Before I set off to yesterday’s game, I tweeted to remark that I felt I could now identify with how condemned animals (vile or otherwise) must feel ahead of that final journey to the vet… if only there was some footballing equivalent to a lethal injection at Elland Road. Imagine if you were able to come in, take up your place, and on the signal of the referee’s whistle you were put to sleep and sent to a happier place, but then could be awoken from your slumber at full-time so you could retrospectively mourn the loss of another 3 points.
Admittedly, it’d completely defeat the purpose of going to the football and might undermine what could be construed as a hugely ambitious series of object lessons in character building for Leeds United supporters, but how many more tortured spectacles can one fan base be subjected to? While most tearful, grief-ridden parties are able to say goodbye to their beloved creatures knowing their pain will be over in an instant, Leeds supporters had to witness an episode akin to the drawn out death throes of a road kill casualty, doomed from the initial impact of that sickening collision, but unable to pass into the eternal void until a succession of desperate blows had followed and beaten the final embers of life out of it.
I can’t say I’ve ever had to undergo the traumatic act of ‘finishing off’ an animal that’s been left, strewn across on the roadside after a coming together with my front bumper; but the analogy still rang very true with me, having brought back to mind an email that was read out on an ‘Adam & Joe’ radio show, several years ago. The topic of the day was accidental animal killings – a relatively strange subject for lunchtime radio, I grant you – and it initially inspired a relatively light weight response about trodden on frogs, budgies in vacuum cleaners and the like, until one correspondent disclosed an encounter with a knocked down rabbit and his attempts to inflict a mercy killing. He detailed in length the trauma and tears he suffered as he rained down blows with a tree branch, and then finally a rock to put the rabbit out of its misery…an ordeal that lasted for a full 20 minutes. The presenters delivered the tale in a tone that alternated between horror and hysterics as they came to terms with the spectacle unfolding.
Fast forward to Elland Road, 10th November 2012, 3.28pm; having spent the best part of half an hour, playing around with gay abandon, creating chances, seemingly existing in a bubble of innocence, shielded from the harsh realities of Championship life, the creatures of the Leeds United starting XI are about to experience another world shattering awakening.
Until then, it had all looked so promising; true, Aidy White had filled his time confirming that he was just as hopeless playing on his natural side as he was on the right, while Michael Tongue exhibited the mobility of an asthmatic ant with a hamstring injury, but otherwise, good. David Norris had side-footed against the post from 12 yards after excellent work from Austin and Byram, while Varney had spurned a fine one-on-one opportunity. Leeds were on top and the 3-5-2 system offered promised. Then it happened…that initial sickening impact!
Watford broke, Matej Vydra the speeding, oncoming vehicle, his deft exchange with Alex Geijo leaving Paul Green as the startled rabbit in the headlights; the ex-Derby man, rendered dazed as he hopefully raised his hand towards a sympathetic linesman, but redemption was not forthcoming and he was left to stagger, limply in the general direction of the goal as Vydra buried his opportunity.
The fatal wound was inflicted, now the prospect of enduring the long drawn out suffering as Leeds died on their arses. Step forward Jason Pearce to inflict the first blow with that tree branch; Geijo again the tormentor as an ill-timed lunge was greeted with a red card – Warnock was to claim it only worthy of a booking, Pearce though appeared phlegmatic and offered little protest…at least he would not have to endure any more of the pain first hand.
Paul Green was also spared further torture, becoming the sacrificial lamb as Tom Lees joined Peltier in the centre of defence; Leeds had started the game boasting three centre halves, but now had two who could only muster three good eyes between them. The Kop greeted the decision with howls of derision…White and Tonge had inexplicably survived the cull.
Come half-time, Warnock retreated back to the persona he knows best. Gone was the shrugging and quiet reflection and back was the shouting and the throwing of the kitchen sink at the problem. White off, Diouf off; Brown on, Hall on; no substitutes left to fall back on – to hell with the consequences! This was to be a famous day, a turning point in the season…oh f**k!
Two minutes into the second half, a corner. Rodolph Austin, positioned on the fringes of the 18 yard box leaps in a token effort to block the cross and falls awkwardly; suspected broken leg; the tree branch beats down on the limp, twitching body of Leeds United one more time, delivering a thundering blow. A writhing Austin departs Elland Road via the North West tunnel, and with him, any dreams of recovery.
The remaining 9 huddled together, wondering how a barely cohesive system with 10 men could be adapted to accommodate one less – the 3-2-2 formation was born, the kitchen sink retrieved for another offensive, unaware of the horrors to follow…
It took another 10 minutes, but it finally happened; the change of weapon, as Watford disposed of the tree branch and picked up the metaphorical rock; Abdi, leaving Brown flat on the turf and drilling past Kenny to make it 2-0, began the sequence of unrelenting, fatal blows. Yates then curled in a free kick, a strike delivered with a nonchalant pleasure. Then a brief flicker, perchance that fabled glimpse into the afterlife before the final passing, as a possessed Varney hunted down Dooley and Ekstrand – a penalty his reward, duly converted by Tonge.
Warnock exploded within the confines of his technical area; spewing profanity-laden rage from the extremes of the dash-lined perimeter in the direction of the fourth official. Yes, the game was over, but why no second yellow card for Ekstrand? It was as if Warnock needed a captive audience from somebody in authority as those inhabiting the prime executive suite in the East Stand had been paying little attention to his cries.
Within 3 minutes, Vydra left Warnock wondering why he’d bothered, tearing through a patchwork backline to chip over Kenny to make it 4-1; the last rites were being delivered, the lifeless carcass of Leeds United was ready to be committed to the ground: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. But still the blows continued. The referee showed no mercy, deciding that putting everyone through a further 10 minutes of added time was absolutely necessary. Murray obliged the official’s twisted desires with aplomb, sweeping home from 25 yards – the quality of Watford’s finishing was more akin to the Champions League than the Championship…it’s like everyone, to a man, was lining up to dance on the newly dug cemetery plot. Then Troy Deeney (yes, Troy Deeney) thundered home in the closing seconds to confirm as much; his knee slide a fitting playground style celebration for the playground scoreline.
During the post-mortem, the ever likeable Gianfranco Zola couldn’t help but sympathise with Leeds, speaking of how bad fortune had so served to undermine any hopes of a result. Supporters were even made wait up until almost 1am to re-live the whole sorry spectacle on the Football League Show. It wasn’t long ago that a Leeds humiliation such as this would be headline news for all the gloaters…even they seem to have got bored of it all now. The Leeds fans certainly are – ask any of the 18,000 or so who had the stomach for it…