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the square ball week: spoilsports

the square ball week: spoilsports

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I really wish our season hadn’t ended last week at Watford. I really wish Leeds had one last game left this year, one more go-round to show people how we really do it. Not the fake-Leeds that Neil Warnock was sending out for most of the winter, I’m talking about the real Leeds United, the proper one. I’m talking about the Leeds United that, in my ideal world, would play Manchester United this weekend, and would beat them.“We’re only here to spoil your party,” the fans sang to the weird collection of portakabins and temporary structures at Vicarage Road. Denying Watford promotion was a pleasant echo of 2011, when although QPR went up as Champions (Warnock’s famous umpteenth promotion), Leeds won the match and Neil Kilkenny provided us with one of my favourite ever gifs. If there were balloons, we popped them; if there was jelly and cake, we ate it all; if there was a bouncy castle, we chucked the kids off and set fire to it. It was the only reasonable thing to do. The QPR fans didn’t look like they were enjoying themselves anyway. But then, why would they? We were beating their team.

There was more at stake for Watford last weekend – the difference between automatic promotion or the play-offs. Although Hull’s late concession to Cardiff, combined with the late finish at Watford, gave the Hornets some hope, in the end it only contributed to making Ross McCormack’s match-winning lob all the sweeter. Some may argue that it was a slightly unfair way to win the game, by making a fool of a teenager who was only in net because of an injury to some guy who was only a reserve anyway, and you’d probably have to agree with them. And then you’d probably have to not care. The clamours of complaint against Dom Poleon for his part in the injury to Jonathon Bond – complaints which ignored the ludicrous windmilling fists of the defender who was put off balance by Poleon’s shove – became in retrospect another part of the story which saw Leeds find all Watford’s birthday presents and unwrap them and throw them in the bin before Watford even woke up. Poleon even scored. “Well,” said Watford’s mum, scrubbing the blackcurrant juice stains from the walls, “We won’t be inviting them again.”

Where Manchester United fit into all this, of course, is 1992. The concentration for Leeds fans in that great year is always on our own May celebration, organised by party-planner extraordinaire Howard ‘Big Fun’ Wilkinson. But Alex Ferguson’s retirement party has dominated the headlines this week, and so it seems only fair to pause for a moment and consider the first thing Howard had to do to make sure our own shindig went with a swing in 92: he had to destroy the party mood at Old Trafford.

“Leeds didn’t win it, we lost it,” was Ferguson’s famously sour assessment of the 91/92 title race, and while that was disrespectful, wrong and therefore entirely in character, there was some basis for his complaint. That season was supposed to be his. Leeds, fresh from Division Two, had finished two places above Manchester United in 90/91, but Ferguson’s persistent spending after Mark Robins saved his job was expected to pay off sooner than later. With Liverpool and Arsenal entering transitional periods and swapping Jimmy Carter around between themselves, the field looked clear for Ferguson to assert his side’s preeminence over Crystal Palace, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds.

He got there in the end, of course, seeing off the might of Norwich and Aston Villa in the first Premier League season. That he had to wait is a lovely fact of football history that should never be forgotten, though. That Ferguson, and his expensive players, and his club’s self-entitled fans, and the fawning media, all had to wait for another year while Leeds United gatecrashed the parade and took the silverware should always be a source of great pleasure. Twenty-six years they had to wait between Championships. While they waited, Leeds won it once, then won it again, then won it a third time just so they had to bin all the commerative Neil Webb t-shirts.

Maybe Alex Ferguson did get the last laugh, but despite what people will tell you about the brave decisions to back him at Old Trafford, the odds were always massively in his favour. People may wonder why Manchester United became so successful under Ferguson while Leeds under Wilkinson couldn’t keep up, and the answer is money: while they built new stands and bought Roy Keane with the takings, we built a new stand and sold David Batty to pay for it. Happily, Batty did go and take a title off them with Blackburn, though. Wilko did what he could to establish a youth academy and secure a top flight future for Leeds, but he had to start with an utterly broken club at the bottom of Division Two and build from the bottom. Ferguson’s task, which he started two years earlier than Howard’s, was to take a big club with loads of money and make it bigger.

But if you’re ever tempted to think 91/92 didn’t matter just because they won it the next year, just take a look at Alex Ferguson’s face, pictured above, on that great day his team bottled it at Anfield. Even better, watch the video, as his face glows and swells while he mumbles incoherently about Arsenal and the not-ordinary quality of the league. It’s the face of a man whose sport has been well and truly spoiled, and although it’s far from my main memory of our title win – there were too many truly iconic moments from Chapman, Newsome, Strachan et al for that – it’s still, after all this time, my main memory of Alex Ferguson.

That’s why I would love for Leeds to be able to turn out against Manchester United this weekend. The laurels and garlands that have been laid at Ferguson’s feet since he decided to move into the boardroom and get paid more to do less will culminate on Sunday when Swansea arrive at Old Trafford and roll over and allow themselves to be shamefully beaten, no doubt chucking in a guard of honour or a flypast or something for good measure. It’s not Swansea’s fault: 99% of clubs would probably go to Old Trafford and do the same. But I can think of one club that wouldn’t play the game. There is still one club with the pride to turn up and put the look back on Ferguson’s face that looked so good back in 1992. Ah, it would have been so good.

We’ll just have to wait a couple of years and make David Moyes’s bottom lip go instead.

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