Oh Snoddy, what were you thinking?
That was the moment, or rather it should’ve been it; the glorious realisation of one of those ‘Leeds United against the world’ triumphs, pissed away in the blink of a lame finish. Even then, Becchio had the chance to cast that aberration into the shadows of irrelevance, but he didn’t follow in McCormack’s fiercely struck free-kick. Why oh why, didn’t you react, Luciano?
Hesitation in the end was the difference between victory and defeat. Becchio hesitated when anticipation’s reward was a tap-in, minutes later, Lonergan hesitated (for the umpteenth time), leaving himself in no position to claim the ball, nor to intercept Robson-Kanu’s intelligent nod back to Adam Le Fondre. At that moment, the game was up for a shattered Leeds side, the second goal, merely added insult to Paul Robinson’s injury; flattering a home side long since reduced to sacrificing their footballing principles in favour of an aerial assault.
It was a day where notions of injustice predominated; not just in terms of events on the pitch, there was a wider picture, one that extended to those in the stands and an appreciation of where the two clubs represented are currently heading. When I arrived home last night, another (not unexpected) dimension was added to the tick list, as I re-lived the experience through two nauseating hours of Sky punditry.
On the pitch, United gave as much as could be expected; everything the supporters could’ve demanded – it wasn’t pretty, but if nothing else, 7 years under Ken Bates has moulded those who follow the Whites into some of football’s most unwilling pragmatists – and in return, they received the sort of backing that could only leave the home supporters looking on in resigned envy at. As always seems to be the case at Leeds, the greater the adversity, the more intense the backing.
Of course, the referee more than played his part to that end; the decision to brandish a red card at Zac Thompson, a ridiculous decision. A 19 year old, getting his first game under a new manager, foolishly lost the ball in a dangerous area and desperately tried to redeem himself – yes a lunge, but one-footed and on the ground; a complete loss of common sense under the influence exerted by the cynical over-reaction of Gorkss, ending both Thompson’s involvement and the game as a spectacle.
Darren Drysdale’s subsequent handling of what followed just served to exacerbate questions about his performance; he appeared to spend the remainder of the game attempting to portray the image of a man with an incredibly relaxed attitude towards the physical aspects of the game. If anybody had wanted to argue Danny Pugh’s right to still be on the pitch at half-time, his continued presence until the final whistle on the back of the combination of his first-half lunge and second-half clattering of McAnuff cast the officials in a ludicrous light.
Those three challenges apart though, there was nothing else reckless or incendiary of note; not that you’d know it from the reaction of the home side, nor the ‘neutrals’ in the media. Watching Sky’s ‘balanced’ coverage was enough to convince that the time and expense lavished on travelling to the Madejski was more than worthwhile. Don Goodman’s limp comments about every challenge made, betrayed a career played out during a period where a degree of physicality was the norm, rather than a cue for mock outrage; the fact that all talk leading in to, and during the interval centred on whether Pugh should have walked, rather than why Thompson did, an exemplification of the tone – unsurprisingly, Sky’s studio guest, Reading’s Championship winning captain, Graeme Murty could not possibly conceive an opinion to the contrary.
The commentary wasn’t just restricted to those challenges though; Michael Brown had his motives openly questioned with every tackle he made, yet Mikele Leigertwood’s persistent fouling of Brown went unnoticed. In contrast, Jason Roberts, all prima donna whingeing and flailing arms, was praised for his strength and wily experience. What is it with Roberts? He appears to have adopted a new air of arrogance, common to many media personalities. Quite why I don’t know; moving from a non-descript Premier League club to a progressive if uninteresting Championship side is nothing to boast about, while taking Leroy Rosenior’s overwhelming blandness and importing it, lock, stock and barrel to 606 certainly isn’t!
The Sky team had a script in their mind; a confident, progressive Reading side, coming up against a dogged but limited Leeds United team. Sophistication against physicality, footballers against grafters… the Thompson challenge fit the script perfectly and after that they were going to crowbar in every incident that followed it, fashioning it to suit their needs. It seems that, not happy with skewing the modern game beyond recognition and inflicting ridiculous kick-off times on supporters, Sky will not be happy until they’ve suffocated all evidence of on-the-pitch aggression with a large corporate damp flannel as they crusade to present football as the shiny, airbrushed, soulless spectacle that so many of those who were there prior to the ‘revolution’ abhor.
Sadly, most of the Reading fans appear to be amongst the post-Revolution gate crashers, which brings into question a greater perceived injustice; while media digs and on the pitch hard luck stories are meat and drink to Leeds fans, there was something which was in turn both wholly depressing and uplifting about being in the away end yesterday.
To be clear, I have no dislike of Reading, in fact I much rather they secured promotion ahead of West Ham whose promotion strategy has been to buy every player in sight then try and steamroller the league through the medium of hoofball. In Brian McDermott, Reading have a likeable, progressive manager, excellent players who play the game as it should be and most crucially, a chairman whose ambitions have always ultimately placed football above all other matters. When Anton Zingarevich appeared on the scene, Madejski’s reaction was to step aside for the good of the club.
But then I look in the stands. I travelled yesterday expecting a buzzing stadium, it was anything but. For such a pivotal game, the atmosphere bordered on the pathetic – as bad as Elland Road has become, the sighs of apathy common to most homes games would’ve still been sufficient to drown out the Reading support. Where was the passion, the hunger? Bar a few pockets of ‘hard core’ locals in the two sections by the Leeds fans, the entire stadium was almost without exception, inanimate throughout. The few that did sing, mustering a few simplistic, handclap-synchronised chants that petered out in a matter of seconds; it took Le Fondre’s goal to confound my suspicions that two-thirds of the stadium was actually wheelchair bound.
In the quieter moments there was that familiar, depressing sound of a lone drummer, somewhere secreted from the view of disapproving eyes; there was even pre-arranged scarf waving to greet the teams at the start – it was like being at Doncaster, but on a grander scale. When the goal arrived, the inevitable musical accompaniment kicked in, the ultimate affirmation of another soulless club, moving up in the world as Leeds struggle.
In contrast, the Leeds fans, with nothing to excite them beyond the prospect of watching a decimated, unremarkable squad of journeymen, grafting to try to and secure something against a club that regarded Aldershot as its main rivals before their liquidation, in a facile effort to try and prolong the hopeless spectacle of a play-off charge… well, it was there for all to witness. Non-stop, passionate backing throughout; it’s testament to our away following that some people bemoaned the fact that we could only muster 3,126 followers for a relatively meaningless, television game, some 200 miles away.
While there was a degree of pride to be taken from hearing the Leeds end drown out any attempts of backing from the pockets of home fans, I couldn’t help wondering how Elland Road would’ve sounded had it been the Whites, playing a crucial Easter game with pole position in the table up for grabs. I dare say it would’ve been deafening – the Madejski merely resembled another place where ambition was being wasted on those who appreciate it the least. Reading’s new owner made his choice based on his experiences during a brief college stint. Is it too much to wish that some moneyed philanthropist might stop off for a piss at Tropical World in Roundhay Park and feel similarly seduced? Someone with enough money to make even Bates listen?
Still, at least there’s our support to hold on to; away from home especially where we’re the equal of any, envy of almost all. I suppose that’s what it all comes down to in the end; do you want to watch Premier League football in a sterile environment at a well-run club, set up to sustain survival, or would you rather go through the pain of watching Leeds, knowing that when finally our day arrives, it will be embraced with the sort of passion that Reading fans can only dream of?
So good luck Reading; I do hope they go up (even if my dislike of West Ham is part of the reason), although to be clear, when Friday comes around at Saint Mary’s, I’ll be firmly backing the home side; Southampton are a club with both tradition and a passionate support.
As for Leeds? Well, it could get better next year, or it could be a long time coming yet. But no matter how it pans out, I know where I’d still rather be watching my football, week in, week out, and who with. If we’re still here now in numbers and voice, after all this, imagine how it’ll be when there’s actually something that’s worth turning up for and singing about.
Hang in there…