Tag Archives: Sheffield United

Heroic Leeds Overcome Sheffield United, the League AND a Disgraceful Referee – by Rob Atkinson

Pablo celebrates after scoring United’s winner at Bramall Lane

There’s no such thing as a bad win away in a Yorkshire derby, but this 1-0 success for Leeds United at Bramall Lane was particularly sweet, and for reasons that transcended three very welcome points.

I might even go so far as to say that today’s win was every bit as satisfying as our last victory at this stadium, way back on 26th April 1992. Victory over the Blunts on that far-off Sunday proved sufficient for United to clinch the title of Last Champions, eventually finishing 4 points clear of what is now Manchester’s junior club. That was a great day – today’s result, fashioned out of adversity and good old-fashioned Football League corruption, had a savour all of its own.

As delighted as I was on the final whistle, I’d been snarling and raging at a lot of what had unfolded before me during the game, particularly a first half notable for the most abysmally atrocious refereeing performance you’ll see outside of United’s last two European finals. Referee Oliver Langford was so bad, you thought it had to be a joke or some surreal and paranoid dream. He looked on as McGoldrick of the Blunts stamped down on Mateusz Klich‘s shin in a classic over the ball challenge normally earning the perpetrator an early bath. Langford waved neither yellow nor red, he didn’t even blow for a foul. Whatever his agenda, such dereliction of duty exposed him as, at best, an incompetent fool; far more likely, given United’s treatment so far this season, he was simply as bent as any other corrupt official of this corrupt Football League, a body that seems to view its Last Champions not with veneration, but with cold hatred.

Langford wasn’t finished with Leeds in this comically bad first half display of persecution. Having booked Sheffield’s Enda Stevens after 25 minutes, he then contented himself with a mere warning for another blatantly bookable challenge; by this time I was chewing the carpet with frustration. The home side should have been reduced to 9 men by the interval, and could easily have been behind as a very decent penalty shout was ignored when Kemar Roofe was pushed and pulled out of the way in the Blunts box. And, just to add insult to injury, Kemar himself received a yellow for the heinous crime of turning his back to avoid a head to head collision. It was a Tinkleresque performance by the laughably bent Langford, and fans of a certain age will know exactly what I mean by that.

By half time, it seemed clear that I was going to get nothing out of watching this game apart from a headache, dangerously raised blood pressure and rear molars ground to powder. It’s fair to say I wasn’t looking forward to the second half.

And yet, it all came right in the end. Having endured yet more injury woe when losing skipper Liam Cooper after 21 minutes, to add to the various injustices listed above, United thoroughly deserved the two pieces of good fortune that eventually came their way. First, on 82 minutes, an overhit backpass had Blunts keeper Dean Henderson scrambling to stop the ball going out for a corner. All he managed to do was present sub Jack Clarke with an opportunity to put an open goal on a plate for Pablo Hernandez, a chance the Spanish wizard snapped up with relish, to the delight of the massed Whites in the stand behind.

And, as time ran out, Dame Fortune, that fickle jade, smiled on Leeds a second time, as a Conor Washington overhead effort beat United keeper Peacock-Farrell all ends up, but crashed against the crossbar instead of pegging Leeds back. So, we got the three points that one of the worst refs I’ve ever seen had tried so hard to deny us, and the very best of hard cheese to him, to Sheffield United and to the corrupt clowns of the Football League.

As for Leeds – the heartiest of congratulations on a win that showed character and guts in the measure needed by any team that knows it will have to battle against the odds to get anywhere. Based on today’s gritty and committed display, this Leeds United team might be about to sample a bit more of that title-winning glory that followed, with a little help from Liverpool, our previous success at Bramall Lane. Let it be.

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Gary Speed, the Leeds United Legend Who Ticked All the Boxes – by Rob Atkinson

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Gary Speed of Leeds United

Gary Speed, the Leeds United and Wales star who seemed to everyone who’d witnessed his talent on and off the pitch to have the football world at his feet, left us seven years ago today. Because of the manner of his leaving, and the universal esteem in which he was held, this is a difficult piece to write, even all these years later.

People have described hearing the shocking news of Gary’s death as a “JFK moment”; you’d always remember where you were and what you were doing when the awful reality fell on your unbelieving ears. As a Leeds United fan, I can remember feeling a cold splash of shock at the back of my neck, a sensation I’ve only had on a mercifully few occasions in my life. Even though Gary had left Elland Road for his boyhood love Everton 15 years before, it was a shattering blow, as it would have been for all of those who supported him in the colours of Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United, as well as the fervent ranks of Wales fans. It was so sudden, so unexpected and inexplicable, that a player and manager who seemed to have it all should have died at only 42 years old, and apparently by his own hand.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Gary Speed was loved and admired by just about everyone, fans of his clubs and country, and rival fans alike. Within the game he was revered by his colleagues, team mates, opponents and media operatives, for his likeability and professionalism; he was known as a man without the kind of faults and flaws you so frequently find in young men who have succeeded in their professions at a young age, and who have gone on to become rich and famous. Gary had all that, but he also had a disarming and genial personality that endeared him to those he met in the course of his career. Many were the tears shed, in private and in public too, over the days and weeks following his untimely demise. Nobody who saw it will forget the sight of Shay Given weeping openly after the minutes silence that preceded the Swansea v Aston Villa match only hours after Gary’s death had been announced. Respected reporter Bryn Law, a close friend of Speed, broke down emotionally during a TV interview in which he described his shock and sense of loss. To say that the whole game reeled with the impact of such tragic and unexpected news would not be to overstate the case. Gary’s memory was honoured when Leeds United played Millwall and his fellow midfielders from the 1991–92 title winning side Gary McAllister, David Batty and Gordon Strachan laid wreaths in the centre circle before kick off.

Bewilderment featured high on the list of reactions among those who knew him well, or who had even just known him as a famous footballer. The question of “Why?” has never been completely answered, the inquest stopping short of reaching a verdict of suicide, whilst acknowledging that Gary’s death had been caused by “self suspension”. Several years after Speed’s death, one of the coaches who had been involved with him as a boy footballer, Barry Bennell, was convicted as a serial child sex offender. Speed had been interviewed by police during earlier investigations into Bennell’s behaviour, and had said that he was never harmed by him; the inquest into Speed’s death found no links to Bennell. In February 2018, however, after Bennell’s conviction, an anonymous victim of the coach told Al Jazeera that he had witnessed Speed being abused. It seems unlikely that there will ever be a definitive explanation for the death of a man who had only the previous day conducted himself normally during a BBC Football Focus interview. All we are really left with, even seven years later, is shock, bafflement and a profound sense of loss.

Pg-11s-gary-speed-gettyMy memories of Gary Speed date from around the time of his Leeds United debut in 1989. He swiftly established himself as far more than just another promising midfielder, with his range of passing, awareness, powerful shot and prodigious ability in the air marked him out as a very special player. He served Leeds United well in a period of success second only to the Don Revie era, and he carried the respect and affection of the Leeds fans with him when he departed for Everton in 1996.

If I had to pick out one particular golden memory of Gary Speed, it would probably be the one so many other United fans mention when asked; the final goal of Leeds United’s 4-0 demolition of promotion rivals Sheffield United at Elland Road towards the climax of both clubs’ successful campaigns. It was a crunch game, with Leeds on the front foot from the start and, with the Whites having established a three goal cushion, Speed was released down the left by an astute Chris Kamara pass. I can still see him in my mind’s eye, outstripping the Blades defence and bearing down on Simon Tracey‘s goal at the Kop end of the ground. “Go on, Gary lad, get one yourself,” were the commentator’s memorable words as Speed unleashed a fine left foot shot just inside the far post to wrap up a comprehensive victory. It’s the stuff of which legends are made, and Gary Speed fits the definition of the word “legend” in every conceivable sense.

Seven years on, all of his fans remember him with affection tinged by the regret of a life well spent but over far too soon. Leeds play Reading tonight, and there will almost certainly be tributes paid to one of the club’s greatest servants – one of those rare players you felt could even have challenged for a place in Don Revie’s Super Leeds outfit.

RIP, Gary Andrew Speed, MBE (8 September 1969 – 27 November 2011) – still loved, still missed. 

Speed LUFC

Gary Speed’s complete Leeds United record

Leeds United Given a Penalty! FA Says “NOW are you happy??” – by Rob Atkinson

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…league games without a penalty for Leeds. And counting…

In what is likely to remain the most sensational football story of the year, a Leeds United team were awarded a PENALTY KICK (see para 5 of the definition below) earlier today, in a Professional Development League match away at Sheffield United.img_4539

An FA spokesman confirmed the spot kick award, explaining that the referee involved was evidently unaware of the current policy regarding Leeds United and penalties, but that he would be receiving training “as a matter of urgency”. The FA could only apologise, the spokesman added, for what was simply an unfortunate oversight.

A Football League source was more forthcoming, pointing out that they were aware of a social media campaign around the fact the United have not been awarded a penalty for 56 games stretching back over a year. “We at the Football League are cognisant of the fact that Leeds United were awarded a penalty during an Under-23s game today, and – while we cannot condone such a departure from official policy, we do at least join with our colleagues at the FA in the hope it will stop Leeds United and their irritating fans from whinging on about what is, quite frankly, a non-issue as far as we’re concerned. However, any Leeds fan hoping that today’s unfortunate occurrence will herald penalty kick awards for their team in Football League games would do well not to hold their breath”.

A joint FA/FL enquiry into today’s penalty award, now expected to be convened early next week, has been delayed pending mental health reports on the referee who made the decision.

The Football League, 130, is spectacularly corrupt.

 

Yorkshire Football Urgently Needs a Revival, and Only Leeds Can Do It – by Rob Atkinson

Pride

Yorkshire’s best and only hope – Leeds United

The frenzied scenes of celebration among Huddersfield fans, as their club narrowly avoided relegation from the Premier League, served mainly to put into sharp focus all that is wrong with Yorkshire football. And, much to the chagrin of any fan from the right side of the Pennines, there’s plenty wrong. Huddersfield saved their top-flight existence in much the same way as they’d earned it in last season’s play-offs – by hanging on grimly for draws and relying on slip-ups from others. It was a glory-free spectacle but, sadly, it’s the best the Broad Acres currently has to offer, which is a stinging indictment of the current state of all things football in God’s Own County.

When you look elsewhere in the county, the Sheffield clubs attained differing degrees of mediocrity, Leeds flattered to deceive and then reverted to type, Barnsley went down not with a bang but with a whimper – and the less said about the rest, the better. Perhaps Rotherham United might earn some glory for Yorkshire; that remains to be seen. The point is, the football performance of the Yorkshire area has been much the same as usual: when Leeds aren’t doing well, there’s nowt much going on. And so, while United remain in the doldrums, the best we can offer is the occasional play-off success or relegation escape. Compared to the fare being served up in parts of the lesser county to our west, where Manchester’s finest has emerged as the best team in Premier League history, this is a humiliating state of affairs.

The fact of the matter is that just about all of Yorkshire‘s footballing pedigree, such as it is, resides in LS11. The last two times that Leeds United have gone up to the top division, survival has been the last thing on their mind. On both occasions, they’ve gone up, had a brief and not exactly respectful look around to gauge the lie of the land, and then set about winning the thing, elbowing lesser mortals out of the way and imposing themselves brilliantly, much to the annoyance of media and rival fans alike.

This is the responsibility that Leeds United carries, nothing less than the pride and honour of the greatest county in the land. Nobody else will pick up that baton; nobody else can. It’s down to Leeds – if they can’t do it, it won’t be done. Things are different now as compared to those two previous promotions in 1964 and 1990. That twenty-six year span – the same gap, ironically, that now separates us from our most recent League Title – was the last hurrah of old style, ultra-competitive, strength in depth professionalism, when there wasn’t a six team cartel at the top of the league, monopolising the glory. To dominate in that era, as the Revie Boys did, when there was much less of a financial divide between the great and the not so great, was an achievement indeed. The way things are now, Leeds – in order to fulfil their destiny of salvaging Yorkshire pride – will have to place themselves on a comparable financial footing to the current behemoths of the game. To say that won’t be easy is to fall into the trap of hopeless understatement – yet, if United can just barge their way into the Premier League, there would be few  if any juicier investment opportunities than a one club city of enormous prestige and illustrious history.

So, there’s the challenge. And only at Elland Road, as far as Yorkshire is concerned, is there even the remotest expectation, never mind demand, that such a challenge should be accepted. Because at no other club in Yorkshire will it even occur to the fans or the directors that such a thing is possible. The ultimate aspiration for them is to survive at the top table, hoping to lick up some rich men’s crumbs. This is the lesson of the unbridled joy with which Huddersfield’s survival was greeted. For Leeds, this would be a humiliation they could not countenance; when United do go up, the demand and expectation will be for so much more. And rightly so, for that is our proud legacy.

However hard the task, however unlikely the chance of gatecrashing that elite group, it’s the hungry and imperious expectation of success, written into the DNA of the club and its fans, that makes Leeds United the only candidates to bring some football honour and respect back to Yorkshire. If Leeds United can’t deliver, then nobody will – and we must hope that Leeds Rhinos in Rugby League, and Yorkshire County Cricket Club too, can fulfil that urgent desire for honour and success. In White Rose football, it’s United first and the rest nowhere, just as much as it has always been; that’s the grave responsibility we carry, just by virtue of being Leeds.

With the club’s centenary approaching, it’s time to deliver on that responsibility. As the Great White Hope of an entire county, let’s grit our teeth, and get on with it.

Warnock’s 2006 Blades Provide Blueprint for Successful Leeds Promotion Bid – by Rob Atkinson

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Neil Warnock celebrates in 2006 with his promotion-winning battlers

I was watching one of those Neil Warnock half-time rant videos on YouTube the other evening, and reflecting on his undoubted ability as a rabble-rousing motivator. There’s a couple of well-known examples of these online, one during his time at Huddersfield Town when he berated his team while talking passionately about the fans who had travelled miles in the rain to support the Terriers. This was the clip that initially got me enthusiastic when “Colin” was appointed to the Leeds job; in the end, for a variety of reasons, Warnock was the right man at the wrong time for Elland Road, something that is good cause for profound regret.

Because, like him or hate him, Warnock is a winner. In the right circumstances (note that phrase well), he will fulfil the brief of getting promotion; he might not win many friends on the way, but give him the tools and he’ll finish the job. He’s doing it right now at Cardiff City, of all places. Wherever he is, he’s totally committed to success – although a lifelong Blade, his efforts at Bramall Lane were no more fervent than anywhere else he has been successful. He’s fanatically focused on getting the job done, building a team ethic, fostering the right spirit. He’ll do it with the support of the club’s board if he can, without if he has to. Only when the situation at a club is really toxic has he really found a job impossible. Note that phrase, too.

It was impossible at Elland Road for Warnock to create what he eventually created at Sheffield United. Even so, several nominally superior clubs came to Leeds and were slain in one or other of the two Cup competitions, notably Tottenham Hotspur, Gareth Bale included, who succumbed 2-1 to exit the FA Cup five years ago. Warnock had an effect at Leeds, but was eventually stymied by the regime in control, as just about every coach since has been. It’s galling to think that, if he‘d had the cooperation of the people in charge at Elland Road, we might now be a Premier League club. But the evidence is irrefutable. Wherever he’s gone, and been allowed to create his vision, success has eventually followed.

It took him a while at Bramall Lane, but when he got it right, the look of his team at work reminded me irresistibly of Wilko’s 1990 promotion winners. Remember that game against Sunderland at home, when the Mackems kicked off and Leeds had won possession and mounted an attack in the first few seconds? That team hunted the opposition down, harried them, left them nowhere to go and, eventually, overran them, I think it ended 5-0. The 2006 vintage Blades were very similar. The initial clip I’d watched of Colin bollocking his troops at half time led me on to a review of Sheffield United’s promotion campaign. Ironically, that year, they could only muster two 1-1 draws against Leeds; the previous season, when they just missed out on the play-offs, they beat us 2-0 in Sheffield, and absolutely walloped us 4-0 at Elland Road on the 30th anniversary of my first ever game there.

It’s instructive to watch that 2005/06 Blades review video, if you get the chance and can bear it. That team was the very model of a promotion-winning outfit, always at it, giving the other side not a second’s rest. The contrast with what I’ve seen lately from Leeds is stark and horrifying. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to see a fully-committed team in action; even though I’ve got no time for either Sheffield club, this was inspiring stuff. The defenders were grisly hard and completely uncompromising, the midfield was ever-busy, chasing down every ball and tackling like tigers, always with an eye for a telling pass; and the attackers – sharp and decisive, pouncing on half-chances, making channel runs until their legs turned to water, challenging for everything. Home and away, the Blades tide was usually irresistible – and when they did suffer a setback, they invariably bounced back. What would I give to see a Leeds United team perform like that?

Well, I did see it, when I was 28 years younger and had suffered eight years of thinly-attended dross in the old Division Two. Wilko’s Warriors were a team in the Warnock idiom; all of the qualities I saw in that Blades video were there in abundance with White shirts on and, with Strachan, Batty and the dearly-missed Gary Speed, three quarters of one of the greatest midfield fours ever was already in place by the end of that campaign.

It’s fashionable to look back on the Warnock era at Elland Road and deride the man as a failure. But previous history, as well as his subsequent achievements, expose that as arrant rubbish. Make no mistake, if anybody could have succeeded at Leeds, Warnock was that man. He has a PhD in getting teams, some quite unlikely teams, up into the elite. There, it becomes a different ball game, but Colin’s your man to get you to that point – and to pretend otherwise is an exercise in futility. If we really want to see a relentless juggernaut of a Leeds United team – and I think we all do – then someone of the Colin ilk is needed, if not the man himself.

Don’t get me wrong, on many levels I think the man is a disgrace, especially when he lets himself down as he did with the Wolves coach the other week. Although, apparently, he’s a nice enough bloke away from the football. But we don’t need nice, we desperately need some nasty son-of-a-bitch who’s going to motivate a squad of players to perform as a Leeds United side should perform. And for that to work, unfortunately, it’d probably need a sea-change in the way our club is run. How likely that is, I really wouldn’t like to ponder on too much, in case the answer should prove just too depressing.

If we want to see a difference next season – if we really yearn to see a new version of Wilko’s Warriors or even Colin’s Crusaders – then we should be wishing and agitating for change. Because, otherwise, all we’re likely to get is a further helping of the disgracefully dilettante and uncommitted poncing about that we’ve seen, and paid through the nose for, in the campaign now limping to a shameful conclusion.

In short, we need a hero. Maybe we’ll get one, some day. But just who will that man be?

Lasogga and Ekuban Would Give Leeds New Attacking Dimension – by Rob Atkinson

Ekuban Lasogga

Caleb Ekuban – ideal strike partner for Pierre-Michel Lasogga?

If I can be a little upbeat, without offending the Leonard Cohen drones and clones that infest the LUFC Twitter hashtag, I have to say I saw more positives in one slightly unlucky defeat at Sheffield United than I have in perhaps half a dozen victories we’ve eked out this turbulent season. There just seemed to be that little bit extra about some of the players, a bit of desire and composure, especially in the second half, that has been lacking since the earliest part of this Championship campaign. It wasn’t enough, after a disastrous start at Bramall Lane, to get any tangible reward from the clash of the two Uniteds – but, in the final analysis, Leeds were maybe a couple of highly debatable decisions away from getting Paul Heckingbottom‘s tenure as Head Coach off to the best possible start.

Still, that’s history now, and we’re left seeking to take what encouragement we can from an improved display, albeit in defeat, from Leeds United. One noticeable element fairly late on was the introduction of Caleb Ekuban, who was lively and threatening up front as he worked away, making his runs and contesting every ball. One thing this blogger would love to see over the rest of the season is a good run of games where Leeds play with a front two. It would take a better tactician than me to suggest the ideal formation behind a twin strike-force, but I do feel that Pierre-Michel Lasogga, despite his fairly impressive goal-scoring record, has not been used to the team’s best advantage when asked to fulfil a lone striker role. It doesn’t seem to me that this solitary workhorse thing  is his forte, and yet, on the occasions when he’s had some support in attack – usually in a crisis, such as 0-2 down to Millwall at Elland Road – Lasogga has suddenly looked full of menace. Ekuban, such a willing worker, appears to be the ideal foil for the big German, probably more so than the misfiring Kemar Roofe – and it’s surely only a matter of time before he, too, chips in with the goals. It would be well deserved; Ekuban’s current drought is not for the want of effort in his rare appearances between injuries so far.

Any input from the team shape experts out there would be genuinely welcome. 3-5-2? A diamond in midfield with Samu Saiz (when available) at the front of it, operating just behind Pierre and Caleb? It was a very wise man who once said that attack is the best form of defence, and I’m sure I’m not alone in my desire to see United go fully onto the offensive, making opponents too busy trying to stem our attacking tide, even to consider mounting a threat of their own. Yep, that would be nice.

So, what do others think? Do we have the personnel to play two up front? What’s the best balance for the team in that situation? Let’s have a heated debate. The play-offs pressure is largely off, now – unless the team suddenly gets its act together and moves up towards the top six. And, I’d venture to suggest, if that were to happen, it’d most likely be as a result of just such an attacking change of policy as I’ve suggested here.

Am I simply deluded? Do let me know.

Aggression, Consistency & Intensity: Heckingbottom’s Ethos is Leeds Through & Through – by Rob Atkinson

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Paul Heckingbottom: happy and honoured to be here

Paul Heckingbottom‘s performance as Head Coach in the first few days since his whirlwind move from Barnsley to Leeds United could hardly have gone better. Of course he’s only been talking the talk so far; the serious stuff, the walking of the walk, starts on Saturday, High Noon at Bramall Lane, with a Yorkshire Derby against Sheffield United. Still, in advance of that baptism of fire, the new Leeds boss has excelled as he set out his stall to players, press and fans, hammering home his message to great effect.

Let’s be in no doubt: for a Royston lad who grew up as a Barnsley fan hating Leeds United, Paul gets what our club is all about. His emphasis on qualities such as consistency, aggression and intensity could be taken from Page One of any United fanatic’s Leeds-supporting handbook. These are the ideals we hold dear, the characteristics we love and expect to be hated for. Without these principles, forged through blood, sweat and tears, there would be no modern Leeds United. They’re written into the DNA of the club – and now we have a man who appears to have the same list of attributes carved upon his heart.

It’s no mealy-mouthed recitation of what he knows we want to hear, either. The qualities espoused by Heckingbottom don’t fall from his mouth like lazy platitudes, but as the solid structure behind his footballing philosophy. Aggression with and without the ball. Consistency being the golden key to league success. Intensity, the way to the fans’ collective heart. These are the principles that can lead to success for what is a talented squad. How long it will take to establish such a pattern is another matter entirely.

For the time being, though, the task of showing us all exactly what we’ve got in Heckingbottom is well under way. Already, social media doubters and naysayers are swinging into line and declaring themselves won over. That’s not a bad start before a ball is kicked. The new Leeds boss has a disarming manner about him too, when asked about the pressure that goes with working at what is perceived as a sack-happy club, he gives us the anecdote of how he tells his kids not to worry about Dad getting the sack as, if he does, they’ll all be going on holiday. We even understand his childhood hatred of United; having seven shades kicked out of you in the field behind your Mam’s house by bigger, older Leeds fans is not calculated to endear a lad to that lot up the M1. But now, those same Leeds fans are ringing to wish him luck and success at Elland Road. It’s gone full circle, and – so far, at any rate – it feels right.

I’ve certainly not heard a better Leeds United philosophy since the early, heady days of Sergeant Wilko, who breezed into a troubled Elland Road from South Yorkshire thirty years ago, and did really quite well. As a precedent, the Wilko example is not a bad one for Paul Heckingbottom to emulate, though he appears happily to be very much his own man. But he has the same air of confidence and self-assurance about him; the same conviction that his way is the right way, hopefully with the same ability to carry others along on the path he treads.

It’s early days, and the sadness that accompanied the departure of Thomas Christiansen, a genuinely nice guy, has barely begun to dissipate. But in football, you always look forward, even when making comparisons with former Leeds legends. In Hecky, a coach who sets so much store by “getting on the grass” to work with his players, we might well have found at last a round peg for the round hole that is Elland Road. This is a bloke who was doing too much at Barnsley of what he didn’t really want to be doing – now he has the chance, in this Leeds United structure, of concentrating on what he does best.

It should work well; let’s all get behind the guy in the fervent hope that it will.

The Silver Jubilee of Leeds United’s “Last Champions”   –   by Rob Atkinson

Jon Newsome whose goal was so crucial

Twenty-five years ago today, Leeds United became The Last Champions. They became the ultimate winners of the old-style Football League, which was superseded but never surpassed by Sky’s glitzy soccer revolution. There’s even a film about it now, the newly-released Do You Want To Win? Well they certainly did want to win, and I was there that day to see the passing of the old era, and the immortalisation of Wilko’s Warriors.

Parked up in the scruffy environs of Bramall Lane, Sheffield, just about the first thing my mate Dave did as we walked to the ground was to drag me back out of the path of a van as I stepped out to cross a road, oblivious of traffic, lost in thought. We grinned at my narrow escape and agreed: good omen. And then we were high up in the seats of the upper tier behind the goal at the away end of Sheffield United’s quaintly ill-designed stadium. The day was gusty, and so the football would prove to be. It was a match of ebb and flow, the Sheffield United faithful eager to deny Leeds their chance of clinching the title, Leeds fans loud, proud and defiant with self-belief. If we won, and Man U lost at Liverpool later, we were Champions.

You’ll probably have seen the goals from that game hundreds of times. It plays through now, all these years later, in the Football Highlights studio of my mind; joy for the home side as Alan Cork, bald of pate, pokes the ball home to give Sheffield the lead. Then, midfield tussles in the swirling wind, as the Whites try valiantly to come back. A late first-half free kick, which Gordon Strachan races to take before the home defence is ready, finding Rod Wallace who tips the ball past the home keeper’s attempt to save. Defenders scramble to clear, only to hit the late, great Gary Speed who bounces the ball back to ricochet off Wallace – into the net. Cue pandemonium in the away end. Level at half time, we’re breathless with drama and the hurly-burly of it all, raucous with United anthems, nervous of what’s yet to come.  

In the second half, though we don’t know it, human tragedy unfolds: Sheffield ‘keeper Mel Rees, injured in the mêlée leading to Leeds’ leveller, thigh heavily strapped, can hardly move and is hampered for the second Leeds goal as Jon Newsome stoops to head in at the far post. Rees was due a Welsh international call-up the next day, but has to pull out because of his injury. He would never play football again because he was to develop cancer and die a year later, tragically young at 26.

RIP, Mel Rees.

The crazy game continues crazily. A ball across the Leeds box is retrieved by home defender John Pemberton, who turns it back towards the goal-line where Lee Chapman sticks out a leg for an own-goal greeted with horror by the Leeds contingent. We’re level again. But enfant terrible Eric Cantona enters the fray, and within a few minutes he’s chasing a loose ball into the Sheffield half, Wallace scampering alongside and home defender Brian Gayle lumbering back in a desperate attempt to clear the danger. And it’s Gayle, former Man City man, who finally slays Man United. From my vantage point at the opposite end, I see him head the ball, and the action is suddenly slow motion. Poor Mel Rees is stranded far out of goal; the ball is sailing over his head in a slow loop, bouncing tantalisingly towards the empty net…

Then I’m watching at full speed again, as Cantona and Wallace raise their arms in triumph, wheeling away in delight, and even as I wonder what they’re up to, I realise that the ball is nestling in the Sheffield United goal. An ironically red mist descends; I am utterly beside myself in delirious joy, leaping around feverishly, roaring like a demented bull, face congested, eyes bulging, hyperventilating. I grab a helpless wee St John’s Ambulance man by his lapels and scream into his terrified face “Get me some oxygen!!!” The mad moment passes, I drop the ashen medic and some measure of sanity returns, but we’re still cavorting and diving all over each other, a seething, sweating mass of Leeds, because we know it’s over, we know that Sheffield are beaten, and we know that Man U don’t have an earthly at Anfield, not a prayer. We were Champions; on that windiest and gustiest of days, a Gayle from Manchester City has blown Man U away and decided in an instant the fate of all three Uniteds from Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.

Leeds United, the undisputed cream of the crop. It all seems so long ago now. Happy silver anniversary, to the heroes – and also to the massive supporting cast of jubilant fans.

Ready to Meet Up Again With Leeds United Legend Gordon Strachan – by Rob Atkinson

StrachanLeicester

That Strachan goal against Leicester City

I go back a fair way with Gordon Strachan, as it happens. Not that he’ll remember a thing about it, naturally. That’s the way it goes with star footballers and star-struck fans; it’s a strictly one-way relationship, which is quite right and proper.

Nevertheless, I can mark out the last 28 years of my Leeds United love affair in some golden Strachan moments, including one meeting (with another hopefully imminent), some landmark performances and goals from the wee maestro and, latterly, many a laugh as I’ve watched him perplexing post-match interviewers with a rapier-like wit to match his dazzling displays as a player.

I remember being aware of Strachan as a young star at Aberdeen under the guidance of a grumpy Glaswegian manager called Ferguson (whatever happened to him?) who was out to upset the Old Firm monopoly in Scotland. I had a senior lecturer at Hull University at that time, who shared Gordon’s surname, but when I used it on him, as it were, he frostily informed me that it was pronounced “Strawn”. Well, that was all he knew. The name Strachan, pronounced as both Gordon and I know it should be, was to earn worldwide fame over the next decade and a half.

I looked on with jaundiced eye as the clear heir to Billy Bremner‘s throne made the wrong move south from Scotland, winding up in a title vacuum at Old Trafford. He was followed thence by his old manager at Aberdeen (that’s where he got to) and, for Strachan, the writing was on the Old Trafford wall, as the great Alex concluded that Gordon’s days as a top-flight performer were numbered. These were the early days of Sergeant Wilko‘s reign at Leeds, and I yearned for Strachan to become our King Billy reincarnate, as he was unmistakably fitted to be. But it looked as though he was destined to be a Ron Atkinson capture at Sheffield Wednesday, rather than a Rob Atkinson hero at Elland Road.

As we know, things worked out incredibly well; an ambitious Leeds trumped the Wendies’ offer and Strachan settled for being the driving force behind the Wilko revolution. I was working in Leeds the day the deal was done, and I saw it announced on a Yorkshire Evening Post billboard. Happy and delighted doesn’t do it justice, I walked home on air that day. Strachan was not only a marquee signing in himself, he was the statement of intent required to pave the way for other quality recruits at Elland Road. For Leeds, the only way was up – and up we duly went.

Near the climax of that promotion season was Strachan’s memorable rocket-shot winner against Leicester at Elland Road, possibly the most vital goal Leeds had scored on their home turf since Allan Clarke’s winner against Barcelona in the European Cup semi-final of 1975. That Leicester goal, securing a crucial win after a goal from one Gary MacAllister had threatened to poop our promotion party, was met with one of the loudest and most frantic celebrations I can remember. Gordon Strachan attained Leeds Legend status in that moment – and he would go on to confirm it many times over.

In the next couple of years, Leeds impressively consolidated their First Division status and then took the crown of Champions of England from under the noses of Strachan’s former club, Man United. As sweet as that was for all of us, the man himself still regards the Second Division title of 1990 as his greatest Leeds achievement – but his record at Elland Road cannot be classed as anything other than an outstanding success, with Strachan himself in the role of on-field Messiah.

My support for Leeds was punctuated by his goals and his masterly midfield displays. That pea-roller winner at Bramall Lane early in United’s top-flight comeback, with the mighty atom celebration sitting on an advertising hoarding behind the goal. His winner at Man City, in a live TV game that had me transfixed. So many goals, so much quality. Perhaps the culmination was in the vital game at Sheffield United as the 1992 League Title battle came to a final boil. One down and in trouble near the end of the first half, Leeds were awarded a free kick and Gordon, thinking faster than anyone else, took it quickly to cause chaos in the Blades’ box. Leeds equalised, and went on to win in the second half, breaking Man U hearts and setting up that Last Champions triumph.

I first met Strachan in 1995, at an event at Headingley, the same night Leeds lost at PSV in the UEFA Cup. He’d moved on from Leeds by then, but he was personable and entertaining, showing a love for the club that endured still, and giving very positive answers to questions about the possibility he might one day return to Elland Road. I got a picture with the wee man that evening and, twenty-one years on, I’m hoping to repeat the experience on Friday at Elland Road.

This is when Strachan will return to LS11 for an evening of entertainment and reminiscence. Although it’s the night before Bonfire Night, we can expect some fireworks, as the Scot is notoriously almost as entertaining behind a microphone as he was with a ball at his feet. Organisers Events in the City could also be said to have selected the right man as the centrepiece for a Mischief Night event; Strachan’s play was usually replete with that particular commodity – and he’s never been afraid to speak his mind as a manager either.

So, on Friday, I’ll hope to meet one of my two greatest United heroes for the second time, and maybe get another picture to add to the many memories he’s provided over the years. It’s a close thing for me, between Strachan and Bremner, the obvious similarities nicely balanced out by their few important contrasts. I only met King Billy once, and I was utterly tongue-tied in the presence of greatness. If I do get the chance to talk to wee Gordon on Friday, I shall hope to do a lot better. Watch this space. 

Who’ll Be the Next League One Club to Overtake Leeds United?   –   by Rob Atkinson

Time's running out for Leeds United

Time’s running out for Leeds United

Leeds United are now in danger of becoming a perennial Championship club: just a bit too well-resourced and well-supported to repeat the disaster of relegation to League One – or so we all hope and trust – but nowhere near good or competently-run enough to make the life-saving jump into the Premier League. And believe me, the clock is ticking on that jump. It’s an elevation that will become more and more of a formidable mountain to climb over the next few seasons.

The problem is, among many other Leeds United problems, that the reward for Premier League failure is about to go through the roof. Soon, clubs relegated from the élite top flight will be able to bank ‘parachute payments’ of around £100m pounds, allowing them a clear head start on their unsubsidised second tier competitors.

The clear implication of this is that we may shortly have what amounts to a closed shop, consisting of the usual permanent Premier League members, plus a small pool of hinterland dwellers, bobbing up and down between the top two divisions. The so-call Financial Fair Play rules will make it difficult for even wealthily-owned Championship clubs of long standing to break into this yo-yo fringe group, never mind the band of true aristocrats.

For the likes of Leeds United, and even Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday and a few other genuinely sizable members of the new underclass, this could represent the start of a living death of perpetual mediocrity.

So it follows that Leeds really must get its act together, and get up there in time to be the beneficiaries of parachute payments, as opposed to being marginalised by their galvanising effect on others. Sadly, there is no real sign that our heroes are remotely well-equipped enough to move on up anytime soon. It seems more likely at this stage that we will be overtaken by lesser clubs, who will happily make hay while the sun shines everywhere except, it seems, over LS11. This is not an unnecessarily gloomy or unrealistic prediction. It’s already happened too many times. 

Look at the Premier League membership right now. It makes for worrying study. You will find five of our former League One opponents there, mostly well-established top flight members now, while we remain as strugglers one step above our historical low point. Behold the success stories of clubs Leeds United should leave gasping in their wake. Swansea City, promoted from League One in our first season at that level, have added a League Cup to their mantelpiece and have generally done well. Southampton, European qualifiers now after emerging from the third tier a year after we did, and looking to consolidate and hammer on that Champions League door. Even new arrivals Bournemouth are looking reasonably well able to hold their own among the giants, as are Norwich City. And look at Leicester City, promoted from League One in our second season at that level. As I write, they are sitting proudly at the summit of English football, Premier League leaders, for the moment at least, and looking thoroughly at home in such exalted company. 

Leeds could and should have done better than any of these clubs, each of them recent denizens of League One. All of them are far smaller than the Whites, but have benefited from positive commercial and football strategies, not shying away from the speculative investment it takes to accumulate league points. They are well run for the most part and demonstrably scornful of any perceived glass ceiling. What they have accomplished should have been far easier for a club the size of Leeds. But our five years in the Championship have been a story of abject failure and serial incompetence, all underpinned by a total lack of vision and ambition. It’s no wonder we’ve been left trailing by the likes of Southampton and Leicester, and it would sadly be no surprise to see other clubs of similar size, currently below us in the pecking order, overhauling and leaving us behind in the near future.

So, which clubs currently languishing in the murk of League One might yet beat us to the sunny lower slopes of the Premier League? Two obvious candidates are Coventry City and Sheffield United, both doing reasonably well in the league below us, both tolerably well-run now after hard times – and both the kind of club that would, you suspect, see promotion to the Championship as a signal to kick on, invest, and make the most of their upward momentum. Which is just exactly what Leeds United threatened briefly to do in that momentous first season back at second tier level, before the fire sales started and the club began to lose its heart if not quite yet its soul.

For too long, Leeds United has appeared more complacent than hungrily ambitious; more disposed to “manage” its supporters’ expectations, rather than seek to fulfill them. With clubs all around us – smaller but more beadily focused clubs – avid for success, recognition and, yes, those Premier League millions too, Leeds simply can’t afford to tread water for much longer. The Premier League is a top table positively groaning under the weight of good things, even for those forced to leave the party early. With the increasing likelihood that victims of relegation will be fortified by that generous parachute for resurrection almost immediately, it’s only going to get harder and harder for the less-privileged to gatecrash the feast.  The likes of Sheffield United and Coventry will be well aware of this, as will more immediate dangers like Forest and Wednesday at our own current level. Leeds United just seems to be drifting along, more concerned with internal crises than the need to better themselves, waiting perhaps for some divine right to assert itself and convey the club back to the Promised Land.

Well, it ain’t gonna happen, guys – as any long-suffering and knowledgeable supporter would be well able to confirm. They say the spectator sees most of the game, and it’s the Leeds United fans, as opposed to those entrusted with the running of the club, who appear most acutely worried about exactly how and when we are going to find ourselves back where we assuredly belong – and able to capitalise on the undoubted potential of the club in a much more financially conducive environment. For a true giant like Leeds – by far and away the biggest club below the Premier League (and bigger than most inside it) – the opportunity is there for the taking to re-establish itself as one of the big, swaggering kids on the block.

It will take bravery, audacity, sufficient investment, nerve and some cool heads to achieve this – all currently noticeable by their absence around Elland Road. But if we don’t sort ourselves out soon – and start making some serious steps forward – we may yet get trampled in the rush by our smaller, meaner rivals – each of whom provides in effect a blueprint for the approach we should have been taking all along.

Tick tock, Leeds United. Get your act together. Time is running short.