Tag Archives: Southampton FC

FA Explains Austin Escaped Jansson Punishment as he Doesn’t Play for Leeds, Asks Why All the Fuss – by Rob Atkinson

             Pontus Jansson: bang to rights for being a Leeds United player

An FA spokesperson has reacted with bewilderment to the controversy over their decision not to punish Charlie Austin (Southampton) for recent post-match comments to the effect that the referee was a clown and deserved to be strung up with piano wire. Some Leeds United fans are apparently “miffed” that their own Pontus Jansson received a one match ban with a £1000 fine, for comments that many perceive as somewhat milder. The FA man, Mr Lee D. Shater (Twitter handle @LeeDShater), when asked why the Leeds man had been treated differently, replied, “Well, you’ve answered your own question. Mr Jansson plays for Leeds United and Mr Austin plays for Southampton. What’s the issue here?”

Fearing that we’d perhaps failed to make ourselves sufficiently clear, our intrepid Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything reporter asked once again for the precise reason behind seemingly different responses to similar matters. Mr. Shater stated “This is like talking to a brick wall. The FA has been very clear on a number of previous occasions that playing for Leeds United is an aggravating factor in any disciplinary issue. That’s a long-established fact, and we’re frankly surprised that it should become an issue now. Now do run along, I’m a busy man”.

Enquiries further up the FA chain of command failed to produce anything by way of a more detailed response, with the general reaction consistently being one of mild surprise that there was perceived to be anything questionable or controversial about the treatment of either player. One official, who preferred not to be named, but whose great grand-daddy was Alan Hardaker, tried to provide a little helpful background: “Look, a lot of this may have been before your time, but Leeds United has been the FA’s bête noire, if you’ll pardon my French, for well over fifty years now. We’re only continuing to enforce long-accepted guidelines, and we’re supported in this by our colleagues at the Football League – just take a look at how long it is since Leeds have been awarded a penalty kick – over a year now, in a run stretching to 55 games. We’re all pretty proud of that. Quite frankly, Mr Jansson can count himself lucky that he wasn’t treated more harshly. Nobody forced him to play for Leeds, you know…”

Nobody at Leeds United was available for comment, but it is understood that the club will continue to monitor instances of questionable and inconsistent refereeing decisions, as well as the application of disciplinary standards at the governing body level of the game. Apparently, some thought had been given to seeking the support of FIFA, the world football administrators, but a telegram from that august organisation reading “Leeds United? Pah. Nous détestons absolument Leeds United. Ils sont comme la merde sur nos chaussures. Pah!” served as a discouragement to that course of action.

It would seem, therefore, that the club’s only option will be to grit their teeth and get on with it. Nothing is likely to change anytime soon, and speculation among the Leeds support is that Brexit will be finalised long before United receive another penalty kick. The general feeling is that success, when it comes, will be all the sweeter for arising out of adversity and in the face of extreme prejudice. Or, as one classical scholar, a United fan for 43 years, put it: “Noli illegitimi carborundum”.

Alan Hardaker, 106, is dead.

 

 

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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.

Byram Is a Realisable Asset, NOT a Leeds United Necessity – by Rob Atkinson

Boy Wonder Byram

Boy Wonder Byram

Everywhere you look within the Leeds United blogosphere at the moment, people are gnashing their teeth, tearing their hair, rending their clothes and exhibiting other biblical signs of anguish and angst – and all over one slip of a lad. Sam Byram was an unknown to 99% of the support three short years ago. Then he had a dream pre-season, started off the Championship campaign in the first team – and stayed there, producing displays of a maturity and confidence far in excess of his tender years.

Naturally, being Leeds, this seeming success story is a double-edged sword. The presence of a boy wonder in the first team (otherwise known in LS11 as “the shop window”) more usually produces feelings of rampant insecurity among the Leeds faithful, rather than the warm glow that should accompany the sight of a youthful prodigy in the famous white shirt. We know our place in today’s scheme of things, and it is very much that of “feeder club”. Each successive hero has played his way into our hearts, prospered briefly in front of our adoring eyes and then departed for pastures greener, or more likely Canary yellow, with no sign of any adequate replacement.

It’s happened with Beckford, Howson, Snoddy, Becchio and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all.  Local hero status is no protection from the Lure of Elsewhere. Howson supposedly had Leeds tattooed on his heart, but it seems to have been erased easily enough, and our last sight of him was as he wheeled away after scoring a winner against us. Byram could so easliy have followed the well-trodden path out of Elland Road a year ago; Southampton, awash with Liverpudlian money from their fire sale of last summer, were rebuffed after an offer of £4.5 million or so for Byram – but there are now rumours that more serious suitors might be willing almost to double that sum.

Sam is quite possibly the jewel in the crown of the Leeds Academy production line. Despite an injury-affected and form-blighted last year or so, he really is that good. It’s natural then that worries over his short-term future should be particularly unwelcome at a time when a maverick owner and the latest in a long and dismal line of “head coaches” are supposed to be building for the club’s eventual re-admission to the Promised Land of the Premier League. But really – should we be worrying at all?

We need to take a long, hard look at what is necessary to get us out of this division in the desired, upwards, direction. That list will include strikers who know where the goal is (Chris Wood?) and are proficient at sticking the ball therein; midfielders and wingers – all very much according to the prescription of our former gaffer Dr. McDermott, who had seen this treatment work wonders at Reading. We also need tough, all-action ball winners who are preferably not in the superannuated class (Tom Adeyemi??), and a solid defence who will be mean enough at the back to make sure that increased productivity up front results in a net force taking us a lot higher up the league.  What we probably don’t actually need, and won’t until it’s time to start plotting our approach to the top flight, is a potentially world-class performer on the right flank. It’s superfluous to our current requirements; we’re casting pearls before swine.

It would be OK, of course, if Sam did stick around.  It might even be better for the lad himself – too many fledgling superstars have gone up a level and struggled to stay afloat, look how Fabian Delph initially struggled at Villa.  He’s only now beginning to look the player that seemed likely to be evolving under the guidance of Gary McAllister – and he may be about to disappear into the black hole that is the fringes of City’s 1st team squad.  Byram might well benefit from another season at least of learning his trade at Leeds, or so the conventional wisdom goes. 

Looking at things realistically though – if there WAS an offer of £8 million for the youthful and richly promising Sam, and if that £8 million were to be made (don’t laugh, now) available for the construction of a team that would challenge strongly this season – might not that be a good option for Leeds? It’s the kind of money that, as was said about the fortune we mugged Fulham out of for McCormack, could easily fund the four or five quality additions that we realistically need to propel us into the very top echelons of the Championship. Whether such investment would actually be made is, of course, another matter entirely – but that still doesn’t make the case for hanging onto a valuable, possibly wantaway player. Once promoted, it’s a different ball game, but in the here and now the priority is actually getting there, and a lavishly-gifted Byram in a team consisting otherwise largely of uninspiring plodders doesn’t look like being enough to realise the dream.

A lot will depend on the attitude of the lad himself, and historically no sentimental feelings of attachment to the club that has nurtured their talent have persuaded previous uncut diamonds to hang around and be polished at Elland Road. So if Sam wanted to go to a Premier League club, would we, could we, should we, stand in his way?  My view is that you don’t sacrifice a lad’s ambition and desire to mix it with the best, on the altar of narrow club interests – such a policy is liable to blow up in your face, leaving you with a disaffected and depreciating asset on your hands. No, if Byram does want out – especially as his current deal is fast running down – we’re better off gritting our teeth, securing the very best deal for Leeds United – don’t forget that sell-on clause, Massimo! – and getting on with reinvesting the loot in a team that will do the job at this level. We can leave worries about how we cope in the Premier League for such time as it becomes a live issue, rather than the distant prospect it is right now.

We need to cast off that “Feeder club” image as the mortally humiliating insult it is. We Are Leeds, after all. But in order for that to happen, we may need to embrace the unwelcome label in the shorter term, and speculate to accumulate. And at least these days we seem of a mind to drive a very hard bargain, unlike previous years when the attitude has been disgustingly meek and humble as we accepted pittances for valued assets. If the departure of Sam were to provide the funds to finish the job, then that sad loss will turn out to have been a worthy sacrifice.

The ugly truth of the matter is that a stubborn desire to keep a luxury we can’t afford, and frankly don’t really need in our current situation, could turn out to be the ultimate example of short-termism, to the detriment of our longer-term prospects of life at the top.

Super Leeds and “The Last Real Champions” – by Rob Atkinson

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Big Jack Scores Against Sad Saints

If you should happen to be a football fan – as I am, and have been these many years, since days of yore with short shorts, middling ability and long sideburns – then you may well be in the habit of switching on the TV occasionally to watch the glitzy offerings of the munificently funded Premier League. With its incomparable array of prima donnas and fabulously wealthy superstars, prancing athletically around a pristine and manicured football pitch in the very latest state-of-the-art stadium (constructed courtesy of Meccano Inc.) – it’s a far cry from the heyday of The Football League, Divisions One to Four.

Back then, men were men, refs were nervous and physios routinely cured ruptured cruciates or shattered thighs with a damp sponge and hoarse exhortations to “gerron with it” – or so it seemed. Full-backs with legs of the type more usually to be found on billiard tables would careen through the mud at Elland Road or Anfield, some flash, quivering, overpaid at £200 a week winger in their merciless sights, destined to be afflicted with acute gravel-rash. Centre-backs with foreheads like sheer cliffs would head muddy balls clear to the halfway line, get up out of the mire, groggily shake their mighty frames, and then do it all over again – for the full 90 minutes, Brian. The good old days, without a doubt.

There is little that the modern game has in common with those far-off, non-High Definition times when some top-flight games weren’t even covered by a local TV camera for a brief clip on regional news. Now, every kick of ball or opponent is available in super slow-mo for in-depth analysis by a battery of experts, from a dozen different angles. The game today is under the microscope seven days a week, where then it was viewed only from afar, limited to highlights from a select few stadia every Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Even now, the smell of hot ironing and roast beef with Yorkshire Pud will take me back to Sabbath afternoons sat contentedly before “Sunday Soccer” as Bremner, Giles & Co dismantled the hapless opposition.

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Super Leeds

Leeds United was the team, back then. On their day, the lads would toy with their rivals as a particularly cruel cat might do with a half-dead mouse. Many will recall the spectacle of a mortally-wounded Southampton side – already seven goals to nil down near the end of the game – trying all they knew to get a touch of the ball as their tormentors in white passed it effortlessly between themselves, brazenly flaunting their catalogue of flicks, reverse balls and sublime long passes. The game was long since won and all Leeds’ energies were palpably focused on a very public humiliation of their exasperated victims. Some thought it was in poor taste, a shoddy way to treat fellow professionals. Leeds fans remember it 40 years on as the ultimate statement of an undeniably top team, proclaiming to the nation “Look at us. We are the best.”

This was 1972, when Leeds might well have won pretty much everything, but had to settle in the end for their solitary FA Cup triumph, missing out on the Title right at the death in typically controversial circumstances. Leeds won far less than they should have done; a combination of official intransigence, their own inherent self-doubt on certain big occasions, Don Revie’s crippling caution and superstition – together it must be said with some shockingly bad luck – limited their trophy haul to a mere trickle when it should have been a flood. But those flickering images of arrogant dominance and untouchable skill revealed also an unbreakable brotherhood and grisly determination that spoke of a very special team indeed. The resonance even today of that oft-repeated tag “Super Leeds” says far more about the status of Revie’s side than any mundane tally of trophies possibly could.

In those days, of course, the gulf in ability between Leeds United and Southampton, described by Match of the Day commentator Barry Davies as “an almighty chasm”, was just that. The gap in class was achieved on merit. It wasn’t backed up by any such gulf in the relative earnings of the men in white and the demoralised Saints, or players of any other club. The playing field back then was very much more level than it is now, when the top few clubs – in an apt metaphor for society at large – cream off the bulk of the income, leaving the rest to feed on scraps. The pool of possible Champions was consequently greater – Derby County won it that year of Southampton’s ritual humiliation, as Leeds faltered when required to play their last League game a mere two days after a gruelling Cup Final. Imagine the outcry if one of the major teams had to do that today! And ask yourself if a Derby County or a Nottingham Forest are likely to be Champions again in the near future, blocked off as they are from that status by the oligarchy at the Premier League’s top table.

There aren’t many more hackneyed phrases than “The Good Old Days” – but for those who like their sporting competition to have a wide and varied base, with the possibility of a good proportion of the participants actually having a chance to win in any given season – then the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s take some beating. Leeds United fans like to refer to their team of 1992 as “The Last Real Champions”, and a convincing case can be made for this, looking at the transformation which took place shortly thereafter, the explosion in finances for the chosen few, and the small number of clubs – invariably backed by mega-millions – who have been Champions since. Even the once-mighty Liverpool FC has been affected. Despite Leeds United’s current problems, they have been Champions more recently than the Anfield Reds.

It’s perhaps fitting that Leeds have a claim to the accolade of Last Real Champions. As Super Leeds, they dominated English Football for a decade, without ever winning their due. Now that we can look back to a turning point for the game 23 years ago when the Premier League broke away, and the cash registers started to make more noise than disillusioned fans, we can possibly consider those 1992 Champions, nod to ourselves, and say yes; they were the last of the old guard, the final Champions of the Good Old Days.

As epitaphs go, it’s not a bad one.

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

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Leeds set about imposing their class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will West Ham “Pull It Off” at Southampton – Or Will the Clean-cut, Virtuous Saints Prevail? – by Rob Atkinson

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In a rare look at the no-hopers’ stratum of the Premier League, “Life, Leeds United, the Universe and Everything” will focus today on that most archetypal of mid-table fixtures, tomorrow’s clash of mediocrities at St Mary’s, as The Saints face sinners West Ham.

What? Sinners?? I hear you ask, probably with a bemused look on your face as you think of the ‘Appy ‘Ammers’ “World Cup Winners” and of course the Most Holy Sir Trevor Brooking Himself.  Well, I mean no real criticism of the traditional playing habits of The Academy of Football (Finishing Third Or Lower Since Formation).  Give or take Julian Dicks and Paolo di Canio, they’ve generally been one of the less offensive clubs around, and certainly my own beloved Leeds United have usually found West Ham to be a pleasantly soft touch down the years.  No, it’s the somewhat less savoury figureheads at the top of the club who tend to give the lie to any perception of the Irons as a tasteful family outfit.  The embarrassing fact of a pair of former soft-porn barons as co-chairmen rather shatters any such cosy image.  It’s perhaps ironic that these two share the Chairman title whilst the formerly scrumptious Karren Brady has to put up with being Vice Chairman.  It’s an incongruous contradiction that will not be lost on anyone who used to drool over the non-textual output of the Daily Sport.

In any event, misty-eyed memories of the likes of Brooking, Alan Devonshire, the Hurst/Peters/Moore triumvirate, Patsy Holland (Patsy??  Yes, Patsy, for crying out loud) and even more recent alumni such as Frank Lampard Jr. and Rio Ferdinand, have tended to disappear under the more muscular style favoured by one-time Fergie lapdog Sam Allardyce.  Fat Sam, as he is fondly known, is a realist.  He went for the most direct route out of the Championship, gaining a promotion that, while it offended the eyes of the old-timer Upton Park purists, nevertheless elevated them to the level of top-flight strugglers, the usual high-water mark of their less than spectacular history.  Fat Sam knows that, in this company, survival is all that can reasonably be expected of him, and he has accordingly taken the pragmatic approach to recruitment and tactics.  The abandonment of the old “Academy” tradition is mourned by many, but it’s all about money these days and the ‘Ammers need to cling on to their Premier League nose-bleed status for as long as possible.  Historically, this has tended to mean a few years of struggle among the game’s big boys before inevitable relegation and the start of a struggle to get back.  Such has been the pedigree, for want of a better word, of West Ham United.

Fat Sam’s current problems seem to revolve around the perennial injury problems of striker Andy Carroll, who is hors de combat yet again and therefore unable to provide the fulcrum needed for the Allardyce game plan to stand any real chance of success against all but the more inept of the Premier League roster.  The Saints’ own old-fashioned centre-forward, Ricky Lambert has looked a much better bet recently, thriving in international company for England where he has snapped up a couple of goal chances and shown a happy knack of threading an accurate pass through for runners into the box.  This key advantage, as well as a slightly healthier state of affairs surrounding the home side, leads me to conclude that the ‘Ammers chances of returning to Albert Square with anything other than a chastening defeat are quite slim.  My prediction is a comfortable enough 2-0 victory for Southampton, and the jellied eels to taste sour and as nauseating as they look in the Rose and Crahn tomorrow evening.

The ‘Ammers’ prospects for the season ahead would seem to be rather up in the air.  Fat Sam will stick to his script and he’ll hope that his more effective players can steer clear of injury for enough of the campaign to secure another year at the Top Table.  That’s a pretty encouraging prognosis for London’s paupers, who will be looking ahead at their move to the Olympic facility as a chance to elevate their status.  If West Ham can make that move still in possession of their hard-won Premier League status – well that’s enough to give even an aging porn baron’s libido a jolt and maybe even provide a suitable climax to what has been a less-than-palatable career.

Super Leeds: The Last Champions – by Rob Atkinson

Stand Up For The Last Champions

Stand Up For The Last Champions

If you should happen to be a football fan – as I am, and have been these many years, since days of yore with short shorts, middling ability and long sideburns – then you may well be in the habit of switching on the TV occasionally to watch the glitzy offerings of the munificently funded Premier League.  With its incomparable array of prima donnas and fabulously wealthy superstars, prancing athletically around a pristine and manicured football pitch in the very latest state-of-the-art stadium (constructed courtesy of Meccano Inc.) – it’s a far cry from the heyday of The Football League, Divisions One to Four.

Back then, men were men, refs were nervous and physios routinely cured ruptured cruciates or shattered thighs with a damp sponge and hoarse exhortations to “gerron with it” – or so it seemed.   Full-backs with legs of the type more usually to be found on billiard tables would careen through the mud at Elland Road or Anfield, some flash, quivering, overpaid at £200 a week winger in their merciless sights, destined to be afflicted with acute gravel-rash.  Centre-backs with foreheads like sheer cliffs would head muddy balls clear to the halfway line, get up out of the mire, groggily shake their mighty heads, and then do it all over again – for the full 90 minutes, Brian, giving it 110%.  The good old days, without a doubt.

There is little that the modern game has in common with those far-off, non-High Definition times when some top-flight games weren’t even covered by a local TV camera for a brief clip on regional news.  Now, every kick of ball or opponent is available in super slow-mo for in-depth analysis by a battery of “experts”, from a dozen different angles.  The game today is under the microscope seven days a week, where then it was viewed only from afar, limited to highlights from a select few stadia every Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.  Even now, the smell of hot ironing and roast beef with Yorkshire Pud will take me back to Sabbath afternoons sat contentedly before “Sunday Soccer” as Billy Bremner and Co dismantled the hapless opposition.

Leeds United was the team, back then.  On their day, the lads would toy with their rivals as a particularly cruel cat might do with a half-dead mouse.  Many will recall the spectacle of a mortally-wounded Southampton side – already seven goals to nil down near the end of the game – trying all they knew to get a touch of the ball as their tormentors in white passed it effortlessly between themselves, brazenly flaunting their catalogue of flicks, reverse balls and sublime long passing.  The game was long since won and all Leeds’ energies were palpably focused on a very public humiliation of their exasperated victims.  Some thought it was in poor taste, a shoddy way to treat fellow professionals.  Leeds fans remember it 40 years on as the ultimate statement of an undeniably top team, proclaiming to the nation “Look at us.  We are the best.”

This was 1972, when Leeds might well have won pretty much everything, but had to settle in the end for their solitary FA Cup triumph, missing out on the Title right at the death in typically controversial circumstances.  Leeds won far less than they should have done; a combination of official intransigence, their own inherent self-doubt, Don Revie’s crippling caution and superstitions – together it must be said with some shockingly bad luck – limited their trophy haul to a mere trickle when it should have been a flood.  But those flickering images of arrogant dominance and untouchable skill revealed also an unbreakable brotherhood and grisly determination that spoke of a very special team indeed.  The resonance even today of that oft-repeated tag “Super Leeds” says far more about the status of Revie’s side than any mundane tally of trophies possibly could.

In those days, of course, the gulf in ability between Leeds United and Southampton, described by Match of the Day commentator Barry Davies as “an almighty chasm”, was just that.  The gap in class was achieved on merit.  It wasn’t backed up by any such gulf in the relative earnings of the men in white and the demoralised Saints, or players of any other club.  The playing field back then was very much more level than it is now, when the top few clubs – in an apt metaphor for society at large – cream off the bulk of the income, leaving the rest to feed on scraps.  The pool of possible Champions was consequently greater – Derby County won it that year of Southampton’s ritual humiliation, as Leeds faltered when required to play their last League game a mere two days after a gruelling Cup Final.  Imagine the outcry if one of the major teams had to do that today!  And ask yourself if a Derby County or a Nottingham Forest are likely to be Champions again in the near future, blocked off as they are from that status by the oligarchy at the Premier League’s top table.

There aren’t many more hackneyed phrases than “The Good Old Days” – but for those who like their sporting competition to have a wide and varied base, with the possibility of a good proportion of the participants actually having a chance to win in any given season – then the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s take some beating.  Leeds United fans like to refer to their team of 1992 as “The Last Champions”, and a convincing case can be made for this, looking at the transformation which took place shortly thereafter, the explosion in finances for the chosen few, and the small number of clubs – invariably backed by mega-millions – who have been Champions since.  Even the once-mighty Liverpool FC has been affected.  Despite Leeds United’s current problems, they have been Champions more recently than the Anfield Reds.

It’s perhaps fitting that Leeds have a claim to the title of The Last Champions.  As Super Leeds, they dominated English Football for a decade, without ever winning their due.  Now that we can look back with misty eyes to a turning point for the game 21 years ago when the Premier League broke away, and the cash registers started to make more noise than disillusioned fans, we can possibly consider those 1992 Champions, nod to ourselves, and say yes; they were the last of the old guard, the final Champions of the Good Old Days.

As epitaphs go, it’s not a bad one.

Leeds: Promising Transfer Rumours as McDermott Ponders Options

ImageSome of the suggested targets of new United manager Brian McDermott will likely have Leeds fans sitting up and taking notice – as well as licking their lips in anticipation. It has been frustrating to see lesser clubs picking up gems in the market, while our own beloved Leeds have sat by and under-achieved. Now we understand that Brian is possibly of a mind to raid his old club Reading for Adam le Fondre, a man much linked with Elland Road when he was at Rotherham. From what I’ve seen of le Fondre this season he’s done well at Premier League level in a team that has always struggled – surely the sign of a man who would prosper in our league, with his instinctive fox-in-the-box movement and awareness. And what’s more, the talk is that, despite possible interest from middle-ranked top flight clubs, Adam would relish a move to Leeds and a reunion with the manager who gave him such a big chance in the big time.

Another striker often tipped to come to Leeds in the past is Billy Sharp, and this is one I’ve always thought would eventually end up on the strength sooner or later. Sharp is currently on loan at Forest, but his parent club Southampton will probably see a big turnover in the summer, and Billy could be making a permanent move away somewhere. Why not to Elland Road? It will, of course, all depend on the finances.

A less obviously popular signing could be Ian Harte, of whom we might think we know much to put us off. Looking at Hartey’s well-known plus points – he would certainly still present a threat around the opposition penalty area with that quality hammer of a left foot. It was often said though that – for a left back – he could be exposed by pace and that defending wasn’t his strong point. I think though that, for a lot of Harte’s time in his Elland Road career, he suffered from playing behind Harry Kewell, a notoriously lazy git when it came to tracking back and one who, when the going got tough, would frequently limp off. This was particularly noticeable in his Liverpool days, and the less said about his subsequent career, the better.

So maybe Hartey could still do a job at Leeds, operating behind a more industrious wide-left player? I’d be inclined to back McDerrmott’s judgement on that one, whatever it might be. Speaking of which, the question of who we keep is at least as important as that of who we sign. Please, Brian – let us hang onto Super Sam Byram.

There’s going to be many more names thrown up by various media as possible signings between now and the start of next season than the three mentioned above. Who we’ll end up with is anyone’s guess and there remains the worrying possibility that it could be yet another big let-down. But Brian seems to want to import some quality, and you get the feeling he’ll have made his wishes known where it counts. Let’s hope so, and let’s hope that the summer that’s a-coming in proves to be rather more exciting and inspiring than some of the fallow transfer windows of recent years.

Memory Match No. 5: Leeds Utd 4, Southampton 0 (25.11.1978)

A journey further back in time for this week’s Memory Match, to the golden, hazy days of theImage late seventies. This was a post-glory era Leeds United, but not too bad a side for all that – especially during the early part of Jimmy Adamson’s Elland Road managership. These were the days when the famous old stadium was dominated from all four corners by the tallest floodlights in Britain, towering 260 feet into the Yorkshire sky, and illuminating proceedings with their distinctive diamond-shaped arrays of 220 lamps each. Genial Jim Callaghan was Old Labour’s last Prime Minister before Maggie Thatcher took charge for the Tories, we said goodbye to two long-running police drama series in Z-Cars and The Sweeney and songs from the soundtrack of hit musical Grease figured large in the singles charts along with the likes of Kate Bush, the Bee Gees and Boney M.

Leeds at this point were a club still trying to re-establish themselves as a success following a distinct decline from the greatness of Don Revie’s all-conquering United warriors. The previous two seasons had seen progress to both domestic semi-finals, but defeat to Man Utd in the FA Cup, and Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in the League Cup had blocked the path to Wembley on each occasion. Billy Bremner had moved on, Norman Hunter had gone – but the home crowd had a new favourite in Tony Currie, one of the few players who could genuinely live up to the sobriquet of “Midfield Maestro”. Currie had been signed from Sheffield United in the summer of 1976, and as the 78/79 season dawned he was surely in the prime of his career, shining for club and country alike, pulling the strings which controlled the team’s performance and frequently doing just as he pleased against helpless opponents.

This season had started with the surprise appointment of former Celtic manager Jock Stein to replace the sacked Jimmy Armfield. I still remember being on holiday in Spain, and my Dad chucking a hard-to-obtain English newspaper across at me with the headline “Stein For Leeds” on the back. I had been delighted, but sadly Big Jock’s stay at Elland Road was a mere 44 days before he left to take up his dream job as Scotland manager. So it was Adamson’s Army which greeted the teams on a bleak November afternoon as newly-promoted Southampton provided the opposition. Leeds’ home form had been reasonable, with a draw against West Brom and a narrow defeat to Arsenal in the previous five games, though Birmingham and Derby had both been convincingly beaten, and there had been a welcome 2-1 victory over Chelsea. Attendance levels though were relatively disappointing other than for the traditionally attractive matches against top teams, and a fairly sparse crowd of 23592 turned up for what was, on the face of it, a mundane fixture.

Leeds started as they preferred, attacking the South Stand end of the ground so as to save the Kop for a second-half assault, and they had the breakthrough after only fourteen minutes. Trevor Cherry, coming out of defence, played a probing ball up field where the burly Ray Hankin rose to head downwards to little Brian Flynn. United’s pocket dynamo was always adept at picking up possession in dangerous areas and making good use of the ball, and he was quick to scurry across the edge of the Saints penalty area towards the right, where he neatly slipped a pass to Arthur Graham. The Scottish winger was well-known for his ability to cut in from either wing, and once he got the ball in space on either foot, he could be quite lethal, as he proved now. Moving back infield, he easily evaded a defender before turning smartly to fire left-footed past former Halifax ‘keeper Terry Gennoe into the bottom right-hand corner. It was a clinical finish, giving the Southampton stopper no chance at all.

Eight minutes later, the lead was doubled, and this was a collectors’ item of a goal. Not since Boxing Day 1975 had Paul Madeley troubled the scorers, but here he was suddenly in what was nose-bleed territory for him, just outside the opposition area as Graham rolled in a pass from the right. United’s Rolls-Royce, as he had been dubbed, was a Mr Versatile of many years standing, having worn every outfield number for Leeds, but he was never exactly prolific in front of goal. Now though he seized on Graham’s pass and struck a left foot shot which took a cruel deflection, hopelessly wrong-footing Gennoe who could only watch as the ball bobbled into the net. 2-0 to United who were cruising at half-time, having been rather unluckily denied a third when John Hawley’s header thudded against an upright after a flowing move down the left.

The second half was only ten or so minutes old when one of the most famous Leeds United goals in living memory drew rapturous applause from the fans massed behind the goal at the Gelderd End. Tony Currie had been in full-on matador mode all day, taunting opponents with his mastery of possession, effortless control, trademark step-over and change of pace. His range of passing on form like today’s was almost Giles-esque, and there really is no higher praise than that. It had always looked like being Currie’s match to dominate, and now he scored the goal that cemented his place in United folklore. Snatching possession midway inside the Saints half, Currie mastered a lively bouncing ball before advancing on a nervously retreating Chris Nicholl. Rather than doing anything so mundane as beating his man, Currie looked up and, using the Saints defender as a shield, he simply bent the ball around him on a beautiful, curving trajectory, past the diving Gennoe to nestle in the far right-hand corner of the goal.

“Oh, my goodness!” intoned an awestruck Martin Tyler commentating for Yorkshire TV, “…and Tony Currie milks the applause that is so deserved.”

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The rout of the Saints was complete on 65 minutes, when a Trevor Cherry cross from deep on the right caught the visitors’ defence hopelessly square, leaving Hankin in space and onside. Yugoslav defender Ivan Golac, who had never scored in English football until today, now broke his duck in the most undesirable fashion, chasing back nobly to dispossess Hankin who was casually weighing up his options, but tragically succeeding only in lifting the ball over his ‘keeper and into his own net for 4-0.

For much of the remaining 25 minutes, Leeds seemed to take their foot off the gas somewhat, and allowed a Southampton side – who had, in truth, battled well throughout – a number of pots at David Harvey’s goal. The Leeds ‘keeper though, unaccountably frozen out of a Scottish International side that could well have used his agility and experience, was equal to everything thrown at him, and preserved a clean sheet without being troubled unduly.

It hadn’t been a fantastic match, or indeed an especially memorable one, apart from two superlative goals from Graham and Currie. History shows, too, that Southampton would have the last laugh that season, coming back from trailing 2-0 against Leeds United in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final at Elland Road, to draw that game 2-2. They then completed the job with a 1-0 victory in the second leg at The Dell, going through to lose the Wembley final against Nottingham Forest.

But for United it was the season that saw us back into European competition for the first time since our ill-fated European Cup Final against Bayern four years previously, and the Saints win contributed its fair share to that achievement. Sadly though Tony Currie was soon to depart, his then wife apparently homesick for London. He duly joined QPR and eventually graced Wembley at club level himself as Rangers played Tottenham in the FA Cup Final of 1982, before injury drew a close to a flamboyant and entertaining career. Leeds without Currie were never quite the same force again, and we were now on the downward spiral to eventual relegation in the 1981-82 season.

In many ways then 1978-79 was United’s last hurrah in the top flight, our last decent stab at competing in the top league until Howard Wilkinson restored that status in 1990; and Tony Currie was certainly in my opinion the last real Leeds Legend of the immediate post-Revie era. For me, he was one of the greatest, and I mourned his departure more than most I have witnessed over the years. It felt like the end of an era when he went, and so it ultimately proved to be. But Currie left us with some magical memories, perhaps the greatest of which remains that terrific banana shot at the Kop End, a goal worthy of any superstar, and one fit to grace any occasion.

Next: Memory Match No. 6: West Ham Utd 1, Leeds United 5. Upton Park was frequently a happy hunting ground for Leeds, and the Whites’ cause was aided on this occasion by a couple of Hammers dismissals in a May 1999 game where – for once – we seemed to get the rub of the green where the ref was concerned.