the far post. The previously hapless Kandol somehow contrived to bend his lanky frame into an awkward header, the ball squirming fortuitously through the legs of a dismayed Coyne into the net. Cue mayhem and cavortings among the Leeds faithful, as a delighted Kandol permitted himself some gymnastics to celebrate.

It was a bizarre end to a surreal day. Never has the prospect of finishing the season’s opener 12 points adrift at the foot of a lower division been so ecstatically greeted, but the context of this match was ample justification for the chants of “we’re going to win the league” from the happy fans, and indeed the huddle and bonding of players and management on the pitch. Leeds boss Wise was commendably restrained afterwards, but wore the smile of a man just possibly on the right path after a weary and, it has been said, emasculating summer. Ronnie Moore’s expression by contrast looked more that of the victim of a mugging, but he drew his positives with dignity and made the point that many battles lie ahead before the war is won and lost. There is indeed a long way to go, but Saturday’s victory may just mark the start of an upturn for punch-drunk Leeds United, who seem nevertheless determined ultimately to have the major say in how their season unfolds.

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