Leeds United: The 7 Final Itch

For those who buy into the concept of karma, the takeover drama that has dominated our thoughts for over 100 days can only end with a successful resolution; a handover of power that with it, will bring ambitious, altruistic owners with a commitment to success on the pitch and a desire to embrace and engage, rather than alienate the supporters off it. Having suffered Ken Bates for over 7 and a-half years, it follows that a period of contentment and success is now due to redress the karmic imbalance. Surely?

Well, that’s the theory, and for my own sanity, I’m going with it…well, maybe – in truth, karma is probably a load of old bollocks. After all, we are talking about a game in which an (alleged) racist, disabled parking spot stealing adulterer (etc.) is still lauded as the man who should be leading the national team; where the most graceless leader of men in Western society presides over a team of perennial winners, and where Danny Pugh is still able to gain steady employment.

But, if just for once, the footballing Gods drop a payload of good fortune onto the green fields of LS11, then maybe, just maybe, we can finally stop bemoaning our cursed luck at boardroom level and go back to what we do best and return to lamenting what goes on for the 90 minutes each Saturday (and the odd Tuesday, Wednesday…and Monday, Friday, Sunday – cheers Sky!) on the pitch; it’s high time that the referees, The FA, the opposition – hell, anyone else but Ken f**king Bates lie at the root of our problems at any given time.

With that in mind, I’m going to start the ball rolling early and ask the question: “When the hell is Leeds United next going to win a major final?” I consider this a good place to start as – victims of mental scarring from the Ken Bates, apart – those who’ve shared in the common experience of witnessing nothing but misery and heartache on these occasions is surely amongst the largest demographics amongst our support.

How many readers hold treasured memories of the magical 1989/90 promotion season and the remarkable title triumph that followed only 2 years later?  Show of hands? Ah yes, lots of you – wasn’t it just the best? Okay, now the rest of you; how many of you have at least some recollection of the brief, short-lived, glorious promise of the O’Leary era? Excellent! Squandered promise, but great while it lasted all the same, eh? Right, now who remembers a glorious day out watching the Whites triumph at a final? Ermmm…

It’s been 39 long years since Leeds last triumphed in a final of any sort of description which means that the few people who can answer yes to that last question – I’m not flattering myself that I’m writing to a wide audience here – are quite possibly same people who are just starting to take notice of Michael Parkinson as he tries to sell them Sun Life Assurance policies; they may have even pondered whether to take Argos vouchers or a pocket camcorder as their free welcome gift. Yes, it’s been that long!

39 years and 7 finals and nothing to show for it, nothing but countless generations of Leeds fans, ruthlessly conditioned into expecting failure on days where above all others, winning is everything; and through all those finals there is one common theme, that our every turn has undermined the quest for glory – conspiracy.

Over the four decades it’s only the nature of the conspiracy that has changed; back where it started, at Wembley in 1973, it was the innocent spectacle of one man colluding with fate to have the game of his life in denying the Whites glory; “plucky” Second Division ‘no hopers’ Sunderland, came to Wembley, saw fit to score a goal then camped in the defensive third of the field while Jim Montgomery spent the 90 minutes looking like a goalkeeper plucked from ‘Pro-Evolution Soccer’ rather than streets of his own town. His double save from Cherry and Lorimer still has the ability to taunt today. 

The Cup Winners Cup Final, held 11 days in Thessalaniki, was a whole different ball game however; Leeds, in their only ever appearance in the competition faced up to Italian giants AC Milan… and the referee. To describe the refereeing performance that night as “questionable” would be akin to terming Hitler’s foreign policy as “dubious”; before the game, Johnny Giles revealed he heard whispers over lunch that the team “couldn’t win” the game, no matter what they did. As it turned it, they did everything…and they didn’t win; having gone behind in the 4th minute to a goal scored direct from a free-kick (an indirect free-kick having been awarded), Leeds would go on to be denied three clear-cut penalties and two more “borderline” claims.

The locals responded to the performance of local official Christos Michas by chanting “Shame! Shame!” from the terraces and come full-time, so incensed were they, that Milan’s lap of honour had to be curtailed as a barrage of missiles rained down onto the players. In contrast, the Leeds team were afforded a standing ovation. The referee was subsequently investigated by his own FA on suspicion that he’d taken bribes from the Italians, while UEFA swiftly banned him from officiating at any future international club fixtures. Despite the fall-out, UEFA refused Leeds’ request for a replay and opted to sweep matters under the carpet; the ill feeling however still remains, with Yorkshire & Humberside MEP Robert Corbett as recently as 2009 lobbying UEFA with a 15,000 name petition for the trophy to be retrospectively awarded to the club. 

1975 most famously of all somehow threw up an uncannily similar scenario, albeit this time it was two rather than three penalties, inexplicably denied, albeit to that tally you could add a long-range Peter Lorimer goal, also famously chalked off. At the centre of the whole affair this time, two men; the referee again (this time, Frenchman Michel Kitabdjian) and Franz Beckenbauer, the former overlooking the latter’s penalty box indiscretions, and then paying heed to his desperate prostestations for an offside flag – seemingly it was only those two and the linesman in the entire stadium that picked out Billy Bremner as positioned illegally as Leeds celebrated the opener.

With Leeds still shaken, Bayern struck two quick goals; the game was gone and in the stands, heads were lost as seats were ripped out and hurled onto the pitch. At the full-time whistle, Beckenbauer was moved to say “In the end we were the winners, but we were very, very lucky!” It was the end for Revie’s old guard and remains Leeds’ last European final, it was also Kitabjian’s final appointment. Defeat in the Mestalla Stadium cruelly denied David O’Leary’s side the chance to exact revenge 26 years later, although karma has seen to it that Bayern are still paying the penance for that evening against other English clubs; Scum’s 1999 triumph and Chelsea’s recent victory, the least sweet tasting retribution possible? If karma isn’t a load of bollocks, then it sure it some sick, twisted son of a bitch! 

Mercifully, I’m too young to have had to live through the injustices of the 1970’s, my heartbreaks like many others’ are confined to these shores; while the conspiracy line still holds true, it’s been rather a case of our own players conspiring against themselves by performing like ***** (feel free to insert your swear word of choice) that has undermined most subsequent finals.  

The only exception to this rule was back in 1987, in the dark, dilapidated surroundings of St. Andrews on a Friday night; the first ever play-off final had gone to a replay and this godforsaken shithole in the West Midlands was where the destiny of an epic season was to lie. It was the last time that a Leeds team actually ‘turned up’ for a final and when 9 minutes into extra time, John Sheridan struck the most considered, measured and sublime of free kicks into the top right hand corner, a 5 year exile top flight looked over; 16,000 Leeds supporters rejoiced as he manically raced towards the main stand and punched the air.

That could’ve been it, it should’ve been it; even the Karma Fairy seemed to have her eye on this one – as uncharitable as it seems in retrospect, even the loss of Brendan Ormsby just before half-time to a cruciate injury appeared like some form a divine retribution for a young boy, still smarting from the moment he cost my club an FA Cup Final appearance just 6 and a half weeks previously. Nobody reckoned on mediocre centre back with a mere 4 goals to his name in a over 200 games; who would? 113 minutes on the clock, Leeds only 7 minutes away from a return to the promised pastures of Division One…117 minutes on the clock and suddenly Peter bloody Shirtliff is on a hat-trick. Screw you Karma Fairy! 

The indescribable agony of ’87 is as good as it’s got over the last quarter century; our next final set the template for what we’ve now become depressingly accustomed to. That was in 1996 and the Coca-Cola Cup final against Aston Villa, Wembley playing host to possibly the most depressing showcase game experience of the lot.

Quite how the team got to Wembley in the first place was somewhat of a mystery; performances had been universally awful for months and without the kindest of semi-final draws, pairing Leeds with Second Division Birmingham City, the cup run (stagger) would most likely have ended at that stage. I don’t recall anyone travelling down to the capital with any degree of optimism. Howard Wilkinson had the aura of a dead man walking, patience was wearing thin, and Tomas Brolin, brought to the club in sea of hyperbole and flash bulbs had been inexplicably outcast to the fringes.

Many thought the game represented the ideal stage for Tom, but not Howard who left him in the bench to accommodate teen winger Andy Gray. Ironically Gray was the only positive from a shambolic showing as Leeds were battered 3-0. Anarchy ruled in the stands as chants of “Super Tomas Brolin” rang out from the Leeds end, but by the time Wilko relented it was already too late and tragically, the man who 4 years previously had delivered the title ran a gauntlet of boos as he departed down the tunnel at full-time; Bill Fotherby, well aware of his manager’s work behind the scenes stood loyal, but with supporters denied the same full picture, his departure seemed inevitable from that moment; a 4-0 home drubbing by Scum in September – capped ironically by a penalty from another maverick talent he wasn’t able to handle, in Eric Cantona – proved the final straw.

The drubbing at the hands of Watford at the Millennium Stadium was every bit as scripted. Despite presiding over one of the most mind-numbingly awful seasons of football ever seen at Elland Road, Kevin Blackwell had somehow guided Leeds to the final. He had many doubters and their every fear was realised upon hearing the team news – Kilgallon moved to left back and an untested 4-5-1 formation. A tortuous 90 minutes ensued and for the only time in my life I left the game early; as the board went up to signal injury time, I took that as my prompt to leave, so little there seemed to be worth acknowledging from that XI.

Doncaster…well, you get the picture! The only difference this time was the existence of a true belief that Leeds would finally triumph; having started the season with -15 points and overcome such a mountainous penalty, along with the loss of Gus Poyet and the presence of Dennis Wise and Dave Bassett, it seemed McAllister’s men simply had to deliver the fairy tale ending, especially after the drama in Carlisle. An estimated 57,000 Leeds supporters had managed to acquire tickets by whatever means possible to witness finale, while tens of thousands more were denied as Doncaster suspended their general sale at the Keepmoat. 

And for what? Another abject performance, where not a single player, bar the outstanding Ankergren turned up – 1-0 may have flattered the team, but that was of little consolation in the queues at the tube station as fans congregated, a mass of broken men, James Hayter’s 48th minute winner and John Ryan’s shit eating grin, the only two images burned on their retinas.

So will this seemingly endless stretch of misery ever end? In my dreams it will do, and it will happen next May at a packed Wembley Stadium against Cardiff City. Automatic promotion? Pfft, you can stick that, I demand drama! As things stand, it seems inconceivable that we can finish in the top six without a takeover, but if a bidder can shift Bates, then surely anything’s possible – even winning a final! 

To others such a denouement may seem fantastical, but then again I have just spent over 2000 words pondering the existence of fairies…

 

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