A moment of clarity. That instance when you suddenly get a deep understanding of a truth that has for so long, been out of reach for you. A juncture at which your vision becomes unclouded and focused by mad rush, manifest in the form of an epiphany, a revelation.
The term is often used in relation to the notion of addiction, the label given to that life changing event at which an individual finally realises the need to stop and get help. In the passionate world of football, there is seldom a place for any such deeds of rationality; perhaps, mercifully so – after all, had Leeds fans taken stock en masse and concluded that repeatedly slamming a car door on their hand was both a more rewarding, and less expensive pastime than visiting Elland Road, there wouldn’t still be around 25,000 turning up on match days, and the club would’ve long since perished.
But moments of clarity aren’t exclusive to the realms of addiction, many claim they are commonly experienced by those at Death’s door; that the meaning of life, what’s important and what ultimately is trivial or foolhardy appear in stark perspective in a person’s final days and hours. On yesterday’s evidence they might just have a case.
With the takeover resolved and nothing but another sorry performance at Watford to herald a brave new, excuse free era, Brian McDermott was on the brink; he went into the game with his vital signs indicating an almost terminal level of weakness, his focus during preparations clouded by visions of his football afterlife – but they offered no blinding lights or promises of a blissful existence, working out his days in a heavenly utopia, but rather the dreary prospect of rebuilding his career in the murky shadows of Doncaster, Birmingham or Hades itself – Barnsley.
Another change. Whether it was, as publicly proclaimed, at the behest of his daughter, or at the hands of an owner who works with coaches and not managers, he took to the dug-out bedecked in his training ground apparel. Imagine the indignity of it all, if after spending the season patrolling the technical area, resplendent in tailored clothing, a blend of the finest fabrics, Brian’s funeral outfit was to be a putrid Macron polyester production.
Maybe these twins forces were responsible, the grave realisation of mortality, the long spoken of but consistently absent “driver”? Who knows? But it finally seemed that yesterday, McDermott experienced that long hankered for encounter with lucidity. After months of speaking about going back to basics, he actually went back to basics; the 5-3-2 formation, the system responsible for pushing Leeds into the top 5, but the first thing to be abandoned when form nosedived and the self-perpetuated clamour for conventional width became an obsession, was back.
Zaliukas, the cement that brought cohesion to a shaky back line, whose organising presence allowed Pearce to concentrate on his strengths of committed, brave defending, and whose stare could at a stroke, reassure Tom Lees that everything was going to be fine; a steady head amongst the empty headed – after 3 almost unbroken months in the wilderness, he was back.
And finally, FINALLY, we had a midfield with balance. Brown, much derided, but a willing anchor, Tonge offering a degree of composure and the ability to pick a pass, and Murphy, after 8 long months, finally granted the licence to go forward that had inexplicably been the preserve of Austin amongst the ‘Class of 2013/14’.
Suddenly Leeds had a front five that comprised five players who were all playing in roles they were comfortable with and wholly accustomed to. The back five didn’t look quite as sound, but that was a consequence of a dearth of personnel options; the most compelling argument for Wootton’s selection at right wing back was probably on the grounds that at least he wasn’t Tom Lees. The justification for Tom Lees continued presence at centre half? Hey, at least he isn’t Scott Wootton.
But overall – as it did before fatigue, more than anything, undermined it – the 5-3-2 worked, the use of wing backs helping to compensate for Leeds’ relative lack of mobility in the middle, while Murphy, liberated from the shackles of being a Rudi Austin support act, was now enthusiastically embracing the opportunity to show why it should’ve perhaps been the other way around all along. From the early exchanges, a flourishing understanding with McCormack was evident, the first opportunity the result of a measured pass from the former to the latter; on this occasion Murphy was eased off the ball, perhaps a little too easily, but shortly after, he wasn’t to be so ponderous.
Twenty one minutes in McCormack fed Murphy again, at first it seemed Murphy’s touch was a little too heavy, but he retrieved the situation, catching the defence off balance by checking back to stroke home with his left foot. The relief evident – both on an individual and team level – in Muphy’s emotive celebration was wholly understandable.
Leeds led, and deservedly so. A blood and thunder start was again lacking, but a cohesive showing and an strong appetite for pressing the opposition brought its just rewards. That said, Blackpool remained firmly in the running, the visitors repeatedly exploiting an alternative ‘corridor of uncertainty’ between Lees and Wootton. Neil Bishop should’ve reaped the rewards but headed over horribly from close range.
In the second half, McDermott retreated to the sanctuary of the dug-out, leaving Nigel Gibbs as the dominant character in the technical area. As Gibbs stepped out of the shadows to impose himself, the midfield three continued to do so. The work rate went up another notch, Tonge discovered a degree of stamina long considered departed, Brown continued to snap rather than recklessly bite, while the rejuvenated Murphy charged forward at every given opportunity.
Fittingly enough, when the crucial second goal arrived, another of the season’s beleaguered flock was instrumental. Noel Hunt, for most of the season, about as much use to the team as a drum kit would’ve been to Anne Frank, rose well to beautifully direct the ball into the path of Murphy, gone was the hesitancy of the opening exchanges as he classily stroked the ball in from a tight angle.
After that it was all plain sailing for the Whites. Blackpool had barely troubled Leeds after the break and rarely threatened to do so in the closing 20 minutes. The departure of Zaliukas, who while never overly exerted, brought a much missed semblance of calm to the back line, ultimately mattered little. By then, Blackpool were a beaten side.
Come the final whistle, an all too rare sight, enthusiastic applause and chants. Even Noel Hunt, having arrived on the pitch to a chorus of muffled boos and indifference was able to enjoy a warm reception. An unspectacular but wholly competent, convincing and committed home performance at last.
There was no great secret, no tactical masterstroke underlying the victory; it was merely the product of players playing in their best positions and putting in an honest shift. Leeds at the moment are by no means an exceptional Championship team, but they are, as the season up until mid-December proved, a lot better than their lower mid-table status suggests.
A balanced, settled, motivated, tactically sound team playing to its strengths is always more likely to succeed – that is crystal clear.
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