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leeds united 1-0 middlesbrough: practical heroics

leeds united 1-0 middlesbrough: practical heroics


1989/90 is still the touchstone promotion for Leeds United; the image of Gordon Strachan holding the Barclays League Division Two championship trophy aloft like excalibur is still an image we long to recreate, twenty-five years later.

If we could just find ourselves another Strachan; if we could only get our hands on a new Batty, a new Jones. Their names are like runes that cast a spell for promotion; and they quite often include Chris Whyte, even though he didn’t actually join until we were back in Division One. But the jumbled memories just show what a long time ago it all was.

The slightest analogy between that season and the present is always seized upon as if it might somehow be a sign that we’ve found the secret formula again, even if it involves a defeat and a quirk of the fixture list. The Second Division title season began with a “shocking” 5–2 defeat away at Newcastle; “shocking” was the word Jason Pearce used to describe our 2–0 defeat at Millwall last week. Both teams, twenty-five years apart, returned to Elland Road to play Middlesbrough.

In 1989 the game was played on a tense and nervous night; the rebuilding process had built anxiety all summer and losing at Newcastle had piled on the pressure, and Elland Road was a tense place. Middlesbrough finally succumbed to a cruel, late goal and the tension was suddenly released: Leeds United were on their way to Division One.

We’ll have to wait and see whether this Saturday’s game was the beginning of a resurgence at Leeds, but the echoes are there if you want to hear them, and not only in the fixture list. Of course, there are also the clangs of difference that emphasis that this season is not being done Howard’s way.

The main difference is in the leadership. Massimo Cellino is leading from the top at Elland Road, making himself the primary driving force behind the club – “I can drive the boat on my own” he said recently – but Leslie Silver and Bill Fotherby’s genius was to employ someone who would do all that stuff for them, and let him get on with it with their full backing.

Although he used to prowl the touchline in a tracksuit much like Dave Hockaday, Wilko has more in common with Cellino than the coach. Wilkinson demanded that the culture change at Elland Road, a reinvention of everything from the team to the ground to the staff to the fans, that went far beyond the remit of a normal football manager. His ten year plan gave the club its focus and direction, and ten years after the plan began, Leeds were in the Champions League.

Cellino is likewise leaving no corner unswept, no lightswitch unflicked in his quest to change the culture again at Elland Road; the newest puzzles on Saturday were the late opening of the turnstiles, now only open for an hour before the game (how much will that really save?) and the curious case of the missing Kop Cat (but what about the kids?). What Cellino doesn’t have, or doesn’t appear to have, is a plan – a clear mission statement that explains where we’re going, and how all the changes contribute to is getting there – or the desire to employ somebody who has one.

Wilkinson, after that opening day defeat in 1989, hardly had to a thing. He knew he’d signed the right players, and he knew he had them doing the right things; he knew where he could get reinforcements if he needed them. A 5–2 defeat wasn’t part of the plan, but it didn’t mean the plan was no good.

Cellino, on the other hand, has been provoked into action by the defeat against Millwall; on his return from holiday, the opening game brought him face to face with the fact that whatever the plan had been this summer, it had barely been acted upon despite all the energy that had been expended upon it. Here was a club that was supposedly being transformed in every department, but here was a team that, at the end of the Millwall game, consisted of ten of last season’s outfield players plus Silvestri. Somehow, after a summer of hectic change, everything was still the same.

What The Week of Transfers has done since, though, is to bring the team a little bit closer to the Wilko formula. The team against Middlesbrough, with Silvestri, Cooper, Bianchi, Ajose, Doukara and Sharp all starting, was finally, appreciably different to last season’s line-ups. It also included, crucially if we’re to emulate 1989/90, a new hero.

Five new outfield players still meant five old outfield players, and the return of several old frustrations; Austin’s passing is still as wayward as his shooting, although his tackling is back in full effect; Luke Murphy still seems unable to make any impact of any kind, and is just sort of there, and still needs Michael Tonge to come from the bench and show him how it’s done.

At first Stephen Warnock threatened to slip into his old self. In the first ten minutes he was caught twice on standby, bringing memories of last season back as wingers raced past him while he seemed to be thinking of something else. I began to wonder why the left-back with the gangster’s name, Charlie Taylor, hasn’t kept his place after a decent game against Accrington. Then Warnock got a grip and demonstrated exactly why he was in before Taylor; as Liam Cooper adjusted to life in the Championship and Jason Pearce adjusted to life on the right, it was Warnock who was alert to make the last ditch tackles and interceptions that saved their skins and saved at least two certain goals.

This was the kind of performance we should have had from Warnock for the past season and a half; an England international signed from the Premier League, he has kept his quality hidden for most of his time at Leeds. Whether this is the start of an Indian summer remains to be seen; one decent game last season was normally followed by three progressively lousier ones, until Pugh took over and commenced a diminishing cycle of his own. But we could do with Warnock keeping this up; he could be the best player in this team if he’d only play like this all the time; and on reputation, he should be.

The debutant alongside him, Liam Cooper, looked assured and reassuringly grizzled, but will make mistakes; partly as a consequence of stepping up a league, and partly as a consequence of suddenly thinking he’s Franco Baresi and tearing off upfield with the ball at his feet. It’s good to see a ball-playing centre-back; it’s not so good when he dribbles straight into three midfielders who have no trouble taking the ball off him. It will be interesting to see who the eventual centre-half partners are once Bellusci has his international clearance, and whoever is to make up the pair needs to be decided soon, because the mix-ups that are part of the bedding in process, like the one that allowed Adomah to score his disallowed overhead kick – disallowed simply because it was an overhead kick – won’t always be spared by kind and clueless refereeing.

Bianchi showed good touches, occasionally favouring the flamboyant over the effective, like when he looped a rebound into the box that van Basten would have struggled to do anything with; what impact Austin and Murphy have on his style and effect is an open question – they’re not the greatest teachers of the English game. Overall the team looked much more direct than in games through pre-season and as recently as Tuesday night; it may be that Middlesbrough’s extra quality denied Leeds the time for the crab-like passing I’ve feared might become our trademark, or perhaps Hockaday has had a change of heart. Doukara seems to cry out to be hit with a direct pass – not a hoof, just something that gets the ball up their end and to our player, quickly; I’m not entirely sure where Ajose fits in overall, but for now, at the forward point of a diamond, he’s well placed to dash on to knockdowns and layoffs.

As Mathieu Smith continues his benchwarming duties it feels like a point might be being made about the new emphasis on passing; if Tom Lees was still here he’d probably still be floating the ball to Smith in the dugouts, but his absence is a clear instruction to those that remain: Matt isn’t playing, so don’t aim for him as if he is. The problem is, Smith is too effective a striker to be left on the bench, but then again, what looked like tactical mystification when Dom Poleon came on ahead of him became tactical brilliance when Poleon won the knockdown that deftly directed the ball to Tonge, who fired in the shot that led to the winner.

But reviewed again later it begins to look again like tactical stubbornness; the goal came from a high ball as if to Smith, knocked down by Poleon as if he was Smith, so why not just play Smith and have him do that, and see what else he can do for us besides? Maybe it’s just that I was raised on Chapman and Davison, Chapman and Shutt, Chapman and Wallace, but I just have a feeling that Smith and Sharp up front together is a concept that works.

Billy Sharp is certainly working out for Leeds United so far, although I was a bit non-plussed and half-distracted for the first 85 minutes of his debut, and struggled to appreciate what he was bringing to the game. This was because, wearing that all-white no.8 shirt, with brown hair worn in a side-parting and a slightly stumpy, slightly portly physique, I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind that Neil Kilkenny was back and playing up front. As he chased through balls, charged down the keeper and buzzed around defenders all afternoon, I was failing to shake the feeling that he should have been in the centre-circle, pointing and moaning.

The throwbacks go further than 2010. Billy Sharp might be the real thing that brings Leeds United 1989/90 closer to the 1989/90 dream. Leeds then, as now, were undergoing an at-times painful revolution, and most painful of all was the sale of John Sheridan, The People’s Shez; not only the team’s best player for years, but also its most forthright character. I can only imagine the carnage Shez the player would have brought to the modern Twitter-dominated landscape; I can only imagine the internet arguments about his professionalism if he’d been subjected then to Ross McCormack-style scrutiny.

We didn’t only need to replace McCormack’s goals for this season; we needed, like Leeds needed to replace Sheridan in 1989, to replace his character. McCormack was a hero to many, and a splinter in the heel of many more, but whether he was scoring a crucial goal, fly-tipping, arguing with fans on Twitter or phoning up Sky Sports in anger, he was always interesting. I’m sure Luke Murphy is a lovely chap, but his cardigan choices don’t inspire the same level of interest; neither do Mowatt, Byram, Pearce, good players all, but not what you’d call characters that will act as lightning rods for fans’ affections – and arguments. Liam Cooper might have something about him, and it’ll be a while before we learn what the foreign recruits are made of, but announcing himself on Saturday as ready to fill the void was one Billy Sharp.

In 1989 we had Vinnie Jones, and it was in that haunting first home match against Middlesbrough that he announced himself to the fans. He’d missed the Newcastle game through injury, and was left on the bench against Boro until the final few moments; when he came on, he lifted the crowd, and it was his through ball to Davison that, overhit and heading to the keeper, struck a divot and bounced past the goalie and into the net. 2–1 to Leeds, and a hero was born.

Billy Sharp benefited from a keeping error too, and also from his own brilliant alertness to follow up on Tonge’s strike. And just in case we doubted the goal’s significance, Sharp added a celebration to match the occasion, one we’ll see over and over again as commentators talk about how quickly the Elland Road crowd have taken to their new recruit.

We really have taken to him quickly, but then we needed somebody like that. I wrote a few weeks ago about how much I wanted Federico Viviani to sign just for the excitement factor, just for the chance that he might really be as good as he looked on YouTube, just so that our anaemic and bloodless squad could boast one character, one star, one standout player that we could love for what he does on the pitch – someone to take over from the president as the chief of our affections. A footballer. A hero.

After Middlesbrough, we know that Billy Sharp can be a focal point for our midfielders, and a focal point for goals; and that he can also be the focal point for the crowd’s adoration. I wonder how many children, distraught about missing the Kop Cat on Saturday, had their tears dried by a gleaming new ‘Sharp 8’ shirt on their way home from the game. Us grown ups, remembering Vinnie, will settle for copying his haircut and cheering more goals like Saturday’s.

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