Success is not an easy thing to embrace at Elland Road; almost any moment of glory these days is viewed with suspicion, as if the harbinger of a new era of disappointment, squandered potential and desolation. The expectation of success if anything is an even harder concept to grapple with – four play-off final failures, seven straight cup final defeats and everything connected in any way with the Ken Bates era has indelibly imprinted on the collective psyche that Leeds United and misery are in a serious, mutually dependent relationship.
However, it’s Saturday 8th May 2010 and everything is set fair, in fact things could barely be better. Simon Grayson and his team, despite their best efforts since the aftermath of the Old Trafford triumph have somehow recovered sufficiently since the Yeovil game to reclaim 2nd position while our visitors to Elland Road arrive in mid-table with nothing to play for and had already been humbled 4-0 on their own patch. Millwall, Swindon and Charlton could still catch us, but on paper, none have as easier a game. The sun is even out…the perfect backdrop for a promotion party.
Then the doubts start to surface; with the Premier League final day fixtures shifted to Sunday and the play-offs already underway in the Championship to fit in with the World Cup, the whole footballing world have their eyes on Elland Road. It not for the first time this season, the glorious cup ties at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane had ensured that Leeds had already danced in the media spotlight in recent months, but this time the tables have been turned. We’re no longer plucky underdogs, the status quo has been restored, the neutrals have shifted back toward the opposition’s camp – while defeat against Spurs brought credit, failure today will bring nothing but heartbreak and the mocking laughter of millions.
There are other reasons to worry too: the line up…no Naylor, no Kisnorbo – once the bedrock of the side, but now reduced to mere spectators by injury. Instead in the middle we have Bromby and (deep breaths) Neill Collins. Bad vibes? Take a look over at left back…yes, that is Shane Lowry! We’re gonna have to score more than one.
The teams enter the pitch, a cacophony of noise greets them. ‘Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!‘ then plays on the Tannoy; it’s sang with a passion that makes every hair on your body stand up, but beneath the roars of “Marching on Together!” there’s an undercurrent of anguish that sends a shudder down the spine. The teams get into position ready for the referee’s whistle…
3pm precisely, the whistle sounds, and with it an overwhelming sense of anxiety and foreboding takes hold, my own involuntary Pavlovian response to the conditioned stimulus, the referee’s whistle – this is typically the point where it all goes wrong. It won’t be long until the common symptoms are a widespread epidemic, Leeds have to start well…
They do, gone are the hesitant openings that have plagued so many home performances this year and at the centre of it all is Max Gradel, he’s there running around manically, chasing down lost causes, finding space, taking on the defence; he’s like a man possessed…maybe too much? Leeds need that goal though, no scratch that, we need two goals (at least) before we can settle. The first opportunity falls to Max, just getting ahead of a very good Bradley Johnson cross that was begging to be converted. Then Gradel lays on a chance Becchio looks sure to convert, a despairing Rovers toe the difference between hands to the face and arms aloft, then once more down the right, another low cross, this time looking for Beckford, but it’s behind him!
Leeds are stretching the opposition at will and Gradel’s taking the left back, Daniel Jones to pieces, the opening goal surely only a matter of time away, Charlton’s 23rd minute opener at Boundary Park barely registers an acknowledgement.
The goal doesn’t come, 15 minutes have passed since the Charlton goal and Leeds are still searching and tensions are rising. Then Beckford finds the back of the net, only he hasn’t, the offside flag denies him in debatable circumstances. WHEN IS THIS GOAL COMING?!?… “Oh, s**t! What’s gone on there?”
Suddenly there’s a massive flare up at the edge of the penalty area. Nobody seems certain what’s happened, but it’s pretty clear to all that Gradel’s at the centre of this maelstrom of flailing arms, pointing fingers and accusative faces. Everyone’s darkest fear about the Ivorian’s temperament is being realised on the biggest stage.
Max has exhibited hot headed tendencies throughout the campaign but Grayson has gambled on trusting him today. It was brave move, a bold move, one akin to taking a kid with behavioural issues on a school trip because it felt like the right thing to do; the hope was that all the distractions and excitement around him will keep him occupied until it’s time for the coach home – but they haven’t and it’s all fallen apart. With the sanctity of a packed lunch and a calming Kia-Ora only 7 minutes away, our own errant child has exploded right in the middle of the shopping centre as locals and tourists look on in horror from the balconies.
The flash of red from the referee’s pocket that we all feared, duly follows. Captain for the day and with that, designated carer, Beckford is trying his best to intervene, slowly leading Gradel away, then pushing him away and ultimately with the assistance of Michael Doyle and a couple of stewards, forcibly removing him from the pitch. His departure is accompanied by cries of “Off! Off! Off!” from the Kop – way to go, Max!
As the disbelief and anger in the stands subsides, so the despair kicks in as the signposts for Hartlepool come back vividly into view. The despair then turns back into anger as Daniel Jones, the subject of Gradel’s stamp becomes the natural scapegoat, and then from anger we rediscover our defiance as a groundswell of noise sees the players through to half-time. Time to reorganise…and besides, Rovers had been terrible, maybe one goal would be enough?
Three minutes into the second half and the defiance crumbles under the dark clouds of disaster; Daniel Jones (who else?) storms down the Leeds right unopposed before bypassing an unprotected Andy Hughes (Max – you b***ard!!) to loop in a cross…it is an awful, overhit cross, so much so that some in the South Stand jeer in derision. It doesn’t stop Jo Kuffour nodding the ball back unopposed, despite being shadowed by Lowry and Collins, nor Darryl Duffy tucking it away despite the presence of Leigh Bromby.
Silence. The only sounds that could be heard in Elland Road were the imagined cheers resounding from the New Den and the stifled laughter of football fans up and down the country. Even Charlton are above us now. Those in the East Stand are suddenly all sat back down, the Kop, a mosaic of broken expressions and hanging heads. Something had to happen, but it was hard to visualise anything in the aftermath of that goal.
Simon Grayson visualised the entrance of Jonny Howson and on 54 minutes the Morley lad joins the fray, his arrival all the more welcome as it signals the exit of Shane Lowry; it is to take our Jonny a mere 5 minutes to announce his arrival.
The substitution is essentially ‘Code Green’ to go for broke. Leeds have to win the game, anything other than a draw between Millwall and Swindon would condemn us to the play-offs if not. So to that moment 5 minutes on: Bradley Johnson sweeps a ball to the edge of the penalty area, a neat lay-off from Becchio, a sweeping strike from Howson from 20 yards…!!!!!
Elland Road transforms from a morgue to Mardi Gras in the blink of an eye, one colossal adrenalin shot administered by a swinging football boot; Howson wheels away in celebration, throwing up one, then both of his arms, urging the fans to sound the battle cry. All of a sudden it almost seems inevitable, the sudden turning tide will wreak ruin on the opposition’s fanciful plans of resistance.
Howson again instigates, this time he storms down the right and flashes in a teasing cross, a defender strains his neck, the keeper gets a touch, but the ball falls free to Johnson who’s all alone at the back post…over the bar! Heads are in hands in the stands and on the pitch, but the momentum on the pitch and the noise from all corners is overwhelming.
Moments later, fresh Leeds pressure, but it peters out as Mikkel Anderson comfortably collects a long Bromby thrown-in. Brief respite, a moment to compose ourselves…but hang on, Beckford’s got his head to that clearance! Down the left, Bradley Johnson is quick onto it and sees his target, Becchio at the far post…but Byron Anthony gets his toe to his fumbled cross, but it’s falling to Beckford…he MUST score!!!!!
Pandemonium! Everywhere you look, a sea of tumbling, jumping bodies. It takes a while for me to observe anything toward the back of N11, having fallen forwards three rows in the midst of celebration. On the pitch Beckford is mobbed by players and fans alike, his Argentine striking partner pinning him to the floor and smothering him in a lover’s embrace for what seems like an eternity. As Charlie Nicholas observes on Soccer Saturday – arguably a better document of the drama of the day than the match highlights – Bristol Rovers have just “crumbled” in the face of the volume created by the home fans.
Suddenly, all the doubts evaporate, it finally seems ‘our day’ had come. Neill Collins could’ve gone a long way to redeeming his inherent awfulness by sealing matters but his header finds the post. Kuffour offers the visitor’s only moment of threat but Shane Higgs is quickly off his line to snuff out the threat. Beyond that moment though, there’s little than our own self-doubts telling us anything other than the contest is over.
As the game enters the second minute of injury time, Robert Snodgrass stands on the touchline, preparing himself to enter the fray, the fourth official holds up his board, it reads ‘9’; it’s the signal that brings Jermaine Beckford’s Leeds United career to an end. Is there a tactical element to the change? Maybe so, but as our captain for the day has performed so responsibly playing on the left of midfield since nudging Leeds ahead, it seems more likely a gesture to afford him the kind of send off he deserves. The stadium rises as one, even those who’ve pettily criticised his work rate and body language throughout his time at the club rise to applaud and chant his name in unison; player and supporters seemingly are as one, aware of what the other is losing.
And so now, just to see it through. The ball remains in the Rovers half, reassuringly very close to the corner flag for the most part. Then it happens, the inevitable premature pitch invasion; around a hundred people spill on to the playing surface, the Kop beckon them off, the players urge them back to the stands and an increasingly tetchy sounding Ben Fry urges “Please keep off the pitch” adding the most redundant caveat of a stadium ban threat for all offenders.
After about 30 seconds the pitch is clear, but a large part of me is willing the guilty parties to remain as close to the touchlines as possible, anything to encourage the referee to blow his whistle. Moments later, while Beckford is hugging team mates and Paddy Kisnorbo is conducting a sing-along in the West Stand, he does; the pointless perimeter of stewards is immediately overwhelmed as a wave of euphoria in the stands is matched only by the wave of bodies rolling onto the hallowed turf.
Some players make a panicked dash for the dressing rooms, others have no intention of going anywhere, happy to be swallowed up and heralded by the masses. Bradley Johnson is one such player, his embraces with supporters the headline shot for the many Sunday newspaper reports to follow. Even Shane Lowry is spied being carried around on fans’ shoulders.
At this point I make a short trek from my seat to see my football missus, Jenny. She’s only a few rows in front and her dad’s had to leave to make a quick getaway. My first season watching Leeds with her ended with me offering a consoling arm as she cried in the aftermath of play-off despair at Wembley, this time the hug was a happier and if anything, an even more emotional one.
As if the day couldn’t then get any better, as we spoke, Jenny’s hero, ‘Hughesy’ suddenly emerges from a sea of bodies in the 18 yard box. Arms aloft, shirt gone, all pale skin and hairy chest – this was above all others, a footballer for the common man: and he was here to share his moment with his people, the passion on his face unmistakably marking him out as one of our own. This is what it means to be Leeds and this is why his photo will remain the iconic shot of the day for all Leeds fans.
Eventually, after Paddy re-emerges to lead choruses of ‘Leeds! Leeds! Leeds!’, ‘Leeds are going up” and the like, after the salutatory lap of honour and taking a moment to look on disapprovingly at a very celebratory Max Gradel (he’s since been forgiven)…after the players finally depart, we take just a few more minutes to drink it all in, then and only then, it’s time to leave.
Three long years had been spent in League One and despite some very good memories and some fantastic away days, the novelty had long since worn off. Reflecting back as we left the stadium, it wasn’t so much elation I felt, just relief.