There were two extra empty seats in the corporate area at Elland Road yesterday; once the anal real estate of a blustering octogenarian and his missus, on Saturday they stood as a monument to a new dawn in LS11; a new beginning that may have necessitated two less Filet Mignon’s from the gourmet chef in the inner sanctum of the East Stand’s executive boxes, but demanded a huge extra demand for balti pies amongst the common supporters.
Whenever questioned about the dissidents and morons who called for his head, Ken Bates would always refer to them as a “noisy rabble”; remaining forever insistent that those who shouted loudest were invariably the ones who were heard. His argument never wavered; he continued to enjoy the unstinting approval of the “silent majority” who remained supportive of all the fine work he’d done.
Come 3rd August 2013, come the first game of the season, come the first league game played at Elland Road since Bates’ removal from the employment roster cleansed the club of that final reminder of the old guard…
Ten thousand extra supporters enter through the turnstiles – TEN THOUSAND! Bates had been proven right that a silent majority did exist, at least to the degree that an army of Leeds fans existed that dwarfed the number of foot troops who attended the pivotal LUST ‘March for Change’ or any of the other anti-Bates protests; he’d just read their mood incorrectly. These supporters hadn’t chosen to acquiesce, they didn’t approve, they’d simply chosen non-attendance as their tool of protest, apathy over anger. Now they were choosing to return.
On the face of it, little progress has been on the pitch since 23,745 turned up to last season’s opener against Wolves; again we have a relatively new face in the dug-out who’s looking to make his mark after arriving at the club late in the previous campaign and if anything, we arguably have an even weaker squad, deprived as we are now of Becchio – and yet here we are, reflecting on a buzzing Elland Road.
It’s like this…and it’s always been like this, and furthermore it will always be like this – Leeds United finally resembles a football club again and supporters no longer feel like mere commodities; this above everything else is a pre-requisite for any struggling club with aspirations of progress. Until investment arrives the club will undoubtedly find it hard to compete, but at least in creating an environment of (a degree of) trust and goodwill, suddenly the task is a little less formidable. The ‘The past is the past…Let’s be United’ campaign while not subtle has proven another PR victory for GFH-C, the hard work now lies in sustaining the considerable momentum they’ve created.
Absolutely key to everything is Brian McDermott; while Neil Warnock was afforded a degree of faith on the back of his managerial track record, his successor is a very different man and one who you feel is perfectly suited to the times. After a while you sensed that Warnock felt that Leeds owed him his coveted eighth promotion, McDermott in contrast very much gives the impression that it is he who’s the privileged one and that as recompense, he owes the club a return to the top flight; proven, likeable, modest and long term in his thinking, he is deserving of all the support and patience everyone can muster.
So all of a sudden, 33,432 attendees doesn’t seem so surprising, does it? Every seat sold out for a well priced season opener should be the expectation and not a surprise; the only legacy of the departed regime that remained were in the swathes of empty corporate seats in the East Stand Upper – good vibes attracts back the fans, only successful Premier League sides will fill that vast expanse…another lesson, never learned. However, as they say, “The past is the past” and now the club is suddenly a very different beast and has set a benchmark to aspire to time and again as the season progresses – hope, expectation and a full house!
Dutifully, the customary glorious opening day weather obliged the occasion, the sun beating down as a chorus of ‘Leeds, Leeds, Leeds’ soundtracked the players’ final pre-match stretches and a hearty roar accompanied the kick-off, one that was infused in belief, rather than a product of going through the motions. “That Chelsea b***ard, he’s out of our club!” rejoiced the Kop. The stage was set.
Then a reality check, the problems inherent in pre-season unfolded vividly as Brighton started with confidence and the home midfield wrestled with the diamond formation. Kenny was called into action early to palm away one effort but on 13 minutes he was beaten. Andrea Orlandi found himself in acres of space down the Leeds left and had time enough to pick out Leonardo Ulloa who lost Tom Lees and clipped the ball home from close range.
Suddenly silence, all that could be heard were the celebrations of Brighton’s modest traveling support and the perceived stifled laughter emanating from a Monacan flat. For the Leeds team however, a subconscious collective alarm bell sounded and suddenly the season kick-started on the pitch; the tempo was raised, McCormack buzzed and Murphy probed; the players discovered that if they held on to the ball for sufficiently long enough, then Tonge and Murphy would have the opportunity to drift outward within their diamond and provide more width and less cluster – a revelatory moment, indeed!
It was Tonge’s defection to the touchline that sparked the equaliser, his cross from the vicinity of the corner flag evaded all, the brushing contact of a Brighton head only enough to help the ball to McCormack who drilled home from 12 yards. The stadium to a man rose to acclaim our man while he fared well to stay on his feet under the embraces of team mates. Now we had a contest.
Leeds retained the upper hand for the remainder of the half, although the Peltier-Tonge combination down the right continued to be a source of promise for the visitors and one of nightmares to those loyal to the Whites’ cause.
The second half continued to grip, rather than thrill; Leeds edging possession but Kenny’s supreme double stop to deny Crofts then Calderon the incident of greatest note during the opening half hour or so. Then on 82 minutes the opposing managers played their last cards; Lua Lua replaced Orlandi for the visitors while Matt Smith brought an added aerial dimension for Leeds. With the stakes raised, the chances came; the best for Leeds fell for Paul Green as he raced in after Kuszczak could only parry Poleon’s effort – a strong, firm, low finished was required, Green ballooned it.
Moments later the game was Brighton’s to win, Green was beaten too easily on the right and Kenny was again called upon to save from point blank range, though in truth, Will Buckley should never have given him the opportunity. Then it happened, another moment to back up those who subscribe to the notion that certain things in football are just pre-destined.
A long, hopeful, diagonal ball met by the head of Matt Smith, played down into the path of McDermott’s one big money capture, Luke Murphy…his chest, his forearm, whatever it was that primarily cushioned the ball, was sufficient to take him clear of the defence and left him with only Kuszczak to beat; a player whose mannerisms, poise and style had prompted memories of Scott Sellars during the previous 93 minutes provided a finish more reminiscent of John Sheridan.
Before the ball even brushed against the side netting, Murphy was tailing away in celebration, arms aloft as an electric Elland Road experienced one final, glorious power surge, completely oblivious to the vociferous protestations of the visitors. Last kick of the game, flagship signing, full house…how do you follow that?
As the thousands happily poured out into Elland Road’s surrounding hinterlands, the big challenge remains – how to keep up the positive momentum? It’s a novel headache for a Leeds United board to have after all this time and a very welcome one.
Thankfully, one bitter, spluttering old man won’t be getting asked for his input.
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