Tag Archives: FA Cup

Leeds United Contribute £200,000 to Shaun Harvey’s FL Leaving Do – by Rob Atkinson

Shaun Harvey – disappointed and calling it a day

At long last, the Football League investigation into the so-called Spygate affair has been concluded, and it can now be revealed that the delay in considering and pronouncing upon a relatively simple matter was caused by an almighty internal wrangle within the Football League.

It turns out that the matter was pretty much done and dusted some time ago, with the League reluctantly concluding that, as no specific rules had been broken, it was not possible to impose a points deduction. Instead, the League had to settle for dressing up the matter of a man standing on a public highway and looking through a wire fence as “a breach of good faith”, enabling action under regulation 3.4 – but even this has proved problematic.

A League spokesperson confirmed that the League was struggling to make even the “good faith” provisions stick due, he said, to a number of far more serious breaches during the time that Spygate had been current. “We’ve had blatant diving, clubs clearing one penalty area of snow but not the other, clubs reneging on transfer deals at the last minute, all sorts of stuff going on. But we had to do this to Leeds, because it was the only way we could get them. And that was a very cruel blow to Shaun Harvey, who had been determined to deal a fatal blow to that club’s promotion chances”.

It appears that Mr. Harvey has indeed taken the outcome of Spygate very hard indeed, as he had hoped it would be instrumental in keeping Leeds United down in the Championship. So depressed is he by the thwarting of his dearly held hopes, that he has now announced he’ll be stepping down at the end of the season. “Shaun is a broken man”, confirmed our source. “He feels that he just can’t go on, so he’s going to retire to a smallholding in Little Sodbury. We at the League feel that the least we can do is to give him a good send off, so we’re fining Leeds enough to send him off in style”.

When it was pointed out that two hundred grand was quite steep for a leaving do, we were told “We’re pulling out all the stops here, because Shaun really needs cheering up. So we’ve booked his favourite acts, Kylie, Jason and we’ve even arranged a personal appearance by Shaun’s hero Frank “Fwankie” Lampard. I imagine they’ll be commiserating together”.

Leeds United’s only comment was “We’ve fully cooperated with this whole fiasco from start to finish, and all we can say is that we’re satisfied with the outcome. It’s well worth a couple of hundred grand to get rid of that oily little sod Harvey.

Frank Lampard is a bitter, thwarted little man.

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Football League Too Busy Investigating Leeds to Look Into Millwall Knife Crime – by Rob Atkinson

A number of incidents thrown up by yesterday’s Millwall v Everton FA Cup tie would seem worthy of investigation by the relevant football authorities, but it would seem likely that the Football League are preoccupied with other matters. Notable among these is the question of whether a man in a tracksuit on public land failing to avert his eyes from the sight of footballers training in plain view should constitute an offence worthy of a points deduction for their biggest member club.

When Leeds Star Saiz Rediscovers His Mojo, He’ll Make Opponents Suffer – by Rob Atkinson

Samu Saiz – desperate to score for United

It’s becoming quite common knowledge that Samu Saiz, Leeds United’s mercurial, twinkle-toed Spanish playmaker, has not scored a league goal for upwards of far too long. It’s a barren run that seems to be affecting his confidence, however much he contributes to the team overall. You get the feeling he’s desperate to score, and this could be bringing an element of “trying too hard” into his game. But that overall contribution is still significant; take for example his brilliant ball into the box to fashion United’s goal at Blackburn.

Saiz has scored this season, though, and the goal I have in mind – against Bolton in the Carabao Cup – summed up the strengths of the man. He received the ball inside the opposition area, brought it under instant control, used his quick feet to find a yard of space, and finished neatly past a helpless Wanderers keeper.

That’s the real Saiz, the one we haven’t seen enough of since his ban for spitting at Newport last January. There are signs, though, that he has rediscovered his form and technical touch; add confidence to that, and you have a formidable player.

There does seem, however, to be an increasing groundswell of impatience and disapproval among the usual suspects that constitute the lower end of the Leeds Twitter following. It hardly needs saying that this sort of thing is exactly the opposite of what is needed. As I’ve said many times before, the supporters’ job is to support – their sketchily-informed criticism is not required. The club employs expensive talent for that.

Stick by Saiz, and just wait for his mojo and therefore his confidence to return. When those attributes are rediscovered, our Samu will lead opponents a merry dance, while providing us with the kind of spectacle and memories that should define and adorn a promotion-challenging season. Give the lad your trust and backing, and he’ll repay you tenfold. Maybe even starting with tonight, against Ipswich Town.

Just wait and see.

Too Many Leeds United “Fans” Forget That Saiz Matters – by Rob Atkinson

Samuel-Saiz-672176

Saiz leaves early after zero dribbles and one spit

Characteristically, Leeds United has contrived to make a drama out of a crisis, compounding the humiliation of an FA Cup Third Round exit at minnows Newport by adding the embarrassment of an on-pitch spitting scandal, as well as the six-match loss of star player Samu Sáiz. To make matters even worse, the intellectually-challenged end of the Whites’ support then took to Twitter with the express intention, so it seemed, of unleashing their long-repressed bigotry and incipient racism by attacking Sáiz in the worst kind of Daily Mail-reading Colonel Blimp-inspired terms. It made for very unedifying reading, even for Twitter after one of Leeds’ frequent bad days at the office.

There’s no getting around the fact that spitting at a sporting opponent is a disgusting matter, deserving of punishment and not to be tolerated – or even mitigated, if it comes to that. It initially seemed an odd affair to me, with some confusion and delay surrounding the red card in the immediate aftermath of Newport’s late winner. But Sáiz appears now to have admitted, acknowledged and apologised for his transgression, so that’s that. He’s bang to rights and indefensible, he’ll have to do his time, repent at leisure and make sure he sticks to his vow that this will never happen again.

Incidentally, and particularly for those who think I’m an uncritical Sáiz apologist, his conduct has worried me before, and I’ve gone into print hoping he’d see the error of his ways. This was over an early season tendency to wave imaginary cards when fouled, something that risked attracting the ref’s attention negatively, and a habit I’ve always hated. So I don’t see Samu as any sort of paragon of virtue; even so, some of the stick and abuse he’s received from alleged Leeds fans since the Case of the Newport Spit has been sickening in the extreme – decorum prohibits the reproduction of many of the remarks here. Suffice to say that there’s been a nasty, racist overtone in the murkier regions of the Leeds Twitter hashtag, many of the boneheads who like to comment there seeming to have forgotten what the little Spanish wizard has contributed to our faltering season so far.

It’s not big and it’s not clever, but then again, that just about sums up some of our Twitter knuckle-draggers. Sadly, the temptation to jump aboard a Brexiteer anti-“foreign signing” bandwagon appears to have been just too much to resist for many of these hard-of-thinking opportunists, with some of them engaged for hours on end in trying to outdo their IQ-minus cronies in a competition to see who could be the most offensively tasteless in their treatment of United’s best player this season.

The subtext emerging was of a groundswell of opposition, again mainly at the thicker end of United’s online adherents, to the idea of signing non-British players in the first place. Some Leeds fans, apparently, will not be happy until United’s first team consists of blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan stereotypes, goose-stepping their way towards the lower leagues with the Sieg Heils echoing from the stands – a harking back to the early and mid-eighties. But those days are gone; the continental and global lads are here to stay, they will continue to provide the best hopes of success – and the Twitter and other social media morons are welcome to crawl back under the stones from which they should never, in these more enlightened times, emerge.

It’s to be hoped that this will be a storm in a teacup, that United will safely negotiate the enforced and unfortunate absence of Sáiz – and that, when he returns, he will be given the warm welcome that his value to the team deserves. And that will probably be the case, because Leeds will surely move to cover for the lad’s loss, while the bulk of the United support are a silent yet match-day raucous majority, who will always be behind the men in the shirts, whether they hail from Selby or Spain.

Samu’s been a silly lad, but many, many young footballers are guilty of that; he’s not the first, he’ll not be the last, and it’s got absolutely bugger-all to do with his nationality. So, enough of all that nonsense. What we need now is to get stuck in as a United Leeds for the rest of the season, that’s boardroom, management, players and fans – and put this sorry incident behind us. The rest of the transfer window promises to be interesting or maybe even exciting, and meanwhile there’s a formidable array of opposition waiting to tackle a Samu-less Leeds. Let’s stick together, ignore the ten-a-penny haters – and show them all what we’re really capable of.

“Completely Lacking Spirit and Passion”: Leeds Owner Radrizzani Issues Stern Rebuke – by Rob Atkinson

In a complete departure from his usual urbanely diplomatic stance, Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani has taken to Twitter and bemoaned the “lowest moment for me since I joined” in what are, for him, harshly critical terms.

Normally, Radrizzani confines himself to what amounts to a supportive and broadly positive stance, preferring to exhort the fans to greater heights of support rather than issue any direct criticism. This tweet, though, utterly abandons any such diplomacy, and instead hits hard – striking right to the heart of any football professional‘s self-image. In accusing the players of lacking spirit and passion, he is levelling about the most serious charge imaginable. Let nobody doubt the anger and frustration behind such frank and revealing words.

It may be that Andrea has been rattled by the spitting storm that threatens to engulf the club, depriving Leeds of their best attacking player Samu Saíz for maybe up to six games – if the charge is proven. That would be enough to unsettle the most sanguine of club owners but, even so, Radrizzani’s words are pointed in the extreme. Tweeted to the entire Leeds United Universe, the criticism is scathing, devastating. Anybody on the Leeds United payroll will disregard this at their extreme peril.

It looks as though the owner is a long way short of happy. To an extent, the remedy is in Radrizzani’s own hands, with most of the January transfer window remaining available to him. It’s fair to surmise that, as the owner has seen fit to be so very publicly critical, and about areas of the game that form the basis of professional pride too, then much harsher words will be spoken in private behind the scenes at Elland Road. And what might come of that – well, it’s anyone’s guess. But the gloves are off now, the owner has broken cover and the game’s afoot.

There has, as yet, been no dreaded “vote of confidence”, for which small mercy Thomas Christiansen, our likeable Head Coach, may perhaps breathe a small sigh of relief. But a warning shot has definitely been fired across the bows of the Leeds staff, both playing and coaching. Once the top man identifies a deficiency in the Spirit and Passion Department, then something most definitely has to be done. The only one of the Holy Trinity of pro qualities not identified was “commitment” and, based on the Cup showing at Newport, that was most probably an oversight on Andrea’s part.

One way or another, the mood around the club has just been amply clarified in resoundingly emphatic terms; following momentous words like that, some sort of decisive action can usually be anticipated. It should be an interesting next few weeks down LS11 way.

Cardiff Revisited for Leeds as Whites Crash Out of Cup at Newport – by Rob Atkinson

South Wales

South Wales: Leeds United’s 21st Century FA Cup graveyard

An early lead in the FA Cup Third Round for Leeds United in an away tie in South Wales, live on TV. A sending off for our talismanic blond striker, then a late winner for opponents many places below us in the league ladder. A classic Cup shock, to the delight of the media and the nation as a whole. Yes – that was the fate of Leeds United 16 years and one day ago at Cardiff City. And today at Newport County, the same grisly circumstances played themselves out all over again as history eerily repeated itself to leave United stunned and “free to concentrate on the League”. For Alan Smith, read Samu Saíz. For Ninian Park, read Rodney Parade. The joyous celebrations in the media and around the nation remain identical.

On that previous occasion, United’s League position could not have been better – top of the Premier League pile with the Title in their sights. Today, the situation is of comparative poverty, with Leeds in and around the Championship play-off places after an inconsistent first half of the League campaign. Exiting the FA Cup is no tragedy, it’s happened once a year for the past 46 seasons. What we must hope is that the League slump, which followed United’s virtually identical Cup defeat 16 years ago, is not now replicated by Thomas Christiansen‘s troops. In that regard, it will clearly be seen that the sending-off of late and needless sub Saíz is far more potentially damaging to Leeds than an almost predictable Cup cock-up.

The really worrying thing was that, yet again, so many of the fringe players were found wanting when asked to step up and take their chances. We all know there’s a certain pressure that goes with the territory of playing for a club like Leeds, where expectations are always higher than attainments and the weight of history can be a heavy burden on young shoulders. But this fact has to inform player recruitment; it has to be a factor when targets are identified. Quality is essential, and will become ever more so as and when Leeds move upwards. But character and guts, with the ability to handle the goldfish-bowl environment and the glare of publicity – these are vital too, and it would seem that, in too many current squad members, those characteristics – epitomised today by lone warrior and scorer Gaetano Berardi – are sadly lacking.

Despite the uncanny similarity of the two South Wales FA Cup exits, 16 years apart, there’s no hiding the fact that the squad defeated at Cardiff was light years ahead of the current bunch in skill, character, attitude, desire – all the components of a successful football unit. That’s the gulf we have somehow to bridge over the next few years, if we’re to usher in our second century in a state befitting the history and global fame of this great club. On the evidence of the entire campaign so far – and in particular, based on the unpalatable offering we had to digest against Newport on Sunday lunchtime – there are light years still to travel, and this at a time when the clubs at the top of the game are streaking further away from the also-rans at an increasing speed.

By common consent, this squad – as a whole – is simply not good enough, and it will take more than boardroom platitudes to deal with that fact. The defeat at Cardiff was the start of a long and slippery slope for United. The best we can wish here and now is that the defeat at Newport might yet be part of the process whereby, slowly and painfully though it may be, Leeds United somehow contrive a return to something like their previous illustrious heights.

Leeds Vibrant Attacking Brand Outshining Most of Premier League   –   by Rob Atkinson


One thing we often hear presented as fact, when it’s actually merely one of those little pieces of fiction so beloved of corporate marketing types, is the alleged “gulf in class” between the Championship league and the more glittery and relentlessly hyped English Premier League. As with most of these glib generalisations, there’s an element of truth in there but – as is so often the case – it just ain’t as simple as that. 

In reality, the top teams in the Championship in any given season will give the bulk of the Premiership a good game and a run for their money a fair chunk of the time. The real gulf in class is between the Premier League élite – an exclusive band of five or six major, moneyed giants of the game – and the rest of the top flight who simply can’t hold a candle to the brilliance of the billionaires. Between these Premier League also-rans and the major contenders at the top end of the Championship, the margins are far finer. 

This weekend just gone has been a case in point. After witnessing Leeds United’s virtuoso 5-0 demolition of Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion, I then sat through two televised Premier League games on Sunday, of quite mind-numbing boredom and ineptitude, where the standard of play was palpably inferior to the fare served up by Thomas Christiansen’s troops on Saturday. First Burnley edged out Crystal Palace through a Chris Wood gift goal, then Newcastle shaded a turgid contest at Swansea. Currently, I’m watching West Ham struggle against newly-promoted Huddersfield, in a game of barely better quality than the first two. It wasn’t a Super Sunday in the EPL, and so far it’s not exactly a Magic Monday either. Despite the propaganda of the EPL, this is anything but unusual. 

Of course, most fans will already be aware that talk of uniform excellence in the top flight is merely wishful thinking with a view to selling The Brand. A glance at the EPL odds on any given weekend will show that those in the know expect the Newcastles and Huddersfields of the Premier League to be soundly sorted out anytime they play one of the real big boys, or even some of the secondary pack such as Southampton or Everton. The Premier League is really two mismatched leagues in one, and it can be carnage when excellence meets mediocrity. The same is not true when Championship contenders play top flight strugglers. 

The essential truth that has emerged from the opening part of the season is that this year’s emerging Championship aristocrats, our own Leeds United, have produced football to surpass anything Sky has shown live these past few days. I looked at the two Sunday games in the warm afterglow of that scintillating Elland Road display, and I knew – I just knew – that United could have seen off any of those four teams. The same applies to tonight’s combatants, on the evidence of the first half. 

And it’s not only this season, either. The overblown myth of Premier League superiority has been pierced and deflated on a few occasions in LS11 these past few years, by United sides with much less swagger than the current squad. Spurs, Gareth Bale and all, fell at Leeds in the FA Cup, the same season Everton were beaten in the League Cup. Lesser manifestations of Leeds than our heroes of Saturday have faced nominally higher-grade opposition, and have generally done OK. Other Championship clubs can report similar successes. It doesn’t fit in with the Premier League “we are da BEST” narrative, but it’s a fact nonetheless.

The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the eating – and my contention will be put to the test at Burnley in the Carabao Cup shortly. But I honestly expect us to give a good account of ourselves, due to my conviction that Leeds United’s football this term has been a cut above much of what we’ve seen from the middle and lower echelons of the so-called “élite”. 

We shall see. But, whenever you can bear to tear your eyes away from the spectacular style and verve of Leeds United’s current performance levels, take a look at some of the Premier League dross being shown live by satellite. I’m pretty sure any objective judge, as well as we blinkered Whites fanatics, would concede that I’ve got a point. 

                                       -o0o-

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Leeds Graduate With a 2:1 At Cambridge, But At a Price – by Rob Atkinson

mowatt

Mowatt – winner

When the story of this season is written, the worth of last night’s narrow squeak FA Cup victory at Cambridge United will be capable of objective assessment. As things stand right now, you’d have to say it’s unlikely to be of much if any intrinsic value; it may even be that the net effect upon our campaign will be decidedly negative.

On the credit side of the ledger, yet another fine second-half performance to paper over the cracks of yet another slow start, and this time it was the shadow squad that proved itself able to pick up its game. The downside is there for all to see; a tenth booking of the season for the iconic Pontus Jansson will deprive Leeds United of his services for two vital and rather tricky league games in Derby at home and Barnsley away. Jansson’s obvious deputy, Liam Cooper, also picked up an injury that may well see him sidelined for Friday. Given those painful drawbacks, the “reward” of a fourth round trip to past Cup opponents Wimbledon or Sutton United seems more of a booby prize than anything to exult over. Last night’s may have been a Pyrrhic victory – although at least it cut the rest of the footballing world off in mid-gloat.

The first half of any Leeds game is becoming a matter of some concern. Whatever team takes the field for United appears unable to come out of the blocks in full-on battle mode, and manager Garry Monk is having to do some sterling work in his half-time team talks. So far, that interval helping of bollockings/encouragement has more often than not done the trick; certainly last night Leeds were a different team in the second half and Cambridge were duly blown away after dominating the first 45 minutes. Some wags have suggested only half jokingly that Monk should deliver his half-time peroration before the team trots out at the start of the match, and you can sort of see why. But, looking at the positives of the manager’s input, it would seem he is adept at diagnosing the faults in a first-half performance and then remedying those faults, rather than deficient in his timing. The next step, presumably, is to eliminate the faults from the start – but that’s all part of the learning curve necessary for any “young group”.

In the event, goals from Stuart Dallas and Alex Mowatt saved United’s blushes, or at least postponed them till later in the competition. Now, with the serious business of accumulating more league points a priority, Leeds have to address the imminent problem of an in-form Derby County side managed by our bogeyman coach Schteve “Dutch” McClaren. In the certain absence of Jansson, whose weird pending permanent transfer has now been put back until perilously late in the window, and the probable absence of dead leg victim Cooper, it may be a case of asking Luke Ayling to slot in next to Kyle Bartley in central defence, with Coyle and/or Denton stepping up to one or both of the full-back berths. Not ideal against stiff opposition.

We will know more fully after the next two Pontus-less Championship games at what price this FA Cup progress has been secured, and we’ll just have to hope that it was a price worth paying. Four points out of Derby and Barnsley, two highly-motivated, Leeds-hating, chip-on-the-shoulder obstacles, and we’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to the next round for the fascination of revisiting Cup opponents past. Fingers crossed that last night’s damage really can be limited to the loss of a mere two points. 

Leeds’ Oxford Graduate Roofe Can Take Cup Honours at Cambridge   –   by Rob Atkinson

roofe

The trouble with FA Cup ties, for clubs challenging for league honours in particular, is that the kind of side which will take the field for the knockout game is a matter of some uncertainty. It’s the kind of match a wise manager will use to “give game time to fringe players” or “fully utilise the squad”. In other words, don’t be surprised if the eleven on duty for the Cup is significantly weaker than the team to contest that vital promotion six-pointer.

All of which means that it’s difficult to predict Garry Monk‘s intentions for Leeds United‘s 3rd Round FA Cup clash away at Cambridge United. We might speculate that Rob Green will get the evening off, and doubtless there will be other changes from league normality. But one player most Leeds fans would love to see involved, with the aim of continuing his Elland Road settling-in process, is summer signing from Oxford United, Kemar Roofe.

Roofe shone at Oxford last season in the less demanding surroundings of League Two, scoring for fun and generally tearing the division apart. He finished as League Two Player of the Year. At Leeds, in the hurly-burly of the Championship, Kemar didn’t find his feet straight away – but just lately, he’s shown what a class act he undoubtedly is, with more than a few signs of the kind of explosive talent that made him such a hot property last year.

Against lower league opposition in the Cup, a side in Cambridge who will surely be up for it, and who are in rather good form themselves, it would be a golden chance for Roofe to persecute the kind of defence he was making hay against last term. As a confidence booster – and assuming all goes to plan – this sort of tie could be ideal. It might also be a chance to have a longer look at how Roofe could combine with the likes of Marcus Antonsson, a £2m striker who has been so peripheral to Leeds’ recent success story. That kind of Plan B assessment is vital, when the main men could be struck down by injury at any time.

This season more than most, the FA Cup will be running a poor second to the league in United’s priority list. Promotion has to be the aim that eclipses all others, and the sparkling Whites form has put them into a position where they’re ideally placed to challenge, not just for a play-off spot, but even (whisper it) for automatic promotion. This being the case, it will almost certainly be the task of the less regular league performers to dispose of Cambridge. Nevertheless, out of respect for worthy opponents if for no other reason, there will have to be a sprinkling at least of first teamers. The case for making Roofe one of these is strong; he’s young, fit and just beginning to look like a real prospect. If he can help put Cambridge to the sword, then that would be a significant step on the way to being a big hit in what could be a very big season for Leeds.

There’s still a magic to the Cup, despite the shoddy way it tends to get treated by certain clubs these days. It’s up to Leeds to make use of their resources in such a way that progress in the competition can be secured by beating a very competitive Cambridge side. The United squad has shown already that it can cope with knockout football, even succeeding in a couple of penalty shootouts. The foundations are in place for another cup run if we show we want it badly enough; those foundations just need to be topped off by defensive walls, windows of attacking opportunity which could open the door to the 4th round, and – last, but not least – that all-important Roofe.

The Hillsborough Disaster Warnings That Weren’t Heeded – by Rob Atkinson

Hillsborough - an Anfield tribute

Hillsborough – an Anfield tribute

Incredibly, 27 years have flashed past already, since that awful spring day in 1989, when 96 football fans turned up to follow their team towards Wembley – and never came home again. I was one of a paltry 14,915 at Elland Road that day, watching Leeds United eke out a 1-0 home win over Brighton as Sgt. Wilko’s first half-season meandered to an uneventful close. When the news filtered through that there had been “trouble” in the semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, the initial reaction was as predictable as it was wide of the mark: “the scousers are at it again.” Heysel was still fresh in the memory, English clubs were still banned from Europe – and nobody judges football fans quite like other football fans (or, at least, so we thought until the Sun got going). We were tolerably certain, as a bunch of Leeds supporters, that the Liverpool fans had caused more bother, and we glumly predicted another indiscriminate backlash that would envelop us all.

As we were on our way out of Elland Road, though, the full, awful impact started to hit home. There were deaths – people had actually died at an English football stadium – something that hadn’t happened on anything like this scale before. Apart from the Bradford fire – a very different disaster – the only comparable event in England had been the Burnden Park tragedy at Bolton, when 33 had lost their lives in a crush at a hopelessly inadequate ground with over 85,000 attending an FA Cup quarter final. That had been well over a generation before, in 1946. Surely, it couldn’t really be happening again, on an even greater scale, in the shiny bright late eighties?

But as we looked on in horror, the TV and radio news brought increasingly sombre statistics while the death toll steadily mounted – and later the sheer ghastliness of the event would be magnified as the tale of criminal incompetence and official negligence was revealed – and as the filthy end of the press, abetted by weaselling functionaries in Government and the Civil Service, jumped on the “blame the fans” bandwagon that other football supporters had vacated as soon as the scale and nature of the catastrophe became apparent.

If you were a Leeds United fan, a chill ran through you when you thought about what had happened; when you realised that this had, indeed, been a disaster waiting to happen. The Hillsborough Stadium was so oriented that the organising authorities found it easier, more convenient, to allocate stands to the fans of opposing semi-finalists based on where the bulk of those fans were travelling from. So, in 1989, Forest got the large Kop End, while the much larger Liverpool contingent were shovelled into the Leppings Lane End behind the opposite goal. It was the same the year before, when the same two teams contested the 1988 semi-final. And, similarly, in 1987, when Coventry of the Midlands faced Leeds United of the North, the greater Leeds numbers found themselves packed tight in Leppings Lane, while the smaller Coventry band enjoyed the wide open spaces on the Hillsborough Kop.

So two years prior to the Hillsborough Disaster, I and thousands of others were packed into the smaller Leppings Lane End on that April the 12th of 1987. The atmosphere was electric; it was United’s first FA Cup semi for ten years and Billy Bremner‘s men had been in terrific form as they challenged for a double of the Cup and promotion to the old Division One. We were jammed in like sardines on that terrace; looking up you could see fans climbing out of the back of the crowd, up over the wall and into the upper tier of the stand where space was more freely available.

Down on the packed terrace, it was swaying, singing fever pitch from before the kick-off right through to the heart-breaking climax of extra time. You weren’t an individual, you were part of a seething mass that moved as one, shouted and sang as one and breathed – when it could – as one. When Leeds scored their two goals, it was mayhem in there – you couldn’t move, you couldn’t breathe, you just bobbed about like a cork on stormy waters, battered by the ecstasy of the crowd, loving it and, at the same time, just a bit worried about where your next gulp of oxygen was coming from. Leeds took the lead early, David Rennie scoring down at the far end. That shattering celebration was topped when, having gone 2-1 behind, Leeds clawed it back right in front of us as Keith Edwards headed an equaliser and the United army exploded with joy. It was the single most jubilant and yet terrifying moment of my life to that point.

Later, after the match was over, as we trailed away despondently from the scene of an heroic defeat, there was time to reflect on what had been an afternoon of highs and lows, with the physical reaction of that epic few hours inside a pressure cooker swiftly setting in. With the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, it’s easy enough now to look back over twenty-nine years and think: “Yes, we were lucky.” Lucky that the incompetence threshold wasn’t passed that day when we were there. Lucky that enough of the terrace fans got into the upper tier to relieve the pressure ever so slightly – was that a factor?  So lucky that it wasn’t us, when it easily could have been. Lucky, ultimately, to be alive and kicking still. The warning signs were there – they just weren’t perceived by those of us – the fans – for whom it had just been another somewhat uncomfortable but thrilling spectator experience. That those signs weren’t recognised or heeded by the people responsible for public safety is a far more damning fact.

Poignantly enough, the luck we’d had that day wasn’t shared by 96 Liverpool supporters two years later. They set off happily, to support their heroes – and, tragically, they never returned. Twenty-seven years on, the wait for justice has been torturous for all concerned. The families and friends left behind, veterans of over a quarter of a century of grief and loss, have never given up their courageous fight, despite cover-ups and official brick walls, despite scurrilous press coverage which reached an obscene and disgusting low point with the Sun – that vanguard of the gutter press – and its sickening lies. 

Now, there is an inquest verdict at last. We have the official findings of unlawful killing and, surely there is finally justice for The 96. And indeed for all of the friends and family they left behind. Yet, even now, with the South Yorkshire Police Force unreservedly accepting the inquest findings, we still have the likes of Thatcher aide Bernard Ingham refusing to apologise for his own scandalous remarks in the wake of the disaster, now utterly discredited as he himself has been. There is no remorse or regret from Ingham, who stands as a symbol of official ignorance and deceit. All he is good for now, this bitter, bigoted old man, is sitting at home and growing his comedy eyebrows.

Twenty-seven years is far too long for anyone bereaved of their loved ones to wait – but justice is worth waiting for, if only so that the dead can sleep more peacefully and the living can have closure of a sort – and move on with the business of being alive. And – as a footnote – how appropriate it would now be if Liverpool FC could go on to win the Europa League after that thrilling victory over Borussia Dortmund – just for the families, the friends and those that were lost on that fateful day and in its aftermath..

There could be no finer or more fitting tribute to The 96, surely, than this long-awaited justice that has been served today – and the return of the Champions League football to Anfield.

Let it be.