Tag Archives: comeback

Major Boost for Leeds as Villa Blunt Sheffield United Victory Bid – by Rob Atkinson

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The most gutted “hat trick hero” you could ever wish to see

Sometimes, you feel that things just aren’t going your way, and that you’d be better off curtailing the evening’s TV sport and slinking off upstairs with a good book. That was pretty much my frame of mind as I alternated between Sky Sports channels to see Leeds Rhinos getting turned over at Wigan on the one hand, and Sheffield United building a three goal lead at Aston Villa on the other, seemingly to turf Leeds United out of the automatic Championship promotion places.

Still, while there’s life there’s hope, and now I’m really glad that, having given up on the Rhinos (that ended up 34-16 to the Pies), I instead concentrated on the slim chance of a Villa comeback to frustrate the Blunts, whose fans were crowing about being top of the league as that three goal chasm opened up.

It was annoying, really, as Sheff Utd seemed to be getting all the rub of the green there was going. Billy Sharp, a striker who Leeds fans will remember as being unable to hack it at a big club, had put the Blunts a goal up at half time. In the second half, things took a turn for the worse with a ridiculously invalid second Blunts goal (offside, then Sharp kicking the ball out of the Villa keeper’s hands) unaccountably being allowed. Shortly after, it was 3-0 and, you’d have thought, the end of the matter after just 62 minutes.

But then, football reminded us all that it really is never over until that fat lady has sung her last, expiring note. After 82 minutes, Tyrone Mings soared to head home a corner. A still confident Sheffield United management then subbed “hat trick hero” Billy Sharp on 86 minutes, only to find their lead cut to one goal within seconds when Tammy Abrahams slammed home a rebound from nervous Blunts keeper Dean Henderson.

Then, for those of us keen not to see Sheffield United at the top of the League, there was the frustration of Villa being denied at least one clear penalty as the clock ticked down to five minutes stoppage time. Thankfully though, all was not lost. In the last minute of the extra five, Andre Green popped up at the far post to head home John McGinn‘s cross to secure Villa an unlikely draw, much to the joy of not only their own fans, but also those of Norwich and Leeds United.

As an epic game ended, the Blunts has to settle for a draw wrestled from the jaws of victory, with some Sheffield defenders indulging in some accusatory finger-pointing at their butterfingers keeper Henderson. That had some satisfying comedy value, as did the outburst of grief and rage on the sufc Twitter hashtag, where not long before had been gloating and smugness agogo. Deeply enjoyable, that.

For Leeds, this was a major boost. Whatever happens now this weekend, they will remain a minimum 2 points clear of third place, and in a much better situation than had seemed likely after 62 minutes at Villa Park. For once, I’ll say thanks to Villa, who had looked hopeless for much of the game, but who showed character to come back.

And, for the time being at least, we can all enjoy a good laugh at the expense of the Blunts.

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Nine Years Ago Today: Leeds Storm Back to Bury Saints – by Rob Atkinson

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Leeds set about imposing their class

When the going gets tough, the tough get going – or so they say. It’s arguable that, given the frenetic nature and relentless pace of English professional football, the going is always tough. League games are fought out with bitter intent, and there are few easy results – that’s what makes the best of our game such compulsive viewing. But there’s tough and then there’s really tough. What do you do, for instance, when you’re three down with less than a quarter of the game to go, hundreds of miles from home and with an atrocious first-half performance nagging away guiltily at you? That’s when the going is really tough. If you have the necessary character, you “Keep Fighting”, reviving the spirit of the Don Revie days when that maxim was prominent on the dressing-room wall at Elland Road; when every man knew that giving up was simply not an option. And that is precisely what a Leeds United team of a much lesser vintage did, nine years ago today. Seemingly dead and buried at St Mary’s Stadium Southampton, they somehow jolted back to life, hauled themselves out from six feet under and bounced back emphatically to leave Harry Redknapp’s Saints battered and bewildered.

It can’t have been of any comfort at all to the shattered Southampton team that their erstwhile coach Simon Clifford, sacked only the week before this game, had marked his departure by labelling his former charges “unfit” – as well as prone to “letting games slip in the last five to 10 minutes”.  If they had set out to prove him right, this late capitulation to a Leeds side they seemed to have had beaten out of sight would certainly have done the trick.  Shocked Saints manager Redknapp was at a loss for a reaction immediately afterwards. “Unbelievable, I don’t know what to say. One of the worst results of my career,” he mumbled. You got the feeling he will have expressed himself rather more vividly to his defeated and deflated troops.

It had all started out so promisingly for the home side.  The first half was strictly no contest, a flood tide of red and white stripes threatening to sink Leeds’ away colours without trace.  Traditionally strong at home, Southampton boasted the likes of jet-heeled Theo Walcott in their ranks as well as tricky Latvian Marian Pahars, not to mention future Leeds manager Dennis Wise, who was subbed at half time and therefore escapes the blame for what eventually happened.  After 27 minutes, a corner from the right was headed goalwards by Svensson and there was Pahars at the far post to head past Leeds’ Neil Sullivan from point-blank range.  Then it was a pre-Arsenal vintage Theo Walcott, hurtling down the right with a breathless Matt Kilgallon left hopelessly beaten in his slipstream, cutting a neat ball back to the edge of the area where Nigel Quashie was waiting to plant a first time shot into the United net.  2-0 after 35 minutes, and Leeds were playing for half-time and trying to avoid further concessions.  Vain hope.  A cross ball from the left found Matt Oakley in space on the right of the area and he headed into the box where the ball struck Dan Harding’s upraised arms.  The penalty was just about fair and Quashie dispatched it to end the half in a manner reflecting the utter dominance of the home side.

The second period began with the travelling army of Leeds fans in boisterous and seemingly clairvoyant form.  “We’re gonna win 4-3”, they bellowed, not a man jack of them actually believing it.  Southern ale just isn’t that strong.  But at least Leeds were contriving to limit the damage now, playing for pride alone as they thought they were – they hadn’t let their heads go down.  Sullivan’s point-blank save from Brett Ormerod maintained United’s fingernail hold on the game and then, with twenty minutes to go, Leeds manager Kevin Blackwell had one of his all too few inspired moments, bringing on David Healy to push a third man into attack.  Redknapp, on the other hand, had used all his subs by half-time, though he denied suggestions that he was resting players with the game apparently won as “disrespectful”.

Whatever the motivations of the managers, the introduction of Healy worked. Only a minute later, Gary Kelly’s corner from the right found skipper Paul Butler rising majestically from left of the penalty spot to head home with great power and accuracy into the top right hand corner.  The mood of the match changed; Southampton were still playing the better football and forcing plenty of corners, but Leeds had made a mark now, and some nerves were exposed in the home ranks. After 77 minutes, a poor headed clearance found its way to Healy outside the area on the right and he fed the ball low and firmly into the six yard box where Robbie Blake was on hand to deliver a first-time finish inside the near post of Anti Niemi’s goal.  And incredibly, with six minutes to go, United were level when it was their turn to benefit from a penalty award.  This time it was Saints defender Danny Higginbotham who was guilty of handball and David Healy seized the chance to score the equaliser, blasting his spot kick into the roof of the Saints net.

The match had now turned into the classic “game of two halves”, with neutral observers looking narrowly at the St Mary’s pitch for any sign of a marked right-to-left slope.  The momentum was solidly with Leeds after their unlikely recovery, and the Saints defensive clearances began to smack of desperation and lost belief.  For Leeds, the tough had got well and truly going and they were in the mood to finish their hosts off.  The man who would administer the coup de grâce was a Man U loanee who had been anonymous for much of the game, but cometh the hour, cometh Liam Miller.  When the ball deflected into his path from a Rob Hulse cut-back, Miller swung his left boot, connected and – as if it had been pre-ordained – the ball found its way into the Southampton goal for the winner.  The United fans packed behind the goal exploded with joy and disbelieving wonder that their raucous predictions of 45 minutes earlier could have come so wonderfully true.  Any goal is enhanced by a passionate, celebrating section of support to appreciate it, and all four Leeds goals that day were scored right in front of those inspiring, fantastic supporters – four peaks of jubilation punctuating the half to form a piece of pure football theatre.

Peter Drury’s commentary in the lead-up to that decisive goal has become a minor classic: “They wouldn’t dare win it would they, Leeds, they wouldn’t dare win it….here is Rob Hulse for Leeds United – and Hulse plays it in – and Miller’s hit it! It’s staggering!  They HAVE won it!!”  Spine-tingling, gooseflesh-raising stuff if you’re Leeds – and I can certainly never tire of hearing that clip.  Thanks Peter. And thanks to the players who fought back that day eight years ago to provide one of the brighter moments in the long dark era since we dropped out of the top flight. It’s times like this that restore the faith – that remind you what it feels like when the lads knuckle down and do it for the shirts and for the fans. The essence of Leeds, encapsulated in one twenty minute spell of dreamland fantasy football, nine years ago today – pure magic.

Darren Fletcher of Man Utd a Positive Role Model for the Chronically Ill – by Rob Atkinson

For a Leeds United fan, yesterday’s news that Man U had won 3-0 at their perennial rabbit team Aston Villa was hardly welcome or, in itself, inspiring. The two Uniteds from either side of the Pennines share a mutual loathing that has become legendary and transcends geographical proximity or considerations of direct rivalry, the normal prerequisites for a healthy hate-hate relationship. The fact that Leeds and the club I fondly refer to as the Pride of Devon are miles apart both in location and in status has not affected the poisonous depths of the antipathy between the two.  We sing about them in terms of extreme dislike, they reciprocate in tones of mixed cockney and that characteristic West country burr. Neither set of fans would cross the road to save one of the enemy, by means of micturition, from a death by conflagration.  It’s been like that for years.

However, some things are more important than football’s strife and conflict, on or off the field.  The other news to emerge from Villa’s capitulation was without doubt positive, welcome and a thing to be celebrated by anyone who loves football – indeed by anyone at all. It is the story of a young athlete with a glittering career before him who was struck down by a chronic and debilitating medical condition, yet who has overcome that awful setback to regain a place among his team-mates playing a highly demanding game at the top level.

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Fletcher – back from the brink

Darren Fletcher made his senior bow for Man U in 2002 and performed with versatility and industry in midfield and defensive roles, depending on the requirements of his club, up until 2011 when he was finally struck down by the bowel condition ulcerative colitis, something he had been coping with whilst playing on – but which now necessitated rest and treatment.  It was announced that Fletcher would take an extended break from football to address his problems and, obviously, there were fears in some quarters about whether he would be able to return to such a demanding way of making his living.  Yet return he did, in September 2012, only to be then ruled out for the remainder of last season after undergoing an operation to lessen the effects of a condition which can have life-altering consequences depending on its severity and treatment. Last Saturday at Villa was Fletcher’s second comeback – but this time it seems that the problem may have been overcome for the longer term.

Fletcher himself certainly believes that he is back to stay, having beaten his health problems.  “This is it, I’m back for good,” he told MUTV, the club’s in house TV channel. “This (the Villa game) is hopefully the game which means I’m back now.

“I seem to have come through the setbacks and health issues and I’m thankful for that. It’s onwards and upwards now.  I always believed I would come back, I kept that mind-set. I think other people around me were trying to make me think otherwise, but I stayed strong and believed I would get back.”

All football fans should be wishing Fletcher the best and hoping earnestly that he is right to be optimistic about the future.  At 29, he still has a good part of his career ahead of him and, having shown the character and courage to overcome such a potentially demoralising and energy-sapping condition, he surely has much to give for club and also his country.  As the captain of Scotland, his will be an example of determination and courage in adversity that many will look up to, especially those stricken with this or similar conditions at an early age as Fletcher was – and many who are suffering at much younger ages.

Fletcher appears to have fought his fight and won – something that will give hope to many thousands of people who might otherwise be tempted to succumb to a belief that their health problems will stop them from achieving their life goals. Darren Fletcher looks set fair to achieve much more in his career, adding to what is already a glittering trophy and medal haul.  That he can do this despite such a serious setback is greatly to be admired.  The positive example he might set to others is difficult to over-state, and to call him a role-model is no exaggeration. Good luck to him as he regains full fitness and resumes a career that must at one point have been in doubt.  That is something which Darren Fletcher – to his eternal credit –  has clearly never accepted.

13 Years Ago Today, Leeds United Edge Out Liverpool With “The Duke” At His Best – by Rob Atkinson

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The bare facts hardly do credit to a stunning afternoon at Elland Road on November 4th 2000.  An injury-hit Leeds United faced old enemies Liverpool in Premier League game which saw Liverpool take a two-goal lead, get pegged back at 2-2, take the lead again – and then finally succumb 4-3 in the archetypal see-saw football match.  Leeds had won, and Australian centre-forward Mark Viduka had gone one better than the traditional striker’s dream of a hat-trick in a high profile victory.  Viduka – the Duke – had scored all four, single-handedly breaking the hearts of the Reds whose manager Gerard Houllier was left speechless with shock and disappointment.

In truth, Liverpool were well-set for victory as they cruised to an early two goal lead through Hyypia and Ziege, taking advantage of slapdash Leeds defending.  The home team were weakened by the absence of regulars like Nigel Martyn, Lucas Radebe, Harry Kewell, Danny Mills, Michael Duberry and Michael Bridges.  Bit-part player Jacob Burns started and Danny Hay would come on as one of only four fit subs – this was very much a patched-up United side.  After such a start heads might have gone down in the Leeds ranks, but Alan Smith was still up for the battle, chasing every cause and closing down in his unique combative style.  It was a typically aggressive piece of Smithy harrying that saw Leeds back in the game after 25 minutes, as he blocked a Ziege clearance and saw the ball bounce right into the path of an onside Viduka in the Liverpool area.  No further invitation was needed; the burly Aussie executed the most delicate of chips to beat Reds keeper Sander Westerveld all ends up.  The teams went in at the interval with Liverpool ahead 2-1 – but some of the momentum was back with Leeds.

Shortly after the start of the second half, United were level – and this was a goal to remember.  Gary Kelly broke swiftly down the right, looked up and delivered a pinpoint cross which Viduka met with a towering near-post header, sending the ball arrowing high into the net for a fantastic equaliser.  The effervescent Smith then missed a clear chance to put Leeds ahead, and that looked a costly error when Liverpool surged back in front just after the hour.  Berger crossed from the left to find Vladimir Smicer who cleverly worked himself the space to slide his shot past a despairing Paul Robinson and into the net.  A bitter blow for a makeshift Leeds side that had hauled itself, against long odds, back into the game.

Many indeed would have expected Leeds to crumble at this point, but to their eternal credit they stayed competitive and kept fighting.  The next goal was always going to be crucial; a fourth for Liverpool would certainly have finished Leeds off.  However, the game’s sixth and best goal saw Mark Viduka complete his hat-trick with a finish of amazing artistry for such a big man. Former Evertonian Olivier Dacourt saw a powerful shot blocked by Ziege, but managed to feed the rebound first time through to Viduka at the right edge of the penalty area.  Most strikers would have tried to get a shot off, but Viduka, spinning unpredictably through 360 degrees, threw off the attentions of the Liverpool defence and finished sublimely into the far corner.

At this stage, the overjoyed Leeds support would probably have settled for a draw that had, at one point, looked like being more than they could dream of.  But Viduka was not finished yet.  Only three minutes later, he finally ended Liverpool’s chances with a fourth goal which, it must be said, owed as much to a generous linesman as it did to the Duke’s skill and lethal finishing.  The Leeds striker was surely offside as the ball reached him yet again in a threatening position inside the Liverpool area – but he didn’t hang around to see if a flag went up or a whistle blew.

In the event, neither happened and Mark Viduka produced yet another delicately-crafted finish, the ball arcing beautifully over a committed Westerveld and dropping into Liverpool’s net.  4-3 now and pandemonium as Leeds led for the first time, as unlikely a scenario as you could possibly have imagined after only 20 minutes of this incredible game.  Liverpool fought to the last, but so did Leeds to hang on grimly to their hard-won advantage.  Dacourt finished the game barely able to move, the Liverpool players finished it hardly able to believe what had happened to them.  The contrasting body language of the jubilant United manager O’Leary and his crestfallen Liverpool counterpart told the story of this result and of a game that will always be a part of the folklore surrounding this long-standing rivalry.

Liverpool had fought gallantly and lost.  Leeds had defied the odds and their injury toll to win.  But the undoubted hero of the hour, thirteen years ago today, was beyond any shadow of a doubt the United centre-forward Mark Viduka.  The Duke – Leeds United legend with his own permanent place in Elland Road history.

Somma Time Some Way Off for Leeds United – by Rob Atkinson

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As rumours of an impending “high profile loan signing” continue to waft around Elland Road, there is also news of the possible return of an old favourite, a star that shone so bright and yet so briefly, a man who stood out as an instinctive finisher one moment and then collapsed as a serial treatment-room habitué the next. Davide Somma, powerhouse striker and ruptured cruciate victim extraordinaire, is on the brink of another comeback. Could these two rumours somehow be related? As “Private Eye” would agree, I think we should be told.

Somma appeared to have earned himself such a bright future with his gamble on the price of a transatlantic air ticket to seek his footballing fortune. A successful trial, a contract and a flurry of goals – some bearing the unmistakable hallmark of class and composure – and the world was the likeable hitman’s lobster, or so it seemed. Then, injury, rehabilitation, setbacks, the cycle of despair. His hopes shattered, his prospects doomed, Somma fell out of contract in June. And yet he’s now back at United, seeking to prove his fitness – and who knows? The dreaded cruciate injury is not the football career’s death-knell it once was. A nifty bit of key-holing and a man can be fit for purpose again. Look at Gazza. Well, maybe that’s not the best example of redemption – but he came back from a wrecked knee to play for England again, didn’t he? Of course he did.

The thing about Somma is – good though it would be to see him back at his best and bunging in the goals for Leeds United – it’s all about context. In the club’s current straits, there really is an injection of top-class ability needed, both in a supply-line of chances and a taker of them too.

The cropping-up of Somma’s name just now has to be purely incidental to more urgent requirements. It couldn’t really be that our high-profile loan will come from the physio department of the local orthopaedic hospital. We need more of a Sharp than a Somma right now to salvage the hopes of this season. And despite the seeming prevalence of them in and around Leeds United, we could do with a Burke too. Birmingham’s tricky winger looks ever more a snip at £600k, but that boat has probably sailed.

The news that Davide Somma may yet be on the verge of a return to fitness, with the potential to function as a professional footballer is good and welcome. If such a comeback from apparently career-ending injury is ultimately to the benefit of Leeds, then so much the better. But the fact that social media outlets are currently all a-Twitter with hopes that Somma might be the saviour we need right now – that surely must be a rumour too far.

The very best of luck to the lad in his latest attempt to regain fitness – and thousands will be hoping he can fulfil his early, rich promise in a Leeds United shirt. But our immediate salvation must surely lie elsewhere.