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leeds united 2 – 1 millwall: distant blood & far off thunder

leeds united 2 – 1 millwall: distant blood & far off thunder

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Vinnie Jones was back at Elland Road on Saturday, and as always when Vinnie comes back, Vinnie was everywhere – on the pitch, in the disabled supporters’ lounge, and even in the dressing room.

And as always when Vinnie comes back, comparisons were made between the team out there on Saturday afternoon, and the team Gordon Strachan led, and Vinnie Jones forcibly dragged, to the Division Two title in 1990.

Two players will have stood out if, watching from beneath a purple felt trilby in the East Stand, Vinnie was looking for the character that has become synonymous with the side he played in.

One was Jason Pearce, again with the most mud on his white shirt of any of the Leeds’ players; the only one with any mud at all, it looked to me. Perhaps that’s a tribute to the groundstaff for such a well kept pitch – but even then, P-Dogg found what mud there was to get into in another committed performance.

The other was Mathieu Smith, who – just as he said he would – has risen to the challenge of Connor Wickham’s arrival the way he has risen to the challenge of playing for Leeds at all. With a half-closed black eye, a bandaged wrist, and I think a slight limp, Smith seems to be combining all of Lee Chapman’s injuries at Leeds in the early 1990s into one unbreakable body, while fulfilling the Becchio role of scoring bucketloads, winning every header in attack and defence, and not being rated by anybody at all.

Beyond those two, this is a side that seems pretty far from being able to deliver the kind of glory we had with Vinnie. A 2–1 win over Millwall that ended with the visitors enjoying a dangerous ascendency might well be described as the result of a dogged, determined performance, a win that was fought for and ground out, but that isn’t really what happened.

A mixture of good fortune and good play gave Leeds a two goal lead. Luck rather than good judgement guided Smith’s flick on into the net, although Smith was at least playing a percentage game when he redirected a precise and dangerous long throw from Wickham; as for McCormack’s goal, his finish was well struck and caught the keeper out, but while the stats will record an assist for Tom Lees, there maybe ought to be asterisk for “He just booted it away and got lucky.”

In the second half, it was Millwall’s lack of quality that stopped them taking a point or even more. United were defending desperately, but with few of the positive connotations that might normally mean. The desperation was because, as with DJ Campbell’s flying volley, Leeds were often bystanders, desperately hoping that Millwall didn’t score.

If only Vinnie could have got his boots on; or if we had a Strachan out there, a Fairclough or Batty or Speed. Perhaps that would have made the difference; perhaps not. While this was dour stuff, reflected in the post-match conversations that needed occasional reminders that, at least, we had actually won, comparisons to Vinnie’s day are bound to be rose tinted by almost 25 years of hindsight.

While the promotion season looks like a year of juggernauting brilliance, ending in the day out to end all days out in Bournemouth, Elland Road in 1989 wasn’t far away in atmosphere from Elland Road in 2014. The sceptics were out in force against a manager who had promised much but was yet to deliver; a crowd that was sick of Division Two was soon on the backs of a team that started the season as if it was determined to stay exactly there.

There is a classic moment recorded forever on the 89/90 Race For The Title video. As Leeds ground out a third successive draw, Howard Wilkinson heads for the tunnel to the sound of not quite boos, but audible disgruntlement. Two fans offer loud advice from behind the dugouts:

“Who you gonna buy now then Howard?” yells one.

“Rubbish!” yells the other.

“You need van Basten, never mind Aldridge!” yells the first.

Wilkinson didn’t get van Basten or Aldridge, in the end, but did get Imre Varadi and Lee Chapman; what he also got was the opportunity to stick to his guns and see the job through. At that point, though, there was not much appetite for a long term job – Leeds fans had been fed the same diet for too long.

Howard’s head down march to the changing rooms that day is a pose we’ve seen several times from Brian McDermott this season. And that kind of frustration from the stands is very familiar now too. Even when Leeds were two up on Saturday and looking comfortable, the crowd remained hypersensitive to every mistake, every missed tackle or pass. It was with good reason, too; the number of goals conceded in recent games, and then Campbell’s goal and Millwall’s fightback, showed that even a two goal cushion isn’t enough for Leeds these days. The anxiety in the crowd reflects a fear of punishment for every little mistake a Leeds player makes – all too often we’ve watched little mistakes become massive errors.

There’s also a sense of tiredness after recent weeks. Apparently Massimo Cellino, after watching his Cagliari side lose on Sunday, commented that he is “Sick of this [the Leeds takeover]. It’s been two months.” Sick after two months? Wuss. I’m one of Rodolph Austin’s staunchest supporters – there has to be a good player there, there just has to, the guy can rap for crying out loud – but even I’m heartily sick of watching him hook every clearance over his head in the general direction of wherever. I’m sick of watching Murphy do it too, and Lees and all of them, they all do it and it drives me mad – and it’s been going on a lot longer than two months.

I’m tired of Michael Tonge trotting on at the end of games, playing four passes and then not being seen again for a month, even though I know deep down he’s the only viable means of giving Mowatt a break. I’m sick of watching Danny Pugh being bailed out by Pearce because he’s gone walkabout, and I’m irritated that exchanging him for Stephen Warnock would only change the face and not the play. I’m tired of all our players hesitating over every pass, nervously letting attacks fizzle out because they can’t make a decision. There’s been no respite for too long.

That there’s been no evidence of progress has been the charge against McDermott for a while, but you could probably mark the end of what progress we did make this season on the calendar at around the same time offers began being made for the club. What we’re suffering from now is a sort of groundhog day, where the performances don’t change enough to make the results, even when they are different – and hey, dagnamit, we bloody won for a change – seem different enough.

It’s fashionable at the moment to blame the Football League for all our ills, so I’ll blame them for this too – the Championship season is too long, and we’ve seen too much of this team already. Rudy Austin’s habit of tapping opponents’ ankles so many times that a booking is inevitable is no longer as cute or funny as it might have been if we’d only seen it ten times. We’ve seen it a million billion times now, and it has just become aggravating.

But it’s also fashionable to point to ex-players like Vinnie Jones and ask, what must they think when they see a team like this wearing the white shirt of Leeds United (or at least, this season’s striped perversion)? Obviously this team doesn’t compare to the side that lifted the Second Division championship in 1990 – but maybe that’s the wrong comparison to look for.

What Vinnie could tell us is whether this team compares to the team that started that season; a team that still had a divided squad, and several unwanted players that needed to be moved on; that was struggling to adapt to the ideas of its new manager and the massive expectations of the crowd; that had new players – like Vinnie Jones – that were struggling to win over the support. A 5–2 defeat at Newcastle; patchy early season form; demands from the crowd to scrap the whole thing and start again.

Can this Leeds United be compared to that one? Because that one, crap though it was for a while, got there in the end.

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