Tag Archives: Sheffield United

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 They became the ultimate winners of the old-style Football League, which was superseded but never surpassed by Sky’s glitzy soccer revolution.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.

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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.

Three Top, TOP Leeds United Away Trips – by Rob Atkinson

We all have our favourite LUFC memories, and many will relate to games away from LS11.  Here, in reverse order, are my three favourite road trips following The Whites.

3. Sheffield Wednesday 1, Leeds United 6 12.1.1992

Image

Sergeant Wilko

This was Sergeant Wilko’s first return to Wednesday since he had quit Hillsborough to become Leeds boss in 1988.  It would also be Lee Chapman’s last game before his season-threatening FA Cup injury, which resulted in the drafting in of one Eric Cantona – with all the long term consequences that would entail.  But Chappy was destined to be sidelined only temporarily, and he went out in the most emphatic style.

There was a crowd of 32228 at Hillsborough, the usual vociferous contingent of travelling Leeds fans rivalling the home crowd for noise from the outset, and completely drowning them as the game went on.  Leeds United were weakened, so it seemed, by the absence of the injured Gordon Strachan and suspended David Batty, half of their legendary midfield Fantastic Four.  Any side, surely, would miss performers of such calibre.  Leeds, though, seemed determined to make light of the problem, and tore into their hosts from the start.  Full-back Tony Dorigo made an early darting run, cutting in from the left and making good progress down the centre of the pitch, before unleashing a right-foot thunderbolt that Wednesday ‘keeper Chris Woods had to tip over.  From the resulting Gary MacAllister corner, Chris Fairclough rose to head downwards, and found Chapman in splendid isolation four yards out; his finish swift and deadly for 1-0.

For a local derby, the contest had been decidedly one-way traffic – Chapman was to send two towering headers just wide before Carl Shutt had a scuffed shot smothered by Woods in the home goal.  Then, a true champagne moment as Mel Sterland fed the ball to Chapman on the right.  In a completely untypical burst of pace and control, Chappy surged between two hapless Wednesday defenders, raced into the area, and unleashed a shot that beat Woods completely, just clipping the frame of the goal to rapturous applause from the Leeds fans at the Leppings Lane End.  I remember thinking at the time that anything was possible now, if Lee Chapman could do something so utterly out of character.  And so it proved as, from a free kick awarded just right of centre some ten yards outside the box, Dorigo stepped up to absolutely hammer a left foot drive past the helpless Woods.  Cue mayhem and cavortings as the Leeds hordes behind the goal, celebrated as clean a strike as you could ever wish to see, the ball a blur as it arrowed into the far corner with deadly precision and power.

At 2-0 down, the home side were making increasingly desperate attempts to gain some sort of foothold in the match.  This desperation was adequately demonstrated when, from a harmless-looking ball into the Leeds area, Wednesday striker Gordon Watson ran in front of Chris Whyte, continued on for another step or two, and then hurled himself into the air, landing in agonised paroxysms of simulation between a bemused Whyte and Leeds ‘keeper John Lukic.  Such obvious fraud and villainy could have only one outcome, and the stadium held its collective breath for sentence to be passed on the miscreant.  Instead – amazingly – referee Philip Don pointed to the spot.  Whether none of the officials had seen the extent of Watson’s ham-acting, or whether they were moved by sympathy for the mauling Wednesday were taking from a rampant Leeds, it’s impossible to tell.  The outcome was the same either way.  Ex-Leeds hero John Sheridan stepped up, saw his penalty brilliantly saved as Lukic tipped it against his right-hand post, and then gleefully belted home the rebound to give Wednesday a massively unmerited lifeline.

This act of base and scurvy treachery required nothing less than a riposte of the utmost nobility and beauty, so we said to ourselves, though probably in more Anglo-Saxon terms.  And, happily, that’s just what came to pass.  Only six minutes after the home side’s ridiculous blagging of a comically unfair route back into the game, Leeds took effortless control again with a goal sublime in both its conception and execution.  Lukic bowled the ball out to Dorigo on the left flank; he sent it first time down the line to Gary Speed, who took one steadying touch before sending a beautiful flighted cross into the Wednesday area.  And there, inevitably, was Chapman, horizontal in mid-air, neck cocked to hammer the ball unanswerably past Woods, the perfect counterpunch to Watson’s knavish low blow.  It was a gorgeous goal, sweeping the length of the left side, taking the entire home team right out of the game, and re-establishing the two goal margin which was the least Leeds United deserved at half-time.

The second half that ensued was simply a story of how a blood-and-thunder Yorkshire derby turned into a stroll in the park for Leeds United.  It seemed as if all the life had been sucked out of the home team – a Wednesday side who, let’s not forget, were unbeaten at home since the opening day of the season, and who would go on to finish third in the table.  So they were no mugs, but Leeds United were absolutely irresistible on the day, and would have hammered far better teams than the hapless, bewildered Owls.

It’s possible that Wednesday were simply embarrassed about that cringe-worthy penalty, possibly they were dog-tired, having been run ragged since the start.  Whatever the case, their heads dropped steadily further and further as the game progressed, and they offered little resistance as Leeds proceeded to throttle the life out of them.  Chapman completed his hat-trick five minutes after the hour, heading in after Speed had struck the bar from a corner.  Poor Speedo was looking the other way, bemoaning his bad luck when the ball hit the back of the net after all, turning his frustration to joy.  Then, perennial bit-part player Mike Whitlow ventured forward, just because he could, and rose unchallenged to meet Rod Wallace’s right-wing cross and head easily over a stranded Woods.  It was left to little Wallace to administer the coup de grâce, striding clear after a shimmering exchange of passes in midfield to dink the ball over the advancing ‘keeper, and put the suffering home side finally out of their misery.  A highly satisfactory awayday slaughter of the Wendies.

2. AC Milan 1, Leeds United 1 8.11.2000

Dom Matteo....Scored A Very Good Goal....In The San Siro...

Dom Matteo….Scored A Very Good Goal….In The San Siro…

This match is so famous that I barely need to recount the action kick by kick.  The Leeds fans at one end of the San Siro were in fully, throaty voice for most of the proceedings, drawing incredulous glances from the attendant Carabinieri who were in full-on riot gear but friendly enough, muttering to each other about lunatic English tifosi (hooligans.)  The first half was a decent contest – Milan were through already, but not disposed to give Leeds an easy ride – especially after paranoid noises emanating from Barcelona, who – nervous about their own prospects – had done their best to warn Milan off taking it easy against Leeds.  So Milan pressed in front of a crowd of 52289, and their winger Serginho was causing Gary Kelly plenty of problems.  In the 26th minute, a slightly soft penalty was awarded to Milan at our end of the stadium, and 6000 Leeds fans held their collective breath as Andriy Shevchenko took careful aim only to rap Robinson’s right-hand post, the ball bouncing away to safety as the masses behind our goal celebrated as if we’d actually scored.  And then, miraculously, as the first half ebbed away, we did score.  A Lee Bowyer corner from the right found Matteo rising majestically at the near post to meet the ball with a punchy header which soared high into the net.  Cue utter pandemonium at the Leeds end as all the tension, passion and belief exploded in one almighty roar which almost lifted the hi-tec roof off the famous stadium.

The party went on throughout half-time and into the second half, drawing more bemused glances from the Italian police; there was only a brief hiatus in the 67th minute when the superb Serginho deservedly equalised, but then it was mounting fan fever again all the way to the final whistle and beyond as Leeds held out to qualify for an equally difficult second phase of the competition.  The scenes after the game are at least as famous as the events of the ninety minutes; the team coming back out onto the pitch in response to the demands of the faithful who were held back in the interests of crowd safety.  What followed was described by respected football commentators (as well as Alan Green) as the best example of team/fan bonding they’d ever seen.  Fans and players – even a certain Chairman – swapped chants and songs in a spontaneous celebration of a joyous night.  Even the uncertain musical efforts of Lee Bowyer were greeted by a blast of friendly derision.  It was a unique experience, and the Latin cops were clearly by now utterly convinced that these English people were absolutely barking mad.  As football nights go, you’d have to travel a long way to find one more worthy of memory – only a trophy could have improved it, but the spectacle of the game and its aftermath is one I have seen imitated but never repeated.

1. Sheffield United 2, Leeds United 3 – 26.4.1992

Jon Newsome, Superstar

Jon Newsome, Superstar

If you’re a Leeds supporter, you’ll have seen the goals from this game hundreds, thousands of time.  It plays through now, all these years later, in the Football Highlights studio of my mind; joy for the home side as Alan Cork, gleaming of bald pate, pokes the ball home to give Sheffield the lead.  Then, a midfield tussle in the swirling wind, as Leeds try valiantly to come back.  A late first-half free kick, which Gordon Strachan races to take before the home defence can set themselves, he finds Rod Wallace in the area who tips the ball past home keeper Mel Rees’s attempt to save, defenders scramble to clear, only to hit Gary Speed who bounces the ball back to ricochet off Wallace – into the net.  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.

The crazy game continues crazily.  A dangerous ball across the Leeds box is retrieved by home defender and future Leeds man John Pemberton, who turns it back towards the goal-line where Lee Chapman sticks out a leg for an own-goal greeted with horrified stupefaction by the Leeds fans behind the goal and we’re level again.  Then enfant terrible Eric Cantona enters the fray, and within a few minutes he is chasing a loose ball into the Sheffield half, with Rod 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 of the ground I see him get his head to the ball, and the action is suddenly slow motion.  Gayle has headed the ball, poor Mel Rees is stranded far out of his goal, the ball goes over his head in a slow, slow loop, and bounces tantalisingly towards the unguarded net…

Then I’m watching at full speed from the far end 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 has nestled in the Sheffield United net.  A red mist descends, and I am utterly outside of my skull and beside myself in delirious joy and fevered madness, looking around me, roaring like a demented bull, face congested with blood, eyes bulging; I grab a helpless wee St John’s Ambulance man by his lapels and scream beer and spittle into his terrified face “Get me some oxygeeeennnn!!!  I’m going to have a heart attaaaack!!!”  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 going to be Champions; on that windiest and gustiest of days, a Gayle from Manchester City has blown the Scum away and decided in an instant the fate of all three Uniteds from Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.

And so, of course, it panned out.  Later I watched mesmerised on TV as Liverpool beat a demoralised Man U, Denis Law and Ian St John trying to put a brave face on it, Elton Welsby’s foot bobbing away in thwarted anger as the script turned out just as none of them wanted.  Ian Rush scored his first ever goal against Them, and it was settled late on as Man U concede a second.  “And now the title goes to Leeds without any doubt at all” intoned Brian Moore in the ITV commentary as I sat there with tears of joy streaming down my unashamed face.  Gary Lineker had called into the studio earlier to complain that Rod Wallace’s goal had been offside (it was).  St John and Moore bemoaned that Man U had had no luck at all, and Welsby ground his teeth in the studio as the Man U fans outside hurled abuse at him, heedless of the fact that he shared their bitter disappointment.  All was frustration in the media and the rest of football and Leeds fans everywhere utterly failed to give a toss.  My finest hour as a Leeds fan, and my greatest ever awayday.

-oO0Oo-

Two from the same season, and one abroad that was “only” a draw – but each had a special appeal for me among the many away games I’ve seen.  I could have chosen so many others, going right back to my first ever away game, a 3-1 League Cup win at Bolton in 1977.  Still in the League Cup, there was that 6-0 win over Leicester City at Filbert Street, on a night when Robbie Savage never gave up, but proved that he was even worse than we thought.  How could we have known that he’d be worse yet as a pundit?

The golden memories are so many, I could possibly have managed a top ten quite easily.  I’d love to hear which away games others rank as their best memories.

Leeds Legends Grayson and Beckford to Oust Man U AGAIN?? – by Rob Atkinson

Jermaine scores at the Beckford End

Jermaine scores at the Beckford End

Ever since Simon Grayson‘s Preston North End sent the Blunts of Bramall Lane a-spinning out of the FA Cup last month, the question has been on every Leeds fan’s mind if not lips: could two Leeds United legends (and Neil Kilkenny) possibly do it again?? Because that Fourth Round replay set up a tasty if only partial rematch of an epic battle over five years ago (January 3rd, remember the date) between a lowly incarnation of The Damned United and – well – the club we just love to hate, as the song nearly has it. And tonight, at Deepdale, there is just a chance of that particularly fine piece of history repeating itself.

You may have noticed that we are occasionally fond of recalling this singular occasion at #LLUUE Towers – but anyway, here goes again. It was on January 3rd 2010 that third-tier Leeds United ventured to the home of the Champions of England and self-proclaimed “Greatest Club in the World”™ – lined up (so everybody outside of the Whites fraternity thought) for a ‘lambs to the slaughter’ bit part on the massive FA Cup Round Three national stage.

In the event, Leeds entered the Theatre of Hollow Myths as if determined to prove it was just that. There was zero respect for technically far superior foes, zero fear of the occasion and, vitally, zero awe of their surroundings for a team whose 9,000 strong following often made this feel like a home game, out-singing over six times that number of morose and disbelieving southern glory-hunters.

Leeds, set up to take the game to their hosts by manager Grayson – who may well also have made motivational use of a “minnows” jibe carelessly hurled by the ever-confident Man U – clinched this tie early in the first half. Johnny Howson‘s sublime long ball dropped like a dead bird into the path of predator extraordinaire Jermaine Beckford. The striker recovered from a slightly heavy first touch with a characteristic burst of pace, which allowed him to make a monkey out of Wes Brown and roll the ball, oh so exquisitely, into the far corner of the Pride of Devon net. The commentary of the moment deserves another airing for its sheer iconic beauty:

 “And this is Beckford, it’s just run away from him but he’ll still get a strike in on goal … and score at the Stretford End for Leeds United! And it doesn’t get any better than that for a Leeds United centre forward….. Jermaine Beckford gives Leeds the advantage at Old Trafford to the delight of their 9,000 travelling supporters!”

The way those words paint that picture, the one that every Leeds fan carries on the back of his eyelids to this day, still has the hair-raising, spine-tingling ability to thrill. It’s so graphic, so evocative of the joy of the moment, just so bloody wonderful. Leeds United’s eleven warriors on the pitch, together with their comrades in the dugout, were just about the only people of a Leeds persuasion not to get carried away with the emotion and wonder of it all. They, after all, still had a job to do.

How they set about that job, calmly, resolutely, professionally, is every bit as memorable and significant as the goal that won the tie. A third-tier team in the champs’ back yard might be forgiven for mounting a rearguard action, protecting – if they could – the advantage they’d gained. But not a bit of it. It was just too early for that. Leeds had threatened before the goal, and they continued to threaten, taking the game to the shocked Premiership outfit, playing with a swagger and effectiveness that belied the gulf in status. They had to sustain some pressure, they had to defend desperately at times. That was only to be expected. But they also continued to pose that nagging threat, right up to the end – Beckford was played through beautifully by Doyle in the second half and placed his shot a fraction wide at the Scoreboard End. Robert Snodgrass, fresh into the fray, stepped up to take a free-kick with that sublime left foot – and hammered it agonisingly to thud against the angle of far post and bar with the keeper nowhere near.

In the end, nails were bitten down to the elbows as the Man U desperation grew and the penalty appeals mounted up. Surely, as per the unwritten law, Mr Foy would give at least one? Meanwhile, Ferguson, the man with the schnoz of vintage purple, prowled about on his touchline, brandishing that yard-wide stopwatch, snarling at all and sundry when “only” five minutes of Fergie time were granted. Rooney, the thug, clattered into a Leeds player right in front of the away dugout, and then hurried away as the Whites backup team tried to get at him. It was frenetic, it was aggressive, it was committed – and it was simply marvellous.

And then, Leeds had done it. Memorably, the ball had gone out for a Whites corner as the final whistle blew with Leeds at the right end of the field. Old Trafford emptied in about thirty seconds flat, apart from the dancing, cheering 9,000 at that right end, with their songs and their glory, celebrating the most famous victory of all their wilderness years.

The personnel behind that wonderful performance and memorable triumph have all long gone from the club now. The real principals – Simon Grayson and Jermaine Beckford – are both at tonight’s potential giant-killers Preston; and you can guarantee that the memories will be flooding back for them, even now, as they contemplate a chance to have another go at the Masters of Hype. This is what will make the difference tonight between a mundane 5th Round Cup tie involving two ordinary Lancashire outfits – and a chance to relive history, perhaps to recreate it to some extent. League One Preston have the home advantage; let it pay off for them – and let Simon Grayson, Leeds fan and United legend, have another Cup day in the sun.

And… if Jermaine could possibly pop up with another winner – well, that would be as perfect as it could possibly get – short of him doing it all over again, wearing that famous white shirt and wheeling away in triumph once more… right in front of the Beckford End.

 

Are Chelsea Wreckers Bradford City Heading for Another Glorious Wembley Battering? – by Rob Atkinson

A Bratfud fan with a typically creative solution to the problem of Fido's funeral

A Bratfud fan with a typically creative solution to the problem of Fido’s funeral

It’s been a pretty good year so far in the domestic cups, for some of Yorkshire’s minnow teams. Sheffield United, the Brave Little Blunts of Bramall Lane, are in the League Cup semis (don’t ask me to remember the sponsors, for heavens’ sake). In the same competition, Bradford City enjoyed one of their finest hours in an earlier round, with an only slightly fortuitous win over our own beloved ten-man Leeds United, celestially anointed Kings of the Broad Acres. Even poor old Sheffield Wendies managed to keep the aggregate tally against them down to single figures in losing twice in two competitions at Manchester City.

In the FA Cup, even more than usually for such a notoriously minnow-friendly institution, this was a weekend of genuine shocks, all over the shop. Again, Yorkshire’s tiddler clubs were to the fore in the tragic but not unexpected absence of Super Leeds – who had reprised their 1973 defeat at the hands of the Dirty Mackems, first time of asking. So it was left to the little guys again, the Blunts for one; they will take Simon Grayson’s Preston to a replay in Sheffield (good luck, SG).

Without any doubt at all though, the star turns of this 4th round so far are those battling Bantams from Valley Parade. In a performance they must treasure nearly as much as beating Leeds for the first time since the end of rationing, they went down to London and bearded the English title favourites Chelsea in their own lair. Feinting craftily to go two behind and thus lull the Rentboys into a false sense of half-time security, they emerged from their interval cuppas to seize the game by the throat – and proceeded mercilessly to throttle Jose’s troops to death with a four goal salvo that quite simply took their beastly breath away.

Last year’s League Cup Final achievement ended amusingly in a highly creditable (if you listened to the media) 0-5 defeat for the ten-man Bantams at the hands of Swansea City – who spent most of their time that Wembley afternoon trying to look as if it wasn’t just too, too easy. After a result like their defeat of Chelsea, though – where they made a whole nation laugh themselves weak-bladdered by slaying a far better team – plucky Bratfud must fancy their chances of at least matching last season’s feat. Maybe they can even cherish hopes of improving on it, by holding out for a 0-3 Final defeat against a Liverpool or a Palace or similar. Less of a thrashing against more illustrious opponents – that’d be progress. And you never know – it could happen.

Watching the richly comic spectacle of Mourinho’s Millionaires buckle and collapse against a genuine two-bob West Yorkshire pub team, it was impossible – despite the vitriolic hatred all Bratfud fans nurse in their bosoms where Super Leeds are concerned – quite impossible not to share in the joy and the laughter. After all, this was Chelsea, worshippers at the Altar of Mammon, for whom no trophy is beyond their Mafia-funded purse, stumbling to utter, shambolic humiliation against the rankest of rank paupers – whose team cost precisely zilch. It was beyond funny and, in the midst of all that comedy and Schadenfreude, it’s really easy to forget such little local difficulties as Bratfud’s Leeds United complex.

Anyway, as any knowledgeable Leeds fan will confirm, and as those few Bratfud fans who don’t exist in a state of permanent denial will admit, the Bantams/Whites hate affair is strictly a one-way street. We’ve always been the chip on their bitterly resentful shoulder – but, historically, we’ve had bigger, uglier, much more intrinsically detestable fish to fry. Leeds have never really gone in for hating on spurious grounds of mere proximity – it’s a sterile waste of time and passion. So, from our point of view, we have no real local rivalry, whereas every little club in Yorkshire (and elsewhere, it should be said) cordially, rabidly detests Leeds United. ‘Twas ever thus and, doubtless, ’twill ever be.

The best we can really do for those Bratfud fans who so desperately wish us to reciprocate their passionate and unrequited hatred is – well, to condescend to be pleased for them for a time, when a day like this Chelsea tie rolls around. And – as good, God-fearing, Chelsea-hating Leeds United fans – we are pleased for them. Very pleased. Really we are. It stands to reason. And besides, the Bantams actually deserved their victory, certainly far more than the faintly lucky Middlesbrough side did at Man City. It has indeed been Cup Shock Saturday, with big, shiny bells on.

So – Bradford march proudly on, perhaps even unto another deeply gratifying Wembley humiliation. Good luck to them, and to all the other Yorkshire small fry as they progress, against all sense and logic, in the cups. It’s all good as far as this Leeds fan is concerned. Why, I’ll even be rooting for the Blunts against Spurs on Wednesday – but then I’ll be after another enjoyable dose of Capital punishment for fellow Tykes at that there Wembley, just to help them remember their lowly place in the scheme of things. It wouldn’t do otherwise, would it? It would reflect badly on the region’s only proper football club.

After all – charity begins at home. And, nice guy and warm-hearted softy though you may be; you can really only take your faintly patronising condescension towards scruffy, unappreciative neighbours so far…

Oldham Board Member on Talent Coming Through Prison System – by Rob Atkinson

Evans - desperate enough to sign for Oldum

Evans – desperate enough to sign for Oldum

Oldham Athletic director Barry Owen, a former Greater Manchester Police superintendent, has welcomed news that there is an “80% likelihood” of convicted rapist Ched Evans signing for the League One club. Mr Owen, who was also instrumental in Oldham’s decision to sign ex-con Lee Hughes after he had served time for causing death by dangerous driving, was however scathing about the modern prison service and its patchy record of providing cheap players for the Boundary Park outfit.

“Her Majesty’s Prison Service can do better than this”, said the erstwhile top cop. “A club like ours is always looking for value on the field of play, and those who have done their porridge are the kind of likely lads the Athletic should always be looking for, in my view. We’ve now had two good lads coming through the HMP production line, and we’ll be on the lookout for more, if the Home Office can just get their bloody finger out. These guys are cheap as chips – and that’s the bottom line, after all.”

When it was put to Mr Owen that the Evans signing was likely to be even less popular among fans than that of Lee Hughes, he raised an eyebrow. “I don’t really see where you’re coming from, lad. Evans wants to play football, so we’re going to accommodate him, aren’t we? Makes sense. A few faint hearts were all for refusing him a contract – but after all, the lad was unlikely to take no for an answer…”

We put it to the former police officer that any decision to sign Evans might have severe implications for club sponsorship. “Storm in a teacup,” he scoffed. “These things blow over. Look at Bowyer and Woodgate at Leeds United. Proper fuss and bother, but that soon went away. Well, it did when they were transferred away from Leeds, anyway. We’re Oldham, lad. If we were Leeds, I wouldn’t dream of this sort of thing, the League would burn the ground down. Look at the kerfuffle over a bit of duty on a boat. But that’s Leeds, in’t it? We won’t have same sort of fuss here, mark my words.”

So are there no misgivings, no twinges of conscience? “Look lad, don’t be daft. That’s a £3 million striker there, and we could ‘ave him for as little as £400 a week. As long as he’s not actually in a cell, he’ll do for us at that price.”

A Latics Supporters Club spokesman, when asked for his take on the matter, would only reply with a glum but defiantly brief rendition of the club’s one and only song “Come on, Old-um“, before trailing away into the Lancastrian murk.

Barry Owen is 83, though his IQ is a youthful 60.

 

Can Darko’s Leeds Cope with the “Cup Final” Mentality of Local Rivals Rotherham? – by Rob Atkinson

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Huddersfield’s low-key celebrations after edging out Leeds

In the wake of Leeds United’s recent failures on the road against inferior local opposition, it’s well past time to take stock of the problem behind this unwelcome phenomenon, which is set fair to drag us down and keep us away from the top level –  if it continues as it has in past campaigns. It’s to be hoped that, in the new Darko Milanic era, things might be different. There were some promising signs against the Wendies the other week, but away from home against pumped-up (yet lower-class) opposition, some fight is what’s sorely needed.

Firstly, let’s put to bed any foolish suggestion that the local opposition aren’t inferior. They are – by definition.  Leeds do not and never have in living memory played local derbies where they are the underdog in terms of club size and history.  We’ve been the biggest club in Yorkshire – by far the biggest, and the only one with a global profile – for the last fifty years plus. Whatever the relative squad merits – and for 90% of the time, Leeds have possessed demonstrably more accomplished players too – any meeting between Leeds and a smaller Yorkshire club has seen the Elland Road outfit cast as Goliath to some horrible, backstreet David. The real question is – does such superiority of status confer any advantage at all?  The answer to that would appear to be a resounding No, and a reminder that, horrible and provincial though David might have been, he still gave Goliath one in the eye.

The extent of the problem may be brought into focus simply by comparing two different sets of results over the past few years.  If you look at league games against other Yorkshire teams, together with a selection of upstarts around the country who have a similar chip on the shoulder, as compared with our reasonably regular Cup meetings with Premier League clubs over the past three or four years, the contrast is startling – and it says a lot about what it has taken to motivate our white-shirted heroes.

Taking league games first, and looking at the locals – the likes of Barnsley, the Sheffield clubs, Huddersfield and Hull, together with self-appointed rivals like Millwall – the results have been unacceptably bad.  Barnsley in particular have visited embarrassment upon us in match after match, often by a significant margin, whilst keeling over to most other clubs and usually only escaping relegation by the skin of their teeth, prior to their welcome demise last year.  Our relatively close West Yorkshire neighbours Huddersfield are nearly as bad for our health. The other season, these two clubs met on the last day, and over the course of ninety minutes, first one and then the other seemed doomed to the drop.  In the end, both escaped because of events elsewhere – and what did both sets of fans do to celebrate their shared reprieve?  Why, they joined together in a rousing chorus of “We all hate Leeds scum” of course.  This tells you all you need to know about what motivates such dire and blinkered clubs – but at least the motivation is there.

And the motivation is there for Leeds United, too – just not, seemingly, on those bread-and-butter league occasions when we need it.  What seems to turn your average Leeds United player on over the past few years, is the glamour of the Cup – either domestic cup will do, apparently.  Results and performances in these games have left bewildered fans scratching their heads and wondering how such high achievers can then go on to perform so miserably against the envious pariahs from down the road in Cleckhuddersfax.  Look at the results – going back to League One days.  A narrow home defeat to Liverpool in the League Cup when by common consent we should have won and Snoddy ripped them up from wide areas.  The famous win at Man U when we went to the Theatre of Hollow Myths and showed neither fear nor respect in dumping the Pride of Devon out of the FA Cup.  Draws at Spurs and Arsenal, beating Spurs, Gareth Bale and all, at Elland Road.  Beating other Premier League sides such as Everton and Southampton in games that had you wondering which was the higher status club.  Great occasions – but of course we haven’t the squad to go through and win a cup, so these achievements ultimately gain us little but pride. And, naturally, when we draw a Yorkshire “rival” away in a Cup, we contrive to lose embarrassingly as per Bratfud earlier this season. It’s just not good enough.

Often we will sing to daft smaller clubs’ fans about the Leeds fixtures being their Cup Finals, but this is becoming a joke very much against us.  The teams concerned seem to take the Cup Final thing literally, they get highly motivated, roll their metaphorical sleeves up, the veins in their temples start to throb and the battle cry is sounded.  Their fans, normally present in miserable numbers, are out in force – and they are demanding superhuman endeavour.  Faced with this, too many Leeds teams over the past few years have simply failed to find a comparable level of commitment and effort.  There’s no excuse for that – it has meant we’re almost starting off a goal down – even when we swiftly go a goal up.

The sheer number of local derbies will count against a team which allows itself to suffer this disadvantage, this moral weakness.  For Leeds, since we came back to the second tier, there has usually been one Sheffield or another, usually Barnsley or Huddersfield or Hull, Middlesbrough perhaps – even the just-over-the-border outfits like Oldham and Burnley feel the same ambition and desire to slay the Mighty Leeds.  It amounts to a sizeable chunk of a season’s fixtures – if you fail to perform in these, then you’re struggling.  The pressure is then on to get results against the better teams at the top end of the table, and we don’t fare too well there either.

It’s easy to say that it’s a matter of getting better players.  Largely that’s true.  But we’ve usually had better players than these annoying little Davids, and yet the slingshot has still flown accurately right into Goliath’s eye and knocked us over. Professional football is a game of attitude, motivation, mental readiness to match the opposition and earn the right to make your higher quality tell.  This, over a number of years, is what Leeds United have signally failed to do.

Can it change?  Well, so far this season we’ve played Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield at home  – plus Millwall, who qualify as a southern member of the chip on the shoulder brigade, away.  We’ve four points out of nine to show from that little lot, which is the difference between our current position and sixth – in the play-off zone.  Even three of those lost five points would see us just a point off the top six places.  And the thing is, ALL of those games were distinctly winnable, so it’s no pipe-dream to look at where we might have been.  The difference is down to attitude; our opponents have had it and – with the notable exception of the Huddersfield performance – we simply haven’t.

It’s a sobering message at this stage of the season, with only three such games played – and plenty more to come.  But it’s a message that should be heeded, or the effect on our season will become more profound as it goes on.  The potential is there for us to take advantage of games against inferior but highly-motivated opposition, to match the attitude of these teams and to reap our rewards.  The failure to do this will see us endure yet another season of under-achievement. We have to overcome the “Cup Final Mentality” of certain other clubs, mainly those in Yorkshire but elsewhere too.

The Rotherham game next Friday night is an ideal opportunity for this new, tougher mental attitude to kick in. Again, we have small local rivals who nurse a fierce and unrequited hatred of Leeds United – and they have the odd old boy in their ranks as well as a wily manager who has been busily bigging us up. Our heroes will include a number of quite new foreign signings, who may still be a little wide-eyed and naive on occasions like this. So the ingredients are all there for the relative big boys of Leeds to turn up, find the environment not to their liking – and roll over once again in abject surrender. Please, let it not be so.

Leeds United –  you just need to get psyched-up and go out to win some of these pesky and troublesome “Cup Finals”.  Darko can inculcate his principles and make a pretty pattern of play – but when blood and guts are needed, some fight and some grit – then it really is up to you lads who wear the shirt we’d all of us out here be willing to walk on hot coals for. 

Former Leeds Man Sabella Outwits Man Utd Boss van Gaal in World Cup – by Rob Atkinson

Alejandro Sabella - formerly of Elland Road parish

Alejandro Sabella – formerly of Elland Road parish

So we are to be spared a rerun of the 1974 World Cup Final, when a technically superior Holland contrived somehow to lose to those pesky, arrogant Deutschers. Instead, it will be a best of three decider as Argentina and Germany, tied after the tournaments of 1986 and 1990 at one head-to-head World Cup apiece, do battle in Brazil for the title of ultimate Champions 2014 style.

In truth, all that will be decided is who is the best of an indifferent bunch at this over-hyped, over-rated tournament. Germany booked their Final place on Tuesday, beating a Brazil side of whom their angry fans could with justification sing “It’s just like watching Barnsley”. The Germans had nowt to beat, as we say in God’s Own Country, but they will find Argentina a much tougher proposition. To Messi and his men falls the responsibility of preserving South American infallibility where tournaments held in the Americas are concerned. No European side has ever won the World Cup over there – can a good but by no means brilliant Germany really be the first?

The second semi-final saw Holland keep up their own 100% record of World Cup failure. Having confirmed his position of World’s Best Coach, in the eyes of the Man U-obsessed British press at least, by a quirky goal-keeping substitution against Costa Rica, Pride of Devon manager-elect van Gaal then brilliantly decided to stick with his number one No. 1 Cillessen for this shoot-out. Predictably, his confidence affected by that bizarre substitution, the poor lad didn’t get near most of the Argentinean penalties, as erstwhile super-sub Krul sat despondent and abandoned on the bench. So Holland are out, their Manchester-bound coach out-foxed by honorary Yorkshireman Alejandro Sabella, once of the Sheffield Blades and, more pertinently, the Whites of Leeds United.

Who, then, will emerge victorious now? Germany will be on a high after their candy-from-a-baby beating of the Worst Brazil Side Ever. But they’re not anywhere near as good as the hosts made them look – and, if Messi can put in just one truly Messi-esque performance, Europe will be left waiting for its first Americas Cup. That’s the prediction of Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything. Argentina to win, without the need for extra time or a penalty lottery – Germany to be left reflecting that you get nowt for being second, as the Greatest Club Captain of all once said. It’s going to be World Cup glory for ex-Leeds Man Sabella – and with an enviable pedigree like that, will it really be a surprise?

Forget Man U “Class of ’92” – Salute the Leeds MASTERS of ’92 – by Rob Atkinson

Super Jon Newsome

Super Jon Newsome

There’s been a lot of talk this past couple of days about the “Class of ’92”, a somewhat disingenuous reference to Man U’s FA Youth Cup winners of that year, what with Giggsy Wiggsy taking over as temp. manager at the Theatre of Hollow Myths, with Scholesy Wolsey and Butty Wutty on board as well.

The media, bless ’em, love this sort of thing – and they’re seemingly eager to ignore the fact that 1992 was, actually, all about another United – Leeds United, the one and only United – as they won the last ever proper Football League Championship, four points clear of you-know-who and their rabidly frothing Scotch git of a manager.

It all happened 22 years ago today, actually – so let’s have a nostalgic look back and, while we’re at it, set the record straight about all of this “Class of ’92” crap. Because we’re not talking pupils here, we’re talking masters.

The 26th April 1992 was not just a normal Sunday morning like any other; for all fans of Leeds United it would turn out to be a date with destiny, the unlikely culmination of a footballing journey that had started in October 1988.  Howard Wilkinson’s move from First Division Sheffield Wednesday to take over as boss at Second Division strugglers Leeds United had been – perhaps unwisely – summed up by the Sheffield Wednesday chairman as “a chance we couldn’t deny Howard to better himself.”   That must have fallen like rocks on the ears of the Wednesday fans who nevertheless could not have envisaged their rivals’ subsequent meteoric rise at a time when the Wednesday star was on the wane.  Such is life.

History will show that Wilkinson breezed into Leeds United, seized the place by the scruff of its neck and shook it up good and proper.  Remnants of his legacy are still visible in the club’s world-class Academy and training complex not to mention the gigantic East Stand, but it is for the phoenix-like resurrection of The Whites that the fanatical Leeds support will best remember Sergeant Wilko.  Leeds were promoted in 1990 after Wilkinson’s first full season, trading places with Sheffield Wednesday as they dropped into the Second Division – bittersweet irony there.  A season of consolidation followed, and then the full-on assault on the Football League Championship itself, a challenge unexpectedly sustained right to the sweetest of ends.  By April 20th 1992, Leeds were still clinging on in the title race, but Man U were clear favourites with a points lead and a match in hand.  That day though was the start of the turning of the tide in Leeds’ favour.  As fans gathered on the Kop for the late afternoon visit of Coventry City, radios were clamped to anxious ears as news was awaited from Man U’s home game against Nottingham Forest.  Two explosions of joy from the swelling Elland Road crowd signalled two Forest goals and a defeat for the leaders that Leeds were to capitalise on, beating Coventry 2-0 in front of a live TV audience.

Now it was game on in earnest, and I vividly remember a nervous evening at home that midweek as West Ham played host to Man U who were finally playing their remaining game in hand.  Win, and they would be in the box seat – but, as I frantically tidied and re-tidied my bedside table drawer to save myself from chewing my nails down to my elbows, they lost, wonderfully, miraculously lost to leave Leeds in charge of their own destiny. Choleric Man U manager Alex Ferguson must have bitterly tasted the sourest of grapes as he described the already-relegated Hammers’ effort levels in beating his charges as “obscene”.  His lack of grace drew a stark contrast with the phlegmatic Wilko, who was calmly reminding the world that Leeds had secured a place in Europe, his main aim for the season, and that anything more would be “a bonus.”

But Leeds now knew that if they won their last two games – away at Sheffield United and at home to Norwich City – they would be English Champions in the last old-style Football League programme – a signal honour.  Everybody thought it would go down to the last game of the season, that Norwich would be the big game.  Yet if Leeds were to win at Bramall Lane, Man U would then face the formidable task of winning at Anfield to take the Title race to its last day.

Back to April 26th, and as I walked up the hill into Wakefield that mid-morning, I saw cars trailing the colours of Leeds United, the scarves fluttering bravely – and I felt a sense of occasion but still could not quite comprehend that this might just be The Day.  I met up with my mate Dave, and we shared a tense journey to Sheffield, not much said, both knowing that this was a Sunday that could equally easily end up being triumph or disaster.  Parked up in the scruffy environs of Bramall Lane, just about the first thing Dave did as we walked to the ground was to drag me back out of the path of a careering van as I stepped out to cross a road, oblivious of traffic, lost in thought.  We both 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 faithful eager to deny Leeds their chance of clinching the title, Leeds fans loud and defiant with self-belief.

If you’re a Leeds supporter, you’ll have seen the goals from that game hundreds, thousands of time.  It plays through now, all these years later, in the Football Highlights studio of my mind; joy for the home side as Alan Cork, gleaming of bald pate, pokes the ball home to give Sheffield the lead.  Then, a midfield tussle in the swirling wind, as Leeds try valiantly to come back.  A late first-half free kick, which Gordon Strachan races to take before the home defence can set themselves, he finds Rod Wallace in the area who tips the ball past home keeper Mel Rees’s attempt to save, defenders scramble to clear, only to hit Gary Speed who pings the ball back to ricochet off Wallace – into the net.  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 melee leading to Leeds’ leveller, his 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.  Mel Rees, who was due an international call-up for Wales the next day but has to pull out because of his injury.  Mel Rees, who 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 dangerous ball across the Leeds box is retrieved by home defender and future Leeds man John Pemberton, who turns it back towards the goal-line where Lee Chapman sticks out a leg for an own-goal greeted with horrified stupefaction by the Leeds fans behind the goal and we’re level again.  Then enfant terrible Eric Cantona enters the fray, and within a few minutes he is chasing a loose ball into the Sheffield half, with Rod 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 of the ground I see him get his head to the ball, and the action is suddenly slow motion.  Gayle has headed the ball, poor Mel Rees is stranded far out of his goal, the ball goes over his head in a slow, slow loop, and bounces tantalisingly towards the unguarded net…

Then I’m watching at full speed from the far end 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 has nestled in the Sheffield United net.  A red mist descends, and I am utterly outside of my skull and beside myself in delirious joy and fevered madness, looking around me, roaring like a demented bull, face congested with blood, eyes bulging; I grab a tiny and helpless St John’s Ambulance man by his lapels and scream beer and spittle into his terrified face “Get me some oxygen!!!”, I bellow. “I’m going to have a bloody heart attack!!!”  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 going to be Champions; on that windiest and gustiest of days, a Gayle from Manchester City has blown the Scum away and decided in an instant the fate of all three Uniteds from Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.

And so, of course, it panned out.  Later I watched mesmerised on TV as Liverpool beat a demoralised Man U, Denis Law and Ian St John trying to put a brave face on it, Elton Welsby’s foot bobbing away in thwarted anger as the script turned out just as none of them wanted.  Ian Rush scored his first ever goal against Them, and it was settled late on as Man U conceded a second.  “And now the title goes to Leeds without any doubt at all” intoned Brian Moore in the ITV commentary as I sat there with tears of joy streaming down my unashamed face.  Gary Lineker had called into the studio earlier to complain that Rod Wallace’s goal had been offside (it was).  St John and Moore bemoaned that Man U had had no luck at all, and Welsby ground his teeth in the studio as the Man U fans outside hurled abuse at him, heedless of the fact that he shared their bitter disappointment.  All was frustration in the media and the rest of football and Leeds fans everywhere utterly failed to give a toss.

Twenty-two years on from that nutty day, when Leeds reached the summit of the game, the images are all still vivid and clear for me.  I’ve worn out four video tapes and at least three DVD’s, but I don’t need them, I don’t need YouTube, I can see it all any time I choose just by relaxing and closing my eyes.  Mel Rees is no longer with us, nor is Gary Speed and Brian Moore has passed away too.  Rest in peace, all.  And my mate Dave who shared that memorable day with me, he’s gone as well, taken far too young by cancer in 1999.  I have a picture of us both, taken before the home game with Norwich a week after we’d won the league, triumphant in our freshly-purchased “Champions” t-shirts, happily blind as to what the future would bring.  RIP, Dave mate.  We celebrated hard that day as little Rod Wallace won that last game with a sublime goal, rounding off our greatest season.  We’d earned it, me and Dave, tramping around the second division grounds of the eighties as Leeds struggled to come back.  Thousands of us had earned it.  Now we were top dogs, and boy did we enjoy it while it lasted.

United were back, as Champions of England.  The Last Real Champions. One of our unique, unbeatable accolades, like being at the top of the League when the Millennium clicked its four digits over.  Something that can never be taken away from us: Immortality, pure and simple.  Happy Memories, Champs.