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Count On Leeds United to Knock the Canaries From Their Perch – by Rob Atkinson

The only good Canaries are dead Canaries

The only good Canaries are dead Canaries

If Leeds United‘s topsy-turvy season runs true to form, then tomorrow’s visitors Norwich City might just have a nasty surprise waiting for them at Elland Road. The Whites have already sent a few Championship high-flyers home, pointless and wondering what happened, in a season that has seen them generally under-perform. The challenge of promotion-chasing opponents, though, has frequently brought out the best in United on home soil – as Middlesbrough Ironopolis, Bournemouth and Derby County could readily testify.

Norwich would be a welcome scalp as far as United’s long-suffering fans are concerned. As a club, they’ve behaved towards Leeds in a decidedly uppity fashion over the past few years, taking advantage of a rare spell of league superiority to asset-strip our squad on an unpleasantly regular basis. While it’s true to say that Fulham have acted in much the same way, and more recently too, it’s also true that Leeds had Fulham for mugs over Ross McCormack‘s transfer, which has tended to mollify folks at this end. No such consolation where our backwoods, carrot-crunching friends are concerned; they’ve been really quite rude about openly enjoying raiding us and nicking off with some of our best players – as well as Bradley Johnson.

There was also that nasty little business earlier in the season, when serial victim Cameron Jerome made one of his occasional, ill-grounded racial abuse allegations against United player Giuseppe Bellusci. Jerome’s accusations on this occasion were so lacking in any supporting evidence that a Leeds player actually got off on a charge against him; something that hasn’t happened since before the Grand Canyon was formed. Norwich City, oddly, publicly supported their player despite the total lack of any corroborating evidence – and continued this stance even after the League verdict. Still, justice was done in the end – and Jerome sulked. It will be interesting to see if any lingering grudges are settled one way or the other tomorrow evening.

For Leeds, with Head Coach Neil Redfearn having thrown down the gauntlet to his team following a pallid display against Cardiff, the team’s make up is anyone’s guess. Redders could challenge as near as possible the same XI to redeem themselves, or he could ring the changes. Either way, a Norwich side strengthened by the absence of suspended ex-White Johnson might be expected to have too much for a Leeds side shaken by recent events and lacking both motivation and morale – so it might appear.

Just bear in mind that habit of being party-poopers, though. Against all logic, it would be no great surprise to see Leeds emerge from their gloom and turn the Canaries into so many bones and feathers tomorrow. We’ll keep our fingers crossed at Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything Towers – and make an only slightly tongue-in-cheek prediction of 3-1 to Leeds.

Oh – and Steve Morison to score…. FINALLY.

 

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Are Buoyant Leeds United Facing a Blackpool Banana Skin? – by Rob Atkinson

The Mighty Tangerines celebrate one of their three throw-ins this season

The Mighty Tangerines celebrate one of their three throw-ins this season

With the kind of run Leeds United have been on lately – and, it must be said, the not exactly dominant or decisive way in which those positive results have been gained – a trip to Blackpool might just hold more in the way of a dirty great banana-skin than the long-advertised “fresh air and fun” for our Warriors in White.

That is not to say that Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything expects or would willingly accept anything less than a breezy win against the division’s whipping boys. It’s just that – well, we’ve all been here before; Leeds have this endearing habit of nicking results against the odds, or even disposing of league high-flyers as we’ve done home and away with AFC Bournemouth and Middlesbrough Ironopolis. And then, drat them all to hell and back, they go and let you down against opposition they should be rolling over and stomping into the earth. They’re a contrary mob, our Leeds – coupon-busters more often than most, and not always in a good way.

Even so, it’s difficult to see how United might contrive to lose this one, or even be held to a draw. It’s got victory written all over it; I’ve seen social media conversations devoted entirely to the knotty issue of whether we’ll prevail by five clear goals, or only four. They rightly say that pride goeth before a fall, but that’s not just pride we’re talking about there. It’s dangerously close to hubris or, as we say in the Broad Acres, proper beggin’ for a smack in t’gob. Should such a smack arrive, as would hardly be a surprise to those hard-bitten cynics among us who are students of the many and varied ways in which Leeds United can manage to lose a game, then perhaps those youthful and over-confident denizens of the internet might just consider keeping their injured gobs shut in the future.

All of that verges dangerously on the needlessly pessimistic; perhaps subconsciously this blog is attempting to ward off a negative result at Blackpool by attempting some reverse psychology with the Fates who decide this sort of thing. In reality, Blackpool are where they are – all but actually relegated, well before Easter – because they’re an ill-run club with an inadequate playing staff who have struggled against just about everybody this campaign. The Tangerines are so far behind in the Championship that the likes of Watford and Bournemouth have both lapped them at least once – and the relegation fight has long been a question of Blackpool and two others.

Leeds appear to have learned how to win ugly; Blackpool don’t seem to know one end of a football from the other. On paper, it should be boys against men – with our gallant troops ending up being castigated in the Lancashire Press for unseemly bullying and an unsporting lack of mercy. Would that it might be so. Without wishing to sound spoiled, the experience of seeing our lads hand out a good sound thrashing without once being troubled would be balm to the nerves. Wednesday’s 3-0 win at Fulham was anything but comfortable once you looked beyond the scoreline. What we need now is to go that extra mile and absolutely batter someone.

As if Blackpool’s problems aren’t already severe enough, their sketchy squad is weakened still further by several likely absentees for this weekend. Lugubrious Geordie manager Lee Clark, looking to end a run of six straight defeats, will probably miss Tom Barkhuizen for the game. The 21 year old picked up a foot injury in the loss to Charlton Athletic, and Clark explained, “Tom took a nasty whack on the top of his foot, so he’ll probably not be available for us. He hasn’t trained at all since Charlton.” Jamie O’Hara and Niall Maher are also ruled out for the game and Tony McMahon is suspended. “We are what we are tomorrow,” concluded Clark, glumly.

For Leeds, there is some chance of a first view at this level of January loan signing Granndi Ngoyi, with Rudy Austin also a possible returnee. Steve Morison is pushing for a recall against opposition that even he will fancy scoring against, and youngster Kalvin Phillips will continue to press for a Whites début at some stage. Some Blackpool fans are reportedly boycotting the match in protest at the running of the club, favouring a North West Counties Premier Division encounter instead of more probable Championship pain. It’s to be hoped that their pessimism is justified and that this blog’s wishes of royally tonking someone might be granted on Saturday by the seaside.

And yet that horrible banana-skin vision persists, so I’m not even going to stick my neck out far enough for a score prediction. Braver souls than I are cordially invited to give their own confident result forecasts below…

Leeds United To Make Winning Start to 2014? – by Rob Atkinson

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Happy New Year

For the second year in a row, Leeds have rounded off twelve months of little real achievement on the pitch by sliding to defeat – last year it was a 2-0 drubbing at Hull City, this time around a slightly tighter affair at the City Ground saw us edged out by Nottingham Forest, courtesy of a late screamer from Matt Derbyshire after we’d fashioned what seemed like a point-saver from Ross McCormack.

It would be slightly rude of our heroes, then, not to avail themselves of the chance presented by a home fixture against Blackburn to get the New Year off to a positive and optimistic start. Three points against mid-table dwellers Rovers would very neatly sum up the mood in which United and most of its fans are starting 2014. A takeover is due to be ratified “imminently”. Signings are in the air, possibly costing actual money. Recent stand-out performer Marius Zaliukas has been handed an improved contract, something to gladden the heart of any White who has marvelled at his sterling work at the core of our defence. Things are looking pretty good with the likelihood of them getting even better – so surely Leeds can reflect this and send a 30,000 plus crowd home happy today by routing the Rovers?

The other side of that coin, of course, is that victory for Blackburn would haul them within a point of United, making both teams part of the pack chasing the play-off spots as opposed to being in there and consolidating. But, enough of that. This preview shall be informed by the prevalent air of optimism; no more defeatist talk.

Such a bullish mood must survive some slightly worrying team news as goalkeeper Paddy Kenny and attacking hero and demigod Ross McCormack both face late checks on injuries picked up in Nottingham. Kenny suffered a heavy blow on the ankle early in the piece, and had to delegate goal-kicking duties to Super Marius. McCormack was feeling a tight hamstring late on, and his importance to the team simply cannot be over-stressed.

More positively, teenager Alex Mowatt may be able to resume his midfield duties after being rested since coming off with a back problem during the Barnsley match. An injection may have helped the youngster overcome this discomfort, and his creativity and poise would be welcome after two matches in which United have struggled to create a great deal.

Blackburn will be without suspended Jason Lowe, while Corry Evans (ankle) and Todd Kane (thigh) are injury absentees. Rovers may welcome back David Dunn and Josh King as they seek to complete a double over United.

Having predicted defeat at Forest, I will be hoping to continue some rare good form as a pundit, because I’m calling this one as a 2-0 home win. The clean sheet would be a bonus, but really any kind of victory would do as we seek to get the new year – and the second half of the season – off to the best possible start. I’ll tip McCormack and Smith to do the damage and send Leeds off into Cup football with a 100% record in the league for 2014. Happy New Year!

40 Years On, England Can Banish the Spectre of “Clown” Tomaszewski – by Rob Atkinson

Wembley:  England Expects

Wembley: England Expects

Wembley on Tuesday will see England’s latest attempt to exorcise one of the troublesome ghosts that haunts their under-achieving past. The name of the spectre is Jan Tomaszewski, still happily alive and kicking his way through dual careers in Poland as football coach and legislator for justice. But the Polish keeper’s outstanding display in defying the big guns of England that far-off Wembley night had massive repercussions for the game in this country and a ripple effect that is felt even today.

Consider the myriad “what ifs” that radiate outwards from the impact crater of that momentous qualifying tie. What if…..England had won? First and most obviously, it is highly likely that Sir Alf Ramsey would have continued in his job, quite possibly after the 1974 World Cup Finals with a view to leading England in the European Championships of 1976, ten years after his triumphant World Cup campaign on home soil. Maybe then there would have been several more years of Don Revie at Leeds, and no catastrophic mismatch of talents with the frankly silly idea of a lonely Brian Clough, deprived of his mate Pete’s steadying influence, at a hostile Elland Road; possibly even an early renaissance for Brighton as Clough and Taylor worked their combined magic on the south coast – and would we ever have heard of Nottingham Forest again?

Such cause-and-effect speculation is an entertaining way to beguile an idle hour, and intriguing alternate reality scenarios readily conjure themselves up. Leeds were reigning Champions that 1974/75 season and still a force – but weakened and demoralised by the toxicity and rancour of Clough’s brief, turbulent reign. Who knows what benefits might have accrued from a few years more continuity? A European Cup, perhaps, in 1975 and a sympathetic transition from one great Revie side at Elland Road to another? A consequent lessening of Liverpool’s domination through the later seventies and the whole of the eighties? And on the international scene – success for England in the Euros of 76 with qualification for Argentina in 78 and a good chance of being the first European side to lift the World Cup in South America? The possibilities are almost endless and the fact that they failed to come about has its roots at Wembley in 1973.

Remember the key moment: Hunter misses a tackle near halfway and Poland spring forward. Shilton is beaten with uncharacteristic ease at his near post and England are one down in a game they must win. Now Tomaszewski, labeled a clown prior to the match by Clough – frankly Brian, it always was Taylor that was the better judge of a player – Jan Tomaszewski played the game of his life to thwart attack after Three Lions attack. Beaten only by an Allan Clarke penalty, the Clown left the field of battle triumphant, his country bound for West Germany ’74 while England dined on the bitter fruits of recrimination and disappeared from the world stage until 1982.

In many ways, the scene is set similarly forty years on. England must win to ensure qualification, though the possible safety net of a second-place play-off chance sways reassuringly below them. The press have the game as a must-win though, and doubtless a certain 65 year old former Polish goalkeeper will be invited to help with the build-up, recalling all those saves he made from Currie, Bell, Clarke and the rest, to ensure that clowns would haunt the nightmares of England fans for the foreseeable future.

The big difference of course is that four decades ago, it was dog eat dog and devil take the hindmost. Poland needed a draw to qualify, England needed to win. The stakes were high for both sides. On Tuesday at a newer Wembley and with England, needing the win, nicely warmed up by their demolition of Montenegro, their old adversaries will not be similarly motivated. Poland’s defeat in the Ukraine means that their hopes of progression even via the play-offs have disappeared; they have only pride to play for.

That should always be motivation enough in the nationalist fervour of representative football, but England’s more material incentives will probably see them carry the day. And there will after all be no stubborn clown between the Polish sticks on Tuesday to banish English hopes and break English hearts. 1973 and all that was a long, long time ago.

No Wins for Bolton, No Goals for Beckford – Banana Skin for Leeds United at the Weekend? – by Rob Atkinson

Beckford - Eager to Get Off the Mark

Beckford – Eager to Get Off the Mark

The game that faces Leeds on Saturday at Bolton’s Reebok Stadium is the kind of fixture guaranteed to bring out the inner pessimism at the core of the Leeds United fans’ collective psyche. Bolton Wanderers prop up the Championship table, winless and apparently hapless. Jermaine Beckford, a man with a permanent place in the affections of the Leeds support, has made only a handful of appearances in the league for his new club, failing to find the net and looking short on confidence as well as long on nerves. It’s the kind of opening to a season which puts Leeds’ own steady if unspectacular start into context – but are Bolton really that bad? And shouldn’t we maybe worry that the script is written here for Beckford to start endearing himself to a new set of fans?

That’s the glass-half-empty view. Really though, this game should provide a brilliant opportunity for the Whites to build upon a respectable away record this season. The victory at Ipswich was a bit of a smash-and-grab raid, with the home side having dominated plenty of the game. The match at Leicester was a battle of attrition, and both sides appeared that evening more intent on not losing, than inspired by any urgent desire to secure all three points. It’s time that Leeds hit the road with the express ambition of bringing home a victory and motivated to put in an emphatic performance to deserve the win. Brian McDermott has spoken this week of the need for Leeds to express themselves a little more; to get on the ball and “do their stuff”. This sounds like the kind of mindset which could start to produce a few more positive results, though obviously the instruction to start taking a few risks needs to be interpreted judiciously – we can’t afford to start shipping goals.

The prospect of facing Jermaine Beckford again is intriguing. He produced one less-than-committed performance against Leeds in Leicester colours, seeming more preoccupied by acknowledging the tributes from the Elland Road fans than by any genuine desire to score against us. Beckford has been a peripheral figure for his new club but – that Leicester performance apart – there is the feeling that he’s the kind of player who could find extra motivation against former employers. The lure of breaking his league duck for Bolton, giving them their first league victory in the process and easing the pressure on his manager, former Leeds loanee Dougie Freedman, might appeal to his striker’s sense of theatre. Fingers crossed that, if he does make an entrance, he’ll obligingly fluff his lines.

The other figure in the Bolton ranks that will interest Leeds fans more than somewhat would be Matt Mills, linked with a sentimental return to the guidance of Brian McDermott for most of the recently-closed transfer window. If anything, he’s even more of a bit-part player for Bolton than Beckford has been, rolled out only in the direst emergency and it seems certain that his future still lies elsewhere.

Leeds will not be too downhearted by the nature of their defeat last time out to likely champions QPR. Against a collection of players costing many times the value of the Leeds squad, they battled well and it would not have been a travesty had Rudy Austin’s late screamer earned them a point instead of careening off the crossbar. If the Whites can take encouragement from that game into the one at the Reebok, then a three-point haul from this game is distinctly possible, and they may well be worth a punt at realistic odds of 5-2. But still there is that hint of the banana skin about the match. McDermott’s exhortations towards more freedom of expression and a few more risks notwithstanding, Leeds will need to be careful and committed to avoid the embarrassment of falling victims to Bolton’s first win and Beckford’s first league goal.