A Leeds United season ticket: madness by subscription.
Reconciling the events and emotions of yesterday remains an impossible task; l left the Kop exasperated at throwing away a victory that was there for the taking, yet wholly relieved that 45 minutes of football at least counted for something. So much of what the faithful had witnessed confounded expectations and unspoken logic that making sense of it all seemed futile. So exhilarating had the whole experience been and such was the gauntlet of emotions, that any attempt to assess the merit of a point against Watford somehow felt crudely reductionist anyway. Results ultimately define weekends, just not in this case.
It all started well enough, back at 3pm. Leeds began positively with McCormack at the hub of matters, drifting out wide to great effect while in the middle Matt Smith dominated the Watford centre backs. One early chance was squandered as Smith climbed at the back post, only to direct his header into the arms of Jonathan Bond, but it mattered not, there was a sense of inevitability about a breakthrough.
Enter the first curveball, the breakthrough came, but from the visitors. It was a goal that had its roots in ineptitude but was despatched with class; Lewis McGugan broke forward, brushing aside Austin’s weak challenge and despite the close attentions of three opponents he was able to lay a miscued pass into the path of Deeney who drilled the ball home past Kenny.
Initial promise gave way to frustration, the fluid, confident build-up play of the opening 12 consigned to memory as high balls out to wide positions replaced the short, sharp passing of the early stages. There remained glimpses of hope, Murphy finished poorly after a scramble, while a Watford toe denied Smith the opportunity to convert Byram’s deep cross. However, as the half progressed, so the chances started to dry up. While Danny Pugh both marauded and defended to good effect down the Leeds left, Byram struggled as Hector Bellerin dominated him.
In the crowd, urgings became mumblings as Leeds laboured, the referee a willing accomplice in the quagmire, offering the home side little. Watford for their part added to the frustration, seemingly intent on killing stone dead, Leeds’ attempts to create any momentum; every couple of minutes a different player lay prostrate on the turf, as if taken out by a sniper. Suddenly the occasion resembled not so much a football match, more a Beeston Players Dramatic Society production of Julius Caesar.
As spirits atrophied, Watford struck again. Bellerin broke from inside his own half, Byram hesitated and was left for dead, Battocchio was found on the edge of the area, two sidesteps later and he was through on goal, as the beaten Pugh and Pearce looked on helplessly he stroked the ball into the bottom corner. Moments later the whistle blew and Leeds left to the pitch to a muffled chorus of dissent, they looked a beaten team.
The second half demanded a team transformed, a hell for leather opening, a shattering of the status quo if Leeds were to rescue anything. From the kick-off Leeds buzzed as the opposing Hornets struggled to contain the swarming white shirts around them. Luke Murphy grabbed the game firmly by the testicles and kept tight an iron grip as one by one, those in opposition relented. Three times in the opening minutes he prised open the Watford back line with searching passes as Leeds came to life; McCormack menaced, bodies raced forward and the Kop found its voice – momentum.
Smith was presented with a glorious opportunity to open the floodgates but headed the ball over from a corner when barely challenged, but salvation wasn’t long in arriving and came from the left boot of Danny Pugh…
McCormack again was at the hub of things, his cross finding Pugh via a Watford boot and torso. Pugh, stood alone to the left of goal, chested the ball down, then slipped past the attentions of a defender before drilling home from an almost impossible angle. All bets were now off, a goalscoring Danny Pugh, the best Leeds player on the pitch? It was like stepping into some f***ed up alternative universe, but it was glorious all the same.
Watford, despite still leading looked beaten, an equaliser and then a third goal almost undeniably inevitable. Inside 6 minutes the next step had been taken, Peltier at first brilliantly winning the ball, then releasing McCormack in the clear with a fine measured pass, the Scot then raced forward before delivering the most measured of crosses…the precise beauty of the move demanded a goal and this time Smith provided it, sending ball and centre half hurtling goalward.
Pandemonium ensued on the Kop as a triumphant Smith raised his arms in acclaim. Leeds were unstoppable. Moments later, Austin should’ve converted a header from close range but found the body of Bond, then the goalkeeper’s legs as he hammered back the rebound. Next Murphy’s corner found Alex Mowatt, his drive from 16 yards was struck hard and true but the despairing leg of George Thorne and crossbar conspired to deny him. The action was frenzied and unrelenting, the most intense spell of football any Leeds side had produced since Simon Grayson’s halcyon days.
McCormack was the next to be denied, not by goalkeeper, defender or woodwork, but by the assistant’s flag. Elland Road was rocking, Murphy was orchestrating and Watford were sinking, but the goal still hadn’t arrived. Zola tried to stem the tide with substitutions but to no avail, Leeds’ only foes were their profligacy in front of goal, Lady Luck and the ticking clock.
Finally on 78 minutes the breakthrough arrived. Fittingly it was Luke Murphy who cut Watford open with a glorious measured pass from inside the centre circle to the edge of the 18 yard box that fell perfectly into the stride of Ross McCormack, who nudged the ball past the advancing Bond. Team mates flocked to congratulate the Scot who in turn made a point of embracing Murphy and gesturing to the crowd so nobody could be in doubt of the role he’d played.
That should’ve been it, the points won. The only remaining issue against broken opponents should’ve been the final wining margin. It wasn’t to be though as Leeds chose to sit back rather than dance around and rain further blows on the battered carcass of Watford. Instead the visitors rallied and pushed on, and with four minutes remaining were duly rewarded. Thorne broke forward and took advantage of slack closing down to fire in a shot from 35 yards, Deeney obligingly did the same, following up to tuck home when Kenny was only able to parry the initial effort. Floored by a sucker punch.
It could’ve got worse, Ekstrand found himself unmarked in stoppage time, 8 yards from goal but Zaliukas slid in from nowhere to deny the visitors what 10 minutes previously would’ve seemed the most impossible of wins.
A minute later the final whistle sounded. Both sides left the field to an ovation, every player contemplating what might have been, indeed what should have been, but doubtless on reflection this morning, they’ll also be savouring what actually came to be.
Football’s not always purely about winning.
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