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sunderland 1 – 0 leeds united: the cup, the past, the boss & his wingers

sunderland 1 – 0 leeds united: the cup, the past, the boss & his wingers

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Nobody seems sure what to do about the FA Cup anymore. It’s the world’s oldest cup competition, and done right, it would probably still be the best. But what’s right?

Leeds United’s away draw to Sunderland wasn’t really right for the third round, but people did what they could to make the best of it. That’s why you heard so much about “1973” over the past weekend. That’s “1973”, in inverted commas, the 1973 FA Cup Final when underdogs Sunderland beat Leeds United at their very mightiest, when Jimmy Montgomery made his impossible saves and Bob Stokoe ran across the pitch at the end: “1973”.

It wasn’t mentioned constantly because everybody hates Leeds; or rather, not just because of that. It was mentioned constantly because everyone is so desperate to build a bulwark for the importance of the FA Cup as it ails and pales in the shadow of the Premier League, and “cup tradition” is all they have to build it with.

Take away “1973” and there wasn’t a lot going for this game. Even with it there wasn’t much: 14th in the Premier League vs 20th in the Championship, in a competition neither expects to win, and that the home fans at least weren’t keen to fork out for; you just knew, too, that neither were going to play their first choice teams. This is the modern FA Cup, and the shame of it is that “1973” matters much more than 2015.

With a draw like this, without the eager expectation of either a giantkilling up the league ladders or some genuine hope of lifting the cup, you have some decisions to make. Do you play it safe, rest the important first team players, and aim for damage limitation? Or do you go for broke, remember that the game is about winning, and put everything on the line in pursuit of victory?

Neil Redfearn managed to find a way to have a bit of both. Out went seven of the eleven that lost at Derby: some enforced, like Warnock; some for a rest, like Byram; some because it was about bloody time, like Bianchi. In came a mixture of the untried and the lost: Del Fabro, Montenegro, Sloth, Berardi, Taylor; plus Murphy and Tavares, both more tried than the others but both still being tested.

It was an experiment Redfearn has probably been itching to try for weeks; it was an experiment he could only try in a cup match. If he couldn’t go for broke and try to win the old trophy, he could at least go for broke and try to find a new formula that might help us win some league games ever again.

The first half didn’t tell us much that the average league game hasn’t, only a bit worse. Trying players out in these circumstances is a tough proposition, because although the pressure is technically off, on paper you are trying out your second string players against a higher standard than they would meet in an ordinary league game. That told; while Leeds were set up with a touch more width than usual, we aren’t a side that offers much natural protection to its full-backs, and Sunderland made targets of Berardi and Taylor and made all the chances – and a goal, down the right, in the gaps between Sloth and Berardi and Del Fabro.

A touch more width than usual wasn’t going to be enough, but a bunch more width than usual gave Sunderland problems in the second half, as the Leeds players perhaps finally believed that they were being allowed to cross the rubicon – or the diamond. Sloth and Montenegro gave it all they had; 4–2–3–1 is still sort of diamond-ish, but not so much if 2 of that 3 are out on the touchlines, and the second half performance that resulted had Neil Redfearn almost gushing to BBC Leeds’ Adam Pope after the game.

“The good thing today – we’ve played with some width,” he said. “We’ve not been able to play with any width. And we looked better, we looked brighter, we looked more solid defending; I thought we looked more inventive coming out from wide, coming across the line and playing in. So maybe the overriding thing is that we’ve now got an option where we can play with width.”

The overriding thing; more important than Mike Dean’s failure to give Leeds a penalty for a foul that was clearly inside the box, not outside; more important than Cooper hitting the post with a header late on; more important than revenge for “1973” or whatever other nonsense people tried to push onto this game: width. Maybe it deserves some inverted commas all of its own: “width”.

“I thought Casper Sloth was really good today,” added Redders, “He played in that position against Huddersfield and did well.” That 3–0 win over Huddersfield, of course, was the high point of the caretaking period that should have earned Redfearn the job in the first place; instead Leeds started over again with Milanic for a month, and then started over again again with Redfearn, and it’s taken this long, he seemed to be suggesting, to get back to where we were: to Casper Sloth out wide. To anybody out wide. To “width”.

We can speculate all we want about which particular dice Redders was rolling on Sunday, but his gamble paid off in respect of “width”, which might be the only stakes he was interested in. To draw conclusions about individual players in a fairly meaningless cup tie against a sub-par Premier League side is difficult; we can’t really be certain that Cooper and Del Fabro are a centre-back pairing that can endure; Brian Montenegro remains an enigma; we’ve seen Austin and Murphy play this well before and been burned. Charlie Taylor has probably earned his chance ahead of Berardi to deputise while Stephen Warnock is injured, but we won’t know the true truth about any of them until we see them play in the Championship in 2015, and not the FA Cup in “1973”.

But the seven changes weren’t only about changing individuals; they were a means to break a mould. Mouldy is a good word for United’s performances in recent weeks; we left stale behind some time ago, along with goals, shots on target, all the old fashioned stuff. Some things from the past are worth preserving, though. As frustrating as it was to have it banged on about all weekend, “1973” is worth preserving, along with the other FA Cup legends, if this competition is ever to become something interesting again. But it’s the recent past, and a 3–0 victory over Huddersfield Town masterminded by Neil Redfearn and a decent dose of “width”, that Leeds need to look back to now.

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