Frankly, the scoreline tells the story. Almost two decades of waiting, seething, champing at the bit, over. Redemption. Utter and complete joy. A cancerous polyps on football’s anus well and truly lanced.
So much had built us into a frenzied swathe of anticipation and belief prior to the midday kick off. The heavier than normal snarl-ups on Clive Sullivan Way; the colossal police presence on Anlaby Road; the idiotic and arrogant pre-match words of Leeds’ pretend manager Kevin Blackwell – whose best achievement as a player was to be reserve goalkeeper for Huddersfield Town – as he cast aside City’s efforts at Elland Road on December 31st, stating incredulously that we had been given a bit of a lesson.
I wanted a repeat of 1988 – City winning 3-1. Recall with glee the youthful debutant Andy Payton scoring after two minutes and the extra-blonde Richard Jobson hitting a scrummy volley from 30 yards later on. I didn’t want a repeat of 1989, when that multiply-deflected early long throw from Vinny Jones via Ian Baird was enough to give the WS the points. And since then, we have waited and suffered.
Peter Taylor, more than aware of the importance of this game beyond mere points in a table, made four changes from the team which so tenaciously took a point off Ipswich last week. Three were largely expected – Craig Fagan’s pace replaced Billy Paynter’s ineffective bluster up front; John Welsh slotted into midfield to account for Damien Delaney’s enforced switch into defence, with the ineligible Rui Marques sidelined; Alan Rogers deservedly reclaimed the left back role and, perhaps, the only eyebrow raiser, Scott Wiseman’s effervescence at right back was sacrificed to allow the more industrial Alton Thelwell a return. So, the City team with a destiny consisted of Bo Myhill in nets; Thelwell and Rogers flanking Delaney and Leon Cort in defence; Stuart Green and Kevin Ellison either side of Welsh and skipper Keith Andrews in the centre; Fagan joining Jon Parkin up front.
“We all hate Leeds” had rung out God knows how many times from the East Stand as the Circle took its fill and a ref with a stupid surname and a stupider gallop got us underway. Marching On Together was soon drowned out – indeed, I can’t recall the Leeds contingent – plentiful but ugly (and collared by the speed cameras on Clive Sullivan Way too, one reckons) – trying it again afterwards.
The first half was wonderful to watch, if frustrating ultimately on the opportunistic front. City played right into Leeds’ faces, using their strengths to highlight the restrictive nature of the WS game which has hindered their laughably slipping case for the Premiership. Parkin battered Sean Gregan constantly in aerial duels; Green flicked and skipped through many of the lethargic Stephen Crainey’s attempts at restraint; Andrews and especially Welsh were absolutely dominant in the midfield.
City’s biggest early star was Delaney, happily exploiting his status as master-of-all-trades with his switch back to defence with a deliciously patronising command of the Rob Hulse factor, though Leeds’ strikers generally didn’t need City’s mighty rearguard pairing (and mighty they were) to show that they were a bit rubbish. A lot rubbish, actually. Hulse – normally a good player – and Robbie Blake – always a staggeringly overrated one – looked stagnant and scared, and what chances they did get they hilariously spurned.
Delaney committed a foul on Hulse moments after the ref refused to believe the tables had turned, and receding American winger Eddie Lewis (do it with grace, like our blessed Ellison) popped the dead ball to Myhill’s palm. City then carved out a chance of such beauty via a Rogers throw as Green and Fagan waspishly swapped passes to get a high one on to Parkin’s left, but a linesman’s flag – raised in error – ruled out the goal as the ball flew wide of Neil Sullivan’s grab and nestled in.
Leeds hit panic buttons around the Beast frequently. They also seemed a bit scared of Ellison – who wouldn’t be, even not on a football field? – and the two took advantage to slice as knife in Lurpak through the muddied whitenesses and Ellison’s piledriver was deflected enough for Sullivan to get a touch round the post. Leeds made a go of it for the next ten minutes, with the optimistic but mainly camp Liam Miller sliding a ball into Blake’s path but, befitting of a geezer whose biggest heroics came at bleedin’ Bradford City and who couldn’t do it at Birmingham where ex-Yeading chav DJ Campbell might, he wellied it over the bar and got guffawed at rather loudly.
Fagan, impish and up for it (and without gloves, hooray) did one of his outside right routines with a cherubic touch into Parkin’s path and Green – in a custom which is becoming common but always successful – took the Beast’s perfect heel pass to thump a low scorcher goalwards, but Sullivan – the only Leeds player who emerged with his head held high – got across to tip it wide. Annoyingly, the ball rolled along the byline with nobody chasing it as everyone expected a corner, and the potential for a second ball in was gone. Ellison then broke through mere inches of space ahead to give Green room (Green Room, ha, just noticed that…) to swing a pearler on to the Beast’s hirsute head, and a corner was forced thanks to an impromptu deflection. This was good stuff, but wariness was seeping into the City fans psyche. After all, we’ve been irritatingly proficient at losing goals against the run of play and dominating games we end up losing. Not this one, of all games, please.
No fear. Leeds threatened occasionally, but Cort and Delaney were rocks. Cort’s value as a brave and immaculately timed defensive emperor should not be underestimated, even though his bigness kind of makes us take for granted that he’ll always win the high balls, whether doing his job or nipping forward for a holiday in the opposition penalty area. Expect a top three placing in the Player of the Season awards here.
Welsh, carnivorously putting his studs in to win ball after ball, had his best half of football since before Christmas and alongside him the easily-maligned Andrews had one of his feel-like-it days, using his obvious skill to supply the widemen and the overlaps of Thelwell and Rogers, while also winning his share of fifty fifties. It wasn’t a day for Andrews to be devastatingly creative, but he won plenty of possession and the midfield was City’s City’s City’s from start to finish.
Fagan’s rapidity wasn’t quite off the mark enough to reach a through ball from Welsh after the bullet-headed Scouser skipped excitedly through pansyish Leeds challenges to create the room. Fagan then deployed a lovely turning motion from a throw to cross on to the full-tilt Parkin instep, and the plastic Scotsman in the Leeds goal kept his team in it with a mostly instinctive knee-centric save, although experience teaches decent keepers where to go as crosses come in, so fair play to him. Don’t be alarmed – being magnanimous to opposition you despise is always easier and more fun when you’ve beaten them…
Goalless and breathless at the break, then. As the wind started to circle the Circle and the driving rain began (think Molineux, only with shelter, crapper opposition and much cheaper tickets) a comical keepy-uppy competition began on the pitch. No child (nor Steve “hold my clipboard and microphone, Roary” Jordan) could manage more than five, from what I saw after exiting the lavatory, although that was more than the Impulse-styled Shaun Derry could probably have managed, judging by his inability to trap or deliver a ball over 45 minutes. When our PA man let his control slip, the Leeds fans sang “you’re shit, and you know you are” – a ditty which could have been aimed at any of their outfield players, frankly.
This was beautifully poised. What on earth was ahead? The blast of larynx which greeted the return of City was something I’d not experienced during the Circle years. Something was brewing. Something was going to happen. It’s easy to have a “feeling” when it’s Leeds rather than Plymouth who are soiling your away dressing room, but the feeling was there nonetheless.
The infiltrators (presumably after a bollocking from Blackwell, who wanted his side to annihilate us “again”) started quite brightly. Veteran full back Gary Kelly – who survived the death of the Ridsdale dream – chipped a corner on to Jonathan Douglas’ head but the ball arrowed over. City clawed back as Fagan cascaded down the left flank with the East Stand urging him on, only for the cross to roll behind both Ellison and the Beast, and a startled, off-balance Green – on a late follow-up – snatched at the chance and gave the South Stand something to catch.
As the monsoon conditions took hold and everyone in the first four rows stood up to put their coats back on, Derry skidded a danger-free drive past Myhill’s far post from distance, before exquisite defending from Delaney scuppered Leeds’ hopes from a corner and sent Fagan away, alone, with four white shirts in front of him. It was some task but he nearly pulled it off, hopping through three of them before seeing the fourth prise the ball off his toe. As it was banged into touch, Fagan got the biggest individual handclap acclaim of the day so far.
Douglas smacked a chance from a corner over the bar – had it gone in, riotous reactions were a certainty due to the lack of an offside flag during the build-up attack which, even to an officials’ apologist like me, was a scandalous decision, and my language was extremely colourful. I ain’t ashamed. City then won a free kick at the other end, and Cort got his meaty head to Green’s delivery, only to see Sullivan get down nimbly and hold on.
Cort then went off for a sew-up after getting a cut and Leeds nearly exploited the lack of one proper defender with a series of intricate passes to the edge of the City area. For the only time in the game, City looked completely useless as the ball eventually got to the silenced Hulse, and his afternoon was summed up by the woeful miskick in front of goal which, frankly, let us off big style. Mr Taylor was furious, jumping indignantly round the technical area like Yosemite Sam. His tactical masterplan – and it was so, make no mistake here – had nearly gone nipples up thanks to a complete and sudden inability to recall that we needed to try to win possession of the ball.
Ellison took a brilliant 70th minute standing ovation as he withdrew for Stuart Elliott’s re-appearance; immediately he chased one down the flank and forced a throw which Rogers hurled long for Leeds to clear. City then tried to get a handball off Gregan from a Parkin flick but the daftly-named referee, who’d booked Parkin for little more than having muscles a few minutes earlier, wasn’t having it.
Then Fagan did his gaily skip on the right flank again and made room and time for Green to look up. Only the Beast was in the box, but who else do you possibly need, providing the cross is accurate? Fortunately, it was. Green arched the centre on to the Beastly bonce and Sullivan could only help the ball into the Back Of The Leeds United Net.
I haven’t seen bedlam like it. I can now imagine what it was like on the South Stand terraces when Andy Payton and Richard Jobson put those first half chances away when we last did the WS at home in 1988. I was pushing 15 years old and in the comparative spaciousness of the Well and so didn’t experience that type of mentalist celebration. However, even in seats and the disciplined modernisation of the Circle, the reaction in my particular row of the East Stand was one of sheer, life-enhancing idiocy that I’ll never forget. We never got this when we scored against Crewe… ok, we never got half of this when Jason price banged in that late on against the Wendies. Scroaty teenagers hugged me. I went temporarily deaf. And, leaning against the wall of the back row at the point the Beast connected, the physical reaction almost broke my back as I hurtled over my seat. I put my hand in someone’s discarded, half-eaten pie on the floor. And I Do Not Care.
Aside from the bragging issue, the goal was a welcome return to the onion bag from Parkin, his first since Andrews sent him clear to put us ahead for about twelve seconds at Millwall. And what a moment to pick to return to type. Player of the Season? No, Myhill, Delaney and Cort deserve it more for the full campaign. But the man’s impact has taken us to safety, joyful away wins at Stoke and Luton and now the lead against the WS with fewer than 15 minutes on the watch.
Leeds put two subs on – don’t think for a moment I heard or cared who was on and who off – and then brought on a similarly anonymous third as City, wonderfully and unusually, looked for a second goal to see ‘em off. It didn’t happen, although a free kick from the ‘D’ was nicely flighted by Andrews but Sullivan got his mitts to it.
Mr Taylor chucked on Billy Paynter for the outstanding Green in a straight swap, despite Paynter never once looking remotely like a right-sided midfielder of crossing or ballwinning potential. That hypothesis remains most bizarre. Anyway, Leeds attacked but sub David Healy hit a dreadfully wasteful 25 yarder way over Myhill’s bar, then Kelly swatted a free kick a few feet wide as the board went up for four added minutes and Myhill picked up a yellow card for timewasting.
When you’re four minutes away from beating your biggest enemy in your biggest League game in a generation, ideally you’d like a big, hefty, hard-as-bronze, yak-like neanderthal of a footballer to get his enormous backside between ball and weakling opponent. Step forward Jon Parkin. That took a few seconds, although Leeds still had time to pump one indescribably desperate punt up to the edge of the City box for Hulse to swish characterlessly over the bar.
What a wonderful reaction to that final whistle. Beyond the elation and outpouring on a vocal level, the smiling – real grinning, dentistry’s artwork on show – which was evident in man and boy, girl and woman wherever you turned, hit home even more just how big and important and existence-affirming this result was. Six years ago we were financially and emotionally drained while Leeds were spending everyone’s money except their own and being knocked out of the last four in the Champions League. Half a dozen years later, the two teams are on a par at primitive footballing level and, although Leeds are in the play-off zone, they’re clearly not any great shakes. They might not go up. I hope not, obviously, but even if they did they would be so conspicuously mullered by anyone you care to mention in the top flight that not getting the chance to do them over again ourselves would still have its consolations.
As for City, well, how wonderful they were. Every man jack of them fought, ran, played, created and communicated. The full backs were tireless, despite both having no match fitness a month ago. Delaney was magnificent, truly, with Cort again showing the true meaning of what partnerships are about. Fagan and Green’s rise to the challenge in the crafting stakes was met with aplomb. Parkin was many handfuls and more, and his goal will keep him in City hearts for life even if he were to change his name to Father Schpeegelhacker and beetle off to a monastery tomorrow. Welsh and Andrews worked solidly and collectively; Ellison made the crowd loud; Myhill kept his nerve. Mr Taylor, meanwhile, planned and executed this mammoth task in a masterly manner and he deserves our adulation for it. The supporters were just great. Just completely great. And the opposition were hand-gestured off by their own divvy followers, which added yet more icing to a very crusty and rich cake. Tuck in.
And we’re safe, of course. Let’s go to Bramall Lane next week and drink, sing, shout and win as if they were fresh experiences we had just discovered and liked, because anything seems possible right now.
Blackwell? We annihilated you. Go home, curl up and cry.