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charlton athletic 2 – 4 leeds united: the sidelines

charlton athletic 2 – 4 leeds united: the sidelines

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Leeds United’s history has been peppered with occasional performances of individual brilliance, and after any game where one player scores four, you have to look at the individual, and call that their game. Every individual performance, though, is supported by the performance of ten others. 

After Ross McCormack’s four goals on Saturday, you have to hunt for individuals who can match that in a Leeds shirt. In the league, most recently Brian Deane did it against QPR and Marko Viduka against Liverpool, both at Elland Road; Allan Clarke, John McCole, John Charles, Gordon Hodgson, Arthur Hydes and Russell Wainscoat have all scored four times in game at Elland Road, and Hodgson once got five. The last Leeds player to score four league goals away, though, was Tom Jennings against Liverpool in 1926 in a 4-2 win; he followed that with all four against Blackburn at Elland Road in a 4-1 win, which is a good omens for Ross McCormack against Middlesbrough.

The performance that came to my mind after Saturday, though, was Lee Chapman’s against Sheffield Wednesday in 1992, when he scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 win; not because of any special similarity between McCormack and Chapman, but because of the similarity of the teams. That 6-1 win over Wednesday has passed into legend as one of the all-time great Leeds United displays, and is certainly one that defined the Howard Wilkinson era. But it wasn’t even our best team.

Leeds in 1991/92 had the best midfield in the country – Strachan, McAllister, Batty and Speed – but against Sheffield Wednesday, that midfield didn’t play. Strachan was injured and Batty was suspended, so two vital parts of the Leeds United machine were out. To be fair, as a replacement for Batty, Steve Hodge – a £900k England international, slightly bemused on the bench – was not bad at all; while a tactical reshuffle brought the hard-working Carl Shutt in alongside Lee Chapman, while Rod Wallace covered the wing. Even so, that 6-1 – and Lee Chapman’s hat trick – said as much about the squad at Leeds as it did about the country’s best midfield.

Meanwhile, at Charlton this weekend, Brian McDermott had his own absentees to cover. Stephen Warnock might produce some heart-stopping moments, but he’s first choice at left-back; Alex Mowatt might be raw, but his creativity has become essential; and Sam Byram, in his brief return to the first team, has shown again that he is by some distance our best player. Danny Pugh, Michael Brown and Lee Peltier had a lot to live up to on Saturday.

Pugh and Brown in particular put hearts in boots when they appeared on the teamsheet. If there’s a crucial difference between putting Pugh and Brown in against Charlton, and putting Hodge and Shutt in against Wednesday in 1992, it’s that the fans had total faith in Hodge and Shutt. Some had been calling on Wilko to find a way to play Hodge in the first team anyway, while Shutty was known as a hard worker. Pugh and Brown, the last two players out of the tunnel against Charlton, were also the last two players most fans wanted to see on the teamsheet.

It was understandable reaction. Danny Pugh’s history with Leeds is longer than you’d think, but has gone more awry than anyone ever expected. He arrived over nine years ago, in part exchange for Alan Smith, who now seems to belong to a different Leeds United entirely; Smith feels like ancient history, but Danny Pugh is still here. In his first spell he was a hard worker in a team struggling to find its way; in his second he has deteriorated from decent showings on loan to bizarrely formless displays at left-back when he seemed barely interested. Despite being on the transfer list other teams have seemed barely interested in signing him, and he doesn’t so much have a contract at Leeds as an hourglass, draining the sand from the topmost bulb until it is empty and he can leave.

Michael Brown hasn’t the long Leeds history of Pugh, nor the memory of there once being a good time; Grayson signed him, nobody was impressed; Warnock gave him a new contract and attempted to give him the keys to the city, fewer people were impressed; Warnock played Brown enough times for him to trigger a new contract clause, and people despaired. It’s strange when the least popular player on the pitch at Elland Road can be a Leeds player, but Brown’s stock has sunk that low during his time at Leeds. If ever there was a case of a player and fans not hitting it off, this is it, and it was Brown’s inclusion as well as Pugh’s – in place of the darling Mowatt, too – that surely had angered the weather gods. 

The weather gods, and those who feared a Leeds collapse, had a point. In one spell of reckless ineptitude, Brown ignored the treacherous conditions to slide in dangerously on a Charlton midfielder; the ball span loose, and Pugh went in just the same way on another; still nobody had the ball, so Brown steamed in with almost no control on a third. It was lucky that no legs were broken; it was lucky no cards were shown; it was lucky, really, that a breakaway equaliser for Charlton was the worst that came of it. And that was bad enough.

But that was the bad. The good was Danny Pugh charging forward to win the penalty that put Leeds 2-1 up. The good was also that Brown and Pugh returned from the sidelines to play a full part in a second four-goal performance in recent weeks. I wrote on Friday about how McCormack’s goals against Yeovil showed how he can perform when pushed forward out of midfield to play as a proper forward, and with Brown, Pugh and the rest doing their jobs behind him, Ross was able to play that role to the utmost again. His two open-play goals were scored from the six yard line; putting all this ‘false-nine’ faff aside, McCormack is reinventing himself as a six-yard box striker. The hat-trick goal, in particular, showed the strength, opportunism and finishing of any great sniffer.

McCormack has the match ball, and he deserved it; he tweeted a photo of it later, signed by all his team mates. And just like the 6-1 against Wednesday in 1992 will always have Hodge and Shutt’s names attached, instead of Batty and Strachan’s, that match ball will always have Danny Pugh and Michael Brown’s signatures scrawled upon it. And so it should. They may not be Hodge and Shutt, but their names were called, and they played their parts in a great Leeds performance. 

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