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leeds united 2-0 aston villa: announcing leeds united, 2016/17

leeds united 2-0 aston villa: announcing leeds united, 2016/17

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On a cold weekend in late November 1991, Leeds United went to Villa Park, home of presumptive title contenders Aston Villa, and put on a show that wowed the nation.

Televised football wasn’t wall-to-wall as it is now; a team’s performance on a Sunday afternoon broadcast on ITV would inform pub comment about that side for several weeks. ‘Who’ve we got next week? Oh yeah, they were crap on TV the other month.’

Against Aston Villa Leeds were not crap. Howard Wilkinson made an inspired change to put Chris Fairclough as man-marker on playmaking winger Tony Daley, and Leeds’ other outfield players ran away with the nine v nine that ensued. Wallace bundled in the first goal, Sterland scored a bullet header from a corner, Strachan and McAllister put on an intricate corner routine to give Chapman a tap in and then, in the last seconds, Strachan, Sterland and Chapman combined for a classic goal of Wilko’s Leeds: a pass wide from Strachan, a powerful cross from Sterland, and a flying header from the airborne Chapman.

The television and the papers were full of it; either replaying the final goal from every angle, or splashing photos of the giddy celebrations of the third; most of the team had been forward for the corner, and Strachan led the lot of them into the Leeds fans behind the goal.

It was the match when Leeds United truly announced themselves as up for what was to follow; ready, willing and capable of winning the league title that nobody wanted them to win. It was bad enough when Leeds had got promoted. But now nobody could ignore Leeds United AFC.

Twenty-five years later, give or take a week, and Leeds invited Aston Villa and the TV cameras to our place for a game. A different venue, a different era, a different channel, a different division, a different result, but one thing in common: after this match, nobody can ignore Leeds United AFC, 2016/17.

Television is much more ubiquitous now, and outside the Premier League, there is no team more ubiquitously televised than Leeds United. The Villa match was the fourth of six consecutive televised games; there’ll be three more by the end of January. And if this keeps up, the casual viewer of the Championship might think there is no more dangerous team in the Championship, no better bet for promotion, than Leeds United.

That wasn’t necessarily the promise. This run of live games is also the run of games when United needed to step up. They’d fought their way into the play-off positions by taking on sides from around and below their league position, and the concern was that a top-six place was flattering. Norwich first; then Newcastle, Aston Villa, Brighton and Reading had and have the potential to sit Leeds United right back down again.

Newcastle did, but emboldened by a fully committed midweek effort in the League Cup at Anfield, Leeds weren’t about to let Aston Villa do anything like.

It took a while to become clear and the Sky Sports executives might have feared for their viewing figures had the second half repeated the first; Rob Green and Charlie Taylor nearly gifted a goal, or a penalty, to Villa, while Pontus Jansson looked inconsolable after putting a wonky header over the bar. Kyle Bartley missed a header too but took it rather more calmly. The addition of a streaker at the start of the second half promised an increase in entertainment value, if not in quality.

At times like those, after halves like those, it can be easy to lose faith and begin to find fault, such as when the ball reached Souleymane Doukara on the left wing. Kalvin Phillips had found him with a cross-field pass, but I wondered why. Taylor was bundling upfield, as he has done much more often since Monk began playing a six-foot striker on the left wing, but with two defenders closing in Doukara checked back onto his right foot and there we had it: a six-foot striker on the left wing with the ball stood still at his right foot. He had space and time, but what was Doukara doing out there anyway, and what was he going to do?

Swing in the absolute cross, that’s what, curving down the throat of the goalkeeper, exactly where Kemar Roofe could meet it with his forehead and fire the ball into the throat of the net, and fire Elland Road into an ecstacy of self-belief summed up by Pontus Jansson, congratulating Roofe, then running to the Kop to celebrate some more, as if he’d been the one who scored. It’s a team game, and Leeds United’s goal, and Pontus was just as entitled to celebrate as Kemar. Kemar, though, will have been uniquely relieved, finally getting a goal for Leeds United, finally announcing himself in the Championship. What an announcement; what a goal.

Leeds spent the rest of the game celebrating. The football wasn’t pure, but the commitment to winning was total, and Leeds were first to everything, counter attacking with pace and power. The second goal was something Leeds would have conceded last season, but never would have scored; back then, the ball would hit the halfway line and stop as if stuck in sludge.

This time, the ball hit the halfway line at the feet of Hadi Sacko. Sacko still doesn’t look like he knows what he’s doing half the time, but as long as he can run with the ball away from four defenders like this, he’ll be dangerous. A cross square for Chris Wood to score into an empty net would have been the sensible thing, but Sacko’s attempted shot underneath the keeper actually gave this game the finalé it deserved: the sight of Wood fighting to scramble the ball over the line, the game already won at 1-0 with seconds remaining, but the desire still strong for 2-0 and security and a statement.

It didn’t have the elegance of Sterland crossing to Chapman in 1991, or the wow-factor of Roofe heading in at full clip, but Sacko’s burst of speed and Wood’s determination to score have the same iconic impact as Chappy’s last minute bullet header at Villa Park. The message from the two big strikers, twenty-five years apart, was the same: Leeds United will resist you and fight you and outclass you and beat you, and if you’re watching on TV and your team is next, you had better be ready for more of this.

One game doesn’t mean a thing; not a single thing, anyway. But it can mean lots of things. Beating Aston Villa in 1991 didn’t mean Leeds United won the league that season; beating Aston Villa in 2016 doesn’t mean Leeds United will be promoted this. But it’s part of a larger story, a better story, a story that still has a long way to go, a story that we’re finally enjoying. And it’s a story being played in full view of the world and their TV cameras. That didn’t do us much good at the Amex Stadium last time around. But this is a very, very different Leeds United to the one Brighton played in February.

Who knows what might happen next. Don’t, whatever you do, touch that dial.

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