The Last Champions – Masters of 1992
As anyone who has watched the entertaining Class of 92 TV series will attest, Salford City have come a long, long way in a short, short time, gaining multiple promotions from what was their virtual grass roots status, and picking up a spiffy new stadium along the way. All very admirable, even if some insist on pointing out that this progress has been courtesy of many more millions in funding than you commonly see so far down the football pyramid. It would seem that Financial Fair Play has a different meaning at this thud and blunder stratum of the game, though you’ll likely be accused of poor taste by those behind the Salford/media love-fest if you’re presumptuous enough to point this out.
Still, the TV programmes have been entertainment gold for all of us who like to be flies on walls in tantrum-riven half time dressing rooms, or even post-defeat boardrooms, when things are going awry. It’s a vicious as well as vicarious sort of amusement but, for the past few days leading up to our own Leeds United heroes’ Cup tie appointment with Salford, it’s helped fill the void that opened up in the wake of being scurvily robbed of victory against Nottingham Forest. There was drama aplenty and some unwitting comedy too, particularly in the moment of fulfilment as Salford gained promotion to the Football League at Wembley, with co-owner Gary Neville’s high-pitched Mancunian squeaks of celebration disappearing off the audible scale and becoming something only dogs or Huddersfield fans could hear.
So much for Salford’s mundane but latterly meteoric history prior to last night. For the Leeds United home tie was where their new era truly began, after one victory and one defeat at League Two level, with the visit of the biggest club in the entire Football League. Anticipation was quite naturally at fever pitch and the new stadium, whose corporate name I entirely forget, was packed to its Meccano rafters. All was ready – and the scene was set, so Sky Sports clearly and fervently hoped, for a juicy giant-killing, with S’rAlex and his erstwhile footballing sons, together with the legendary Lawman, clustered eagerly in the main stand to witness the deeply desired humbling of Leeds United.
Alas, these things so often fail to work out as planned, something any random sample of mice and men will confirm. Before kick-off, over-excited Salford fans were issuing predictions of a 3-1 victory, and even the normally pragmatic Gary Neville so far forgot himself as to join in with such ill-advised optimism. Gary is prone to the odd mental aberration where Leeds United are concerned, somehow contriving to have entirely forgotten, despite pictorial evidence of him looking dismayed in the background while Jermaine celebrated his goal at the Beckford End, United’s 1-0 FA Cup victory at the Theatre of Hollow Myths in 2010. Gary had thought that Leeds were back in his life for the first time since 2004 – but he is getting on a bit, bless him, and these lapses are understandable.
The match started with both sides in wary, probing mode, and with Salford managing to prevent Leeds getting behind them whilst launching a few raids of their own on the counter-attack. This was enough, despite United’s domination of possession, for the Sky commentary team, featuring ever-reliable Leeds-hater Don Goodman, to proclaim that the home team had been the better side – and the coverage featured numerous cutaway shots of the strangely named “Class of 92” looking resolutely happy whenever Salford did anything remotely competent. But reality bit ravenously at Lancastrian jugulars just before the interval, with Helder Costa making a quicksilver dart for the byline to be found by a beautiful Jamie Shackleton pass inside the full-back. Costa laid a devastating ball across the six yard box to find fellow debutant Eddie Nketiah emerging between two bamboozled centre-backs to finish decisively into an empty net. Salford had been cut asunder by a moment of class from a higher sphere, and all of a sudden, those lovingly lingering shots of the ersatz Class of 92 were a thing of the past. Don Goodman talked hopefully about Nketiah being offside and of how Salford could now capitalise on their good play after the interval, but his hope and his enthusiasm were waning. And, happily, worse was to come.
In the second half, Leeds piled on that lovely agony with a near post flick from Berardi and a sumptuous finish from Klich which topped off a sweeping, length of the pitch break from a Salford corner. It was “job done”, and the disgruntled Sky guys knew it, opting now to talk instead of United’s draw at home against Forest in a vain attempt to rekindle the Leeds crisis atmosphere they’d worked so hard to generate pre-match. For the rest, there were a couple of elbows to Leeds heads, dismissed by Goodman as unintentional, and the standard stonewall penalty not given when Shacks was hauled back in the box. 3-0 and finis, a tricky tie safely negotiated.
A look around other results last night will show you that Sky’s hopes for a Salford victory had been not all that unrealistic. This stage of this competition has upsets as the norm, not the exception. Among the more amusing outcomes were Barnsley’s 0-3 capitulation to Carlisle, with ex-United man Aapo Halme having a ‘mare, and Huddersfield losing at home to a single goal by Lincoln City to cries from literally dozens of dog-botherers for their new manager to get him hence. So the processional nature of United’s progress would have been a matter of bitter regret to Goodman and Co, who surely must have reflected that they should have looked elsewhere for their longed-for upset.
What else can be taken away from this tie, what lessons are there to be learned? One is that the myth of Leeds’ shallow squad is just that; with the likes of Shackleton, Davis and young Alfie McCalmont looking ready to supplement the established stars, we seem comfortably well-off for squad depth to this blogger’s eye. Also, the myth of The Class of 92 can now finally be scotched. The Last Champions were the real Class of 92 and, if you’re looking for winners in the clash of emerging talents, let’s not forget that the Nevilles, the Scholes the Beckhams et al, while victorious in the Youth Cup of 92, comprehensively bit the dust in the Final of 93, beaten in both legs by the boys from Elland Road.
All in all, then, a most satisfactory evening, with United enjoying the fruits of victory and Fergie, along with his protégés, choking on some well-earned humble pie. Which really is exactly as it should be.
Marching On Together