leeds 2 – 1 brighton: murph vs smurfBack
It was perfect, even down to the two false finishes; you couldn’t imagine anything so good, so Luke Murphy had to make it real. You might wonder if Leeds United had made a pact with the devil to arrange the perfect weekend, but they sacked him a week ago.
It would be a bit much to put this up there with Old Trafford 2010, or the game against Bristol Rovers the same year – the season’s opening match doesn’t carry the same significance as a third round upset or promotion decider. But the relative freedom from stress only added to the delirium.
The freedom from Ken Bates can’t be ignored either. Our heartfelt tribute in The Square Ball magazine was trending on Twitter before the game, and in the week since Papa Smurf was sacked from the presidency Leeds United had become a bandwagon that everyone wanted to be part of. The reports at Sheridan Dictates and Fear & Loathing in LS11 both note it: “Bates had been proven right that a silent majority did exist,” writes Adam at F&L, “He’d just read their mood incorrectly.” Leeds as a city has been largely indifferent to Leeds as a football club in recent years, mainly thanks to the indifference in kind shown by its owners, but as excitement, and ticket sales, crept towards capacity, it felt around town like everyone was going. People were going to watch United because other people were going to watch United, and for the first time in eight years it sounded like something worth getting involved in.
Football’s a daft game, though, and while GFH Capital could put everything in place for perfection at 3pm, after that they could only sit and watch and hope. They sacked Bates, reduced ticket prices, brought BBC Leeds back, advertised around the city and for all I know they even arranged for the sun to shine, but as many football club owners have found out before them, you can only rely on football to let you down.
With so much positivity around, Leonardo Ulloa’s early goal for Brighton was more familiarly Leedsish. Space in midfield had already given Brighton the room to create chances, and with a new signing in Luke Murphy, and Paul Green and Ross McCormack learning new jobs, Leeds were struggling to assert themselves in the centre. Assertiveness comes ready made with Rodolph Austin, but as he’s suspended thanks to last season’s meeting with Brighton, the players had to put uncertainty aside and play up to the expectations of the crowd, ready or not.
Last season Leeds would have failed this test; conceding this early under Warnock was usually the prelude for eighty minutes of fruitless toil. But McCormack’s equaliser came quickly, and it came smart; starting with Murphy in his own half, Green, Peltier and Tonge moved the ball to the corner and, when Tonge’s cross came to him on the edge of the box, McCormack shuffled his feet and scored with a low shot.
It was neat and inventive stuff, and there was more and more in that style as Leeds slowly but surely dominated the match. The Scratching Shed’s report picks out the midfield for praise, and they always looked forward, but not too far; instead of getting the ball up front by getting it in the air, Leeds built attacks with swift, effective passes. Watching this took some adjustment; play switched from wing to wing in the time it used to take for a Paddy Kenny goal kick to bounce off an opposition defender while I yawned and took in the scenery, and United’s football is shaping up to be worth paying attention to this year.
The second half kept the crowd rapt, even as it ticked in to the tenth minute of injury time, or whenever it was we won it; normally you’d point out the error in the ways of early leavers, but I don’t remember noticing many. First Paul Green shot over the bar into the Kop with what felt like a last chance; which was okay, because a draw would do. Then Brighton broke quickly, a constant danger, and Kenny grasped Will Buckley’s header just under the crossbar; which was also okay, because a draw would do. A last minute winner from Green would have been more happiness than we could have hoped for; an injury time defeat a punch in the guts we didn’t deserve.
Luke Murphy’s goal was some sort of mix of the two; intense happiness that hit you like a fist. Jason Pearce’s long ball forward might not have been in the spirit of much of the day’s passing play, but the lure of substitute Mathieu Smith’s head, two metres above the grass, was more than he could resist. Smith’s header is worth dwelling on, though; it was directed not into some vague danger zone, but carefully and deliberately right into the path of Murphy, rushing from midfield like Lee Bowyer arriving late from 1998. It was clear to absolutely everybody that Murphy controlled it with his arm, but that only made his unsaveable finish into the corner even sweeter.
I wrote on Friday that having filled the stadium with 33,000 happy fans ready for 3pm, the battle for Leeds would be to still have 33,000 happy fans at 5pm. I didn’t check my watch, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Murphy’s shot crossed the line at 4.59pm. And 59 seconds. It’s pointless trying to describe what came next, as the final whistle blew and Elland Road’s party atmosphere filtered into the city streets and beyond. If you were there, you know what it was like.
Is it going to be like that at every game? The League Cup draw has thrown up a reality check in the form of Chesterfield on Wednesday, which will inevitably be muted compared to Saturday’s atmosphere; if you were one of the 10,000 who returned for the Brighton game and are wondering what Elland Road was like while Warnock was here, give that match a go. Then it’s away to Leicester, who beat Middlesbrough this weekend and go to Wycombe in the cup on Tuesday, before we return to Elland Road to face Sheffield Wednesday. Anything could have happened by then. If the exhilaration of the last ten days has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t make any confident predictions about Leeds United at the moment (although that hasn’t stopped some of us trying, for The Scratching Shed here).
The only guarantee is that it’s going to be interesting. But there’s a chance, a real chance, that it’s going to be good.
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