Fourteen months from the last, it cometh: a new man, a new dawn, a new era at Elland Road. This time Redders’ inner pleas for a quick, merciful cessation of his reign in the dug-out, his cries for help that permeated the subtext of every interview he gave and were only too evident for all to see in his pained glances in each television appearance…this time, they were heeded, just one traumatic afternoon at The Valley and the spectre of relegation was enough to facilitate his retreat to a safer enclave in the shadows…
Casting that calming shadow, sparing Redders’ chief responsibility for moulding Jason Pearce into a centre-back, out he strode – Brian McDermott. Just like Neil Warnock before him, he breezed out of the players tunnel like a breath of fresh air; the antithesis to the bravado and bulls**t of which we’d grown accustomed; an understated and reflective soul, one more likely to introspect in the face of defeat, rather than blame Tom Lees; another figure in which to invest hopes and dreams in an arena infamous for exposing false idols.
On the back of an inevitably depressing week on social media, where certain supporters had been getting increasingly excitable, seemingly to the point of arousal, about the opportunity to ‘welcome’ Dave Jones back to Elland Road, McDermott’s appointment seemed every bit as timely as Jones’ touchline ban was opportune. Gone was the focal point of the mock outrage, banished to an exile’s vantage point, peering down on the proceedings from the Gods (well the West Stand Upper) like one half of Waldorf & Statler; yet predictably there was still a hardcore of Muppets ready to perform a song and dance number from the upper reaches of the Kop as the referee’s whistle signaled a start to proceedings.
On the pitch however, Leeds started positively; Austin, a man who’s spent much of the last few months losing a wrestling match with the burden of his own expectation, started to again resemble the imposing midfield monolith of the late summer. The balls up to the top were played to feet, while those aimless ‘searching’ passes, that always seem to land 20 yards too far forward on their way to the dead ball line were no longer the default option for the defender in possession.
The bright start was almost crowned by a goal. Steve Morison presented with time and space to swivel from 6 yards out: his air shot was to be about as good as it got for him. It was to be a pivotal moment in the context of the half as the combination of a LUFC allergy to scoring first half goals and an increasingly perky Sheffield Wednesday eventually delivered on our fears.
The goal arrived on 27 minutes and true to form was borne out of defensive meltdown. A long ball was played from the back and an onward Pearce rushed to meet it; always more regarded as a ‘blood and thunder’ warrior rather than a ‘mind over matter kinda guy’, the self christened JP-Dog elected on physically restraining Leroy Lita, rather than pay any attention to the ball that was sailing yards over his head. With Leeds exposed, Helan beat Byram to the second ball and Jermaine Johnson left a flat-footed Warnock in his wake as lifted the ball over Kenny. Warnock stared at the turf, Byram glared at Pearce and Pearce held his hands to his face and looked skyward…out with the old, in with the old?
Elland Road was reduced to a morgue as sportswriters, tweeters and texters pondered penning obituary prose. Suddenly you could no longer overlook the fact that David Norris hadn’t touched the ball for over 25 minutes, that Paul Green’s chief role still appeared to be running around (a lot – in his defence) while actually achieving very little, or that Steve Morison really didn’t look a**ed. Pearce was presented with one glorious opportunity for redemption from 8 yards, but instead he extended his astonishing run of producing poorly guided ‘free’ headers from positions in which it looked harder to miss…if the ghost of Neil Warnock was looking over proceedings it was having a bloody good chortle.
Then arrived the interval; a first chance for the new boss to effect his own changes having seen at first hand what we’ve suffered for so many months. Tactical changes? Substitutions? An evident response to a bit of a pep talk/b***ocking? The opening minutes of the second half would reveal all…
The signs were encouraging from the off; Norris unable to court anonymity with the same degree of expertise in the dressing room was banished to the showers and Diouf brought on to provide presence, poise and guile down the right. Leeds immediately looked a transformed outfit, McCormack especially was better involved and provided Kirkland with a first real test of the afternoon from 20 yards. In truth, the keeper should’ve been far busier though, only the persistent presence ‘Future Leeds Legend™’, Steve Morison served to ensure otherwise; while the others busted a gut, Morison ambled around the pitch like a man who’d lost the will to live; his hopelessly squandered ‘one on one’ opportunity, a withering coup de gras to his afternoon’s work.
Those in LS11 had little time to reflect upon abject horror of that moment, within minutes the welcoming sign of the fourth official’s digital board announced an end to a shared nightmare as Morison exited to join Redders in the safety of the shadows. Aidy White entered the pitch in his place and filled a midfield berth vacated by Luke Varney’s move into the striking role.
Within two minutes, glory. Byram fed McCormack and from right on the touchline the Scot swung in a glorious cross and Varney ghosted in where Morison feared to tread, leaping between two defenders to thunder in a header off the crossbar. For a moment there was doubt, a sharp intake of breath..the ball looked over the line..then a signal to the affirmative as the linesman retreated back toward half-way. Joy in the Kop, and in Varney’s celebration; gone were the sulky acknowledgements of recent times as the ex-Wednesday man saw fit to celebrate with one an all: clenched fists, arms jabbing at skies, even a hint of a blown kiss – new start, indeed!
Suddenly, Elland Road for the first time in months resembled Elland Road; the volume rose and the players buzzed about, none more than McCormack. Within 6 minutes the Scot was at it again, striding forward with purpose at the defence. Although Anthony Gardner forced him to alter his course away from goal, a quick check back was enough to buy the space and time to loft a measured ball with his left on to the head of…Varney again!!!!
2-1!! Pandemonium in the stands and an ecstatic Varney now found himself embracing his inner child, knee sliding in front of the North East corner, before disappearing under a poorly constructed human pyramid of joyful teammates. Almost three months have passed and barely a day has gone by when Leeds fan haven’t mourned the departure of Bechhio – suddenly two goals in six minutes that everyone thought only the Argentine was capable of! Back on the bench, Morison was left to reflect that the most effective 8 minutes of his Leeds career so far had been spent sitting on his arse.
The Kop was suddenly joyous cacophony of noise. Dave Jones, temporarily rendered an un-engaging subplot in the tale of the day; “Marching on Together” resounded down with gusto. Elland Road was finally a fun place to be!
Of course, it wasn’t going to be all that simple. Steve Howard sought to remind one and all of that as he swung a right footed shot off the face of the post. Pearce again ran out like an overly excitable child in an effort to head a ball that didn’t descend to ‘headable’ height until 10 yards beyond him. Apoplectic Kopites screamed and bawled in exasperation and anger, but Leeds survived. Another goalmouth scramble and Kenny’s left hand and Warnock’s flung torso combined to stop the ball in its tracks and Leeds survived. Tonge then replaced Warnock to facilitate the chilling prospect of a Pearce-Austin defensive pairing…BUT LEEDS SURVIVED!!
For once, in the closing minutes Leeds survived; the final whistle the catalyst for shaking fists and man hugs. McDermott, having regained his poise after the most enthusiastic of embraces with Redders made a bee line for his goalscoring hero and then his architect of both, before progressing through the rest of the side. Not one to showboat in spotlight, he chose just to turn very briefly to applaud the Kop as “Bri-Brian McDermott” resounded outward – the cheers in response told him all he needed to know: as first days go, this’ll do nicely.