In the directors’ box, a boyhood Leeds fan appears, smiling and waving in acknowledgement to the well-wishers around him; he takes up his seat and surveys the sight afore him – a buzzing Elland Road. The teams emerge to rapturous applause; he detects fervour, an enthusiasm, a new sense of hope that sets this day aside from many that have preceded it. The highly fancied opposition, decked out in the distinctive striped kit with which they’ve become synonymous and blessed with an abundance of high quality, technically gifted players have come to offer the acid test, as the Whites’ ambitions of securing a top two slot rest upon a seminal 90 minutes under the floodlights…
I still remember that Champions League clash with Barcelona like it was yesterday. Saturday’s clash though played in front of 19,000 less spectators and host to several hundred millions of pounds less of talent, couldn’t help but provoke memories at that night. While Ridsdale’s role is now David Haigh’s and his view of Elland Road is predominantly of a dilapidated West Stand, rather than from it, the fervour, enthusiasm and new sense of hope was there; that Leeds United was finally on the cusp of moving up a level, of punching their weight and just maybe, switching the focus to success on the pitch.
Palace’s kit provided the key trigger to invoking memories of the past, but so too was their current status within Championship circles and the plethora of exciting, talented individuals that currently grace their side. Back in 2000, Rivaldo turned in one of the most astonishing displays the stadium has bared witness to, now in Wilfried Zaha, Palace possess their own man of the moment; lauded by the British press as the ‘next Cherno Samba’ (younger readers, ask your dads) on the back of his England call-up, the 20-year old Ivorian took to the pitch with the gait of player who’d gorged himself on his own publicity and was expectant that his opposite number would merely step aside in deference as he continued his inevitable journey towards supplanting Lionel Messi as the next permanent fixture on Ballon d’Or roll of honour.
Arrogance has a nasty…actually scrub that, pleasing habit of delivering a smack around the chops to those who ply their trade on the pitch, especially in this instance where Sam Byram’s involved. While Byram’s rise to prominence has hardly gone unnoticed around Elland Road, he still remains a relative unknown on a national scale – yesterday’s showing was the most resounding affirmation so far, that this status will inevitably change. For the duration of the game, he bossed Zaha, reducing the Ivorian to frustrated gesticulations and hissy fits; indeed by the latter third of the game, it was Byram who offered the greater attacking threat, overlapping with increasing regularity as Leeds gained the ascendancy for a spell.
But Byram’s display was just one of many positives to be drawn from a first league win in eight. The whole demeanour of the side was different; while Neil Warnock’s ‘force of personality’ has arguably proved his greatest asset in inspiring players, so his melancholic, deflated tone has also been reflected in recent performances. Over the last few days, the sparkle has returned to Warnock’s eye and so too, to the starting XI.
From the whistle the tempo was higher, Paul Green finding the extra yard that’d deserted him since his return from injury in a more cohesive midfield unit. At the back, Alan Tate and Tom Lees immediately looked at ease playing together and uncomfortably similar appearance; from a rear perspective, the pair are almost identical to the trained eye – aside from Tate having a large arse, so I’m told – while from the front and side elevations, only Tate’s pigeon chest and ability to emote with his facial expressions mark him out as the new face in town. Encouraging too were the signs from Jerome Thomas, offering glimpses throughout of pace and the ability to beat his man, concepts that combined have almost become intangible down the Leeds left. White was exiled to the bench, with Pugh, the most stubborn of skid marks from the Bates era, washed away from the collective conscious by a new brand of brilliant whites producing, post-take over detergent!
It all made for a compelling spectacle to Leeds fans starved of such fare for much of the last 2 years. After a strong opening spell, in which Norris most notably tested the keeper, Palace gained the upper hand in the latter stages of the first half, Paddy Kenny’s double stop from Parrs and Murray the most notable of his work. On 27 minutes, Damien Delaney took it upon himself to find another way of breaching through, performing the most laughable of dives – he received a yellow card, but a far more satisfying form of justice was to affront him later. As the half drew to a close, Zaha also cried “penalty!” having encouraged a challenge from Norris then left his leg trailing; the referee turned away unimpressed and Zaha waved his hands like a wronged child – it was to be the last impression he made upon the game.
Come the second half, come the change of fortune, come the restoration of karmic balance. On 52 minutes Peltier put in a deep diagonal cross, Green looked to meet it, but instead Peter Ramage did, planting his header into the midriff of Delaney – a delightful assist for Becchio to hook home from a couple of yards. 1-0!! Elation in the stands; WACCOE and cries of ‘Marching on Together’ resounded from the Kop with a passion that’s been all too inconspicuous recently.
The pace continued and necessarily so for a Leeds side not renown for defensive stability, the replacement of Thomas with Poleon, a signal of Warnock’s mindset to secure the win rather than shut up shop. Within a minute of that change, arrived the second goal. Tate’s free kick from halfway, launched high and Delaney (again) rose to head the ball with Jedinak, the product of their best efforts was a loose ball that fell into the path of Paul Green to rifle home.
With the game slipping away, Palace’s efforts became increasingly frantic and direct as balls into the box became the pre-cursors to mass panic. With 3 minutes remaining an alternative route was opened up, Dikgacoi passing Poleon with ease and cutting the ball back – Ramage ran from deep, unchallenged to cast a cloud of doubt over the outcome.
A concerned Warnock chose to sacrifice Poleon after less than 15 minutes on the pitch, perhaps mindful of his role in the concession of the goal. Michael Brown entered the fray, and within moments had the crowd out of their seats with one thundering challenge – it drew roars of approval from the crowd, but a rather less enthused response from the recipient.
The fourth official appeared, the board showed 5 minutes! 5 minutes! This decreed by a man so consumed with an ideal of letting the game flow that he’d let countless challenges worthy of free-kicks go unpunished throughout. Baffled, fraught expressions formed a mosaic in the Kop, a visual representation of nerves on a grand scale. Palace were to stretch those nerves to the limit one more time, another goalmouth frenzy survived thanks to Michael Tonge’s position on the post.
The final whistle arrived, hands were raised and fists were pumped as players and supporters celebrated in unison. Warnock as tradition dictates also made a journey onto the pitch to salute the stands, but not before taking the time out to embrace Sam Byram. The future’s suddenly that bit brighter and that bit whiter…and who knows, we might just get to watch this lad play, long after Zaha’s departed to pastures new.