Back at last, after 15 long weeks; the archetypal Leeds United away experience!
As utterly glorious as the week long tour in Cornwall and Devon was, there was something altogether more familiar and comforting about visiting Preston. The sunshine, hospitality and novelty of the South West giving way to the cramped trains, designated ‘Leeds pubs’, designated ‘home pubs’ assuming ‘Leeds pub’ status, bemused onlookers, glory hunting Chelsea and Scum fans in replica shirts caught unawares while out shopping (where else would they be?) and the odd nervous looking policeman – we’re straight back in the provincial city swing of things!
Despite affording visiting supporters the biggest and most central pub in Preston, The Assembly, the police’s best laid plans were still shot to pieces by not adhering to the first commandment of the LUFC travelling faithful:
“Thou shalt congregate at the largest Wetherspoon’s Inn to be found in the settlement playing host to thine team’s clash” (Book of Away Days – 2:1)
Predictably then, many headed to The Greyfriar just over the road, much to the dismay of many who’d already congregated there: Preston fans, shoppers looking for a relaxing drink and meal, those police positioned outside who thought they were getting an easy afternoon’s overtime and the bar staff, who were no doubt having to offer apologies to innocent customers, suddenly affronted by beer showers and songs eulogising about a League One striker’s legendary penis.
Still, the police were able to execute their plans of clearing the city centre seamlessly by offering the lure of a free coach service to the ground…and yes, I did mean coach – we’re talking air conditioning and all mod cons here – with the full police escort service; passing through red lights, traffic held back in both directions to provide a clear route straight to Deepdale… It seemed wholly over the top and unnecessary, but at the same time there was something extremely gratifying to be drawn from the disdainful looks on local faces as we passed by.
Onwards to the kick-off where thankfully the degree of familiarity withered somewhat as the team took to the pitch. Although Leeds kicked off the game with six faces familiar from the last campaign, the presence of Drury on the bench, Peltier in the stands, Rodolph somewhere between LS11 and Kingston and the promise of a couple of big name arrivals to follow, the chronically needed reconstruction of the squad has progressed far more efficiently than most had dared to expect. With Brown already afforded ‘protected species’ status by Warnock and Kisnorbo’s appearance sadly resembling more a charitable act than another step in his rehabilitation, it would seem that only McCormack, Becchio, Lees and White look regular starters from last season’s rag bag collection of inept professionals… arguably only a Snodgrass short of the ideal case scenario?
Problems still remain with the squad; a team that starts pre-season a Howson, a Gradel, a Snodgrass and a Paynter (ok, let’s scrap the last fella) down on last August with only Luke Varney to fill the void, are always likely to struggle to retain the attacking fluidity of 12 months ago and the opening half hour stood testament to that.
That said, on the plus side, there is suddenly a spine to the side; contrast that to last season, when that axis of awfulness, Clayton and Pugh, tentatively sauntered around the midfield battlegrounds of the Championship, carefully avoiding any sort of conflict that may lead to getting any of those troublesome grass stains on their immaculately clean kits. The opposition may suddenly discover that the simplest form of attack no longer just entails running straight down the middle of the pitch. Finally we appear to be moving toward a situation where the default defensive mode isn’t “stretched”.
In the 31st minute Tom Lees woke the travelling thousands from the slumber – induced by the lack of action and significant alcohol consumption – that was starting to kick in, controlling Luke Varney’s nod-down in the penalty area and volleying past Stuckmann. It was the signal for a lively end to a half that had been notable to that point, mainly for Paddy Kisnorbo’s half hour run-out (I wouldn’t expect to see many more) and a solid showing by the new Paddy in town, heralded by the emphatic embedding of “Paddy Kenny’s having a party, bring your vodka and your Charlie!” into the 2012/23 campaign songbook.
In common with the other pre-season games thus far, Leeds started the second half slowly and for a short while at least, memories of last season came flooding back; not least when Preston squared matters, then even more so when the dark, if none too intimidating spectre of Danny Pugh appeared on the touchline. True to form, our utility man (footballing code for ‘shit’) inspired a first outburst of profanity within 30 seconds of his arrival, making an apologetic attempt at stopping a Preston winger on the run.
For a few minutes, I did wonder what the hell I was doing here, spending a Saturday afternoon at great expense in the Billy Paynter End at Deepdale, watching a friendly game involving Danny Pugh, while back in the real world, the nation was indulging in a mass orgy of sporting celebration, bathing in the golden shower of medals Team GB were spouting forth from the East End of London – the whole spectacle was enough to induce one younger lad into an almost comatose state of apathy… alcohol may have been a contributing factor, but to suit my petty agenda, I’m still laying it at the feet of Pugh!
Mercifully, following the pre-season template, Leeds picked up again as the half wore on and on 66 minutes Sam Byram smashed home from a corner to restore the advantage. Then on 80 minutes, for the second time in 12 days, it happened; Aidy White delivered from a position of promise, drilling the ball beyond the goalkeeper’s despairing dive into the bottom corner.
Come 4.50pm, all was well with the world.
Bring on August 18th…