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leeds united 3 – 3 watford: measure of success

leeds united 3 – 3 watford: measure of success

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Who are Watford, and what are they to us, I wondered, as their players celebrated going 2-0 up in front of the Kop as if they were righting a great injustice. And why are they wearing Roma’s kit?

If Watford are anything to us, they’re a measuring stick. Twice a year we can shove them in the river and see to where the water line comes. Since they left us in the Championship after they won the play-off final with barely a shrug in 2006, they’ve had a tour of the Premier League while we went for a look at the third division; since then when we’ve met Leeds have won three and Watford two, with a couple of draws. Mundane stuff against a mundane team, really.

The stats mask what Watford became to us last season, though. At Elland Road last autumn Watford joined the illustrious ranks of Preston, Blackpool, Birmingham and Nottingham Forest as the list of teams who have, in recent seasons, come to Elland Road and made fools of us. Their 6-1 win felt like the lowest point possible under Warnock; it was only early November, though, and Colin had plenty more up his sleeve, although we weren’t to know that at the time.

Part of the blame for that result lay with Warnock, and his cavalier substitutions after Pearce was sent off, meaning Leeds went down to nine men when Rodolph Austin broke a leg (his own, on this occasion). Part of it belonged to Paddy Kenny, who seemed to be beatable every time by a straight shot from the edge of the penalty area. Some of the blame belonged to Tom Lees, because one must always blame Tom Lees. 

But most of it rested on the fact that Leeds, faced with the challenge of being one goal and two players down at the start of the second half, caved in like a hollow wedding cake. 

If only one thing comes out of Saturday’s 3-3 draw, it’s that we don’t look like a team that just gives up anymore. There was a ‘don’t care’ attitude under Warnock that seemed to have its source in a manager who preferred to stay in Cornwall than actually manage the team and felt almost institutional, but the message from Saturday is that those days are gone. 

The team isn’t beyond reproach. The first half was a letdown and a bore, and Watford went 2-0 up with relative ease. The defending for the first goal, in particular, was just plain bad. Watford’s equaliser wasn’t a glorious moment, either; Paddy Kenny didn’t so much spring up to face Deeney on the rebound as raise himself slowly like a monster from a swamp. As let downs go, letting the lead slip after the comeback was a pretty big one.

But there’s no faulting the comeback. If only we’d played at the start of the first half like we did at the start of the second, we could have been 4-0 up by half time. Instead we got a half of unbelievable football, in the sense that I couldn’t really believe it was happening: we’d joked at half time about a comeback, but only really expected a gruelling 45 minutes during which Watford might make it three.

A few things happened instead. Austin started playing further forward, often making triangles down the right with Byram and McCormack, and giving the Watford defence something extra to think about. Whether because Rudy was out of his way, or because he just decided to get a grip on the game, Luke Murphy began to run things. Not just with his pass for the third, which was sublime; he switched the play with an intelligent ball to McCormack on the wing in the run up to the first, and in general showed those rare hints of becoming the Shezallister of our dreams. 

Meanwhile, Mathieu Smith was given chance after chance, if not to score himself, then at least to cause a bit of chaos. And he did score himself, too; he keep getting compared to Lee Chapman because he’s tall and doesn’t look like he moves much, but the header into an empty net under a defender’s challenge was a classic Chappy finish. 

Smith’s performance was a decent summary of United’s second half as a whole; they plugged away and plugged away until eventually the ball was over the line. Smith had enough chances for a hat trick, McCormack had a goal disallowed; Austin charged down a chance but despite the shots and ricochets couldn’t hammer it past the keeper; the same keeper nearly punched the ball into his own net, then watched as a shot from Mowatt was deflected on to his crossbar. In the end Leeds had a total of 22 shots, and each one of them was close enough to feel like a potential goal. Taking the desire to see Leeds win out of the equation, the second half was just fun.

Which made Deeney’s equaliser even more painful, but there was still a moment to celebrate that we can call 4-3, if we like. The faux-Italians sensed their third goal had rocked us – their optimistic fans even set off a smoke bomb at three-all, that they must have been saving for the occasion – and broke forward for a winner; Marius Zaliukas, who is quickly becoming a bit of a hero at the back, cult or otherwise, started his run from somewhere in Wortley but still managed to slide across the penalty area and block Ekstrand’s shot. A tackle like that is as good as a goal, but the Football League are unlikely to give us three points on that basis, so a tackle like that remains the province of the fans. We know what went into it; we know that was as good as a goal.

We know it wouldn’t have happened in the game last year, either. Three of the goals in the 6-1 came in the last ten minutes; two of them were scored in injury time. A fully committed Zaliukas, or a fully committed anybody, could have done something to keep the score that day down to disappointing instead of embarassing, but that spirit didn’t seem to be in the club at that point. Well, with a three goal second half comeback and a last minute saving tackle as good as I’ve seen in years, I’d say the spirit is back. 

The run of five straight home wins has ended, but we haven’t gone six unbeaten at home since the days of Gradel, Howson and Snodgrass. If we’re using Watford as a measuring stick, the measurements from Saturday say Elland Road is a fortress again, and Leeds United aren’t soft anymore. Two very big gains.

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