In a season where positives on the pitch have been thin on the ground and solace has only been consistently been found in the support the club continues to receive in the stands, it was fitting that the football should take a second billing for the visit to Watford.
Even in the darkest hours, the spirit sapping humiliations at the KC Stadium and Oakwell, the string of late conceded goals, the horrific spectacle of a seeing Jason Pearce and Rodolph Austin paired together at the back in the closing stages at The Valley, being reduced to pinning our hopes on Habib Habibou and the long, 6 month stretch without witnessing a league win, not mention the 4+ months without a first half league goal…even then, the fans’ heads have never bowed. Yesterday was all about them.
A 6.00am departure on the White Rose Supporters’ coach was evidence enough that a 12.45pm kick-off was but one component of the day’s plans. The nature of the passengers, provided rather more clues; it’s not often that Violet Incredible, the Honey Monster, Wonder Woman, a clown, Robin, a banana, and a surgeon follow Bananaman…and woman, onto a coach. The final day fancy dress p***-up was upon us.
A stop off at Barnsley and suddenly a 6 foot baby, Oompa Loompa and Brian McDermott amongst others, swell the numbers. Then on to the services at Leicester Forest and the coaches from Harrogate roll in: we now have FOUR Honey Monsters heading for Vicarage Road!
I’d heartily recommend becoming a Honey Monster for a day; it attracts many stares – some amused, some bemused, and of them can be enjoyed behind the anonymity of the meshing in the mouth. One key tip though: be very careful in the gents’ toilets, you really wouldn’t want to get those furry feet damp with a long day in prospect.
So onwards to the designated pub stop; Gary Cooper’s Wetherspoons in Dunstable. The typical phenomenon of a paltry supply of bar staff, suddenly overwhelmed by a few coach loads of Leeds fans rolling up at 9am, waving money and demanding ale in exchange. A young family were sat at the rear, two small children seemingly excited by a scene that even Lazy Town would fail to match as a strange, technicolor mind ***k.
Two hours later and the last leg of the coach journey to the stadium. Therein, more of the weird and wonderful final day sights – a full coach load of perfectly co-ordinated convicts, chickens, nuns, arbitrary Elvis, Guantanamo inmates, Scooby Doo amongst the number. The clouds have parted, the temperature’s rising, Neil Warnock is gone and the pressure is off in the Leeds end – happy days at last…contrast that to the other two (and a bit) stands where all the doubt and suffering is happening. The boot is finally on the other foot – a chance not to be missed!
So the teams arrive on the pitch; the stadium announcer spinning hyperbole to almost dizzying heights in an effort to inspire the home support; he fails, a few, half-hearted, insipid offerings are the best that can be mustered. Kudos to Watford fans, I thought only Reading supporters were capable of reducing the frenzied passion of a promotion deciding fixture to something more befitting of a pre-season friendly. I was wrong.
Early exchanges on the pitch do little to inspire, the club installed drummer seemingly forcing a few cursory handclaps amongst pockets at the end behind the goal, but that apart, nothing. A procession of injuries then serves to stifle all momentum; Steve Morison confounds experts by becoming sufficiently involved to take a blow that necessitates his withdrawal on the grounds of concussion; but with his exit comes the arrival of Dominic Poleon and the seeds of Watford’s misery are sown.
Minutes later, a shove on a defender by Poleon as he chases a through ball is sufficient to floor the goal keeper as a by-product; over 10 minutes later the departing stretcher crosses paths with the day’s third choice keeper, 19 year-old Jack Bonham and with it went Watfordian dreams of contemplating life at football’s top table, come Saturday evening.
It could still have gone the home side’s way at that stage, but Michael Brown’s clumsy challenge on Jonathan Hogg drew a dismissive glance from the referee instead of drawing a penalty and a red card. While Watford heads were still collectively shaking, Poleon cemented his place amongst the ‘Leeds Scum’ by chasing down a long ball and getting his head to it amidst shambolic communication between defender and goalkeeper, before collecting his own assist to tap in from a yard.
The home fans, moments earlier, at their most animated, celebrating a goal that never happened in Hull were stung back into their default mode of silence. “We’re only here, to spoil your party!” resounded from the Leeds end as the play-offs suddenly loomed large.
As chants of “Enger-land, Enger-land, Enger-land” and “You’re just a s*** Udinese” punctured the stifling apathy amongst the majority, Watford had to respond and they did. The tempo was raised and reward was forthcoming as Almen Abdi curled in gloriously in the 6th minute of added time. Ten minutes later as the teams finally left the pitch for half-time, the mood was changed.
Watford were suddenly back in it and up at the KC Stadium, Hull were leaving the dressing rooms knowing the cushion of Watford trailing was gone. Midway through the half-time ‘entertainment’ the stadium announcer broke news of a Cardiff goal – fists were raised in celebration and he responded by assuring supporters that he’d keep them abreast of any further developments.
With the players due to return he left the pitch imploring the supporters, win, lose or draw to “back the boys like never before”…polite applause met the reappearing teams, little else. Maybe the Watford fans knew what was coming, with the second half barely underway, news of a Hull equaliser filtered through, minutes later another Hull goal…the stadium announcer was suddenly conspicuous by his absence.
Hull, by no means a beloved club of Leeds fans (at least to the extent anyone could be bothered by Hull) had, at least provided more opportunities to goad and more chants alluding to party pooping, our Yorkshire identity and tongue in cheek choruses of “Tigers, Tigers! Rah! Rah! Rah!’ followed.
While on the whole, Watford heads began to drop, Troy Deeney instead chose to lose his, lunging at Michael Brown on the touchline. The referee chose to show mercy, sparing him a second yellow, rather than a straight red but his game was over all the same, in the process, a thousand journalists with their hearts set on a ‘Jailbird to Premier League footballer’ rehabilitation story were heard to snap their pens in unison.
Watford were a man down and with Brown quickly then having to retire injured, some of the more cynical Leeds fans were moved to suggest that Leeds had suddenly found themselves at an even greater advantage. With only hope left to invest in, Watford pushed desperately onwards, but whereas only a few weeks ago, that in itself would’ve been enough to bring a goal, Leeds’ new found ability to keep possession made it a far more troublesome pursuit.
News suddenly arrived on the network of radios; a Hull penalty miss, then seconds later a converted Cardiff spot kick – it was all over at the KC and suddenly promotion was back on, just for the want of the goal. Step forward Paddy Kenny with three outstanding saves, and then with 35 seconds of regulation time, Ross McCormack…
In a season that’s produced so few player’s worth celebrating and with Sam Byram sidelined by ‘injury’ it was fitting that the Scot should provide the last abiding memory of the season. With Watford stretched he broke forward and has he approached the penalty area, opted to catch out Bonham with a deft chip; it wasn’t the best attempt, too softly struck, but somehow the 19 year-old conspired to help the ball over his head and under the bar.
Mad celebrations ensued in the Leeds end, not even tainted by the thought of similar scenes back up in Hull. An away win AND a first half goal all in space of one afternoon!! In contrast Bonham stood disconsolate, hands on hips, the cruel taunts of “2-1! It’s your keeper’s fault!” barely registering…at least you’d hope for his sake, that was the case.
In a season punctuated by misery, it seemed like some form of twisted payback that Leeds fans could now finally stand back and witness the suffering of others, first hand, just for once. Throw in the 6-1 Elland Road reverse and the play-off final humbling of 2006 and maybe it was even easier to understand the pleasure taken by many in goading the home fans on the way to the coaches and the journey towards the motorway.
Back to Leeds for one final, but happier pub post-mortem…and en route there, some demands for Honey Monster hugs from complete strangers, including a new bride!
Once around the table, beers in hand, the general vibe almost identical to this time last year:
“Well thank God this season’s finally over…over 2 months until pre-season kicks off, you say?”